by Jason Thomas
The United States and most of its allies are being forced to consider a new approach to geo-political security and stability driven a by war weary public and dire fiscal constraints. As former U.S Defence Secretary, Roberts Gates, said the overarching goal will be to preserve a U.S. military capable of meeting crucial national security priorities, even if fiscal pressure requires reductions in the force’s size.” (Fmr U.S Defence Secretary Robert Gates 18 May 2011) This paper contends that asymmetrical warfare should become the most important approach to contesting the open space in failing or failed states that have the potential to be filled by those seeking to threaten our national security and foreign policy interests.
Smaller and weaker opponents do not have a monopoly on asymmetric warfare and it does not need to be left to Guerrilla movements for us to romantically read about in the future. We need to become better at fighting with very few resources and still be capable of a deep strategic presence with a light tactical and operational footprint; a military with a pioneering mindset. We need a fighting force that is sharp, focused and unpredictable. One that is aimed as much at undermining the insurgent’s or terrorist network’s psychological well-being as on their physical demise with simple instruments of persuasion. This application of asymmetrical or irregular warfare tactics by the next generation of military leadership will be more affordable and politically acceptable at the domestic and international level. The trap is that in the West we have forgotten how good we are at being resourceful and fighting for our own survival with nothing but our wits and what we find at our feet.
They don’t study Sun Tzu here…
When it comes to the theoretical and conceptual framework of asymmetrical warfare, we are all familiar with the great words of wisdom from the heroes in the Pantheon of military history. Sun Tzu wrote, “if the enemy is superior in strength, evade him. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared. Appear where you are not expected.” Clausewitz wrote that, “where the weaker side is forced to fight against odds, its lack of numbers must be made up by the inner tension and vigor that are inspired by danger….If an increase in vigor is combined with wise limitations in objectives, the result is that combination of brilliant strokes and cautious restraint that we admire…” Exploiting an adversary’s weaknesses while exploiting one's own strengths is at the heart of the 'art of war. This type of kinetic engagement by opposing forces has been written about and taught to military leaders for more than 2,500 years, see Mac (1975); Metz & Johnson (2001) and Arreguin-Toft (2005). In the history of conflict “[t]hose who adapt will survive; those who do not, die,” Hammond (2001). Superior strength is broadly understood to mean material power, such as a larger army, more sophisticated weapons and technology and an advanced economy.
The irony is that the dominant U.S. standard of warfare gives its adversaries an incentive to differentiate, by adopting idiosyncratic technologies (the IED) or tactics (civilians as human shields). The U.S. was differentiated from its Vietnamese opponents in level of resources available, level of military technology, type of warfare (conventional or guerrilla), and in perceived costs of conflict (the Vietnamese were —to take much larger casualties than the U.S.). Also, as Enders and Sandler (1993) note, when terrorists have a choice of targets (e.g. different countries or different objectives within the same country) effort being put into defending one target will provide incentives for the terrorists to differentiate, to substitute alternative targets.
We have just been engaged in ten years of conflict with opponents who use asymmetrical tactics everyday with probably no intellectual framework of asymmetrical warfare as a concept. The ability to apply asymmetrical tactics depends as much on a mindset as it does in how limited resources are utilised. Ahmed Rashid, author of the Taliban and Decent into Chaos, explains this well. Rashid suggests that the devastation and hardship of the Soviet invasion and the following civil war influenced Taliban ability to survive. In my view the simplicity of life is a camouflage for their ability to prevail against asymmetrical threats – climate, environment, the terrain and technologically superior foreign forces. They don’t study asymmetrical warfare and have probably never read Sun Tzu, Clausewitz or The Accidental Guerilla. For the Taliban their method of engagement and how they deploy resources is a fact of life - they just do it.
Andrew Mack argues that an actor's relative resolve or interest explains success or failure in asymmetric conflicts. Mack contends that this resolve can be derived a priori by assessing the structure of the conflict relationship. Power asymmetry explains interest asymmetry: the greater the gap in relative power, the less resolute and more politically vulnerable strong actors are, and the more resolute and less politically vulnerable weak actors are. Big nations therefore lose small wars because frustrated publics (in democratic regimes) or countervailing elites (in authoritarian regimes) force a withdrawal short of military victory.
As Ivan Arreguín-ToftIf, argues in How the weak win wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict, if power implies victory in war, then weak actors should almost never win against stronger opponents, especially when the gap in relative power is very large. History suggests otherwise: weak actors sometimes do win. Understanding the conditions under which weak actors win wars is important for two reasons.
First, if there are dynamics unique to asymmetric conflicts or if their analysis provides fresh insights into symmetrical conflicts a general explanation of asymmetric conflict outcomes is not only desirable but necessary, both to reduce the likelihood of unwinnable wars and to increase the chances of U.S. success when a resort to arms is necessary. Second, because asymmetric conflicts ranging from catastrophic terrorism to military intervention in interstate, ethnic, and civil wars are the most likely threat to U.S. security and interests, only a general theory of asymmetric conflict outcomes can guide U.S. policymakers in their efforts to build the kinds of armed and other forces necessary to implement an effective U.S. strategic response.
Frightened by what is simple
While this theoretical framework is important to conceptualise how to approach improving our asymmetrical war fighting capability, in reality it may require us to reward the simple and know how to do more with less. The United States Marine Corp manual Warfighting recognised the factors that have collectively been called friction that makes the seemingly easy difficult and the difficult almost impossible.
How would we fight if our forces were stripped of technological and asset superiority - back to the bare minimum? Think about our pioneering ancestors. Separated from their Colonial base of money, power and equipment, especially as supply lines were stretched, the pioneers had to adapt very quickly with minimal resources to survive the environmental and physical terrain challenges let alone any kinetic engagement from local antagonists.
In the West we are so spoilt for wealth, technology and complex solutions that many of us have forgotten our ability to be adaptable and resourceful. If there is one thing I’ve learnt from working in two war zones and leading groups up the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, it’s the simple things that get you; like the habits of life when operating low profile outside-the-wire or not drinking enough water even though you are wearing $500 trekking boots. It’s the small things that have a big impact. Simplicity, not complexity, is the key when it comes to asymmetrical strategy, operations and tactics. The post Afghanistan conflict environment, regardless of whether it is counter terrorism, counter radicalisation or stability operations, is going to require more simplistic driven resourcefulness than ever before. This probably looks like a small teams approach with a light footprint in sensitive environments. A very clinical operational style that rewards the simple in places where we may not be at war but if we curl-back then non-state actors will manipulate and exploit the vacant terrain to our severe expense down the track.
We seek comfort in what is complex and yet we see intellectual weakness in the simple. Certainly, like to think we have evolved considerably and unrecognisably since our pioneering ancestors. Oscar Wilde wrote to a friend saying “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” In fact being able to see the simple beyond the haze of complexity takes intellectual rigour and courage to make the case in a group and yet highly effective when executed. In fact, a simple act doesn’t even have to succeed. Take Richard Reid, the infamous shoe-bomber on American Airlines Flight 63. He failed and yet his simple act of failure has resulted in a global airport security head-ache for passengers.
The weak psychological underbelly
It is also as much about our societal psychology as our abundance of resources that blocks our entrepreneurial asymmetric spirit. We are required to go beyond the classic materialistic military definitions of asymmetrical warfare and look to the exploitation of an opponent’s moral weaknesses. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin, suggests that humans have a naturally selected propensity to moral virtue, that is, a willingness to sacrifice self-interest in the cause of group interest. Humans are above all moral animals because they are creatures who love their group as they love themselves.
Some may have come across Ibn Warraq’s Why I am Not a Muslim:
Americans tend to think that deep down we all have the same values. Americans believe that all these terrorists, if you scratch beneath the surface, are looking for religious equality and justice. That's complete and utter nonsense. Americans can't face the reality that different people have different values. (Ibn Warraq; Why I am Not a Muslim. 1995).
For the global Salafi movement and its deployment of ideologically inspired violence, our weakness is in relation to actions that we cannot and would not contemplate using either pre-emptively or in response to an attack. We are in a moral conflict with an adversary that suffers from acute narcissism. Therefore, getting inside the moral-mental-time paradigm of these regional or even local narcissists is crucial.
Michael Gross gives this notion a good shake that may make some feel uncomfortable in Moral Dilemmas of Modern War: Torture, Assassination, and Blackmail in an Age of Asymmetric Conflict. A person, a tribe and a nation has to be placed into a position to ask whether they still have the ticker for the fight. Proponents of the global Salafi movement have a sense of the effects their actions will achieve in the cultural and religious environment in which they operate. We often misread the cultural context of this movement and misjudge is ability to undermine Western psychological and moral dimensions. The Ismaili poem says; “by one single warrior on foot, a king may be stricken with terror, though he own more than a hundred thousand horsemen.” This was the fear and terror unleashed by the Assassins or Hashishins from the order of Nizari Ismailis, that existed from around 1090 across Syria and Persia. The Assassins tactic is a simple but effective act that psychologically undermined a more powerful opponent at little cost.
This does not mean we need to abandon our almost a priori notions of human rights and the rule of law. In 1901, Winston Churchill said, “the wars of peoples will be more terrible than the wars of kings.” While Churchill was not concerned with counterinsurgency he foresaw the challenges of implementing war in a democratic age, waged among a civilian population under the spotlight of Western democratic sensitivities. For example, could resort to barbarism, which may be an effective strategy for defeating insurgents. But as Arreguin-Toft (2005) point out, a quick look over postwar history illustrates that at best barbarism can be effective only as a military strategy: if the objective is long-term political control, barbarism backfires in the end.
The French, for example, used torture to quickly defeat Algerian insurgents in the Battle of Algiers in 1957. But when French military brutality became public knowledge, it catalyzed political opposition to the war in France and stimulated renewed and intensified resistance by the non-French population of Algeria. Within four years, France abandoned its claims in Algeria even though it had "won" the war. The Sri Lankan Government’s bombing campaign towards the end of the Sri Lankan civil war is another example brutality that won the fight but may cement an even deeper hatred with a new generation of dissidents. Barbarism thus sacrifices victory in peace for victory in war-a poor policy at best.
US led strategy in Afghanistan has in some areas inflicted a simple, discriminate and psychologically effective tactic with the high rate of night-raids. Even though President Karzai continues to call for an end to night-raids the US Commanding Generals in Afghanistan should be praised for resisting the pressure to stop the night raids. The insurgents can’t stand these because they are effective and undermine an asymmetric weakness. Karzai’s complaint is merely – political. That is, he is expressing the frustration of constituents and perhaps letting it slip that this tactic undermines the insurgents will to fight.
As John Boyd argues in his 1986 slide presentation on Patterns of Conflict:
- Willingness to support and promote (unconventional or difficult) subordinates that accept danger, demonstrate initiative, take risks, and come-up with new ways towards mission accomplishment.
- Dedication and resolve to face-up to and master uncomfortable circumstances that fly in the face of the traditional solution.
This may seem incongruent to the theme running through this paper however Boyd’s summation goes to the heart of finding simple solutions that don’t just focus on the material but also the moral and psychological. Simple things scar people especially when face with a moral conflict.
Essence of Moral Conflict
Create, Exploit and Magnify
Surface fear, anxiety, and alienation in order to generate many non –cooperative centres of gravity as well as subvert those that adversary depends upon thereby magnify internal friction.
Impressions of danger to one’s
well-being and survival.
Impressions or atmosphere, generated by events that appear ambiguous, erratic, contradictory, unfamiliar, chaotic etc.
Atmosphere of doubt and suspicion that loosens human bonds among members of an organic whole or between organic wholes.
Destroy moral bonds that permit an organic whole to exists
Slide 122 John Boyd Patterns of Conflict 1986
What if for example in Afghanistan units of Coalition forces operated out of uniform? How would this change the mindset of our opponents and the local population?
This may seem a ridiculous suggestion and have certain echelons of the military fuming at the suggestion, especially from a civilian. But it is a simple, cost effective tactic that may cause enough confusion and uncertainty among insurgent groups to give us the advantage. This is as much of a psychological ploy as a physical shift in operating because it suggests we will no longer fight fair. When strong actors employ a strategy that ignores restraints of fighting fairly, weak actors are unlikely to win. Reminder, this does not mean debasing our own values and principles, the essence of which we are attempting to defend extend.
Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.
—Carl von Clausewitz
As we slowly move towards the post-Iraq and Afghanistan era how do we turn the strategy and tactics used by resourcefully weaker opponents to our advantage to protect and advance our national security and foreign policy interests? Operating inside environments with factors that breed terrorists and their supporters will require careful study of exploiting simple weaknesses that inflict the greatest fear on the terrorist as much as reinforcing the positive decisions local people can make.
Maybe this is what counterinsurgency is about and I missed that slide. However, I believe (with a few exceptions) the West suffers from a mental block when it comes to actually doing asymmetrical warfare. We relish the intellectual and cerebral literature on the subject but have forgotten our pioneering past and that prevents us from just doing it. We need to have our military operations trained by being tested against opponents who are non-military, who will not follow a recognised process of engagement and who will employ psychological tactics that we may find abhorrent. Whether re-discovering our pioneering spirit or borrowing from our insurgent enemies the better we are at asymmetrical strategies the less it will cost to defend our national interests in the long run.
 Sun Tzu The Art of War
 Clausewitz: On War
 Mack, Andrew J.R., (1975) "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict", World Politics, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 175–200
 Metz, Stephen and Johnson II. V. Douglass. (2001) Asymmetry and U.S. Military Strategy: Definition, Background, and Strategic Concepts. US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute
 Arreguin-Toft, Ivan, How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict, New York & Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005
 Hammond, G. T. (2001). The mind of war: John Boyd and American security. District of Columbia: Smithsonian Books.
 Enders, W., and Sandler, Todd., (1993) The Effectiveness of Antiterrorism Policies: A Vector-Autoregression-Intervention Analysis. American Political Science Review. Vol. 87: pp.829-844
 Rashid, Ahmed. (2008) Descent into Chaos: The world’s most unstable region and the threat to global security. Penguin Books.
 Warfighting MCDP1. June 1997 Department of the Navy; Headquarters United States Marine Corp; Washington DC
 Darwin, Charles: The Descent of Man. First Published 1874: http://books.google.com/books?id=iArG1dDytFAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=ago...
 Ibn Warraq (1995) Why I am not a Muslim. Prometheus Books
 Gross, Michael (2009) Moral Dilemmas of Modern War: Torture, Assassination, and Blackmail in an Age of Asymmetric Conflict. Cambridge University Press
 The Assassins cited in Belfield, Richard (2005) Terminate with Extreme Prejudice. Robinson Books.
 Churchill, Winston, Hansard Speech to the House of Commons 13 May 1901: http://www.winstonchurchill.org/learn/speeches/speeches-of-winston-churc...