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Book Review: How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict

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Book Review: How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict

by Timothy Richardson

Ivan, Arreguin-Toft. How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. Cambridge studies in International Relations, 99. New York: Cambridge University Press, 250 pages, 2005. ISBN: 0521548691 Paperback $41.00

Download The Full Article: Book Review: How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict

The military prowess of the United States would seem to be unrivalled in the 21st century. Yet a decade into the new century, the United States is still engaged in the longest war of its history in Afghanistan against a weaker, non-state actor, with no end in sight. Why? In his 2005 book, How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict, Ivan Arreguin-Toft offers insight into the reasons why strong actors, such as the United States, often lose to weak actors in an asymmetric conflict. He not only provides sound logic detailing his Strategic Interaction (STRATINT) theory to explain why weak actors defeat strong actors, but he also outlines the growing post-World War II trend marking the increased winning percentage of weak actors in asymmetric conflicts. Given the United States' efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq this past decade, few would argue against the prediction that the United States will continue to be engaged in small, asymmetric wars against militarily inferior adversaries for the foreseeable future. More importantly, one could perceive that because the United States has such an overwhelming military superiority that it did not plan for, or was not prepared for, the strategy of its adversary. As such, Arreguin-Toft's STRATINT theory is relevant, compelling, and well-supported. Moreover, it is a great follow-on to other prominent asymmetric conflict theories proposed by Andrew Mack and Gil Merom, and is an essential read for defense planners, as well as IR scholars and students.

Download The Full Article: Book Review: How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict

Major Timothy Richardson is a career Air Force intelligence officer currently studying Irregular Warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He has a B.A. in History from Mary Washington University and M.S. in International Relations from Troy University. He has deployed to four contingency locations since 9/11.

About the Author(s)


ivan arreguin-toft (not verified)

Wed, 03/09/2011 - 6:02pm

wonderful discussion, and you all raise some excellent points. i'm chiming in though to address a couple of issues in richardson's review picked up by bill m..<p>
first, as to asymmetry, i modeled my conception (as some pointed out) as a simple starting point using material power as a baseline (much as political and military elites do). i kinda thought the notion that other forms of power (legitimacy) were understood to matter, but i wanted to start with material power and find out just how much it mattered as compared to other factors like leadership, dumb luck, strategy (interaction), and so on. i note that nowadays the term's use has been stretched to the point where it fully merits much of the criticism some SWJ responders cited. in particular, the military-practitioner community is apt to use the term "asymmetric" as a stand-in for the more traditional "clever" or "cunning."<p>
second, and more importantly, what i try and introduce is actually something ancient rather than new, which is the idea of strategic <b>approaches</b> under which specific strategy variations might actually be used. i recall the older terms "direct" and "indirect" to help characterize approaches which focus on capacity and will, respectively, as pathways to coercion. so i don't want to be remembered as an <i>advocate</i> of barbarism as one strategy under the heading "indirect," because in both the book and article i make it clear that the <i>other</i> major indirect strategy is something i called "conciliation," but which is the same thing as a 'hearts and minds' campaign (i credit the USMC's CAP program in Vietnam here). once this is understood it eliminates the puzzle raised by bill m. as to how i start with barbarism (which i argue should work in theory, but find in my analysis it doesn't work in practice), and end by advocating a discriminate use of violence in support of a campaign aimed at securing legitimacy for incumbents (a la robert thompson's arguments).<p>
i'll end with a part of my argument that didn't get published in the book just to highlight the STRATINT core of my thesis. i grabbed an off-the-shelf computer program (Madden 2000) to test the argument that the interaction of actor strategies matters more than the quantity of force represented in the fight. in football the number of offensive and defensive players is fixed, and positive and negative yardage (or turnovers) are easy measures of success and failure. i used the simulation to run sets of 100 plays in which only the strategic interaction (say blitz v. short pass) was varied, then ran a regression to see if the effects of the interaction were statistically significant. they were, but my advisors and editors felt including a simulation based on a football game would damage my academic credibility and distract readers from its core argument.<p>
again: honored by the review and attention SWJ's readers have paid to what i continue to think of as an important (and by no means settled) line of inquiry. thanks!

Just may be that is not a David versus Golith contest, but rather that we are only considering military power. They don't win militarily, they employ other forms of power to defeat the strong. We need to compare those forms of power to determine who is really the David in these types of conflicts.

I actually *like* the use of "asymmetric warfare." I recognize all the semantic discussions (and welcome them; sloppy use of words leads to sloppy debates and slip-shod theories/policies), but think there's value to be gleaned from recognizing some of the unique characteristics of David-v-Goliath engagements.

(now I'm off to read the article, properly chastised by DB above)

Jimbo (not verified)

Mon, 03/07/2011 - 11:43pm

Pardon me for calling y'all disingenuous, but that's the way you come across. Your arguments on the lack of utility of asymmetrical/symmetrical could just as easily be applied to unconventional/conventional. No war is either perfectly asymmetrical or symmetrical, just as no war is perfectly conventional or unconventional. To suggest WWI and WWII were not generally symmetrical is farce. As it would be farce to suggest WWI and WWII were not generally conventional.

Asymmetrical is a term, if you don't like it, don't use it, but castigating others from your armchairs of orthodoxy does nothing to advance understanding. Ivan Arreguin-Toft is a civilian academic outside the purview of doctrinal inquisition. His research might be useful if you can get past a myopic aversion to scary words.


Your criticism was on target and I am admittedly one of those who should be targeted in this case. I can only comment on the well written book review since I havent read the book yet. For now Ill dismiss the debate on the phrase AW and simply focus on the authors main argument that the weak are increasingly defeating the strong. The author defines strong and weak based on relative combat power, but I think most of us on SWJ agree at least to some extent there are other forms of power in these conflicts that are relevant and must be considered (e.g. political, moral, etc.).
The authors strategic interaction theory claims the "main" determinant in the outcome of the conflict is the military strategy employed, then claims that if the strong and weak both use a direct versus direct or an indirect versus indirect then the outcome will most likely favor the strong. He then goes on to define the indirect strategy for the strong as barbarism and the indirect strategy for the weak as guerrilla warfare.
Does this imply that the only way the strong can defeat the enemys use of indirect strategy is to employ barbaric tactics? Yet later he argues that we need to use discriminate force and adopt political and economic reforms? I dont see how this ties into his theory on STRATINT where he argues the main determent in the outcome is the military strategy employed?
Obviously our ability to employ barbaric tactics is restricted by international law and cultural norms, but we could in theory employ very robust population control measures to counter the enemys use of guerrilla warfare. This is something we have failed to do until the surge in OIF in 07, and then it was only implemented piecemeal instead of being part of a larger strategy.
In short I think the authors theory and his recommendations appear to be disjointed, but agree the book and theory should be studied, then it is another theory that we can put in our rucksack that will provide another optic for viewing the conflict.


I find all these points to be mildly of interest, but almost completely out of context.

If you step back and read them, not a single one (with the exception of the last one by Tim Richardson), deals with important concepts and propositions that the book puts forward. There is a lot in this book to like, and some not to like (eg. 1) the definitions of Indirect and Direct are open to debate; 2) the coding of weak v. strong and winner v. loser are also potentially contentious issues). I agree with Richardson that it is a book everyone should read.

Tim's piece is not an op-ed, it is a book review. (Note: It would be nice if contributors to SWJ would refrain from grinding their personal axes in almost every single discussion).

I suggest people read the book (or the shorter article that appeared in International Security under the same title) so that they can offer informed comment while "staying on target" so to speak.

Tim Richardson (not verified)

Sun, 03/06/2011 - 9:27pm

I agree that the term asymmetric is problematic. At least in terms of Arreguin-Tofts book, asymmetric is meant to describe an asymmetry of relative power among the principal actors.

While certainly gross errors exist in both intelligence and operations, I believe the biggest challenge we face is one of strategy. It is the strategic interaction of the two actors engaged in irregular warfare (as defined by JP 1) I find most interesting, and is what led me to review this book.

Bob's World

Sun, 03/06/2011 - 4:48pm

Betty, you raise a widely held concern, but consider the distinction between motivation and causation.

Motivation is not the same as causation. Yes the Muslims who attack us employ an Islam-based ideology to motivate people to join the cause and to carry out difficult missions. Is that surprising? No, it is quite natural. It would be odd if they tried to use communisim or protestantism as has worked so well for others in other times, other places and other cultures.

But causation is far more political and hunaistic psychology than religious dogma (recognizing the unique fusion of the two in the Muslim world). Look to despotic leaders and western manipulations of sovereignty and legitimacy; as well as actions that lead Muslims to reasonably feel that they are treated as a lower class by the west for your causation.

One does not need to understand arabic, nor be schooled in the Koran to understand what is right and what is wrong. Yes, our intel guys are out in left field chasing "bad guys." But to put them out in left field chasing ideology is even more misguided than the current approaches.

Betty Smith (not verified)

Sun, 03/06/2011 - 4:04pm

One thing the US fails to understand, and especially its intelligence (who so far, 10 years into this, have failed to 'beat' the enemy, only created more enemies) - is the twisted ideology that feeds this war-
In our 'trying to fix the world through our version of democracy'- we have only empowered our enemies (Iran, Hezbollah- who are one and the same with the "new government of Iraq", and now the Muslim Brotherhood, who are the parent of Al-Qaida)
the intelligence people are half the problem-
It has been ten years now and we never bothered to teach our intelligence people Arabic good enough to understand the locals or the basics of the Islam that is practiced in the Middle East, vs. the fake version of Islam taught at the Ivy league 'experts' and those from strategic centers or think tanks in the US, that base their information off badly translated texts or versions of Islam taught by Arab Christians or Islamic minorities- Using "Arabs" who come from opposition groups or dont speak the local dialect, whose main qualification was "owned 'beverage stores' or drove a cab" before 9/11 to give 'advice' to four star generals- or in the case of the current administration, no advisers at all...
Correctly understanding what is motivating this war- will help end it, but so far, 'there is no life to whom you call' as Arabs will say- which basically means, it is hopeless.


One could argue that the only conventional war in recent years was DESERT STORM, but even that is open to debate.

I think Slapout hit it, all sides should be seeking advantage by developing an appropriate strategy based on their own and their enemy's strengths and weaknesses. So in the end Gian is absolutely right, asymmetric warfare (AW) isn't new and is an unneeded phrase.

The Chinese military students who wrote their thesis on Unrestricted Warfare in the 90's clearly addressed what many would call AW. Doesn't really matter if it is non-conventional, conventional, or unconventional (all these terms are losing their value), what matters is if the strategy achieves its objectives.

While I once again agree with Gian, I don't think AW is in any danger of going away because........ well it sounds cool, and cool has a stickiness factor that is hard to defeat. I guess the bigger question then is the phrase AW harmful? I don't think so, but am open to be proven wrong.

slapout9 (not verified)

Sun, 03/06/2011 - 10:38am

"best bet is to ditch the two terms, or at least stop referring to small wars, coin, or irregular war as asymmetrical while implying that "conventional war" is the opposite." by gian

Absolutely, this asymmetrical stuff isn't that what we used to call Strategy.

Bob's World

Sun, 03/06/2011 - 8:40am

One thing that contributes to confusion and debate on topics like this is the natural tendency to mix terms of art with lay terms.

For example, Gian once pointed out accurately that in FM 3-24 it breaks war down as being conventional or unconventional. But the definition of "unconventional warfare" is a narrow subset of the range of war that is not "conventional." The broader range used to fall under what was called "Special Warfare," which is why the army established a Special Warfare Center and School in the 60s at Ft Bragg.

Then the army forgot about all that stuff until a few years ago, and started from scratch with a variety of umbrella terms, such as "Irregular" or "Asymmetric" warfare. Neither term really made sense, but the Army felt it needed and unconveitonal term that the conventional force could embrace as they had come to see Special warfare as being what SOF does.

Adding to the insanity is that the Cold War era seems to be the baseline for "regular", when in fact few eras in history will prove to more irregular than that bipolar standoff. The post cold war era is much more a return to regularity following 60 years of warfare constipation. Maybe that's why it seems a little messy at first. Things should smooth out as new equilibriums are established.

Crazy. Doctrine man needs to take this on in one of his great little videos...


Publius (not verified)

Sat, 03/05/2011 - 7:49pm

Gian Gentile is right of course in pointing out that all war is asymmetrical, whether it be conducted by conventional or irregular forces. It's not the players, but rather the operational approach that dictates the path to the prizes. Think Midway or Inchon. I'm no expert, but it seems to me we tend to focus too much on the "who" and too little on the "how." I suspect that if we get the "how" right, we might find that leads us to the "who."

So "how" is very important. Have we truly determined that in Afghanistan? I don't think so. I think we've been flailing around for years without having a clue. Maybe because we have the wrong "who" involved, something that's not surprising given command and personnel realities in our Army. If we truly get serious about looking at "who" might be most suitable for specific tasks, we might find that our own policies are self-defeating.

To me, the most important take away is the suggestion that if you truly want to be a full spectrum military power in today's world, you might actually need two separate forces, one for the Fulda Gap, and one for the odd little war.

Specialization is anathema in today's military. But how can you administer the colonies without properly trained personnel? How can you deal with foreigners, allies and enemies alike, without linguists and intelligence personnel who specialize in areas of interest? Just how much mileage can you realistically expect to get out of a "strategic corporal"?

What's more important? Keeping Elihu Root's system alive? Or winning in the 21st century? Thus far, we've seen that our military values Root over victory and I don't see that changing.

I agree that asymmetrical is not reserved for irregular warfare, it also applies equally in conventional warfare from the tactial to strategic level.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sat, 03/05/2011 - 6:25pm

nope, not even world war I, and battles too by nature are asymmetrical. Think of Frederick the Great and the lines of battle that characterized that age of warfare, his oblique order was all about producing asymmetric effects on a weak side of the opponents line. Shooting forward, german stormtroop tactics and eleastic defense were all about asymmetry as well.

best bet is to ditch the two terms, or at least stop referring to small wars, coin, or irregular war as asymmetrical while implying that "conventional war" is the opposite.


Bill M. (not verified)

Sat, 03/05/2011 - 5:47pm

I agree with the comments on WWI (generally speaking). While the phrase asymmetric warfare has its proponents and opponents, I think Bob touched upon a key point when he compared warfare an battles. I would take it one level further and argue that our strategies for addressing what we now call irregular threats are flawed. It doesn't matter if we have a asymmetric advantage in battle, if we are asymmetricaly disadvantaged in strategy.

Haven't read the book, so no comment there yet. However, there is value in understanding Bin Laden's theory that if he raises a Islamist flag somewhere in the world (name your country), we'll come running with overwhelming power and development plans to deny safehaven and hopefully disrupt their plans, but there is a limit to how much longer we can afford to respond in this matter against every little threat. IMO there are better options available.

Maybe all wars are asymmetric, but it is still important to recognize your asymmetric advantages and disadvantages from the strategic to the tactical as part of our overall understanding of ourselves and our enemies.

Bob's World

Sat, 03/05/2011 - 2:23pm

Symmetical Battle, yes. Warfare? No.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sat, 03/05/2011 - 2:12pm

We are never going to get anywhere conceptually in terms of understanding war in the present and future until we get beyond the flawed notion of "asymmetric" war and its analog, "symmetric" warfare.

All warfare by its nature is asymmetric.

Can somebody give a historical example of "symmetrical" warfare?