Small Wars Journal

The End of the Peace of Westphalia: Fourth Generation Warfare

Wed, 10/23/2013 - 7:24pm

The End of the Peace of Westphalia: Fourth Generation Warfare

Gary Anderson

War Continues to Evolve

A quarter of a century ago four Marine Corps officers and a civilian military analyst wrote a piece for the Marine Corps Gazette on something they called Fourth Generation Warfare.

Without getting into a discussion of the first two generations, it is sufficient to say that Third Generation Warfare is that which most readers are familiar with. The third generation was exemplified by World War II, the first three Arab-Israeli Wars, Korea, and Desert Storm. It was characterized by maneuver, tanks, aircraft, and heavy firepower. Even the wars of liberation that characterized the sixties and seventies generally culminated with the insurgents fighting fairly conventionally in the final stage if they happened to win.

The authors stated that Fourth Generation Warfare would usher in an era when the conventional armies of nation-states would be increasingly challenged by non-state actors using a combination of lethal and non-lethal tactics that would be increasingly difficult for conventional forces to counter, even with revolutionary technology.  Military theorist and historian Martin Van Creveld went even further in 1990, when he predicted that armed non-state actors would end the monopoly of violence enjoyed by nation-states since the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War. This ran in the face of the results of the First Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) in which technology appeared to play a dominant role and was advertised as ushering in a Revolution in Military affairs that promised to be the true next generation of war centered on technological wonders such as precision strike and all-seeing airborne surveillance.

This triggered a healthy debate in the ranks of the Marine Corps and the other services as to which vision was correct. Some, such as I, who had been involved in the Lebanese conflict in the eighties believed that we had seen the first fourth generation non-state opponent in Hezbollah which had caused the US to conclude that the intervention in Lebanon was a bad bet. By the mid-nineties, Hezbollah was successfully challenging the Israelis for dominance in South Lebanon; and by 2006, Israel was negotiating with Hezbollah as an equal. In 1993, those of us who served in Somalia watched as non state actors in the form of several Somali clan based militias rendered modern weaponry largely irrelevant with tactics that often used women and children as human shields. Hamas, another non-state actor, used similar tactics and techniques In the Gaza Strip on the Israeli-Egyptian border to negate Israeli superiority in air and fire power. In this, the authors of the original 4GW piece were correct.

When civilian airliners crashed into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon in 2001 killing nearly 3000 American citizens and residents, Van Creveld’s prediction of the loss of the monopoly for organized violence by nation-states had come to pass. Osama Bin Laden’s stated aim in the 9-11 attacks was to bring down the American economic system; this highlighted another new aspect of warfare predicted by the 4 GW authors when they warned that the fourth generational warriors would try to bring about the collapse of the enemy from within. On occasion, this strategy of psychological attrition works; the 2004 Madrid train bombing knocked Spain out of the Iraq War, and the 3003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad chased the UN out of Iraq. On September 11th of this year, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s successor as Al Qaeda’s leader, called for a spate of random attacks across America to make security so expensive that it would wreck our country’s economy.

One other prediction that the authors of the original 4GW paper made that has come to pass was that our 4GW enemies would use information operations and information technology in innovative ways. Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban have all mastered the internet, Twitter and other social media. Often they can move faster than our information warriors because they do not have to have their messages approved by vast bureaucracies.

Aren’t They Just Insurgents?

This question is often raised. Although traditional insurgents have adopted many of the tactics of 4GW, they differ from non-state Fourth Generational warriors in that insurgents are looking to replace the current government of a country with another fairly traditional and recognizable government, usually one with a different ideological bent. When they gain enough strength, traditional insurgents generally form fairly conventional third generation military forces rather than continue guerilla and terror operations. Some insurgencies try to oust foreign occupying forces, but still look to replace them with nation-state governmental norms. Fourth Generational actors generally have far wider regional and even global visions or look to impose entirely new social systems based on their religion or ideology. Of the three major non-state actors operating in the world today, the Taliban comes closest to acting like a traditional insurgency, but even it has transnational aspirations of uniting the Pashtun peoples of Pakistan and Afghanistan onto one political-unit. A captured Taliban once told me that if the Taliban could unite “Pashtunistan”, he didn’t care about the rest of Afghanistan.

The Strengths of the Fourth Generational Warrior

Perhaps the greatest strength of armed non-state actors is that centralized leadership is not the key to success of the movement. Most are begun by charismatic leaders, but they are not dependent on such leaders for survival. Some would say that Al Qaeda has become more dangerous than ever since the death of bin Laden and the Taliban would go on quite nicely without Mullah Omar. It is quite likely that many of the young bucks in such organizations probably welcome the drone strikes that kill senior leaders; that means upward mobility. This is why the all drone strategies, so beloved by Vice President Biden and his ilk, are not having the desired result.

A second strength of 4GW warriors is that they are not constrained by rule of law, but they are not above using it when it is to their advantage. This, combined with an ideological belief that those who do not share their beliefs are legitimate targets, and that those believers who become by-standers victims of the organizations attacks will become martyrs; this leads them to acts of violence not considered by even the most rogue of nation-state actors. However, when their warriors are captured, they will invoke the laws of the nation that captured them willingly enough, and many members of violent non-state groups have been freed due to legal constraints on the capturing country. A high percentage of these have returned to the battlefield. This would not happen if they were treated as prisoners of war.

The fact that an experienced journalist such as Mark Bowden, who documented 4GW in Somalia in his book, BLACK HAWK DOWN, still regards fourth generational warriors as mere criminals as he stated in a recent ATLANTIC magazine article; reveals that many observers do not understand the nature and scope of the  Fourth Generational threat.

The Taliban make propaganda point of administering rough but speedy and relatively fair justice in the areas that they control, and this is particularly effective when they are opposing a system that has a corrupt judiciary or areas where governance is absent. All of this does not prevent them from the use of the most horrific types of terror when its suits their purposes.

The fact that most current Islamic non-state actors can promise paradise to those who die in pursuit of the cause makes them ferocious fighters as Americans found in Iraq against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and as the Syrian Army is finding in that nation’s civil war. Hezbollah is currently less prone to suicide attacks than the Taliban or Al Qaeda and its affiliates, but the promise of paradise after martyrdom has made its fighters the most formidable of those fighting on the government side in Syria.

A final strength of Fourth Generation Warriors is that their tactical execution is almost totally decentralized. This allows local commanders to take advantage of opportunities quickly in places like Iraq, Syria, South Lebanon and Yemen.

4GW Weaknesses

In many ways, 4GW is a throwback to warfare before the Peace of Westphalia. Some of the same weaknesses plague Al Qaeda and the Taliban are those that dogged the Vandals, Huns, and Thuggees of antiquity. The lack of communications is probably the greatest weakness of 4GW organizations because American and other first world nations’ intercept capabilities render telecommunications and the internet very dangerous for operational or tactical use. That means that 4GW organizations lack strategic agility. If Al Qaeda Central in Waziristan wants to execute a 9-11 style operation, it must allow itself months of lead time to get the orders and funding delivered by courier. Thus, fleeting strategic opportunities are lost. This causes such organizations to rely on one of two strategic approaches. The first is psychological attrition. This is what Zawahiri was alluding to when he directed that Al Qaeda encourage a large number of home grown attacks on American soil to simply wear the American public down economically.

The second 4GW strategy is a war winning coup de main, a tactical action that will have decisive strategic results. This was the big effect Bin Laden was trying for in the 9-11 attacks. Coup de main victories have been relatively rare in military history, and the communications challenge is making them far more difficult to execute in the post-9-11 era. With the afore mentioned exceptions of the Madrid train bombing and the 2003 bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad , 4GW warriors have not had much success with this the strategic event approach to date other than to gain headlines and donors. The United States and most Western societies have proven much more resilient to the psychological approaches that many in AL Qaeda expected, and NATO has fought on for twelve years in Afghanistan despite an attritional approach by the Taliban. To be sure, 4GW has changed the way we live in the United States. It affects the way we travel and even how we think about handling our e-mail, but it hasn’t broken us.

This lack of strategic communications also means that the Fourth Generational Warriors lack an operational level of war. They cannot put their considerable tactical successes together into a coherent campaign to achieve strategic objectives. Even if they had the desire to do so, they do not have the communications capability to quickly coordinate the actions of widely separated units.

Another of the most critical weaknesses of armed non-state actors against the security forces of nation-states is the lack of quality control. Unlike Mac Donalds or Wendy’s, the communications problem prevents most armed non-state actors from effectively controlling both the quality and the barbaric excesses of their franchise organizations. Rogue actors like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq made so many enemies for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, that they were the prime catalyst for the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province and other Sunni populated areas. Al Qaeda Central probably breathed a secret sigh of relief when the Americans solved their problem for them with two five hundred pound bombs. Likewise in Afghanistan, many Taliban flagrantly exercise much of the corruption and excesses that they accuse the Afghan government of. This alienates the population, and makes the Taliban war effort that much harder.

A final vulnerability, and probably the most dangerous one for Fourth Generation warriors is that they find it hard to handle success. Unlike traditional insurgents, who are simply vying for control of the government, organizations like Al Qaeda want to destroy the governmental systems they oppose completely. However, other than a vague notion of a caliphate that equates religious leadership with governance and a desire to keep western “Crusaders” out of traditionally Muslim lands, they do not have a clear blueprint for governing. The Al Shabaab militias in Somalia found this out the hard way, and their excesses after they won virtual control of Somalia made it relatively easy for an African Union intervention to oust them in 2011.

The recent attacks on the Westgate mall in Kenya would appear to be a continuation of this psychological attrition strategy by al Shabaab; they obviously believe that events such as this will dissipate Kenya’s will to continue the Somalia intervention through destroying Kenya’s tourist economy. Even if the Westgate event has the desired effect, and that is unlikely, there is no indication that al Shabaab would govern any better if they go the chance to rule Somalia again. The Taliban had the same problem when they found themselves in control in Afghanistan. Their incompetence at governance and the excesses of many out of control local leaders turned most Afghans, including a large portion of their Pashtun brethren against them. Unfortunately, the Karzai regime has not proved much better at governing Afghanistan. This has enabled a renewed, and somewhat reformed, Taliban to argue for a second chance. From what I have seen of the areas that they have “liberated”, they won’t do much better if they get that chance.

William Lind, one of the original 4GW authors, once remarked that: “The best way to beat insurgents is to let them win and take over; that way, you will know where they are when you want to bomb them.” The remark was tongue in cheek, but it has a strong element of truth, and it is probably even truer for non-state warriors than for traditional insurgents. Hezbollah is the most successful of the major 4GW actors. It still remains popular in the southern Shiite areas of Lebanon primarily because it has kept the largely Shiite population on a war footing with Israel, and has gained recognition as a legitimate Lebanese political party. However, it remains a state within a state and has largely alienated the majority of Sunni Muslims in the rest of the country through its support of the Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War. It also remains to be seen how loyal Lebanese Shiites will remain as they see more and more of their sons come home in boxes in a foreign war against fellow Arab Muslims.

How Are We Doing in 4GW?

Nation-States seem to have adapted fairly well to Fourth Generation Warfare. Once Americans had absorbed the events of 9-11, they accepted the new restrictions on air and other travel, albeit with some expected grumbling. In the field, our soldiers, marines, and civilians have adapted well when confronted with a non-state threat. At times, they realize more than host nation government the importance of delivering goods, services, rule of law, and good governance to those under governed areas at risk from both traditional insurgencies and groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The United States and its allies have used diplomacy and money to split the foreign non-state jihadists from more traditional insurgents in Iraq, and during the American presence, Iraqis seemed to take to rule of law with a vengeance. Because of a lack of an enemy physical center for gravity GW is mostly fought at the tactical level, and we are getting pretty good at countering their tactics and the art of not making more enemies than we kill.

Unfortunately, too many in leadership positions have failed to realize that there are no quick victories at the strategic level; drones won’t solve the problem. Nor is there a possibility of negotiated settlement in the long run. Even if one faction of a non-state organization desires to negotiate, there is almost a certainty that another, more militant group will pick up the bloody banner and wave it.

Treating terror as a purely criminal act is the direction that the Obama Administration is leaning toward according to Tom Bowden in a September 2013 article in The Atalntic. Bowden and distinguished British legal scholar Sir Christopher Greenwood agree that this is the correct approach, and that states can only wage war on other states. Their reasoning seems to be that, what worked against the Mafia will work against Al Qaeda and other non-state actors.  In that, the legalist school misses the point. The U.S. Federal government beat the Mafia by making organized crime in the style of Al Capone unprofitable. Picking off the leaders and prosecuting them worked, but the Fourth Generation Warriors are not the mafia, or even the Latin American drug lords. Al Qaeda and associates are not criminal gangs; they represent a powerful armed movement that considers itself to be in a legitimate war with western nation-states as well as with the secular leaning governments of nations in the Muslim world. Profit is not an issue; criminal enterprises may fund jihadist activities, but profit is a means rather than an end. The Fourth Generation jihadists believe they are at war, and they treat that war seriously; we wish them away by trivializing them as mere criminals at our own peril.

Perhaps the best long term hope for dealing with non-state actors is evolution. This is particularly true in the case of holy wars or jihads; they tend to die down with time. In this, Hezbollah will probably be a test case. Hezbollah was born in during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and its cause was getting the Israelis completely out of the country. This happened in 2000. Since then Hezbollah has used Israel as a boogey man to keep the southern population on a war footing, but that and the Syrian conflict have strained the militaristic argument, and there is no stomach in South Lebanon for a jihad to wipe Israel from the face of the earth. Consequently, it will be interesting to see how Hezbollah turns out in the next decade because it is the oldest and most mature of the non-state actors. Hezbollah may be the lab in which we can examine the potential evolution of Hamas, the Taliban, and even the trans-national Jihadist organizations such as Al Qaeda and its offshoot affiliates into organizations that we can eventually deal with diplomatically; time will tell.

The greatest domestic threat of Fourth Generation Warfare to the United States is not in physical damage or human casualties, but that in protecting ourselves from internal and external threats that we evolve into a national security state unrecognizable to the vision of our founders. That would be real defeat.

We can avoid that by recognizing that we are at war and will continue to be until the jihadists cease attacking us and our allies. If we treat captured jihadists as legitimate representative of a wartime enemy, we can categorize Guantanamo as a prisoner of war camp. It would also quiet the legalists who want to treat collateral damage to civilians in strikes on jihadist leaders and installations as war crimes. Under the law of war, unintended civilian casualties are an acceptable, if unfortunate, effect of the nature of warfare, and are treated as such.

The Obama administration’s incremental approach of being a little bit at war is akin to being a little bit pregnant; it is an unnatural act. This Fourth Generation War may be a small war but it is war indeed. Greenwood, Bowden and others who want to treat 4GW as a mere criminal enterprise are on the wrong side of history. The Peace of Westphalia is over and all of the dogs of war are not wearing uniforms.

About the Author(s)

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.


Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 11/08/2013 - 11:06am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Other comments I've made at zenpundit on this topic. The term and concept is fine as one mode of understanding, putting it on a pedestal isn't.

<em>A theory is only as good as its eventual application if it is a theory meant to explain aspects of war or warfare. My problem is with the application of said theory in terms of explanation. Anarchy, disorder, hollowing out of states, these are not exactly new concepts and plenty of people have made the same arguments or got to the same point without referring to the theory.
The theory is so loosey goosey that anything can be made to say it “fits”. How does this help real men and real women with an actual job to do?</em>


<em>The good thing about this post is that I can safely ignore this nonsense, plenty of people warned about anarchy and they were states targeted by the very anarchy at times leveraged by other states. They said it first, and back in the 80′s when the Soviet focused types ignored it, and during the 90′s when the Clinton administration prioritized a certain kind of relationship with China which only increased disorder while bringing order, all at the same time, depending on the individual situation.
Good grief. Like boys or girls playing with toys.</em>

But it wasn't a first in the 80's, that was wrong. It's a forever kind of thing.


<em>A state went in and removed Saddam Hussain and Al Q piggy backed on that. So, is it the strong state that is at issue, or the weak state left behind?
Chicken-and-egg. Fantasia. Tonka toys. Lego diagrams. Little Green Army Men. Play, play, play at intellectual games while the actual world, the stuff beyond Lew Rockwell and Counterpunch and flickering fluorescent light conferences moves, in its own way, in its own time.</em>

Rereading my comments, I can see why I am such a beloved commenter. Who wouldn't love my natural irritability? It's extremely professional.

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 11/08/2013 - 10:58am

In reply to by Honky

+ 1 to this.

As far as I can tell, some people need magic, buzzwords, theory. Maybe some need to feel "in the know" having uncovered a secret to life and this secret is "X" or "Y" or even "4GW".

I don't quite know why. I watch this all as an outsider, fascinated and irritated in equal measure.

In addition, academics requires a little showmanship because so many are competing for funding, to be heard, to be at the table. Important--or better yet, competent--ideas in plain language may not catch the eye of decision-makers. American society at the very top is in love with the quick fix, with the magic idea, the great man or woman theory of the world. Maybe we all are.

Why all the hangups about the so-called "4GW" (term I despise, by the way). What makes 4GW any different from the way people have used force since the dawn of time? People use their strengths to exploit others' weaknesses.
In my opinion, 3GW was not really a generation, but simply a historical aberration. The only two times we've been involved in wars that could properly be called 3GW were WWII and Korea (and I think Korea was really just an appendix to WWII). The fact that our system of war is organized around an idea that ignores thousands of years of human history in preference to the paradigms of a single century is baffling to me. Perhaps Desert Storm could be considered 3GW, but I don't see how anyone could consider that as anything other than an aberration: if we'd continued across the Iraqi border, there's no way the Iraqis would have continued trying to fight us "conventionally."
And as for the true 4GW warriors being different from traditional insurgents is idiotic, in my opinion. Al-Quaida would organize itself more "conventionally" as we see it if they were able to gain the strength to actually do so. Would a regional caliphate be so unprecedented? If they had the opportunity to establish a regional caliphate they would by necessity organize more traditional police and military forces to control their territory. the reason they haven't done so already is that it doesn't suit their current purpose, which is inherently subversive. Uniformed armies are not suited for this purpose.
I say all that to say this: labels like "4GW" and "3GW" only mystify phenomena that are not at all new, and ignore all the historical precedent that makes these things not all that hard to understand.


Sat, 11/02/2013 - 12:18pm

It's a bit of an overstatement to call this period and 4GW generally the "end of the Peace of Westphalia". 4GW, terrorism, and insurgency are really happening within the context of the governmental structures brought about by Westphalia. More accurately these things are a challenge to that overall structure.

Still a great, foundational piece, however, one of these milestone essays that sticks around.

Bill C.

Tue, 10/29/2013 - 12:55am

In reply to by TheCurmudgeon

----- "OK, take everything you just said in the last paragraph and change your protagonist from Al Qaeda to the Ku Klux Klan with their ideology built on white supremacy and their activities in the southern states of America. What is the difference?" -----

Some suggestions:

a. In the American South during the KKK period you describe, slavery was no longer legal. A war had been fought to determine this issue.

b. Whereas today in the world at-large, different ways of life and different ways of governance have not been declared and/or determined to be illegal. Although there has been significant Western movement, post-the Cold War, in this direction, the war(s) to formally determine this issue is/are still ongoing.

----- "Should the jurisdiction matter? If they are acting to overthrow the government of Afghanistan they may be insurgents but if Al Qaeda acts in a Western state are they then bound by Western rules and therefore (should they be considered as) criminals?" -----


a. The West acts today as if it were the sovereign of the world. It talks incessantly of an "international community" of which it is, if not the acknowledged leader, then certainly the guiding light. With this perceived legitimacy and authority at its back, the West acts globally and blatantly (and through populations or governments as best serves its purpose) to undermine and eliminate alternative ways of life and ways of governance, and to replace these with Western models. Thus, the idea of jurisdiction which the West seems to claim for itself would also seem to extend to the attacks made against it -- whether these attacks occur on West's own home soil -- or in the frontier regions in which it aggressively operates.

b. In the days of empire of old, if those who fought back against imperial forces could have done so, not only in their own homelands but also (as today) in the homelands of the imperial forces trying to conquer and assimilate them, would this have caused the status of these resisting entities, either in their own eyes or those of the imperial forces, to have been viewed -- based only on the locale of their resistance -- as different? I think not.

To sum up:

a. If the West has achieved -- by whatever means -- the right to call itself the global sovereign, then those who would seek to overthrow and replace the West as global sovereign may be considered insurgents.

b. Likewise, if the West has achieved -- by becoming the global sovereign -- the recognized right to formally outlaw alternative ways of life and alternative ways of governance, then those who would seek to practice such alternative ways may indeed be called criminals.

c. If, however, the West HAS NOT achieved the recognized right to global leadership and, via this authority, HAS NOT formally outlawed alternative ways of life and alternative ways of governance, then it follows that the West may not be able to credibly call those who actively resist unwanted westernization (regardless of where and how such resistance takes place) either "insurgents" or "criminals." Some other term would seem to be needed to describe (1) these individuals/entities, (2) their activities and (3) the correct context.


Mon, 10/28/2013 - 6:26pm

In reply to by Sparapet

Please join the brouhaha. I agree with you that these are our definitions and they are primarily for administrative purposes. I would argue that whether the FBI or Seal Team Six shows up at your door is a matter of whether you are located in the US or one of its territories or not (ala "Captain Phillips"). Regardless of the group the executive calls on to address the problem the question is really how do we address the problem. As a general matter I believe that terrorism is a criminal matter. It fits in better with OUR understanding of crime and our rules of war. Just my two cents.


Mon, 10/28/2013 - 5:07pm

In reply to by TheCurmudgeon

If I may jump in. Definitions of the abstract exist to provide scope and meaning to our world views. Eternal truths aren't to be found in definitions. Al Qaeda exists as a human organization. One of its activities is to oppose our interests and to seek to do us harm. Whether it is a criminal organization or insurgent is only relevant in the context of our own society since we are organized as a society to address criminality and insurgency (as defined by our social context) differently. In other words, it is only a feature of our own need to decide which social construct to use when fighting AQ that we even need to bother with a definition.

Admittedly, this has serious consequences. There is a difference between dispatching the FBI with CIA help or a MAGTF. Typology (i.e. definition) gives us the reference marker that we will use to apply the "right theory". In the end, that is what we are actually arguing about here. Whether AQ is or is not "criminal" is not a comment on some intrinsic quality of AQ as a human organization, but on how we will THINK of it once we call it that.

Typology isn't an academic exercise as much as it is an administrative one. It exists solely in our heads. Our technocratic bias may occasionally make us believe that if we just find the right definition we will be able to solve a problem, but in the end that is a bias. AQ is a (de facto) sovereign human organization that spans multiple sovereign territories. And it happens to be our enemy at the moment. We can treat them as "criminal" when they pop up in France or the US where we can rely on domestic law enforcement to be sufficient to deal with them (with an occasional black helicopter or intelligence collector to boot), or as "insurgents" when they pop up in Yemen where such an approach would yield nothing. There is no "truth" here to be discovered with the right logic.

(This is at the root of my criticisms of 4GW as some sort of "view of the future")


Mon, 10/28/2013 - 4:11pm

In reply to by Bill C.

OK, take everything you just said in the last paragraph and change your protagonist from Al Qaeda to the Ku Klux Klan with their ideology built on white supremacy and their activities in the southern states of America. What is the difference? They are in an area forcibly changed from its former policy whose governments, due to an unsuccessful rebellion, no longer represent them. They are being force to assimilate to the new Western standard where slavery is no longer legal. Are they not warriors worthy of legitimacy? How about the Branch Davidians - they were a religious group - do they deserve to be considered warriors fighting the government legitimately?

Should the jurisdiction matter? If they are acting to overthrow the government of Afghanistan they may be insurgents but if Al Qaeda acts in a Western state are they then bound by Western rules and therefore criminals? Should we allow a Afghan who kills someone in England claim that he is an Afghan and therefore only subject to Afghan laws? (And yes, I am well aware that the American incorporate that very ability in every SOFA we negotiate.) Only a sovereign can declare war, or should we abandon that international norm as well and legitimize the actions of drug cartels when they kill people in foreign countries? We are, by our own admission, in a “war on drugs”. How far do you want to push these definitions to perpetuate a mistake made years ago when we moved terrorism from a criminal issue to a military one?

Bill C.

Mon, 10/28/2013 - 12:11am

----- "Fourth Generational actors generally have far wider regional and even global visions or look to impose entirely new social systems based on their religion or ideology."

Should we not see ourselves in this light, given that we have:

a. Far-reaching, regional and even a global vision and

b. Look to impose our intertwined political, economic and social systems (based on our religion and ideology) on others?

----- "A second strength of 4GW warriors is that they are not constrained by rule of law, but they are not above using it when it is to their advantage. This, combined with an ideological belief that those who do not share their beliefs are legitimate targets ... "

Again, does this depiction not represent the thinking and actions of the West today; wherein, to achieve favorable outlier state and societal transformations, the West seems willing to both (1) use laws when they are to its advantage and yet also (2) challenges laws when these tend to stand in the way (such as, via concept of R2P, the idea of sovereignty)? Likewise the West seeing as proper targets those states and societies that do not share its (the West's) values, attitudes and beliefs?

----- "Al Qaeda and associates are not criminal gangs; they represent a powerful armed movement that considers itself to be in a legitimate war with western nation-states as well as with the secular leaning governments of nations in the Muslim world."

Accordingly, one would only seem to be able to call AQ and its associates "criminal" if one can show that:

a. States and societies no longer have the right to order their lives -- and their associated political, economic and social affairs -- in some manner other than that of the modern western world. And that

b. Individuals, groups, nations and countries -- opposed to transformation along modern western lines -- no longer have the right to fight back (using all means possible) to preclude such unwanted westernization and secularization.

Herein "the West," by its current thinking and actions, seeing both the Peace of Westphalia -- and the legitimacy that it renders to alternative ways of life and ways of governance -- as threats to its agenda and, thus, as standing squarely in its (the West's) way.

Thus, from this perspective also might one properly view both Fourth Generation Warfare and the tolling of the Peace of Westphalia?

Certain populations today understand that they cannot defend their way of life and way of governance -- against the West and the secular leaning governments -- except (1) via unconventional means and (2) by way of local, regional and global alliances made outside of government. This, because these populations realize that they can no longer rely on either their national leaders (who have been overthrown, replaced or co-opted?), or on international law (which has been marginalized?), to protect them from unwanted transformation and assimilation.

Thus, these questions:

a. Is it "unlawful" for a people -- denied by a foreign power of both (1) loyal governors and (2) the benefit of law -- to defend their way of life and way of governance via other means?

b. Are such individuals to be understood as and known as "criminals" and/or "insurgents?"


Fri, 10/25/2013 - 3:53pm

I feel torn when reading an article like this. On the one hand it describes enemy non-state organizations fairly accurately. I don't think this is particularly difficult, but nevertheless, it is accurate to say that "communications is probably the greatest weakness of 4GW organizations".

On the other hand I don't see the point. What am I supposed to take away from Al Qaeda in the 21st Cent that I couldn't find in looking at the Ḥashshāshīn from 900 years before or even Communists of early 20th Cent Russia? If 4GW was just a different theoretical framework designed to combat the dominance of the state-on-state framework among modern strategists (broadly speaking) then I would understand and only complain about the title "4GW".

But this seems like a false dichotomy, or at least a weak hypothesis. The section of the article titled "Aren't They Just Insurgents?" would have us believe that a Talib is a 3GW warrior when an AQ fighter is 4GW warrior. So AQ would NOT convert to a 3GW if it all of a sudden inspired massive revolts that proclaimed their allegiance to AQ, gaining large masses of men to use in the fight? I find that impossible to believe. I also find it absurd to state that the 4GW warrior is not constrained by the rule of law. Each human organization has its own "law" that its members MUST observe. When the Wermacht and Waffen SS laid waste to villages and towns they weren't "constrained by the rule of law" either. But they did obey internal rules, as all human societies and organizations do. Following the rule of law is an attribute that constrains certain activities, it is not a paradigm shifting environmental change...we break the rule of law every day in a War by killing, maiming, and destroying....something I am quite certain was illegal under, say, Iraqi domestic law.

Also, to propose that Somali tribal territoriality and complex political ecosystem is a 4GW war, but the Afghanistan Taliban insurgency is a 3GW is strange. Are Somali warlords so different from their Afghan counterparts!?

I may be rambling on here, but I have so many issues with this 4GW hypothesis that I must fight the urge of turning this comment into a full blow article.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/24/2013 - 7:02pm

This article triggered an interesting memory about 3/4G.

When I was in SF in the 60/70s we were trained on exactly how the VC and the NVA thought, acted, and maneuvered and that institutional UW knowledge was passed onto me by SF personnel who had been in UW since 1956. They made it their mission to make sure a young SP/4 "got it". When my first fight fire occurred in VN it was like I had been in VN for years-one felt at ease because the training had been so thorough and I understood what I was seeing.

As a civilian when I was working as an interrogator in Diyala province 2005/2006 and at Abu Ghraib---it was like a homecoming---nothing had changed in tactics and techniques from VN to Iraq---only the equipment ie cellphones, cell detonated IEDs, and 100 US dollar bills---the weapons were the same I had seen in VN.

My Army counterparts were though at a total loss in what they were seeing and had sometimes no explanation for something/event, and then I would have to step in and explain exactly what was going on. They often voiced the opinion that a civilian could not be that informed---it puzzled them to no end. Was ignored a lot---institutional knowledge was not accepted from civilians as we did not "wear the uniform".

What was amazing was their actual cell structures and forms of communications were identical to what we had trained on 1966/67 in Det A, Berlin Bde or what the 10th SFGA was training on in Bad Toelz, Germany during the same time.

In all the BCT training events that I supported at the NTC from 2006 through 2010 there was no institutional knowledge being passed on how the insurgents organized, fighting techniques, and moreover the why they were fighting. Sure they were reading books/articles on Islam etc--but never anything on what the insurgent thought, how he was organized, how he felt, and what he fought for.

In mid 2006, the Army stumbled onto the handwritten journal of the leader of the Islamic Army in Iraq which was the strongest and most professional of the Iraqi Sunni groups---over 400 hundred pages from 2003 through to early 2006 on how they were organized, their daily operations, how they maintained the cells and friendships, bomb circuit designs-what types of IEDs were working or not working etc.---literally the inside view of a well organized group that hit the streets of Iraq with over 40 cells one week before we entered Baghdad and in their own words. The Abu names mentioned over and over in the journal were the who's who of the Sunni insurgency.

So one would assume that the journal could have been published and turned into a required reading assignment for all Iraq bound units.

To this day it has never happened--so when we discuss 3/4GW---we need to also understand the failure/the lack of institutional knowledge in the Force concerning 3/4GW.

Iraq retaught me that UW tactics and techniques never change has they have been battle tested throughout history---only the equipment changes to match the times---that lesson was never passed to the Force and they paid a heavy price.


Sat, 10/26/2013 - 3:05pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

"When all of one's tactical successes are met with increasing and expanding strategic failure, it is a pretty good metric that one has their strategic understanding of the problem wrong."

Perhaps by treating criminals as warriors, it indicates that we do not understand the problem.


Sat, 10/26/2013 - 6:24pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I am agreeing with you in principal (and disagreeing with the author). I am not sure I am ready to agree with you in practice.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 10/25/2013 - 12:42pm

In reply to by TheCurmudgeon

I didn't say Hezbollah is sovereign, the government of Lebanon is, and Hezbollah is part of that government. Calling a portion of a country's government "terrorist" and illegitimate frees Lebanon as a whole of their sovereign duties and ties our hands at the same time. It ties Israel's hands as well. Israel can kick Lebanon's ass, but not Hezbollah's. Why? because we insist in this rediculous dichotomy that relieves one of their duties, and grants the other sanctuary.

Either the government of Lebanon controls Hesbollah, or Hezbollah is the government of Lebanon. Either way, the state and the population must be held to account.

Look, I have no love for Hezbollah, but I have even less love for ignorant approaches for dealing with important issues. Strategic understanding of problems cannot be modified to fit political, policy, or popular positions; or it is of no value. Strategic understanding is in fact, only politically correct by coincidence. We just don't do ourselves any favors when we morph our thinking of those who challenge us to fit what we want them to be - we need to seek to pragmatically understand them for what they actually are.

When all of one's tactical successes are met with increasing and expanding strategic failure, it is a pretty good metric that one has their strategic understanding of the problem wrong. We are being steered into positions of poor understanding by our allies, by "SMEs" with self-serving agendas, and by our own inertia of how we see ourself and others. Continuing to do what brought us to this place is highly unlikely to take us out of that place.


Thu, 10/24/2013 - 6:23pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Hezbollah are not a sovereign. They are a party who holds seats in Lebanon. What you are advocating is akin to claiming that the UN needs to recognize the TEA party of the United States as the legitimate government of the US and capable of its own military actions outside the U.S. Inside Lebanon they may have limited legitimacy. Outside Lebanon they cannot represent Lebanon, so Hezbollah activities outside Lebanon (i.e. in Syria) should not be given any recognition.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/24/2013 - 5:41pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert---well stated. In some aspects many have not paid much attention to the concept of the green crescent called out by Khomeini in the first year of the Iranian revolution.

You are correct that it was the call for a Shia containment wall against the Sunni and it is natural for Iran to continue that containment wall as long as Saudi Arabia and other Sunni led Arab countries continue their support of Sunni resistance groups.

If Iran eventually feels more comfortable about their existence in the area that might start influencing Hezbullah to become moderate as it would then be a win win for both.

By stamping Hezbullah a terrorist organization it is then hard to openly engage politically with them in a critical moment as it then appears that one is backing away from the accusation and lends Hezbullah instant defacto political recognition with them having to offer nothing in return.

Just my opinion

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 10/24/2013 - 4:49pm

In reply to by TheCurmudgeon

Hezbollah is part of the governance of Lebanon. Many states recognize them as such, it is not particularly helpful for us to bestow some lesser status upon them because they have different interests than we do. Under the UN charter no government's legitimacy is supposed to be challenged, and all are supposed to have equal sovereignty. Making special cases to suit our desires serves as much to undermine the influence of the US and the UN as it does to somehow discount those we apply such methods against.

To me it looks like Iran is simply attempting to extend a line of containment across the Levant from their border with Afghanistan to the Med. Not unlike what we did with the Soviet threat during the Cold War, and certainly we leveraged the help of some questionable characters in our efforts as well. We may not like it, but we also should recognize that we provided the model they follow, and also opened the door by taking out Saddam. Sunni Muslems in the Arab Peninsula are the existential threat to Shia Iran. Iran appears to be conducting FID in Iraq and Syria to sustain friendly governments. That is smart, and frankly quite foreseeable.

The best way to deal with Hezbollah is to bring them into the law, and deny them the legal status "sanctuary" we give them when we declare them to be outside the law. Afterall, if I am outside the law I don't need to follow the law. Recognizing Hezbollah allows us many more ways to influence their actions than not recognizing them. It also brings the people and state of Lebanon into a position where they have to be accountable for what Hezbollah does. They can bring far more pressure internally than we can externally to correct inappropriate behavior. Why free the Lebanese of any accountability? By recognizing Hezbollah as the state actor they actually are, we take away the "4GW" power that we gave them in the first place.


Thu, 10/24/2013 - 2:15pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

I am not sure how the way we classify them acts to "pressure" them one way or another. I am simply saying that by calling them warriors we are legitimizing their cause in the eyes of our public and in the eyes of third parties. I suppose there is a certain propaganda value to Hezbollah fighters in being able to claim that they are at war with the U.S. Army instead of being hunted by the FBI. To be honest, I don't know. My point is not targeted to influence them but to address how the rest of the world sees them. We are helping them win the propaganda war by calling them warriors.

Although, rereading what I wrote, I can see how you thought that is what I was trying to say.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/24/2013 - 1:33pm

In reply to by TheCurmudgeon

The problem with Hezbolluh is that it is in fact an extension of the Shia wing of Islam and is a complete package (political/religious/economical) and until Islam has it's own internal Westhaphila and settle their 1400 year old argument with the Sunni's we will continue to have to deal with them. Those of us who were in Beirut when Hezbolluh marched in with their green flags flying out of Iran, but did not go any further than the Bekka valley knew they were following the green crescent theory from Iran and they are still following that model.

By treating them as criminals begs the question as to whether we really do understand them as we claim.

Hamas is another example and has copied the political/economical/religious model of Hezbolluh and even the PLO cannot seem to get them under control and they really do view them as criminals.

I seem to remember that the US allowed Hamas to participate in a democratic election in Gaza, and when they won declared them terrorists.

It is not how we view them ie criminals vs warriors---it is how the population around them views them.

The author is correct in thinking they will change when they want too not when we pressure them.


Thu, 10/24/2013 - 11:28am

First, I am glad that Robert C. Jones made the point about the “monopoly on violence”. States have never had a monopoly on violence, and still do not have that monopoly. The term comes from Weber’s Gewaltmonopol des Staates which translates to the State’s monopoly on legitimate violence but legitimacy is often left out. In the U.S. criminal gangs use organized violence to maintain control over their slice of the pie. There is nothing legitimate about it. However, it means that the U.S. government cannot claim to have a monopoly on violence within its borders.

I will add that 4GW does not reflect a change in the nature of warfare – it reflects a change in the source of political power. When the Madrid bombings resulted in the withdrawl of Spanish troops from Afghanistan that was not because the bombings changed the minds of the leaders. It was because the bombings changed the minds of the electorate who voted in a government that advocated withdrawl. This reflects a change in the source of political power. The same could be said of Beruit and Somolia. The popular support for the political leadership wained after the attacks on the Marines in Beruit and the Soldier’s bodies being draged through the streets in Mogadishu. This shift in the source of political power occured long after Westphalia and nothing in that treaty shifted power away from the state’s monarch.

I will agree with the author that perhaps the only way that groups like Hezbolluh will change will be when they decide to change, not when we defeat them. So the question that comes to mind is not whether Hezbolluh should be treated as warriors (which tends to legitamize their cause) or criminals (who cannot claim any form of legitamacy), but what can we do to help change their minds. I would argue that by deligitimizing their actions – by treating them as criminals instead of warriors – we are moving in the right direction.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 10/24/2013 - 10:46am

A few thoughts:

1. We had a Deputy Secrtary of Defense on Counterinsurgency in 2003-05?

2. States have NEVER had a "monopoly on violence." That is one of those illogical, never true "truisms" people like to throw about, like "winning hearts and minds" or "sanctuary is ungoverned space." Yes states had, and continue to have, a monopoly on LEGAL violence. Illegal violence has always been a tool for any and all to apply if they so choose.

3. Wasn't Attila the Hun a "non-state actor"? How about Ghengis Khan? History is full of individuals and eras where illegal violence brought by non-state actors brought state actors and their legal violence to their knees. The treaty of Westphalia marked the end of the wars of reformation, but it did not somehow mark an end to the employment of illegal violence by non-state actors.

4. "War" is a legal status. It is described in fundamental ways by guys like Clausewitz, but while all war is violent, certainly not all violence is war. Nor is it wise, or productive, to treat all violence as war. The clearest metric for the foolishness of treating non-war violence as if it is war is the war-like approach to the attacks of 9/11 under President Bush and President Obama's first term. That approach has contributed in major ways to the growing instability across the greater Middle East, the growth of US Debt, and the decline of US influence.

As Clausewitz advised: "The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking.”

What he might have added is that it is equally important to appreciate when what one embarks upon is not war at all, or when it has morphed to become a different type of conflict than it was when one began.

Robert J. Bunker

Wed, 10/23/2013 - 8:52pm

I agree. We are up against criminal-soldiers and new warmaking entities-- not old school insurgents. This is part of the epochal transition taking place between the modern and post-modern eras with the blurring of crime and war, shift in battlespace, rise of directed energy weapons, etc. Another component of the transition is the return of mercenaries and private armies to the battlefield. State institutions are buckling and deinstitutionalization is taking place. One only needs to take a hard look at Mexico right now and many of the SWJ El Centro articles and it is pretty evident.

Mark Pyruz

Wed, 10/23/2013 - 8:31pm

One wonders where the Texas revolution fits into this G-world thinking, as well as the 2006 Lebanon War.

I know it's vogue to think of Hezbollah as a non-state actor but in reality they are more accurately depicted as an intrastate actor. Certainly most of Lebanon considers them as such, and they form a powerful element of Lebanon's legitimate government.

As for Texas revolutionaries in the mid-18th century, they are far closer to the mark as non-state actors in a so-called 4G sense.

And what about the Israelis themselves? They waged a successful terror campaign as non-state actors against both the British and indigenous population, and after winning a war with their neighbors forced off a large part of the indigenous side at gunpoint. Because they were relatively successful, they qualify as 3G?

The list of problems with this 4G thinking goes on.