The End of the Peace of Westphalia: Fourth Generation Warfare
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.
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.