If one is going to go after sacred cows, one should really go after sacred cows. Most of the people in our society who get credit for "going after sacred cows" are just going after unfashionable ones. At least ones that are unfashionable in the circles they want to appeal to. We live in a world of iconodules posing as iconoclasts.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On Asymmetric Warfare: The Sources of Insurgent Power

First, I apologize to Clauswitz in advance, because not only am I not him, but I can't hope to emulate him. Also, little of what follows is original thinking, though it is entirely at odds with conventional wisdom on the subject.

If war is diplomacy by other means, asymmetric warfare is politics by other means. We're told that the Western Alliance is in danger of losing in Afghanistan, an alliance that represents the most advanced states of the world, consisting of three quarters of a billion people and over half of global GDP, fighting in a country of 25 million people. While reliable data is hard to come by, I believe that at least a plurality of that country's population would prefer to see the Alliance's foe, the Taliban/insurgents defeated, rather than see them return to power.

Why is this absurdity, the possibility of the alliance's defeat, not only considered possible, but actually likely? If we assume that the leaders of the Taliban are rational actors, why have they always held the belief in their ultimate victory?

Let me first assert that, as it is commonly understood, "Asymmetric Warfare" is a fallacy. If you have two forces, and the one whose power appears insignificant compared to that of its opponent, and yet is considered the likely victor, then you are only seeing a fraction of its real power. Like an iceberg, you see only the tip, but the rest is invisible under the veil of the sea.

Only when this Camouflage is drained away, and the whole is visible, can you see why the apparently weaker party not only has a chance of defeating the materially stronger, but is considered the likely winner among those who shape conventional wisdom even in the homelands of its opponents (in this case, the Western Alliance). The ostensible power of the Western Alliance's military forces is obvious, because it is primarily materiel and direct. The power of the insurgents are primarily political/propagandistic and indirect, consisting largely of the ability to manipulate mindsets, rather than battlefield outcomes.

To examine how this works I'll make another unoriginal observation, but one at odds with conventional wisdom. The drafters of Geneva Conventions a century ago and those who described international law during that same time were decent men (they were all men) who wanted to make an inherently inhumane activity, warfare, more humane, less brutal and bloody. The fact that the century of warfare that followed was the bloodiest in human history is not their fault. They were indeed intelligent men, no less intelligent than the men and women responsible for interpreting the Geneva Conventions and "international law" today. The gentlemen of a century ago knew that mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.

Therefore, in order to de-incentivize certain forms of warfare, they did not extend the protections of international law given to lawful combatants to insurgents, terrorists, and the like. The Geneva Conventions did not cover those who did not themselves follow them. In that era, it was accepted as a given that it was necessary to give such persons less protection, to deter people from engaging in activities that would make conflict less clear, and thus more destructive and more prolonged. Thus the Geneva Conventions, for example, declared that such combatants could be shot when captured.

It's not controversial, but simply factual, to observe that today insurgents are extended more rights than lawful, uniformed enemy soldiers would be, and that the argument is whether or not to extend them even more. Most of the Alliance's members send small forces to Afghanistan and compel them to operate under such restrictive rules of engagement that they are militarily useless, and indeed would be hostile to fortune if deployed in a combat zone, so they are kept out of harms way. Even those members whose forces are used in combat (primarily Anglosphere nations and the Netherland) operate under rules so increasingly constrained as to nearly, but not quite, tie their hands with an ever-tightening cobra. The enemy's propaganda complaints of collateral damage are listened to, and thus they are encouraged to use that as one of their main weapons in the conflict to thwart the Alliance.

We are told we need to accept these constraints, less we lose the "hearts and minds" of the local population. But the enemy quite clearly does not have to operate this way. The intimidation tactics and outright brutality which insurgents use to cow the population is also one of their weapons. Why? Because the "hearts and minds" strategy concentrates mainly on the hearts of those sympathetic to the enemy, their collaborators, and not on the minds of those who oppose them or are otherwise innocent, simply wanting a better life than the Taliban offers, but afraid they'll be left to die or otherwise suffer when we pack up and abandon the area, after concluding that our efforts are futile or even counter-productivly "alienating people". This mindset involves listening primarily to the complaints of those sympathetic to the insurgents, rather than those who would be our natural allies. Again, mercy to the guilty becoming cruelty to the innocent.

Highly constrained rules of engagement that limit the effectiveness of the Alliances armed forces also serve to to prove the point of those who shape conventional wisdom, who always assert that military force is not effective. This is not to say we should be bloody-minded and be indiscriminate. Indeed, the Armed Forces of the West are the most discriminate forces in human history. But warfare is warfare. A deranged mind might conclude therefore that these rules exist to prove the point of those shaping conventional wisdom, who are also the ones prodding for ever more restraint, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The conventional wisdom suggests that an insurgency cannot be militarily defeated, and yet the historical facts belie this. Insurgencies have been defeated militarily: The Philippines, the Malay Insurgency, among others. Even Vietnam: It's no longer even controversial, outside of direct discussions of insurgent warfare in the arena of conventional wisdom, to acknowledge that, after Tet, the Viet Cong ceased to be a viable force, and that the North conquered the south in a classic armored offensive of tank columns and regular troops, rather than any sort of indigenous insurgency in the South. But the converse view is still prevalent in the conventional wisdom on the subject of guerrilla warfare, not because of its historical accuracy, but because of its political utility in present-day policy controversies in the West.

Defeating insurgents requires a combination of strictness, firm rules on the enemy and their sympatizers, not just our own forces, and employment of local troops under western officers, something done in a coy way during the Anbar Awakening (when we paid local militias, thus gaining some influence) as a means of discipline. "Advisor" programs, where Western soldiers mentor local counterparts, are another way of reproducing this in a coy way.

Why it is in the interest of the Western Alliance to enact policies that have the practice not only of tying the hands of their own armed forces, making them less effective, but in practice making warfare less humane on the whole by incentivizing a pattern of warfare by its opponents based on practices that the original drafters of the Geneva Conventions and international law did their best to deincentivize, because of its bloody results, becomes a key question. But a controversial one indeed.

This has to do with conflicts internal to the West itself, as one faction uses its own ability to manipulate procedural outcomes and guide conventional wisdom in order to defeat their domestic political opponents. This has the side-effect of providing the primary power of the insurgents themselves, which is, as mentioned above, primarily political and indirect.

It shouldn't surprise anyone, therefore, when the spokesmen of al Qaeda include in their list of grievances complaints that have a certain sort of resonance and appeal, creating a sort of symbiosis where the insurgent's power is parasitical.

How this works in practice would be inflammatory if put baldly, and require quite a bit of supporting argument, which I will go into in subsequent posts.



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