Monday, July 31, 2006

Asymmetric Warfare

Anyone who follows the news in the middle-east at least a little bit might be forgiven for asking: how come the bad guys are winning?

How can some scraggly insurgents, Iranian rockets or no, be holding their own against Israel?

How can even scragglier insurgents in Iraq, armed with IEDs and bomb vests be holding their own against THE GREATEST MILITARY POWER THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN?

To understand these seeming impossibilities it is necessary to understand the elements of asymmetric warfare, that is, how little guys win (and indeed they can win) against big, bad professional armies.

To that end I strongly recommend the article by Pericles publishing at Daily Kos.

Although I strongly recommend you read the whole thing (and it is emminently readable) some of the main points are as follows.

Winning by not losing:

Asymmetric warfare works in a very specific situation: The winner of the symmetric war wants to govern the region (or hand it off to a local client government) at a finite cost. If the asymmetric warriors - in this setting let's call them insurgents and their opponents occupiers - can make the territory ungovernable and establish themselves in such a way that they cannot be crushed within the cost parameters of the occupiers, then eventually the occupiers will have to give them at least part of what they want.

In other words, insurgents win by not losing. If the occupiers find the status quo unacceptable, but have no acceptable way to bring the insurgency to an end, then it is only a matter of time before they realize their goals cannot be achieved. It's up to the occupiers to decide when to stop the bleeding and admit defeat, but they have lost. This is the story of the Americans in Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan, and white settler governments in various parts of Africa. It is arguably the story of the Americans in Iraq as well.

The recruitment continuum:
In a successful insurgency, warriors are only the tip of a large iceberg. Even though the number of active warriors may be small, a much larger segment of the population is at some earlier stage of recruitment. Some sympathize with the insurgents silently; they know who the warriors are, but chose not to tell the occupiers. Some help in small ways, by delivering messages, holding money, or even hiding weapons. Some harbor warriors and help them hide from the occupiers. Some will not fight, but will act as look-outs and report the movements of occupying troops. A successful insurgency is always losing warriors (sometimes by intentional suicide attacks), but the pipeline of recruitment is full of people moving to ever greater levels of commitment.

Hearts and minds:
The Vietnam-era notion of "winning hearts and minds" is not just a way for guilt-ridden liberals to feel better about themselves. It deals with the real problem: the whole pipeline of sympathy and recruitment, not just the comparatively small number of active insurgent warriors. Every policy of the occupier - and especially any use of force - must be examined in light of its effect on insurgent recruitment. A search-and-destroy operation may kill dozens of insurgents with only minor occupier casualties, and still be a net loss if it pushes the general population further down the recruitment pipeline. [Emphasis mine-SK]

And most importantly, to my mind, Pericles cogently clarifies The Anti-Timetable Fallacy:
Much current rhetoric falls apart once these basic principles are understood. For example, consider the Bush administration's main argument against setting a timetable for withdrawing American troops from Iraq: that the insurgents would bide their time until we had left, and then rise up again.

If only they would.

Think about it: Suppose the insurgents sat on their hands for a year while they waited for us to withdraw. Iraq, in other words, gets a year of peaceful governance and reconstruction. Roads and power plants are built. Businesses are started. Pipelines transport oil without interruption while tens of billions of petrodollars flow into the country. People rebuild their homes, get jobs, enroll their children in school. And most of all, old wounds recede ever farther into the past.

What happens to the insurgent recruitment pipeline during that year? It collapses. In the course of that year, many people who thought they were willing to die would realize they had something to live for. No insurgent leader could allow it.

Over a year ago I posted a speculative piece on how we might actually win this thing. And though conditions in Iraq have gotten still, quite possibly irreversibly worse, still I'd suggest giving my little timetable idea a try.

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