by Leanne Ogasawara
Once upon a time, asymmetrical warfare was viewed as a last resort. Only when every other means possible had been exploited and defeat seemed inevitable, only then would people make a stand against an obviously far stronger enemy.
Thermopylae comes to mind.
Between cliffs and the sea, it was here that Leonidas made his legendary last stand.
It is so famous, I hesitate to bother describing the armies they faced– the myriad of tribes and peoples comprising the Persian army went on for pages and pages in Herodotus. Here is William Golding's depiction:
The numbers alone are exhilarating– the Persian army being said to have been comprised of a million men! Impossible, of course, but Herodotus' famous anecdote about the great Spartan warrior Dienekes is unforgettable when told that the Persian archers were so numerous that, their arrows would block out the sun for undaunted by this prospect, he remarked with a laugh, 'Good. Then we will fight in the shade.'
Every time I read it, it makes me breathless.
It leaves me breathless because they knew they would lose–but in knowing that, they acknowledged that there are some things worth dying for.
Fast forward to today, where asymetrical warfare seems increasingly to be a tactic of choice.
It is important to consider the differences between asymmetrical tactics and terrorism. Is terrorism a tactic of asymetrical warfare where just war rules are thrown out? Or are both just characteristic of fourth generation warfare, which probably had its real start with the rise of aerial bombing and the blurring of the line between civilians and combatants. For, in my opinion, it was at this point in history where we de-evolved forever after becoming less and less civilized.
(I saw an incredibly disturbing comment this morning in an article about the San Bernardino shootings that said something like, “Nuke ISIS and work things out with the next generation. We know it works.”)
Just only remember Picasso and Malroux's horror at aerial bombings and the wholesale killing of civilians. It truly took us back to a more brutal time when there was no such thing as non-combatant enemies and conflict occurred not necessarily between two nation states. In such a new world, terrorist tactics have become more and more common (with non-combatants becoming–at best– tactical dilemmas).
Asymmetry, once considered as a last stand, has proven itself to be surprisingly resilient and powerful in today's style of war. Since this new age of war, in fact, the US has lost nearly all of its engagements, despite going up against vastly militarily weaker opponents. This is because, in today's style of war, it is not a matter of might makes right. When will our leaders update their game book?
The other day on Facebook, Nassim Nicholar Taleb (I remain one of his biggest fans), posted a short piece on asymmetry introducing the paper with these words:
The latest version of the dominance of the stubborn minority. It shows how Europe will be Halal, how GMOs and peanuts will vanish, and how Christianity came and will go.
Let us examine the implications. The unpopular one is that 1) integration of heterogeneous populations is never a good idea (unless neither majority nor minority are not of the stubborn kind); 2) If you are going to start a movement, make it intolerant of nonsense, etc.
His piece is short and is well worth reading. Having just finished Michel Houellebecq's really thought-provoking novel Submission, Taleb's thoughts were especially stimulating; for in the novel, it is not at all that the political takeover of France by the Muslim Brotherhood is done by a particular menacing “enemy at the gate;” but rather it is the complacency of the native population that is their eventual undoing. In the novel, so dismal and empty are the characters that one simply can't help but agree with the Muslim Brotherhood that anything is better than the France that Houellebecq describes; one in which the bonds that hold people together have become totally undone in the face of what is basically a very crude form of liberal, consumerist American values. Remember, the novel takes place in the future– but so empty of any traditional values has French life become that the Muslim Brotherhood waltzes in and does indeed improve things. Crime and unemployment go down significantly for example. And in the end, as the protagonist decides to convert to Islam and join the movement, he says,
“I'd been given another chance; and it would be a chance at a second life, with very little connection to the old one. I would have nothing to mourn.”
The book is utterly depressing. But it illuminates Taleb's point brilliantly. A strong and committed minority can make great inroads against a less-stubborn (much less a totally complacent) majority. In the case of the US against ISIS, for example, this would be to suggest that if the majority is so busily engaged in their own petty partisan blame-gaming so that they are unable to stand together, then ISIS will have it easier than if they were facing a more stubborn resistance. And indeed as Harvard political scientist Stephen M. Walt says in this really thought-provoking piece in Foreign Policy, the fight we face involves more than merely throwing money at it. It is time to update the game book. And, how can we do this if we unable to look two moves ahead? (Much less that while we think we are controlling the pieces, we are in effect, just pawns in the game). While the average American during the Vietnam engagement probably had a halfway decent idea of what Ho Chi Minh wanted, how many American have a real grasp of anything in the Middle East?
For me, the typical example was a friend's post on facebook, decrying, “ISIS is committing atrocities like the Nazi's and all our President can do is talk..”
Well, there you have it. How can you win in an asymmetrical battle when 1) You confuse terrorists attacks with the systematic genocide which happened under Hitler's Germany? And worse, 2) How can you fight anything at all, if you are more interested in scoring a point for your side then in standing together as a nation? Sound a bit like Rome before the Fall or what? (see Juan Cole's piece, which I have renamed: Ten Reasons Why we are officially now a Banana Republic).
Along these lines, I had at first believed that Donald Trump was a Democratic mole. In retrospect, that was way too naive. I now consider him to be a highly effective weapon being trotted out beneath our very noses by ISIS.
If we were fighting an offensive “war,” I would say, we need a Trump of our own in their camp. An ugly demagogue who could work to undermine their ideology by distracting people by petty hate and thereby create a population too stupid and mean (or simply too depressed) to do anything but scapegoat and fight among themselves. But we are not fighting on the offensive. This is also not an old school style war between basically evenly-matched nation-states, right?
Asymmetrical warfare is as old as time. So, what have we learned about it?
One thing that seems absolutely unanimous in everything I have read on the subject (and frankly there is not a lot out there), is that asymmetrical warfare always has a strong ideological component. It seems that most strategists agree with Taleb, that a stubborn minority requires one to utilize ideology. One must provide a counter-narrative that can persuade the communities that host the terrorists. The counter-narrative probably won't effect much in the stubborn minority (whose beliefs are strong and inflexible) but it can have an effect on the host communities. Groups require protection and support from host communities and psychological tactics aimed at the old fashioned “winning hearts and minds,” are probably one of the hugely missing pieces in today's strategies; for indeed, f you simply bomb the host communities of the terrorists, you will be providing further grievances, and in a war of attrition, chances are you might very well lose.
French journalist Nicolas Henin, who was a captive of ISIS for ten months, has written a really powerful piece for the Guardian, in which he says,
These people are out of their minds. But why do we continue to fuel our enemies and fueling the the misery and disaster of the people. “The winner of this war will not be the party that has the newest, the most expensive or the most sophisticated weaponry, but the party that manages to win over the people on its side.”
He calls for a no-fly zone and for counter-narratives that seek to undermine support for the crazies in the local communities. This psychological strategy would have to include credible (to the population) diplomacy and intelligence. There are so few journalists and so few experts who really understand Syria and the growth of ISIS… in many ways it is a no man's land. We have to listen more to experts –whether military experts of asymmetrical warfare, or journalists like Henin who are after all “experts” having lived among the crazies for extended periods. To ignore experts is to lose.
In the end, Canada has put the rest of the world to shame this week. Refugees were welcomed by Canadian children singing songs of welcome in Arabic and the PM himself greeted them in what was an incredibly moving show of compassion and wisdom. It is an incredibly encouraging thing to watch from here–we were are seemingly incapable of anything but low-level partisan name calling. Terrorism, after all, works when we start to think with our national amygdala. What we need to do instead is to control the narrative, and not play the stooge in theirs! Reason (intelligence in the fullest sense of the word) and courage are the stubborn enemies of the asymmetrical enemy. Reason makes us smarter than them, and the courage (and stubbornness) to hold onto our core values in spite of the risk makes us braver. We do stand for something, but liberty, equality, and fraternity can't be dropped on a bomb. Thus it is crucial, in my opinion, that we must not close our borders, our minds, or our hearts.