Irregular warfare: After smart weapons, smart soldiers Oct 25th 2007 From The Economist print edition http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10015844 Irregular warfare may keep Western armies busy for decades. They will have to adapt if they are to overcome the odds that history suggests they are up against REBELLION is as old as authority itself, and so therefore is the business of putting it down. Nearly 2,000 years ago Jewish militantsknown as Zealots, hence the English wordtook up arms against the world's greatest power and terrorised those deemed collaborators. The Romans dealt with the revolt in Palestine in familiar fashion, laying waste any town that resisted, prompting many to commit suicide rather than suffer capture and, in 70AD, destroying the great Temple in Jerusalem and taking its treasures. While the holy house was on fire, records Josephus, everything was plundered that came to hand, and ten thousand of those that were caught were slain...children and old men, and profane persons and priests, were all slain in the same manner. Modern Western armies cannot, as the Romans did, make a wasteland and call it peace. Modern wars are complex affairs conducted among the people and, as Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British army, put it recently, in the spotlight of the media and the shadow of international lawyers. In Iraq in the 1920s, Britain's air force pioneered the use of air policing to put down rebellious tribesmen on the cheap; today the use of air power often carries big political costs. The greater the accuracy of modern weapons, the louder the outcry when they nonetheless kill or wound civilians. And the wider the reach of the internet, the bigger the impact of propaganda videos showing insurgent attacks against Western forces, regardless of civilian casualties. The British who fought the Mahdist religious rebels in Sudan in the 19th century had no need to worry about provoking attacks in London; today such a campaign would be seen as another front in the jihad against the West. Such bewildering conflict is regarded by some military thinkers as the fourth generation of warfare, distinct from those of previous eras: the first generation, of line and column, which culminated with the Napoleonic wars; the second, of machinegun and artillery, which brought about the slaughter of the first world war; and the third, of manoeuvre with tanks and aircraft, which stretched from the second world war to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Fourth-generation warfare, according to Thomas Hammes, a retired colonel in the American marines, involves loose networks, made more powerful and resilient by information technology. It does not seek to defeat the enemy's forces, but instead directly attacks the minds of the enemy decision-makers to destroy the enemy's political will. Many others, though, regard today's conflicts as variations on age-old irregular warfare, not least Mao Zedong's protracted war in China, the Spanish guerrilla attacks against Napoleon's forces in Spain, or even America's war of independence from Britain. Whatever the definition, small wars can have big effects. In the past six decades the British have been driven out of Palestine, the French from Algeria, the Americans (and French) from Vietnam, the Russians from Afghanistan and the Israelis from Lebanon. Can America and its Western allies avoid similar humiliation in Iraq and Afghanistan? Martin van Creveld, an Israeli military historian, argues that insurgencies have been almost impossible to defeat ever since Nazi Germany failed to suppress Josip Broz Tito's partisans in Yugoslavia. Winning such wars requires one of two tactics: extreme restraint and patience, as shown by the British over nearly 38 years in Northern Ireland; or extreme brutality, as shown by Syria in 1982 when the army destroyed much of Hama, a stronghold of Islamist rebels, killing at least 10,000 people. Any other method, says Mr van Creveld, risks being too harsh to win the support of the population but not harsh enough to cow it into submission. This rule is too stark. Experts point to successes such as the end of the insurgency in El Salvador, the collapse of the Shining Path rebels in Peru, the end of the civil wars in Mozambique and Angola, the demise of the Red Brigades in Italy and of the Red Army Faction in Germany. Much of this debate revolves around the meaning of victory and defeat, as well as the definition of counter-insurgency, civil war, counter-terrorism and so on. One school of thought holds that America's forces had largely defeated the Vietcong in Vietnam when its politicians lost the will to stop North Vietnam's conventional army from overrunning the south. That is to miss the point: in counter-insurgency one side can win every battle, yet lose the war. Lessons unlearnt Such arguments are a hot topic at Western military colleges, especially in America. More has been written on counter-insurgency in the past four years than in the previous four decades. The study of small wars was largely abandoned by the United States army in the 1970s as commanders promised no more Vietnams and concentrated instead on how to defeat the massed Soviet armies. America's humiliating retreats from Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia in 1994 convinced many Americans that, as Colin Powell, a former general (and later secretary of state), once put it, America should not get involved in half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons. The swift ejection of Iraq's forces from Kuwait in 1991 reinforced such beliefs. Counter-insurgency became a secondary task undertaken mainly by American special forces, which sometimes offered training to friendly governments. Given the difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, American officers are relearning the history of their own interventions in Latin America and, more important, the lessons of British imperial policing. Why, American experts asked, did Britain succeed against communist revolutionaries in Malaya in the 1950s, whereas America failed to defeat the communists in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s? In his 2002 book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (a title drawn from T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, describing the messiness of waging war upon rebellion), John Nagl, an American lieutenant-colonel, concluded that British soldiers were better than the Americans at learning from their mistakes. General Sir Gerald Templer, the British high commissioner in Malaya, argued that the shooting side of the business was only a minor part of the campaign. Coining a phrase, he suggested that the solution lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people. In contrast, says Colonel Nagl, the Americans in Vietnam remained wedded to unrestrained and uncontrolled firepower, despite some work with small units that were deployed in border villages and civil-military reconstruction projects. British officers are less impressed, saying their predecessors often repeated their errors. During the troubles in Northern Ireland, the arrival of British troops in 1969 was at first welcomed by Roman Catholics. But the army's heavy-handed methods, such as large cordon-and-search operations and the shooting of 13 civilians on Bloody Sunday in 1972, pushed many Catholics into the arms of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. In any event, the American army and marines have produced a new counter-insurgency manual. One of its authors, General David Petraeus, is now in charge of the surge in Iraq. It may be too late to turn Iraq round, and Afghanistan could slide into greater violence. But the manual offers some comfort: it says counter-insurgency operations usually begin poorly, and the way to success is for an army to become a good learning organisation. According to Mao's well-worn dictum, guerrillas must be like fish swimming in the water of the general population. T.E. Lawrence, helping to stir up the Arab revolt against Turkish rule during the first world war, described regular armies as plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. Guerrillas, on the other hand, were like a vapour. A soldier, he said, was helpless without a target, owning only what he sat on, and subjugating only what, by order, he could poke his rifle at. Western armies have unsurpassed firepower, mobility and surveillance technology. Guerrillas' main weapons are agility, surprise, the support of at least some sections of the population and, above all, time. The warren of Iraqi streets and the fortified compounds of Afghanistan compensate for the insurgents' technological shortcomings. The manual, however, attempts to change the army mindset: in fighting an enemy among the people, it says, the central objective is not to destroy the enemy but to secure the allegiance of the citizenry. All strands of a campaignmilitary, economic and politicalhave to be strongly entwined. Much of this thinking is drawn from the British experience in Malaya, but conditions today are vastly different. In Templer's day, securing hearts and minds did not mean just acting with kindness to win the people over; it also included coercion. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese, among whom the insurgents mainly operated, were uprooted and moved into guarded camps known as new villages, where they were offered land. If the British could not find the fish, they resorted to removing the water. They also sought to starve insurgents by restricting supplies of food to the population. In some areas rations of rice were handed out in cooked form so they would spoil before they could reach fighters in the jungle. Such measures are unthinkable today. Even the building of separation walls to reduce sectarian killings in Baghdad arouses Iraqi opposition. Checkpoints and curfews now have limited impact. Templer was both the civil and the military boss. He emphasised policing rather than military operations, and the use of indigenous forces. The majority Malay population largely supported the British. In a peninsula, the borders were relatively well controlled and the rebels had few external sources of support. Above all, the British had full sovereignty over Malaya. They could undercut the insurgents' claim to be fighting colonialism by guaranteeing equal rights, and by promisingand eventually grantingindependence. By contrast, the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan are permeable. Some neighbours are either hostile to the West (Iran) or unable to remove insurgent havens (Pakistan). The powers of America's Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq lasted a year, long enough for America to make egregious errors, such as disbanding the Iraqi army and removing former Baathists, but not long enough to correct them. Discontinuity of command In Iraq the American effort is split between the military operations overseen by the generals and the civil and political work conducted by the embassy. In Afghanistan leadership is even more divided. There are two separate Western military commandsthe NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, which provides the bulk of the troops, and the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom, which concentrates on hunting high-value targets. Alongside these are a myriad of poorly co-ordinated reconstruction agencies. Coalitions add further complications. Britain, America's only ally of any military significance in Iraq, is slowly leaving. And in Afghanistan, where boots on the ground are in short supply, NATO is wobbly. Many allies refuse to join a fight that has been waged mainly by American, British and Canadian forces, and several are under domestic pressure to bring their troops home. Overt colonialism has died, and with it have gone the large colonial armies. Counter-insurgency requires large numbers of security forces. But the West's all-volunteer forces have progressively cut expensive manpower in favour of technology. They have become infinitely better at finding and destroying things; but the best source of intelligence on the ground is often the soldier on the street with his Eyeball mark-1. Nationalist and pan-Islamic sentiments are much stronger than in the past. Information technology has helped jihadists spread the single narrative that Muslims everywhere are under attack, a contention reinforced by America's rhetoric about the global war on terror. The internet provides a new and unassailable sanctuary from which to propagandise, organise and share tactics. Still, the generals plead for more time. They point to Iraq's Anbar province, where Sunni tribes are turning against al-Qaeda. In Afghanistan, says Britain's General Dannatt, strategic patience is essential. American officers quote internal studies showing that it takes nine years on average (and often much longer) to defeat insurgencies. Yet perseverance is no guarantee of victory; many campaigns have taken as long, if not longer, to lose. A growing body of opinion, both in the Pentagon and outside, has concluded that insurrections are best fought indirectly, through local allies. It is extremely difficult for Western powers to defeat insurgencies in foreign countries in modern times, says Max Boot, author of War Made New (2006). At the same time, there are very few instances of insurgencies overthrowing a local government. The problem is that Western armies lose the will to maintain imperial domination. Western forces always have the option of going home; for local governments, though, fighting insurgents is a matter of survival. A better model than Malaya, argues Mr Boot, is the end of the Marxist insurrection in El Salvador in 1992. American forces did not lead the fighting. Instead, a small contingent of under 100 advisers from America's special forces helped the democratising government reorganise its army and avoid the fate of nearby Nicaragua, which fell to the Sandinistas in 1979. This approach has its own difficulties: America's reputation was tarnished by right-wing Salvadorean death-squads. In the end it was external political factorsthe demise of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, partly caused by an American-backed insurgency, and the collapse of the Soviet Unionthat helped bring about a settlement and the incorporation of the guerrillas into a new-found democracy. David Kilcullen, an Australian colonel and General Petraeus's main adviser on counter-insurgency, says fighting insurgencies in other people's countries is hard. Running Baghdad is not like trying to police New York City; it's like the Iraqi police trying to run New York City. Tellingly, he says, Indonesian forces successfully put down an insurrection by the Islamist Darul Islam movement in the 1950s and early 1960s, but could not quell the resistance to their annexation of East Timor. The dilemma for Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is that, though they may lack the wherewithal to win, the national governments they seek to help are unable to stand up on their own. At best, Western armies can create the political space to build viable governments. But this has proved difficult enough even where the fighting has stopped and the main political forces have been co-operative (or at least acquiescent)as in Bosnia and East Timor. It may be impossible under sustained fire. More brain, less brawn Although most armies have now relearnt the limits of force and the importance of the comprehensive approach, commanders complain that other branches of government have not. In a recent article, General Peter Chiarelli, an adviser to Robert Gates, America's secretary of defence, says more money has to be spent not on the Pentagon but on the non-kinetic aspects of our national power. He recommends building up the minuscule State Department and USAID development agency (so small it is little more than a contracting agency), and reviving the United States Information Agency. As the American army expands, some thinkers, such as Colonel Nagl, say it needs not just more soldiersnor even linguists, civil-affairs officers and engineersbut a fully fledged 20,000-strong corps of advisers that will train and embed themselves with allied forces around the world. The idea makes army commanders blanch, but they do not question the underlying assumption. Insurgencies may be the face of war for the West in the years ahead. Even if America cannot imagine fighting another Iraq or Afghanistan, extremists round the world have seen mighty America's vulnerability to the rocket-propelled grenade, the AK-47 and the suicide-bomber.