Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Reality and Consequences of Asymmetric Warfare

Much has been written about the metaphor and the reality of “The War on Terror”. Unfortunately, not many lessons have been learned.

The usual short definition of terror is the intentional killing of innocents. It is quite clear that when someone blows themselves up in a disco and takes innocents with them, an act of terror has be committed. It is less clear when innocents are killed in what is usually called an act of war. The occupation of a country usually results in some form of insurgency if the citizens of that country think an injustice has been done. The acts of the insurgents usually take the form of clandestine attacks from cover or suicide bombings of various forms. Such acts of insurgency are usually countered by a violent response from the occupying force, which almost always has modern weapons at its disposal. Since it is difficult to find insurgents because they attack and then hide, usually among the civilian population, the counterattack usually involves the bombing or destruction of a suspected hideout or other location where the suspects are thought to be. This minimizes the exposure of the occupying force to counterattack. In the process, innocents can and usually are killed or injured. This form of attack by the occupying force is usually justified on the basis of combating the initial attack by the insurgents and the innocent life lost is called “collateral damage”.

The consequences of such actions and reactions are not often perceived in their totality. The occupying force considers justice to be done, in an eye for an eye form of revenge. But, the insurgents view it as a further injustice, in the cause they are fighting in the first instance, the occupation. And the innocent victims view it as a fresh injustice, since they had harmed no one up to that point, and it is usually not their decision where insurgents decide to hide. Such a reaction often moves the innocents and their sympathizers into the camp of the insurgents. In this sense, the effects of the attack and counterattack are counter productive to both parties. The occupying force clamps down harden on the insurgents and the insurgents are motivated to strike out once again. The result is an escalation of violence.

One aspect of such encounters that is not often perceived is that to the insurgents the counterattack is just as much an act of terror and the original incident. It kills innocents when it could have been avoided, except for the revenge sought by the occupying force. So the metaphor, “war on terror” becomes the mantra of both parties, solving nothing. Nothing has been done to examine the grievances of the two parties and seek a solution to the injustices. It becomes simple a matter of who can persist the longest, and in some cases it has been decades.

This is not war in the conventional sense where well equipped enemies battle for territory. It is more akin to crime, like the clan battles of the Hatfields and McCoys, with the exception that one side holds most of the cards, so the other side has to move to less and less conventional methods, which usually results in an escalation of brutality. Add to this, religion or ethnic differences and you have what usually amounts to an insoluble problem.

The effects of such conflicts are different for the occupying, well equipped force and the inadequately equipped insurgency. Simple means of war such as rifles, grenade launchers, and explosives are relatively cheap and available. Modern means such as helicopters, cruise missiles, drones, and the electronics to operate them is very expensive. Add to this the difference in the value placed on individual lives by the warring parties and there is no obvious winner. The modern force spends itself into bankruptcy or destroys the will of the affluent society backing them up while the insurgency, having little to live for anyway (occupation saps the will to succeed) and a nearly endless supply of expendable lives can fight on for decades.

At some point, someone should begin to realize that there are better things to do in life and decide that talking, trading, and backing off is a better alternative. What stands in the way is usually religious zeal to prove that your way is the right way and the other guy is either evil or deranged.

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