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War against everyone, everywhere?

By William S. Lind
web posted March 3, 2003

In what increasingly appears to be Washington's war against everyone, everywhere, 3,000 American troops are now in the Philippines where they are to fight a small Islamic rebel group called Abu Sayyaf. Abu Sayyaf is supposed to have about 200 fighters; an American victory would seem to be assured.

But here is where we are likely to find that war is changing. When the U.S. Army was fighting Philippine insurgents a hundred years ago, the Philippine forces tried to fight stand-up battles, copying the Western way of war. Not surprisingly, they lost.

I suspect Abu Sayyaf will address the problem differently, in a way that reflects non-Western approaches to war. If they do, we are likely to see a conflict that unfolds along the same general lines as the war in Afghanistan -- which is not going well (by some reports, we have been forced out of five forts on the Afghan-Pakistan border; we have admitted the loss of one).

What will happen? First, when the Americans appear, Abu Sayyaf will disappear. They will refuse to engage us, and simply blend back in to the civilian population. The American way of war, which is Second Generation warfare, is based on putting fire on targets. Abu Sayyaf will respond by making itself untargetable.

Second, Abu Sayyaf will wait. It will know that time is on its side. Why? Because it lives there, and we will eventually go home. But its waiting will be watchful waiting. It will watch our forces to determine their patterns of operation -- what they do, and when and how they do it. Second Generation warfare tactics are formulistic; they follow set patterns (which really means our Second Generation military confuses tactics with techniques). That makes us predictable -- the same thing that led to our humiliation in Mogadishu.

Once Abu Sayyaf has determined our patterns, it will move to take advantage of them. It will not offer us the stand-up battle we want; it will still try to remain untargetable. But we will suffer from a landmine here, an ambush there, a grenade tossed into a humvee somewhere else. We will begin taking casualties. But each time we reach out and try to grab them, we will come up with a handful of air.

Abu Sayyaf may never escalate beyond this sort of petite guerre, as it used to be called. The U.S. will not lose, but neither will it win. And as the conflict continues, Abu Sayyaf will take advantage of the greatest recruiting tool it was ever given: our presence. To Philippine nationalists, we will be foreign invaders. To Islamics in the southern Philippines, where Abu Sayyaf operates, we will also be Christian dogs, crusaders. To everyone, even the local people fighting against Abu Sayyaf, we will gradually become bullies, as we fight a weak enemy with attack helicopters, jet aircraft with smart bombs, the whole panoply of American firepower (the best book on that subject, Firepower in Limited War, makesone basic point: don't use it).

What if we get lucky and take out the leadership of Abu Sayyaf? New leaders and different organizations will take up the fight. In the Philippines as elsewhere, the spread of Fourth Generation warfare (remember, America's armed forces are still stuck in the Second Generation) means more and more people are transferring their primary loyalty away from the state to other entities and causes. For those new loyalties, they will fight.

If America is going to send in Marines or Special Forces against all Fourth Generation forces it can find, we will indeed find ourselves fighting against everyone, everywhere (keep your eyes on Columbia for the next round). Washington fails to see the danger because Washington defines the problem as merely "terrorism." Terrorism is only a technique, and what we are really facing is the greatest change in warfare since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 gave the state the monopoly on war it is now losing.

Remember, if you don't get the question right, your answer doesn't matter.

William S. Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation.

Buy Firepower in Limited War at Amazon.com for only $20.

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