Modern warfare in the age of "suicidal guerillas" and "insurgents"
By Justin P. Paré
web posted December 18, 2006
Over the course of the last 15-20 years, the United States has modernized its military into a high-tech, lightning fast, efficient, and precise fighting force the likes of which the world has never seen before. The policies and reforms instituted in the military establishment by the current administration only accelerated this modernization. The "smart bombs" the U.S. employed during the Bosnian / Serbian wars of the 1990's, while a significant advancement, were downright "dumb" or at the very least "clumsy" compared to those employed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of 2001 and 2003, respectively.
Today, the U.S. military is unparalleled in its ability to exert overwhelming military force to virtually any part of the globe. No other nation or even group of nations could have done what the U.S. military did in Afghanistan and Iraq. It took the U.S. military just a few weeks to topple the government of Afghanistan, while the soviets, for over a decade, could never consolidate power outside of the capital city. The victory in Iraq was even more impressive and was a crowning moment for U.S. conventional military might. The leaders of other nations around the world took note of this new, unparalleled U.S. military might, and they were forced to make some changes to maintain their positions.
As Sir Isaac Newton's 3rd Law of Motion so famously states, "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction", so to does this law hold true in military tactics. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars demonstrated to the entire world that the U.S. conventional forces are unparalleled. No power, least of all a band of terrorists or a technologically inferior rogue state (i.e. Iran or Syria), could ever stand up to U.S. forces in a conventional conflict. U.S. victory in a conventional military conflict was and is inevitable. Resultantly, those opposed to U.S. interests were forced to resort to tactics that would level the playing field (see Stephen M. Walt's Taming American Power to read more on this topic).
Insurgent's reaction to U.S. military dominance: Suicidal Guerilla Warfare
A key to victory in any sort of competitive sport, as in battle, is to strike where your enemy is weakest, or failing a weakness, to strike when and where your probability of success is the greatest. Thus, the natural reaction of the Iraqi "insurgents" was to attempt to level the playing field by striking at the U.S. where they could do the most damage, with the least resources expended, while limiting possible damage through U.S. reprisals. Insurgents have successfully employed land mine like "Improvised Explosive Devices" (I.E.D.'s, proven to have been imported from Iran), suicide bombers, brutal massacres of innocent civilians, and other devious but effective tactics to gradually undermine the U.S. conventional military advantages.
Herein lays the premise behind the "insurgent" strategy for combating U.S. forces in Iraq and achieving their goal of forcing a U.S. withdrawal, and moving closer to either an Islamist or Ba'athist victory. Important aspects of this strategy for the "insurgents" are for a steady dose of daily attacks to slowly and steadily demoralize the American public. This inevitably will lower domestic support for the war to a point where, the "insurgents" hope, the U.S. government will be forced to withdraw its troops, leaving a power vacuum that the former Ba'athist, as well as Shi'ites sponsored by Iran and Syria, hope to fill.
Not surprisingly, similar tactics have been employed by Hezbollah in Lebanon against the Israelis, and of course, as a result of the Hezbollah success in Lebanon, are now also being used by Hamas in the West Bank and the other disputed Palestinian territories. Israel, much like the U.S., enjoys an untouchable advantage in conventional weaponry and forces compared to its Arab and Persian neighbors. Israel's enemies have no chance of winning in a conventional battle of modern armies. They can, however, utilize a strategy, similar to that used by insurgents in Iraq, of "suicidal guerilla warfare".
In the case of Israel, "suicidal guerilla warfare" is being utilized on a regular basis by Hamas, who employ suicide bombs, rocket attacks, kidnappings, and other terror tactics on innocent civilians in order to strike fear into the hearts of their Israeli enemies. Similarly, in the recent Israeli war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, these same guerilla tactics were responsible for if not defeating Israel, at the very least fighting them to a draw, which is a major morale booster for the Arab world that was so handily defeated in past wars versus Israel. Israeli conventional military superiority was simply not capable of combating a smaller, mobile enemy that was often times indiscernible from civilians.
What makes things worse for both Israel and the U.S. is their respective society's commitment to "morality" in warfare. That is, despite the fact that their enemies do not share the same concerns, both Israel and the U.S. really do try to limit civilian deaths in warfare. On the contrary, for "insurgents" or "suicidal guerillas", inflicting civilian casualties is one of their primary weapons, even upon their own populations. For example, the U.S. and Israel would not want to use a heavy bomber to strike an insurgent hideout that has been strategically placed in a hospital, mosque, or school. This type of action might actually be understood, if not appreciated, by the locals who understand there are insurgents stationed at these "civilian facilities", but the ramifications of such an attack extend well beyond the local community.
The insurgents who utilize civilian facilities such as these are manipulating the international news media in an attempt to portray the U.S., Israel, and their allies as intentionally targeting innocent civilians. This negative portrayal is an important propaganda tool for Islamist guerillas that are successfully swaying world opinion against the U.S. and Israel, particularly in the greater Arab world and especially among those who were against the wars in the first place. Given enough time and sympathetic reporting, this propaganda tactic has been very successful and has hurt the U.S. war effort, while having an even worse effect on the Israeli public's morale, and their confidence in the ability of their armed forces to combat the rising Islamist threat against them.
What can the U.S. and its allies do to counterbalance the insurgent's suicidal guerilla strategy?
As has been described in the preceding paragraphs, as a response to preponderant U.S. military power, the enemies of the U.S. and its allies have successfully employed a strategy of "suicidal guerilla warfare" that has slowly but surely weakened U.S. power, control, and standing in the region. The current strategy of the Iraqi insurgency and the tactics of the Hezbollah and Hamas resistance to Israel have brought to the forefront of future U.S. and western military policy the difficulties of combating an enemy that is willing to indiscriminately kill innocents, and has the unseemly ability to simultaneously cast the blame for those civilian deaths upon their enemies. Additionally, this new enemy in the Middle East has the advantage of being able to wage a sectarian war that not only weakens and demoralizes their internal enemies, but also, by generating continuous negative headlines in the western press, simultaneously manage to undermine popular support for the foreign forces attempting to pacify and bring stability to the region.
As it stands today, things look pretty grim for the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East. However, based on the history of western military development over the past 2 decades, one can look forward to a better time for western military prospects against this enemy. The most modernized and high tech military forces the U.S. military has to offer are incapable of proportionately, and affordably, combating their insurgent guerilla enemies. Using the last 20 years of technological progress as a gauge for future progress, western military forces, especially those of the U.S. and Israel, should predictably continue evolving to more effectively combat this new type of enemy.
Today, the next generation of military technology that will enable our armed forces to swing the pendulum of military advantage back into their favor is already emerging. Nanotechnology, in conjunction with improved surveillance technologies, unmanned drones, satellites, "non-lethal" weaponry, and other ingenious new technologies, will usher in the next generation of military power that will turn the tides against the U.S. and its allies' current enemies.
For example, through recent advances in nanotechnology, Israel is developing and readying for deployment "a so-called "intelligence wasp" or mini drone that can squeeze into narrow alleys, jam communications, photograph intelligence targets and even kill militants" (Jerusalem AFP, November 17th, 2006). This type of technology is just one example of how in the future western powers will be better able to combat "insurgent guerilla warfare" employed in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere in the Middle East.
For the next few years, there will be no easy answer for combating suicidal guerillas. There will be no "magic technological bullet" to solve U.S. problems in Iraq and the broader Middle East. However, unlike its enemies, the citizens of the U.S. and its closest allies are blessed to live within mostly liberal, open societies that encourage freethinking, new ideas, and scientific and technological advancement. It is no accident that the Nobel Prizes for physics and other cutting edge fields of study are routinely awarded to scientists from the U.S. and other such "open" societies. The advantage that western forces currently possess in conventional warfare and weaponry will continue for the foreseeable future. Additionally, over the course of the next decade, the west will continue to modernize its military capabilities by developing, testing, and deploying new technologies that should steadily lessen the few advantages that today's enemies actually do possess.
"Suicidal insurgent guerillas" will have less and less ability to hide within civilian populations as time goes by. Smaller, cheaper, and more effective technologies will enable western powers unprecedented levels of intelligence gathering capabilities, as well as incredible precision in targeting individual enemies hiding amongst innocent civilians. Insurgents in Iraq and the world over, when faced with the prospect of facing U.S. and allied forces, will find that they not only have fewer places to hide, but their tactical options are also being eliminated, and that their local populations and the international media will sway more in the favor of the more "humane" western militaries. Over time, "insurgent guerillas" will find that the viability of their current strategy has faded, and they too will be forced to adapt, or face annihilation.
Justin P. Paré is the President of Teach Abroad, Inc. This is his first contribution to Enter Stage Right.
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