In Theory Behind enemy (thought) lines

In a new essay, political theorist Andrew Robinson looks at the arguments of the 'other side', that of policy makers and military planners. In particular, Robinson examines the establishment approach to one central concept: asymetrical war.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Friday, November 5, 2010 0:00 - 2 Comments

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General David Petraeus testifies on the future course of the war in Iraq while appearing before a joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and House Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington.

By Andrew Robinson

On Asymmetrical War

In this column I venture into the field of the other side’s theories, specifically, those doing the rounds in the military apparatus. The purpose of entering this hostile field of theory is that this is the theory which is increasingly used, firstly to understand and counteract social movements (including those which are entirely nonviolent), and secondly to reconstruct the social world.

In understanding these ideas, it is possible to make sense of the changing context and the setbacks faced by protest movements today. Despite this strategic orientation, however, this field of theory is not actually as alien to my more usual field of writing as one might expect. Paradoxically, ideas of networks and horizontality have entered military thinking, precisely because of the effect of defeats to networked opponents.

There is even the paradox of Israeli soldiers studying authors such as Deleuze and Debord to provide theorisations of their own practices! They necessarily make very selective readings to do so, but the implication is clear: networks are winning contemporary conflicts, and as a result, hierarchical states are resorting to networked or network-hybridised responses to avoid losing power. There are, of course, also critical scholars, such as Virilio and Baudrillard, who examine the significance of today’s conflicts, and to whom I may return on another occasion.

The term ‘asymmetrical war’ covers a wide variety of situations where the antagonists are not located similarly as military powers. One side is weaker, and continues fighting in spite of this weakness by using means which impose disproportionate damage to the other side or which move outside the terrain of conventional war. It has emerged as a concept because of the fixation of traditional international relations theory with wars between large states mobilising similar sets of resources.

In the post-Cold War era (and arguably before), this model of war has been inaccurate in relation to the majority of conflicts in the world. Wars between two rival states have sharply declined (despite exceptions such as the Iran-Iraq war and various American invasions of other countries); on the other hand, wars between rival forces within states, between states and cross-border networked guerrillas, and between states and anti-colonial movements seeking to liberate particular areas have become increasingly widespread. Of 61 major conflicts between 1989 and 1998, all but three were civil wars.

This changes the field of how states think about the conflicts they are involved in. Victory in, or avoidance of, symmetrical wars between states has traditionally been associated with overwhelming force and a balance of known capabilities. These considerations no longer work in the context of asymmetrical war. (In fact, they probably never worked, even among states, but that’s a different question).

So where does asymmetrical war come from? It is partly a knock-on effect of the emergence of relatively low-technology guerrilla war as an effective means to translate popular support for decolonisation movements into military power against a technologically more powerful occupying force. Guerrilla war directly or indirectly caused the collapse of colonialism in most of Africa and Asia in the 1960s, and subsequently became a major means to gain power within or to overthrow established regimes in much of the global South. Most often, this involved progressive, anti-colonial resistance, but the great powers quickly learned to use guerrilla proxies to destabilise regimes they disliked.

The core of guerrilla war is the development of advantages arising from popular support and the relative impenetrability of inaccessible environments (forests, mountains, hills, caves and so on). If classic states relied on displaying their weapons to deter adversaries, and contempts states rely on attempts to render the entire space visible, guerrillas relied (and rely) on finding or creating sites of invisibility in which their ‘security’ derives, not from the logistical control of space, but from the impenetrability of physical and social environments.

Guerrillas are, however, only one kind of asymmetrical warrior. Asymmetrical war occurs whenever weaker adversaries attempt to defeat stronger ones by using low-cost weapons and techniques to exploit vulnerabilities. This is often combined with conflict at the level of psychology and morale, in which stronger powers are defeated by attrition, with the inability to decisively win a local war rendering it ultimately a failure. This is why insurgents often engage in what seem like ‘pointless’ attacks, which in fact serve the specific point of showing that ‘peace’ has not been imposed, that the occupation has failed.

Though most often associated with non-state armed movements, asymmetrical war is also theorised by states, as a way to get around the overwhelming conventional military superiority of the United States.
For instance, the Chinese text Unrestricted Warfare calls for the use of unconventional tactics such as urban guerrilla combat, cyberwar and economic sabotage in the event of a conflict between America and China. The fear of being defeated in this way has haunted the imagination of America and other great powers at least since the defeat in Vietnam.

This is one of the reasons why ‘terrorism’, and other unregulated global flows such as the drug trade, have been major bogeymen of American state discourse since long before 911. It is also one of the reasons for the emphasis on ‘weapons of mass destruction’, which are relatively cheap means for a weaker power to gain a credible bargaining position with a stronger power (Another reason is that the facilities to produce WMD’s are similar to those used to produce today’s high-value-added commodities, which America wishes to stop poorer countries producing so as to maintain a quasi-monopoly).

Asymmetrical wars are also viewed in terms of the extension of war into psychological and mediatised dimensions. According to this view, the west has become vulnerable to demoralisation through the media: wars are initiated and sustained through media images of the enemy, and are therefore vulnerable to shocks which similarly resonate in the media, as in coverage of Somalia and before that, of Vietnam. Indeed, particularly in post-Vietnam America, fear of demoralisation is at least as important as the military balance of forces in discourses on war and peace.

The American army was never defeated in the field in Vietnam (though it suffered humiliations such as the Tet Offensive); rather, it collapsed for three reasons: it was unable to prevent persistent, ongoing resistance by the Vietminh, hence being ‘unable to win’; it was facing escalating financial and political costs, including public opposition to the war; and the morale of the army was declining, with many soldiers refusing to fight, taking drugs, and ‘fragging’ or assassinating officers who were too zealous in putting them at risk.

This defeat led to fear among military leaders. The report of the right-wing Trilateral Commission, for example, argued that America was being ruined by ‘too much’ democracy, and needed to lose its domestic freedoms lest global power become unattainable. More recently, the Project for a New American Century have argued that a lack of American aggression will create spaces for strategic rivals such as China, Russia and Europe; the only way these rivals can be headed off is via a crusade against a new enemy, against whom America can unite those who would come to rely on its protection.

Part of the discourse on asymmetrical war is that it is supposedly less rule-governed than regular war. On this view, interstate war was/is in principle governed by laws (such as war crimes statutes), principles (such as treaty obligations) and stable structural power-relations (such as deterrence) – though the extent to which it actually was, is a matter of debate. In contrast, asymmetrical war is often viewed as lawless and unlimited: it becomes normal for combatants to target civilians, to subvert the neutrality of third parties, to violate human rights and so on.

This narrative of a new lawlessness in war is tendentious, because states frequently violate or selectively interpret the supposed rules of law, especially against internal opponents. It is unclear that guerrillas are in general more prone to violate human rights than states; if anything, the opposite is probably the case, since guerrillas have to be more careful to preserve their popular support-base. The narrative of unrestricted war has, however, been used by the military as a pretext to corrode limits on warlike actions on the pretext that the adversary knows no limits.

This is shown, for instance, in the attempt to wriggle out of the Geneva Conventions by way of the category of ‘enemy combatants’, and to find excuses for torture. Against this corrosion, it is necessary to insist on the inviolability of human rights and the priority of human security over state security: two wrongs don’t make a right, and ethical restrictions do not come out the blue but rather are negotiated or created in practice by refraining from unethical acts.

I suspect the move towards increased rights violation actually expresses the opposite to its declared purpose: unable to defeat guerrillas in a ‘fair fight’ for the support of civilians, states are seeking to eliminate constraints so as to allow them to use genocidal means to, as Chomsky put it, ‘defeat a people’s war by destroying the people’. The move towards rights violation can be countered by rendering it counterproductive: to become undesirable to hard-nosed statists, it must generate a loss of support and an outcry which outweigh its military advantages.

One of the theoretical responses to asymmetrical war has been the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ (RMA). Scholars at the military-linked RAND corporation, most notably Arquilla and Ronfeldt, spearheaded the RMA. This involved strategic transformations designed to counteract the reasons for the failure in Vietnam, concentrating both on technological responses, risk management and asymmetrical war. In particular, much emphasis has been placed on ‘netwar’, or conflict among networks. Arquilla and Ronfeldt argue that networks have strategic advantages over hierarchies, and as a result, the only way to beat networks is with networks.

They thus initiated moves to flatten out military hierarchies and allow more networked responses, albeit still within a hierarchical frame, so as to bring the power of networks back within the grasp of state power. Whoever masters the network form, they argue, will have advantages in military power. Today, these advantages accrue mainly to guerrillas. Their hope is to develop hybrid state-network assemblages which are sufficiently flexible to restore the advantage to states.


Techniques developed for this purpose include the increased use of information in battlefield situations. RMA is viewed by some analysts as having failed, due to the inability to avoid in Iraq and Afghanistan the problems encountered in Vietnam. This suggests that, while states have identified their weaknesses in relation to networks, they have yet to address them. We still live in an era where the military advantages are with networks, and the rising tide of state repression is a result of weakness and fear, not strength.

Another common idea is that we are entering a new, ‘fourth’ generation of war. This is taken to mean that a transformation is occurring similar to that brought about by the emergence of air power, leading to a situation in which the criteria of power will change. For instance, John Robb’s theory of ‘fourth generation war’ argues that it differs from classical insurgency in being global, networked and diffuse, and in its symbiotic relationship to new technologies and to the vulnerabilities created by globalisation.

There is also a rather Orientalist theory doing the rounds which suggests that the ‘eastern’ approach of unconstrained war is triumphing over the ‘western’ approach of law-governed combat. While this account has a plausible basis – the characteristics of asymmetrical war which are now being globalised, were pioneered in colonial and guerrilla wars in the global South – it fails to comprehend the brutality with which ‘western’ war was waged in earlier colonial contexts. It is more accurate to interpret the parallel in line with Virilio’s theory of ‘endocolonialism’: colonial forms of power are now returning to haunt the coloniser societies; what returns is not some characteristic of the colonised world, but simply the colonisers’ own violence.

Fourth generation war, or the revolution in military affairs, also sometimes includes reference to new types of warfare enabled by new generations of weapons, particularly those using computers, robotics or electronics. This is an emerging field, and hard to discuss as a result, but it appears that the main dynamic behind such moves is the search for a technological fix to the vulnerabilities faced by military forces: firstly that they rely on the loyalty and at least reluctant willingness of large numbers of soldiers to fight, and secondly that they are vulnerable to tactics depending on the density of local social and geographical spaces.

Armies seek to get around these limits by developing technologies which reduce the reliance on large numbers of soldiers, which render local sites vulnerable to surveillance, and which render popular support irrelevant to the outcome of local conflicts (note that they seek to do so – they have not yet done so). One of the difficulties with this discourse on technology is the nexus of interests involved: arms companies have an interest in making new products seem more transformative than they are, military leaders have an interest in playing up threats and increasing military budgets, and between them, they create a situation where political leaders are constantly urged that they are about to fall behind without some vital new killing machine.

Supposed new breakthroughs, such as unmanned drones, heat-ray weapons and anti-missile interception, have proved to be less effective or less widely usable than originally intended. This qualification aside, the state is constantly increasing its autonomy from factors of public support and morale by relying on high-tech weaponry and surveillance. The effect is dangerous: if the state can do what it likes without the need to obtain popular support on the ground, it can increasingly resort to unconstrained warfare while making fewer and fewer concessions to local proxies or domestic populations.

They also contribute to atrocities which would not otherwise have occurred. The US drone strikes on Pakistan, for instance, would have been technically possible without drone technology, but probably too diplomatically risky without Pakistani government support. The risk of an American pilot being put on trial in the glare of the global media for violating Pakistani airspace is the kind of demoralising image problem America increasingly seeks to avoid. Dead villagers in isolated locales which can be kept off CNN or passed off as dead ‘terrorists’, on the other hand, are deemed a price worth paying.

Another dangerous effect of the doctrine of asymmetrical war is the spread of the discourse of war across other fields of social life. Asymmetrical war blurs boundaries between war and non-war activities; for instance, an action such as supporters of Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed or exiled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide staging sit-downs or protests which disrupt United Nations ‘peacekeeping’ attacks is viewed as an instance of asymmetrical war despite being entirely peaceful.

So are ‘psychological operations’ such as disseminating ideas on the internet or running a dissident radio station. It is easy to see how this can lead to a slippage of military discourse, both through repressive expansion (a hostile journalist, a dissident website administrator, a computer hacker, or a protester opposed to a war are deemed combatants in nonconventional ways), and through imitation (the military takes on tasks such as manipulating protests and spreading propaganda). This is encapsulated in the idea of ‘full spectrum dominance’, an aspiration to dominate in all the fields of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power (including for instance cyberwar and propaganda) to such an extent as to preclude any conflict in any field.

So, who are the enemies in wars of this kind? Asymmetrical warriors are a mixed bunch. Some are unmistakably ‘good guys’, such as the Zapatistas who form the focus of one of Arquilla and Ronfeldt’s early texts, and some are unmistakably ‘bad guys’, such as the American-backed paramilitaries who overthrew the elected government of Haiti and imposed a neoliberal dictatorship.

Most are somewhere inbetween, expressing locally inserted compositions of political agents mobilised through political allegiances or categories of ethnicity or religion. The negative side of asymmetrical war is that it often involves extreme violence against civilians in affected areas, sometimes by several sets of combatants seeking to impose different regimes in everyday life. The positive side is that it counterbalances the power of states, diffusing power outwards from the centre. In general, asymmetrical warriors tend to be locally integrated actors resisting the spread of American power across the planet.

Since 911, the category of asymmetrical war has been hegemonised by the figure of ‘al-Qaeda’, sometimes used as a catch-all phrase for salafi Islamic movements ostensibly seeking to create an Islamic state and adhering to an eccentric, ostensibly purified variant of Islamic theology. The shadow of al-Qaeda for the western imaginary contains two components: hostility to what are taken to be the actual beliefs of the movement, and fear of the deterritorialising force associated with networked conflict in general. Kilcullen, for instance, has argued that al-Qaeda is not a one-off movement, but simply adopts tactics which any smart military adversary will adopt.

As a result of such formations, the category of ‘terrorism’ is ‘overdetermined’, combining two different figures: fear of salafism in particular (often tinged with Islamophobia), and fear of the emancipatory potential of networks in general. The response has been to seek to deny space to networks by decomposing the sites in which unregulated flows can occur – a recipe for the pursuit of total social control and for an open-ended war on so-called ‘black holes’, or spaces where state power collapses. While portrayed a a response to authoritarian movements such as al-Qaeda, this response actually cuts off possibilities of liberation.

This particular subset of combatants are themselves rather complex. Scholars such as Faisal Devji argue that the main conflicts involved in the emergence of such groups are internal to the Islamic world, and relate to the decline of secular nationalism due to its ultimate capitulation to American power. Kilcullen argues that the average guerilla is ‘accidental’, a local agent drawn into conflict in pursuit of particular demands, who gets drawn into global conflicts through the ways in which local conflicts are mapped onto global divisions.

Hence for instance, most of the insurgents usually included with al-Qaeda are actually struggling against local injustices, and end up in global networks simply as a way of getting support. Treating these groups as part of a global enemy is counterproductive because it hardens their allegiances and makes it difficult to address underlying grievances.

Like most insurgent movements, and many religious cults, it mainly attracts disillusioned young people who have fallen victim to the gap between aspirations and expectations in a system which demands conformity without providing the means to realise it. They are based on dense social networks which are highly rewarding for participants, in much the same way as other kinds of networks, but which are arbitrarily exclusive, forming what Sageman calls a ‘small-world network’ in which flows are limited to a particular social field.

They are also subject to constant structural dynamics in which potential figureheads compete for the allegiance of supporters by seeking to appear more radical than their rivals or to obtain media attention or notoriety. They aren’t all ‘terrorists’ by any means; most pursue their particular religious/ideological doctrine by political and lifestyle means, and those involved in combat are most likely to be connected to local insurgencies rather than a global agenda.

They make an easy target for American propaganda because of their doctrinal unorthodoxy, certain intolerant views, and tendency to perform for the camera. It should be remembered, however, that they are figuring discursively as a placeholder or hegemonic figure. The real target of American power is not only this particular network, but the power of networks in general, and the power of the local against the global in general.

The current discussion of asymmetrical war finds its place in a long history of theories of insurgency and counterinsurgency. Indeed, counterinsurgency discourse is also found within domestic politics. Frank Kitson’s counterinsurgency manual makes informative reading on how police respond to protests. From the police point of view, protest is viewed as the first stage of potential emergence of insurgency, even if it is entirely peaceful at present.

Their response is to attempt to stamp out dissent by means of divide-and-rule (splitting ‘moderate’ elements from the movement), intelligence gathering, ‘psychological operations’ or propaganda to undermine popular support for the movement, and then to ‘neutralise’ or ruthlessly destroy the hardcore of subversives. This model can be seen in the mainstream response whenever an upsurge in activism or dissent occurs, and is notable in cases like the Cointelpro attacks on the Black Panthers and other radicals in America. It has been used to understand responses to the Mayday protests and to theorise the dynamics behind police-induced media coverage.

Counterinsurgency is frightening, but often unsuccessful. Statistical studies suggest that repressive counterinsurgency tactics do not weaken any but the weakest of insurgencies. In other words, if an insurgency is poorly supported to begin with, repression might destroy it by eliminating its weak base, but if it has any kind of support or strength, it will come out stronger, with repression and military attacks strengthening its support.

In Iraq, the US ultimately resorted to incorporation to compliment repression, buying off rival militias by allowing them to reconfigure themselves as US allies or to euphemistically become Iraqi ‘soldiers’ or ‘police’ in return for payoffs. While Iraq is still in a state of constant conflict and instability, this strategy proved more successful than relying on repression alone.

The same kind of dual strategy can often be seen in state responses to opposition movements, alternating repression with attempts to include or recuperate opponents. In this field at least, war and politics seem very close.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.

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David Barnard-Wills
Nov 5, 2010 20:00

Interesting article Andy – important in highlighting that networks crop up in military strategy, and have been doing so for a while now. I wrote a short piece that’s related to this – asymetric war – looking at the use of UAV’s for assassination. http://surveillantidentity.blogspot.com/2010/04/critique-of-unmanned-aircraft-systems.html

Andy
Nov 14, 2010 13:29

What you’re saying about the rules of war is very much along the lines of what I was trying to argue here :-) Etzioni seems to be missing the point entirely: non-state combatants *can’t* play by the established rules of war, because there *are* no established rules of war for combat between state and non-state forces (as well as, as you rightly argue, because the existing rules give technologically powerful states unfair advantages). Etzioni’s a communitarian, and TBH these people drive me mad, their entire perspective seems to come down to the view that the in-group can do whatever it feels like because it’s the in-group and therefore the only ethically relevant force and therefore whatever it feels like is ethical. A complete denial of any value to difference. Actually they have a lot in common with those of the “terrorists”/insurgents who also have strong fixed identities and a similar attitude to out-groups, so it’s not surprising they end up duplicating the attitude which would justify 911.

In terms of the scary ‘duty to prevent’ idea. The ideology of security has a certain logic to it: controlling the opponent’s space in advance to preclude any exercise of power. The move from prosecution after the event to prevention is partly an expansion of this military logic. But it also seems to correlate with the rise of suicide bombing. In suicide bombing, the discursive closure offered by capture and trial is rendered unavailable (I suspect this is deliberate, or at least structural). By a juridical logic, this shouldn’t really matter: the guilty party is dead, there’s no-one to punish; in a sense the perpetrators have received the death penalty by their own hands. But it matters in the logic of media: it denies the baying bigots their pound of flesh. Hence the metonymical slippage, the trial of alleged indirect participants who are most likely innocent, the criminalisation of glorification/advocacy, collective punishment of families (an old favourite of Israel’s), and the discourse of catching/punishing “terrorists” *before* they commit any definite crime. I think it’s proof that there’s something irrational and vengeful in the system’s response, a desire to close the narrative and patch over the irruption ofsomething out-of-place, which has nothing at all to do with protecting innocents or with ideals of justice, and everything to do with fantasies of control. Hence also why these fanatics of ‘prevention’ are also the same people who reject any attempt to prevent by other means, such as negotiations, addressing grievances, pulling back from controversial policies and so on. c.f. Jeffrey Race on US and Vietminh conceptions of security in Vietnam: the Vietminh saw security in terms of being socially inserted, being liked enough or at least not pissing people off enough that they’re safe in spaces they don’t control, whereas the US saw it in technological terms, military control of spaces.

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