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What to do About ISIS? Constructing Strategy, Weighing Options

Friday, August 29th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

ISIS or the Islamic StateCaliphate” is the focus  of a great deal of discussion and demands for action from the United Statesand also inactionfrom many quarters.

What is to be done?

That is a famous question.  In matters of geopolitics and strategy, it is more fitting to begin with “Should something be done?”. We need to define the problem before rushing toward solutions. What is ISIS/ISIL/IS  and does it threaten the United States and American interests?:

An evolving offshoot of al Qaida, ISIS is a more radically takfiri, more ambitious and more impatient  jihadi/irhabi offspring than it’s parent. The so-called Islamic State holds sway over considerable Sunni Arab territory in both Syria and Iraq with a makeshift capital at Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Theologically, ISIS is the most extreme Islamist movement to arise since the GIA near the tail end of their 1990′s insurgency in Algeria, regarding the Shia and less radical Sunnis as apostates, deserving of death.  They have carried out genocidal massacres of Yazidis and Shia prisoners of war, tortured and mutilated prisoners and executed noncombatants and hostages like reporter James Foley. Ominously, ISIS may also be an apocalyptic movement, not merely a radical takfiri one, making it far less risk averse, even brazen, in its offensive operations and more intransigently fanatical on defense.

ISIS has been popularly described as an unholy mixture of “al Qaida, the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis”  and also as a terrorist army” by General David Petraeus. While it is true that their ranks probably contain the cream of the world’s Salafi terrorist-jihadi current, terrorism in the form of assassinations and suicide bombings has only been adjunctive to insurgent tactics and conventional combined arms operations. ISIS has shown impressive small unit discipline, the capacity to engage in maneuver warfare with heavy arms against the Kurds, Syrian Army, the Iraqi Army and rival Syrian rebel groups and even special operations skills. ISIS has moved aggressively on the physical, mental and moral levels of war to amass territory for their “caliphate” and consolidate their power and continues to advance, despite being rebuffed from Irbil by the Kurds and US airpower. ISIS is heavily armed with large quantities of advanced modern American and Russian weapons captured from the Iraqi and Syrian armies and is equally well funded, possessing in addition to significant revenue flows, the control of numerous dams and oilfields. Finally, in addition to their manifold war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, ISIS has also made broad, if vague, threats to strike New York, Chicago and Americans generally.

ISIS in a sense is the dream of jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri come to life and gone from strength to strength. If they do not have al-Suri in their ranks, they have his playbook and do not seem to shrink from employing stratagems and speed to achieve surprise.

Having assessed their capabilities, I think it is reasonable to conclude that ISIS is a threat to American interests because they are destabilizing the region, threatening the security of American allies and are regularly causing a grave humanitarian crisis far beyond the normal exigencies of war. It is less clear that they are a direct threat to the security of United States and to the extent that ISIS terrorism is a threat, it is a  modest one,  though greater to Americans and US facilities overseas. The caveat is that the strength and capabilities of ISIS have already grown faster and qualitatively improved more than any other non-state actor in the last forty years and are on a trajectory of further growth. ISIS is unlikely to be better disposed toward American interests if it grows stronger. CJCS General Dempsey, correctly attempted to convey all of these nuances in his remarks to reporters without overstepping his role into advocating a policy to shape our strategy, which is the responsibility of his civilian superiors.

This brings us to the cardinal weakness in post-Cold War American statesmen – an unwillingness to do the intellectual heavy lifting that connects policy and strategy by making the choice to articulate a realistic vision of political ends that are the desired outcome of a decisive use of military force.  The result of this aversion (which is bipartisan – I am not picking on the Obama administration here) is that a strategy is not formulated, much less executed and the military then attempts to remediate the strategic gap with the sheer awesomeness of its operational art. That does not usually work too well, at least on land, because contemporary American civilian and military leaders also do not like to inflict the kind of horrific mass casualties on the enemy that, even in the absence of a real strategy might still cripple through sheer attrition  the enemy’s will or capacity to fight.  The American elite today, in contrast to the generation of FDR, Eisenhower and Truman, have no stomach for Dresden – but defeating Nazis sometimes requires not just a Dresden, but many of them and worse.

However, let’s assume the best, that the Obama administration will, having learned from Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, construct a strategy to use force to accomplish victory – gaining coherent, specific and realistic political objectives. The President, having refreshingly admitted that there is no strategy at present, has freed up his subordinates to create one rather than digging in and defending the current policy that lacks one. Since the administration and nearly everyone else on Earth agrees that ISIS , in addition to being moral monsters, is a threat to at least some degree. the questions then become:

  • How much of a threat is ISIS to American interests or security?
  • What do we want the political end state to be in the Mideast if/when the threat of ISIS is contained, diminished or destroyed?
  • What is it worth to us to accomplish this outcome in light of our other, competing, American interests, in the region and globally?

Once those important questions are answered, the military leadership will have the proper policy guidance to give the administration the best possible advice on how military force could secure their aims or be used in concert with other elements of national power civilian leaders might wish to employ, such as diplomacy, economic coercion or covert operations. Moving forward without answering these questions is an exercise in flailing about, hoping that using sufficient force opportunistically will cause good geopolitical things to happen.

I will not venture to say how or if administration officials will answer such questions, but there are some broad military options the Pentagon might offer to further a strategy to contend with ISIS. Some suggested possibilities and comments:

These options are not all mutually exclusive and in practice some would blend into others. No option is perfect, cost free or without trade-offs. Attempting to find the strategy with no risks and no hard choices is a policy to engage primarily in ineffectual military gesticulations insufficient to actually change the status quo in Iraq and Syria ( and the eternal default strategy of domestic political consultants and career bureaucrats playing at foreign policy).

DO NOTHING:

Doing nothing, or non-intervention is vastly underrated as a strategy because it is passive. However, most of the greatly feared, worst-case scenarios will fail to materialize as predicted because the actors about whom we harbor grave suspicions usually become bogged down by their own friction, miscalculations, internal politics and chance. This is why calling every foreign menace, great and small, the next “Hitler” has lost much of its charge. Run of the mill tyrants and corrupt dictators simply are not Adolf Hitler and their crappy, semi-developed, countries are not to be equated with turning the industrial heart of Europe into a war machine. Avoiding a needless war of choice is usually the smarter play from an economic and humanitarian standpoint.  The drawback to this option is that every once in a while, the menace really is another Hitler, a Bolshevik Revolution or a less than existential threat that nevertheless, is politically intolerable for numerous good reasons.  ISIS barbarism probably falls into the latter category and doing absolutely nothing becomes risky in the face of a fast-rising aggressor and probably politically untenable at home.

CONTAINMENT:

Containing a threat with a combination of coercion, non-military forms of pressure and  limited uses of armed force short of all-out warfare is designed to prevent further expansion until the adversary loses the will or capacity to remain a threat. This defensive posture was the successful American grand strategy of the Cold War against the Soviet Union and is frequently invoked as a less costly alternative for proposed interventions. Admittedly, the idea of keeping Islamist radicals bottled up in a “Sunnistan” composed of the Syrian desert and northern Iraqi towns until they starve or are overthrown and murdered by locals has a certain charm.

Unfortunately, this option is not likely to work because the underlying analogy is extremely poor.  Containment worked in part because Soviet insistence on maintaining the USSR as a totalitarian “closed system” made them exceptionally vulnerable to Containment’s pressure which allowed them no lasting way to resolve their internal economic and political contradictions. ISIS is not the Soviets and their Caliphate is not a closed system, or even yet, a durable state.  Their jihadi cadres can melt away across borders and new recruits can make their way in, as can contraband, money and information. Physically containing ISIS would do nothing toward discrediting their ideas; more likely, their continued existence in the face of powerful Western and Arab state opposition would validate them.  In any event, sealing off ISIS would require the unstinting, sustained, cooperation of  Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states, Turkey, the Assad regime, the Kurds and a large deployment of American troops. This is probably not doable except on a very short term basis as a prelude to a “final offensive” like the one that crushed the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

PROXY WARFARE:

Enlisting foreign local allies, be they loyalist paramilitaries or state military regulars of various countries offers numerous advantages as well as drawbacks. It provides boots on the ground that we can’t afford, while irregulars like Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militiamen would be highly motivated to fight. The Kurds are also (relatively speaking) well disciplined and trained compared to building units by throwing together ragtag tribesmen and down on their luck Iraqi townsmen looking for a paycheck. Adding overwhelming American airpower to the mix would greatly improve the fighting power of irregular light infantry, as was demonstrated recently when Kurdish and Iraqi forces repeled ISIS from Iraq’s largest dam. Proxy warfare offers a fairly decent chance to roll back ISIS but the downside is that proxies also have their own agendas and would range from “mostly but not entirely reliable” (Kurds) to “freebooting death squads” (Shia militias). As in Afghanistan, we would soon find our proxies were also in the pay of Iran and Saudi Arabia and attempting to play one patron off against the other. Recognizing Kurdish independence would most likely be part of the deal (not a bad thing in my view) which would require repudiating a decade of failed nation-building policy in Iraq ( also not a bad thing) and accepting partition.

LIMITED WARFARE: 

Limited warfare is often disdained because it can seldom produce a resounding victory but it is useful in playing to strengths (ex. relying on a robust air campaign) while  limiting exposure to risks and costs.  Overwhelming firepower can be applied selectively to prevent an adversary’s victory and impose punishing costs, eating up their men and material. Limited warfare works best in conjunction with simple and limited political goals and military objectives and poorly with grandiose visions ( like turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy and haven of women’ rights). Limited warfare on land, particular grinding counterinsurgency wars that go on for years on end with no clear stopping point, are very difficult for democracies to sustain politically. The electorate grows weary and the troops come home, often short of a permanent political settlement. The likely preference of the administration, if it chose this option, would be an air campaign coupled with drones, CIA covert action and SOF, working in conjunction with local allies.

MAJOR WARFARE:

For existential threats, go heavy or go home. This is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine in pursuit of a decisive battle that does not merely defeat but crushes the enemy and compels him to submit to our will.  It would be extraordinarily expensive in blood, treasure and opportunity costs as the United states military is ill-prepared to re-deploy the bulk of the Army and Marine Corps to Iraq, supported by carrier groups in the Gulf. It is highly questionable that ISIS, whose fighters number somewhere between 10,000 – 20,000 would stand up and try to fight such an mammoth expedition head-on. They would retreat to Syria and dare us to invade that country also or go underground. It is also dubious that American leaders have the kind of iron-hearted will to fight what Gary Anderson accurately describes as “a combined arms campaign of extermination“. ISIS by contrast, demonstrates daily that it has no such scruples restraining them.

GRAND COALITION:

This differs from the previous option only in that it would bring all or most of the aforementioned armed enemies of ISIS together to corner and annihilate the menace once and for all. It makes eminent strategic sense but the ability to bring together so many incompatible parties and weld them into a coordinated military campaign requires political-diplomatic wizardry on the order of genius to pull off. It also requires a much greater sense of fear of ISIS than even their ghoulish brutality has generated so far to bring together Saudi and Shia, Turk and Kurd, Alawite and Sunni rebel, American and Iranian, as military allies.

The Obama administration faces a difficult dilemma in pondering the problem presented by ISIS. I don’t envy them but their task will grow easier and a resultant strategy more likely successful if they are willing to make ruthless choices in pursuit of bottom-line, clearly-defined American interests.

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The Death of 4GW Revisited

Friday, March 28th, 2014

Dr. Chet Richards is having seconds thoughts about “4GW is dead“:

When I proclaimed the death of 4GW in this very blog about a year ago? Of course not. But there are disturbing developments, at least in its decline-of-the-state/road-warrior variant (aka, the Bill Lind definition).

Did you know, for example, that groups espousing an ultra-orthodox salafist interpretation of Islam, those iconic 4GW warriors we call “al-Qa’ida,” now control an area larger than that of the United Kingdom? This zone includes much of western Iraq and eastern Syria. It’s worth reminding ourselves that before March 2003, they controlled exactly none of this (or any other) territory. Patrick Cockburn offers his explanation of how we got ourselves into this mess in “Al-Qa’ida’s second act,” a five-part series in The Independent.

Bill Lind is not alone in seeing this as a general, global trend. Robert Reich finds it happening right here at home. He writes in a blog yesterday, “The New Tribalism and the Decline of the Nation State

….If, on the other hand, you consider 4GW as evolved transnational insurgency, then … maybe. I have to admit, it’s hard to explain the renaissance of al-Qa’ida (in whatever form) otherwise.

When Chet originally reviewed the predictive/empirical shortcomings of 4GW as a model, I weighed in with some examples regarding the conceptual silver lining that came with the dross that I still regard as valid:

Whatever one thinks of 4GW as a whole, the school drew attention to the threat of non-state irregular warfare, failed states and the decline of state vs. state warfare and did so long before it was Pentagon conventional wisdom or trendy Beltway talking head spiels on Sunday morning news programs.

While the state is not in decline everywhere in an absolute sense, it sure is failing in some places and has utterly collapsed elsewhere. Failed, failing and hollowed out states are nexus points for geopolitical problems and feature corruption, black globalization, insurgency, tribalism, terrorism, transnational criminal organizations and zones of humanitarian crisis. Whether we call these situations “irregular”, “hybrid”, “decentralized and polycentric”, “LIC”, “4GW” or everyone’s favorite, “complex” matters less than using force to achieve political aims becomes increasingly difficult as the interested parties and observers multiply. Some of the advice offered by the 4GW school regarding “the moral level of war”, de-escalation and the perils of fighting the weak in such a conflict environment are all to the good for reducing friction.

The emphasis of the 4GW school on the perspective of the irregular fighter and their motivations not always fitting neatly within state-centric realpolitik, Galula-ish “Maoist Model” insurgency, Clausewitzian best strategic practice or the Western intellectual tradition, were likewise ahead of their time and contrary to S.O.P. Even today, the effort to see the world through the eyes of our enemies is at best, anemic. Red teams are feared more than they are loved. Or utilized.

The bitter criticism the 4GW school lodged of the American political elite being allergic to strategic thinking and ignorant of strategy in general was apt; that American strategy since the end of the Cold War has been exceedingly inept in thought and execution is one of the few points on which the most rabid 4GW advocate and diehard Clausewitzian can find themselves in full agreement.

Should Islamist radicals be considered, as Chet suggests, core elements of 4th generation warfare?  There’s a kaleidoscopic ideological, theological and political variation among Islamist and jihadi extremists that requires a Gilles Kepel, Tim Furnish, J.M. Berger or Aaron Zelin to parse.  Shia radicals in Iran are pillars of the Iranian state but subvert the state in Lebanon through Hezbollah. The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt attempted to take over the Egyptian state through political infiltration while al Qaida aligned groups in Iraq, Syria and the Mahgreb established non-state “emirates” as did the Taliban. Radical jihadi strategist Abu Musab al Suri, the closest example of a 4GW theorist in the jihadi world, disdained the emphasis on Salafi theological purism as a counterproductive distraction from the military struggle while radical Salafi fighters everywhere trampled on local, tribal religious customs as “haram” if not evidence of apostasy and idolatry.

Individually these groups have to be evaluated for their political behavior in their local environment ( anti-state, anti-nation-state, separatist, tribalist or “national” pro-state) but as a net global effect the Islamist jihad as a mass-movement  is anti-state, entropic, revolutionary and miserably dystopian.

The “tribal” aspect Chet considers is often artificial (ex. La Familia narco-cartel) rather than real (Pushtuns in Paktia) but as David Ronfeldt’s TIMN theory implies, “tribes” are a core component of human identity and they can be made or improvised where they are not born.

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Narco-cartels as MBAs Doing 4GW

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

 

Yale organizational behaviorist Rodrigo Canales has an interesting talk on the Narco-insurgency in Mexico ( which he correctly sees as having been as lethal as Syria’s civil war). While this won’t be news to close students of Mexico’s cartel wars, Canales explains how Los Zeta, La Familia, Knights Templar and Sinaloa cartel violence is neither random nor strictly criminal on criminal  violence but is used as part of organizational strategies to create distinctive “franchise brands”, amplify political messaging,  reinforce effects of social service investment in the communities they control and maximize market efficiency of narcotics sales and other contraband. COIN, 4GW and irregular warfare folks will all see familiar elements in Canales management theory driven perspective.

A useful short tutorial considering the cartels are operating inside the United States and their hyper-violent tactics are eventually going to follow.

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Heavy Metal: When Irregulars Go Armored

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

If the symbol of the 20th century insurgent was the AK-47 and a red banner, his 21st century counterpart may someday be recognized by the suicide belt and the “homemade tank”. Irregular fighters have always used light arms, civilian passenger vehicles and armor captured (or donated by) from conventional armies, but the ability to produce serviceable fighting armored cars is a new wrinkle. They could not stand up to an American or Russian tank company, of course, but they are not meant to do so.

Most prevalent and evolved in Mexico’s narco-insurgency where cartels use these “monsters” converted from SUVs and various types of light and heavy trucks to battle one another and as “troop carriers” but these DIY armored vehicles have also appeared in the recent Libyan and ongoing Syrian civil wars. Where heavy anti-tank weapons, air power and real tanks are scarce, these narco-tanks are useful additions to irregular combat power and convey an intimidating image to lightly armed police and the public.

Dr. Robert Bunker and Byron Ramirez, with the support of Small Wars Journal, Borderland Beat.com and the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, have a new scholarly compilation on the subject of irregular use of DIY armor in Mexico:

Narco Armor : Improvised Armored Fighting Vehicles in Mexico

….The wave of violence that has left thousands dead began in early 2005, when former Mexican
president Vicente Fox sent government troops to Tamaulipas to fight the cartels. For the past
seven years the government has ordered its military to fight the cartels directly, which, in turn,
has led drug cartels to improvise and develop their own methods of warfare to combat both
government troops and other competing cartels.

The extreme rivalry among various Mexican drug cartels for regional control of the drug trade
market has yielded an arms race. The following collection of articles and images addresses a
segment of the military technology utilized by violent non-state actors during this period: “narco armor” or, more accurately, improvised armored fighting vehicles (IAFV).

….Mexican cartel use of IAFVs and armored sport utility vehicles (ASUV) may yield some
important lessons for military counter-criminal insurgency efforts. Still, many unanswered
questions exist concerning the fielding of narco armor in Mexico. Reports of these vehicles
being fielded span roughly from mid-2010 to the beginning of 2012, with a spike in activity 5
surrounding them taking place around mid-2011. These vehicles had predominantly been utilized

in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in engagements between the Zetas and Gulf cartels and in a
few other locales (see Map Locations). While it has been said that the Mexican government has
seized well over one hundred of these vehicles, only about two dozen photographic examples
exist per our research (see Picture Gallery).

….Given the apparent cessation of the fielding of narco armor since early 2012, quite possibly these vehicles have reached an evolutionary dead end, with more emphasis once again placed by the cartels on fielding more stealth-masked armored vehicles, such as armored SUVs, that better blend in with civilian cars and trucks so as to eluded identification and targeting by Mexican federal forces. Still, given the ever changing conflict waging in Mexico among the cartels and against the Mexican government, future resumption of IAFV employment will always remain a potential. 

Read the rest here.

During the Russian civil war (1917-1922), armored trains complete with heavy machine guns and artillery were used by both Bolshevik and White armies across the vast expanse of the Eurasian steppe and the armored train subsequently made spotty appearances in civil wars in China and Spain before fading away. This less likely to happen with homemade armor which is smaller and infinitely more mobile and can be created in a sufficiently large garage with time, elbow grease and a supply of scrap metal.

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Octavian Manea interviews T.X. Hammes

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Octavian Manea and SWJ are on something of a roll lately. Colonel T.X. Hammes (ret.) PhD is the respected author of the excellent The Sling and the Stone. If you have never read it, you should.

The Fallacies of Big Expeditionary Counterinsurgency: Interview with T.X. Hammes

SWJ: How different is Mao’s people’s war compared with what you call 4GW (Fourth Generation Warfare)? Is 4GW an updated, evolved form of people’s wars? In the end, isn’t 4GW focused on people and minds, on influencing people and minds?

TX: Mao is a little bit different because (in China) it was a domestic insurgency and focused on wearing down the nationalists and changing the minds of the warlords who supported them. In the case of 4GW, the focus is overseas. People you can’t reach with force, you must reach with the message. 4GW is an evolved form of insurgency. It is also important to note that Maoism is a type of insurgency that essentially fits a hierarchical society, not a tribal one. It always ends with a conventional campaign to destroy the government’s army as the final step in overthrowing the government. You can’t run a Maoist insurgency in the mountains of Afghanistan, the society won’t tolerate that kind of structure.  Nor can you do it in Iraq. 4GW covers both because its objective is not the military defeat.  4GW does not focus on the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, but on changing the minds of the enemy’s political decision makers. 4GW directly attacks the will of enemy decision makers.  Once the outside power has been ejected, the conflict can continue until resolution. 

SWJ: Tell us about the center of gravity in a 4GW.

TX: The center of gravity in a 4GW is the will of the policymakers of the other side. 4GW war uses all available networks – political, economic, social and military – to convince the enemy’s political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. 4GW is not necessarily targeted at the people.  If the war is small enough, it can run on for years like El Salvador.  In that case, the US commitment was small enough there was no major political cost to US decision makers to continue supporting the El Salvadorian government.

When you look at the counterinsurgent side, I am more and more convinced that as a foreign power you can only do indirect counterinsurgency. You can advise and assist.  But keep it small – the host nation has to make it work. We, the United States, have done this successfully a number of times. Admittedly, we have not created the perfect nations that the nation-builders want, but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to achieve US strategic goals. And we achieved our strategic goals in the Philippines, El Salvador, Columbia and Thailand. In a 4GW, the insurgent is not trying to win over the people as a whole. But the counterinsurgent must do so. In a tribal society, you can do what Kilcullen refers to as wholesale COIN – if you persuade the tribal chief everybody flips. In a more democratic society, you have to convince the people. It is more of a retail operation. It is critical to understand the society you are in and tailor your counterinsurgency and insurgency accordingly. 

I would add, in the 4GW theme of reasoning with the “moral level of war”, that a foreign power supporting a host nation government with FID that faces an insurgency, can probably get away with “punitive raiding”  of the non-state actors from time to time, particularly in rapid response to some heinous action committed by rebels. A heavy in-country footprint though will change the political calculus for the population – it is too easy to look lie occupiers and stringpullers. Foreign troops are rarely welcome guests for long.

Read the rest here.

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