Posted by: B Gourley | July 15, 2010

The Strong and the Weak: Lessons of Asymmetric Warfare

In 2003, when I was finishing up a Masters degree in International Relations, I wrote a thesis on asymmetric warfare. At the time this was not nearly so hot a topic as it is today. The war in Afghanistan was relatively young and seemed to be under control, and I think I had nearly finished my first draft by the time the US entered Iraq. Central to the thesis were three cases of asymmetric warfare involving the Soviet Union and its largest and most substantial successor, Russia. One of these was the Soviet-Afghan War. At that time, I think it was thought that only a state as simultaneously backward, incompetent, and arrogant as the Soviet Union could get bogged down indefinitely in fighting the kind of  insurgency in Afghanistan that would drain a state of its vital resources. What a difference seven years makes.

For all the “state-of-the-art” scholarly papers I had to ingest in the process of writing the thesis, I don’t think that all the papers combined taught me any more about why the weak take on the strong and how they sometimes win than I learned from reading Thucydides recounting of the Melian dialogues in his History of the Peloponnesian War. The Melian dialogues are a conversation between a representative of Athens and one from the island of Melos. The Athenians were trying to negotiate with Melos into becoming subsumed into the great and mighty Athenian empire, but the Melians were determined to maintain their little island city-state’s independence. I think the take away line from these dialogues is the Melian representatives statement below:

“Well then, if you risk so much to retain your empire, and your subjects to get rid of it, it were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before submitting to your yoke.”

It’s pretty much as simple as that.

The lessons I learned about asymmetric warfare are:

  • The advantages never all fall on one side in a fight.
  • It is a great mistake to count the tangible  advantages (weapons, technology, troop strength, etc.) and think you can model a path to victory. (Incidentally, much of the great mistake of the Vietnam war was tangled up in thinking that one could mathematically model victory based on operations research methods [e.g. advanced variations of Lanchester equations.])
  • Will (defined as the ability to take an ass-beating every single day, and still show up the next) is a huge x-factor in warfare.
  • Will seems to be roughly inversely proportional to the distance from one’s backdoor to where the fighting is. (i.e. Maintaining the will to fight a war 1/2 way around the world is harder than for those fighting around their house.)
  • Perception need not correlate with truth, and it is often stronger than truth because people act on what they believe to be true.
  • The side with advantages with respect to information flows has a huge x-factor.  

The last point was the central theme addressed in my paper. Compare, for example, the Soviets in Hungary (1956) versus the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In Hungary, when the Soviets saw things moving toward trouble, they sent 200 known loyal Hungarian Communists to go join various rebel groups as they formed. In this way, the USSR maintained a capacity to gain some inside information throughout. In contrast, in Afghanistan, the Soviets found that any information they gave the Afghan military (that was theoretically loyal to the installed Communist government and, thus, to the Soviets) was likely to get back to the Mujahideen. This was because there were so many Mujahideen sympathizers in the military. The nature of Mujahideen groups also made them exceedingly difficult to infiltrate – particularly without a high risk of a double agent coming back to bite the Soviets in the backside. This caused the Soviets to eventually stop giving their Afghan military partners information about military operations until the last minute, and this, of course, is a recipe for disaster. It also made handing the conflict off to the locals a difficult proposition.

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