Friday, May 27, 2011

Warfare Against the Individual

Some thoughts on a Friday afternoon.

Warfare has evolved into a deadly contest between states and individuals. From mass on mass, to small teams on individuals, some potentially armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Prior to around the 1980s, to gain serious power, an egomaniac with delusions of grandeur could inspire the desperate masses of a backward territory with words and deeds (elimination of opponents) by which he could gain control of the apparatus of a state to assert his aims on the world stage. Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, represent the old school. A plethora of ‘Johnny come latelies’ like Kim Jong Il (and Un), Gaddafi, Assad I & II, Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Ahmadinejad (or Ali Khamenei depending how one views Iran today), and countless other tin-pot dictators on the fringes of the world have since followed in the footsteps of the fathers of modern mass ideological mayhem. Readers will note that none of these ‘leaders’ were described as mad or crazy. Each has pursued a logical strategy viewed from within the cultural and political paradigm of their worlds.[1]

To this ancestry of malevolence must now be added a new category – that of the super empowered individual terrorist. Of course the pin-up boy of the new brigade was, until just weeks ago, Osama bin Laden. OBL and AQ did not emerge from nowhere. They were the vanguard of a new generation of hate, that was empowered by a series of factors that went their way  - the global spread of small arms during the Cold War, the rising sophistication of those small arms, publically available technologies previously the domain of the wealthiest states: satellite communications, high res sat imagery, sat guidance devices (GPS), global financial transactions, and a nuclear proof, C2 communication network, developed by DARPA and given to the world’s terrorists (and everyone else), called the internet. These, and other key forms of modern life, all had dual uses. In 2011 a lot of these systems are combined in a smart phone. It did not take the bad guys to work out what the nefarious uses might be of these new technologies. Have a look at the following videos of a good news story – the spread of cell phones to the Rift Valley of Kenya and how they are used to move money can crops around an infrastructure poor country - Great, right? Not if a terrorist uses the very same technologies to move money and arms.

It is within this context that individuals can now challenge superpowers - up to and potentially including WMDs. This is a monumental change in international affairs. In general terms, states have two choices in response – COIN against the states that hold or support aggressive non state actors, or CT against the individuals concerned and their networks. After a decade of applying first CT, then both solutions (after 2006), the US has come to appreciate the imperfect but high utility strategy of CT over its much more expensive and often thankless and fruitless alternative of nation building from afar that locals tend to resent anyway.

Like the Cold War before it, the war against diabolical enemies (WADE) is a persistence game. We are likely talking 50 years of continuous CT all over the globe before generations of the enemy finally understand they cannot prevail. But unlike the Cold War, CT is a very cost-effective strategy once one cracks the code that nation building is not required as a supporting activity. What is required is expert cultural and political understanding of each locale.

[1] “The Iraqi Perspectives Project -- Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents.”

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