Friday, June 27, 2003

The Low-intensity Battlefield

In the last 24 hours, these headlines:

  • Israelis versus the Palestinians
  • Saudis versus the "militants"
  • Two Americans soldiers missing in Iraq
  • Communists raid a military camp in Southeastern Philippines
  • Fighting in Liberia
  • NZ, Australian soldiers bound for the Solomons
  • Tamil Tigers make demands on Sri Lankan government

All of these are "low-intensity" conflicts. The US Armed Forces is the definite master of high-intensity fighting. But valid doubts remain over it's ability to prosecute war against a chronic foe. In the public mind, the ghost of Vietnam has never been fully laid to rest by Desert Storm or Iraqi Freedom. The left especially is unconvinced that the US can win against a guerilla enemy.

It is ironic that guerilla warfare has been epitomized by the Vietnam conflict, because it was the least so. Nearly all the major engagements were fought between uniformed members of the US and North Vietnamese Armies. The Tet, Ia Drang, Khe Sanh and Cambodian border campaigns were straight fights between armies. Those who watched Mel Gibson's We Were Young and Soldiers, will note that not a single "guerilla" action took place in this quintessential Vietnam war story. What made Vietnam different was the declaration of "sanctuaries" and the imposition of unilateral restraints on American action by Lyndon Johnson. The better model for guerilla warfare is Lebanon. Here, the Israeli Defense Forces were engaged against clandestine cells funded by Syria. Substitute Iraq for Lebanon and Iran for Syria and you have today's battlefield.

Against a hezbollah type enemy, current US doctrine calls for sword-and-shield tactics. The American sword is information, as stored in computers and organizational experience, and exploited by highly trained hit teams. The shield is the dumb old army, whose battlefield function is to preserve the sword from enemy attack. By contrast, the guerilla nervous system -- it's computer files, communications, leadership cadres, arms caches, etc are subject to seizure. Once found, it is dead meat for high-intensity forces. The American calculus is that it will acquire information dominance over time, as it's human and technical assets grow with an investment that is not subject to disruptions or loss due to enemy action. It will do to the guerillas what it did to the Japanese airmen of World War 2: pit increasingly experienced pilots against increasingly inexperienced ones.

The Islamic guerilla has begun to adjust to this strategy. For example, the Al Qaeda has abandoned its old hierarchical cell structure, which has been devastated, in favor of decentralized, locally funded "franchises". Emphasis has moved away from high-tech assaults on targets like the World Trade Center or the Pentagon to simply shooting an American, Brit or Israeli -- anywhere in the world. It is attempting to counter the American attack on its nervous system by abolishing the nervous system itself. It is attempting to implement random murder as a method of warfare. If in simple military terms, the Islamic strategy is inconsequential, (Killing seven Americans a week in a world where there are 800 US traffic deaths per week.) it is the symbolism that matters: Arabs are fighting! Moreover, the mere continuation of the threat imposes a disproportionate cost on the world in terms of airport searches, curfews, the loss of tourist revenues, anxiety, etc. The ultimate achievement of the Islamic guerilla has been to transform himself into a boogeyman. Both Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein have abandoned their physical existences and become dark spirits, where they commune, perhaps literally, with Freddy Kreuger. Against this, US doctrine has no riposte -- yet. But we know from open source literature that nano-listening devices, biological tracers, pervasive electronic surveillance, and submollecular-assasination devices will form part of the American sword of the future.

The soil of Arabia is infest with old evil: Baal, Moloch and Pazzuzu -- and others you might care to add --  such that the Cult of Assassins spontaneously sprang up in that fertile field. Old and secure on its ancient ground, this evil flicked down a pair of towers in downtown Manhattan. Now, from the over the sea, comes a Storm with bright talons and piercing stars in its whirling heart. The old gods of Arabia smile but feel a secret doubt. For the first time in history, the old evil of Arabia may have met a force greater than itself.