Counterinsurgency Warfare

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Dead End

Counterinsurgency warfare as military malpractice

Posted on Monday, March 5, 2007. Originally from February 2007. By Edward N. Luttwak.

Modern armed forces continue to be structured for large-scale war, but advanced societies whose small families lack expendable children have a very low tolerance for casualties. Even supposedly warlike Americans gravely count casualties in Iraq that in three years have yet to reach 3,000—fewer than were lost in many a single day of battle in past wars. Fortunately, this refusal to spill the blood needed to fuel battles diminishes the likelihood that advanced societies will deliberately set out to fight one another (pas des enfants, pas des Suisses, pas de guerre) unless they are somehow able to convince themselves that a war could be entirely or very largely aerial and naval. Such wars, however, are difficult to imagine, except when islands are involved, as in a China-Taiwan war, which is very improbable for its own reasons. Air and naval forces can certainly be employed advantageously against any less advanced enemy incautious enough to rely on a conventional defense, conducted by regular forces, but in that context as well there must be severe doubts about the continued usefulness of the ground forces of advanced countries that are intolerant of casualties. It is easy enough to blockade the enemy, to successfully bomb all the right nodal points and shut down electrical, transportation, and communications networks. Air strikes can disable runways and destroy both sheltered and unsheltered aircraft, ballistic missiles, and nuclear installations. Air power can also sink warships, or rout any mechanized forces deployed in the open, as the United States did with Iraq in 1991 and partly in 2003, and as it could do with Iran. No real role would remain for ground forces except to dislodge the enemy from any territory he had occupied, or to occupy his own territory. That, however, is bound to cost casualties that might not be tolerated; it is also bound to provoke an insurgency.

In that event, naval forces cannot do much, because insurgencies rarely have an important maritime dimension (the Sri Lanka case is an exception) and riverine operations are usually minor. Air forces can have surveillance and transport roles, but insurgents rarely present targets of sufficient stability and sufficient contrast to be identified, designated, and effectively attacked from the air. That leaves almost everything to the ground forces, and when the advanced attack the less advanced, the more advanced forces will have large advantages in firepower, mobility, and operational coherence. But they will also have no visible enemy to fight, so that the normal operational methods and tactics of conventional warfare cannot be applied. True, there are the alternative methods and tactics of counterinsurgency warfare, but do they actually work? Insurgents do not always win, but their defeats can rarely be attributed to counterinsurgency warfare, as we shall see.

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