Sunday, June 07, 2009

Accidental Guerrilla; Part 2, Strategy

David Kilcullen describes the cycle of violence at the end of the last post in biological terms; we are apparently faced with "infection", "contagion", "intervention", and "rejection". Usually it's wise to be really suspicious of anyone who talks biology in politics, unless they are talking about actual bacteria. However, this metaphor covers a very important strategic point.

Specifically, the grand strategy of Al-Qa'ida can be thought of as auto-immune warfare; Kilcullen leaves the phrase to the very back of the book, but the idea is inherent right from the beginning. The aim is to provoke and manipulate the enemy until their reactions create many more zones of dubious authority where they can move in, and eventually until the West is exhausted economically.

The reason why biology should get dragged in here is that we are to be destroyed by the over-reaction of our own security system, just as auto-immune diseases turn the immune system on the body. This is a crucial concept, and it is one whose implications cascade through all kinds of other problems, from grand strategy down to airport security measures.

Specifically, auto-immune war is a strategy, but its tactical implementation is the creation of false positive responses. Security obsession gums up the economy with inefficiencies. Terrorism terrorises the public; security theatre keeps them that way. As Kilcullen points out, every day, millions of travellers are systematically reminded of terrorism by government security precautions. Profiling measures subject entire communities to indignity and waste endless hours of police time. Vast sums of money are spent on counterproductive equipment programs and unlikely techno-fixes. National identity cards and monster databases are the specific symptoms of this pathology in the UK, just as idiotic militarism is in the US.

(Yes, I'm dragging him into my own political battles. See what I did there?)

In its most extreme form, this strategy helps to trigger destabilising intervention, which damages existing social and political structures and therefore creates the guerrilla zones of tomorrow. Donald Rumsfeld was not wrong when he spoke of catastrophic success in Iraq; merely lacking in self-awareness.

The symmetry between insurgency and counter-insurgency is very clear here; according to Kilcullen, the Taliban has recently adopted a variant of the focoist strategy associated with Che Guevara and (of all people) Regis Debray, which is apparently now official ISI doctrine (the paper he cites is here).

The main-force guerrillas' role is to stage spectaculars, which provide propaganda of the deed, create chaos, and intimidate or chase off the representatives of the state or of traditional authority. The other elements of a classic guerrilla system - the clandestine administration, and its part-time local guerrilla force - then step in. Meanwhile, the strike force moves on to other battles or melts back into hiding.

On the other side, the "political manoeuvre" operations Kilcullen describes in Kunar province, Afghanistan, and under his own command in East Timor bear a nontrivial resemblance.

The counter-insurgents arrive in the battlespace with considerable surprise, speed, and shock action, forcing the guerrillas to take to their rear base (whatever form it may take). They then establish themselves in the centres of population and production, and recruit the population into the government or the traditional authorities' network by providing security, economic aid, and dispute resolution, and challenge the guerrillas to attack them, in order to get back into the public eye. Having seen them off, they they move to replace themselves with their own local recruits - local counterguerrillas, recruited to protect their (non-clandestine) administration. As a plan, it's also reminiscent of the "diplomatic-military operations" idea in Gwyn Prins' The Heart of War: Power, conflict, and obligation in the 21st century.

After all, the deliberate guerrillas are trying to achieve their political goals by recruiting, co-opting, propagandising and providing technical assistance and military advice to their local recruits, and their organisations often extend into political and economic action as well. Like one of these or these. Kilcullen's prologue describes meeting a group of international takfiris in the backwoods of Indonesia; as he says, it is surprising to encounter a group of Yemenis claiming to be students in this environment. (Perhaps it is not as surprising now, in 2009, as it was in 1996.)

The first question they asked him was: so what about the Israelis and the Palestinians? It's almost comforting; survive a plane crash in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, and you can be fairly certain of knowing which political issue the locals will want to know your opinion on. And what a popular answer is likely to be.

But this was certainly no stranger than finding an Australian paratrooper major studying for a PhD asking leading questions about an underground political party, smoking a Cohiba cigar, in the same circumstances. They were, as he said to them, both learning from their Indonesian brothers. You could say that.

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