It has been a long-held view of many historical military strategists, as well as modern military historians, that despite changes in technology and their effect on the way war is practiced the fundamentals of warfare remain the same. Several modern strategists disagree, but their arguments are less than convincing. Though technology has drastically changed how wars are fought, it has not changed the fundamental nature of warfare.
One of the examples that Eliot Cohen provides of a “fundamental” change to warfare is the example of an airstrike. He compares the capabilities of a modern airstrike to those that occurred in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, noting that, “in one or two nights a competent air force can shut down an enemy’s air defense system” (Cohen 14). One might argue that an even more fundamental change was the first military use of an airplane. This is merely a difference in the tools used to make war, and not in the ultimate goals and strategies of warfare. The concept of Sun-Tzu’s ideal victory is actually typified by the airstrike; though it is a type of fighting, it comes with minimum risk and is certainly intended to “convince the enemy’s forces to yield” (Handel 22).
Technology does not produce and develop on its own, but rather is produced and developed quite purposefully and consciously by thinking beings with specific ends in mind. The airstrike example Cohen uses is simply a newer method of depleting the enemy’s forces and capabilities with minimal risks to one’s own. This has been the intelligent course of development guiding technological changes; weapons become more useful at inflicting damage while presenting minimal risk, and defenses develop to counteract new offensive technologies, causing the creation of new weaponry in an endless cycle o progression with no real fundamental change. This is precisely what McMaster (p.34), describes with the development of tank armor, and though this may seem to be an indicator of fundamental change in warfare—tanks have, as McMaster notes, drastically changed how wars are fought in certain arenas—it in fact only reflects the same progression of technology. Thicker tank armor is met by improved anti-tank devices, and each is developed in an attempt to protect one’s own resources while maximizing the damage dealt to the enemy.
The non-rationality of war is another fundamental that has not changed despite millennia of technological progress (Handel 42). Improved technology no more serves as a deterrent now than it did centuries ago. Nuclear weapons provide ample evidence of this; no country will use them out of fears of reprisal in kind—that is, only because it will cause greater destruction. This has not ended warfare, only mutually destructive actions, and such Pyrrhic victories have been recognized as such since…well, since Pyrrhu’s victory.
Strategic Culture and Non-State Actors
The concept of strategic culture has been highly influential in recent theoretical perspective of the politics and culture of modern war. Attempts have even been made to view non-state actors such as terrorist organizations with the same perspective, applying the theories of strategic culture to these groups’ agendas and military actions despite their lack of an established region or a population dependent on their success. These attempts, while not necessarily incorrect in their conclusions, are not especially useful in such scenarios.
The link between culture, political and military action is indisputable, and has been noted by many strategists and historians both in the modern era and before (Lantis & Howlett 36). The theory of strategic culture, therefore, necessarily creates room for the inclusion of specific cultural attitudes and beliefs in the development of that particular nation’s strategy in matters of war and defense; in this way, the theories of strategic culture are made malleable enough, in theory, to be applied to any state—and possibly several non-state—actors. Delving into more detail, Myers (p.112) notes that “much turns on how threats and aggression are characterized” when it comes to determining a nation’s response to military actions (Myers 113). Strategy, then, is defined by culture, and thus all cultures are strategic.
This thinking is more useful than this oversimplified description of it may seem; seeing nations as acting to bring about their own strategic benefit, as defined by their own culture, can be a somewhat useful predictor of warfare and future political and military developments. Non-state actors, however, have far less at stake than do their national counterparts. These groups do not hold political power over a populous, nor can they be truly eradicated as there is a lack of centrality inherent to the formation of many terrorist organizations. This frees non-state actors to act in ways that are more clearly and explicitly rooted in ideology rather than a sense of self-preservation. Even proponents of the strategic culture model must regard “key texts as an important factor that informs actors of appropriate strategic thought and action” (Lantis & Howlett 88). That is, the ideologies and philosophies espoused by a given culture’s texts necessarily influence strategy. With such instructions in the Quran as “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor in the Last Day… until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued,” the uninhibited ideology of Islamic terrorist organizations has clear implications for their strategy.
This does not mean that strategic culture is inapplicable to such non-state actors. In fact, the exact opposite is true—the strategies formed by these actors are staunchly and unequivocally rooted in certain perceived aspects of their culture. But when this culture is not at all tempered by a sense of self-preservation, the group can no longer be expected to act out of self-interest. Or, more precisely, the self-interest that highly ideological groups exhibit is based in another world that is yet to come, and therefore their actions cannot be viewed with the same strategic imperative as self-interest in this world. The strategic culture is still highly apparent, but it ceases to be a useful or meaningful concept with non-state actors.
COIN Strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan
The counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan and now Pakistan have been waging for seven years, as President Obama pointed out in his speech outlining his new strategy for the region, and an adjustment of efforts there was sorely needed (Long Robert 64). This is precisely why Obama outlined his new strategy, of course, and his comments while outlining this strategy, as well as the assessment General Stanley A. McChrystal’s made of the strategy in Afghanistan, both clearly point to a similar counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy and perspective. Most essentially, they no longer view the issue as one of cost/benefit analysis, where simple might and attrition are expected to win the day for United States’ and NATO forces, but rather as an issue of preference, wherein the Afghanis and Pakistanis must be shown that aiding the counterinsurgency—rather than the insurgency itself—is preferable to their ultimate goals and national and cultural identities.
Long, A. Robert, points out the essential flaw in the cost/benefit model of COIN strategy, namely that it comes from the perspective of pure repression—make it cost too much for the insurgents to keep on fighting, and for individuals to join the insurgency, and they will eventually stop (Long 56). The problem with this is that “the ultimate limit of repression is not available to the COIN force of a modern democracy” (Long 29). The use of the full strength and completely repressive efforts by a COIN force from such a democracy negates the very values of that democracy, rendering the COIN force and strategy either ultimately impotent or unjust from the genesis of its COIN activities. It is for this reason that Long suggests that preference model not as a complete alternative to the cost/benefit model, but rather as the often more prominent and therefore more useful decision-making mechanism in COIN situations.
Combining these factors makes for a more powerful grasp and utilization of COIN strategy and forces, long argues quite straightforwardly, because it makes incentives as much a part of the equation as deterrents already are. This is clearly part of the attitude exhibited in President Obama’s highly political (and scantily strategic) speech outlining the “way forward” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to Ahmed Rashid & Joanne Myers (p.396) indicates that, according to president Obama “Al Qaeda offers the people of Pakistan nothing but destruction, while we [the United States, presumably] stand for something”. Something certainly is better than nothing, and this speaks to the preferences of the Pakistani people. Shortly before this quote, Obama addressed the many ways win which Al Qaeda damages the fabric of Pakistani society, again playing to the preferences of the culture, promising to preserve what the insurgents have been actively destroying. This is one major element of the strategy shift that can be seen to incorporate a new and better-synthesized understanding of COIN strategy.
General McChrystal’s assessment of the strategy in Afghanistan exemplifies the twinned element of the same synthesis. There are definite moments in his assessment where the appeal to preference rather than the oppressive and repressive impulses of a cost/benefit analysis exist—his assertion that the “new strategy must also be properly resourced and executed through an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign that earns the support of the Afghan people and provides them with a secure environment,” for example (McChrystal 29). At the same time that he is extolling the absolute necessity of making the United States COIN strategy and forces more appealing than the Taliban insurgents, however, McChrystal (p.38) also states, “The population also represents a powerful actor that can and must be leveraged in this complex system” (McChrystal 64). The use of the word “leverage” clearly denotes a cost/benefit mentality, but one that is tempered with the concept of the people’s preference when it comes to choosing sides. That is, the people must be convinced both that it is not worth joining the insurgents—it will cost too much, with little benefit—but also that the United States’ COIN strategy will provide them with security and a stable political and social infrastructure. COIN strategy, essentially, must be conducted with both a carrot and a stick.
The better-synthesized trajectory of the new COIN strategy is also exemplified in the President’s speech concerning his recent decision to omit more troops to the ongoing COIN operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Again, his speech is far more political than it is revelatory of his strategy or political-military theories, but it is strangely informative in these areas precisely because of the political nature of his speech. In outlining his public reasoning for increasing troop levels in a largely unpopular move, especially with his political base, President Obama was also outlining the perspective from which the new COIN strategy has been and is being developed. In a sense, he must sell the package to the people of the United States using the same strategic reasoning as is used with the Pakistani and Afghani populations, albeit in less extreme tones and with less direct effects. He warns of the continuing fraud in the Afghani government, appealing to the preference of the average American citizen for true democracy, while at the same time outlining the possibility of future physical threats to the United States if increase action is not taken. Again, it is a mixture of appeals to preference and the warnings of the costs that could be incurred by choosing an alternate course of action (or inaction, as the case may be).
President Obama’s focus on the government of Afghanistan illustrates one final point of the new COIN strategy that has been incorporated from the theories on the subject. Long (p.27) says that “repressive measurements taken by the government in response to an insurgency can actually stimulate insurgent activity.” Instead of co-opting the Afghani and Pakistani governments as tools of the United States military, Obama is attempting to set them up as champions of their respective populations despite the corruption taking place in elections and government activities. He needs to give the people something better to turn to while trying to militarily destroy insurgencies.
Ahmed, Rashid, and Joanne Myers. Descent into chaos: the United States and the failure of nation building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Viking publishers, 2008.
Cohen, Emma. Strategy in the contemporary World: an introduction to strategic studies. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Handel, Michael. Masters of war: classical strategic thought. London: Frank class publishers, 2002.
Lantis, Jefrey and Howlett Darryl. Neorealism versus strategic culture. Ashgate Publishing, 2007.
Long, Robert. Worst of the worst: dealing with repressive and rogue nations. World Peace Foundation, 2007.
McChrystal, Stanley. Policing America’s empire. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.
McMaster, Robert. Preserving soldiers’ moral character in counter- insurgency operations. Ashgate Publishing, 2009.
Myers, David. Immigration and boomers: forging a new social contract for the future of America. New York: Russell sage foundation, 2007.