La Guerre de Longue Durée

So I wrote most of this over the weekend. In light of recent events, it may be more or less relevant. But presumably no less true.

Interesting read from the War Nerd (who is back with a vengeance) comparing Al Qaeda with the IRA. He comes to a somewhat surprising conclusion: the IRA was far more professional, they truly took the long view, and they essentially won.

Al Qaeda played all out, spent all its assets in a few years. In my dumb-ass 2005 article, I called the Al Qaeda method “real war” and the IRA’s slow-perc campaign “nerf war.” That was ignorance talking, boyish war-loving ignorance. I wanted more action, that was all. I saw what an easy target the London transport system made for a few amateur Al Qaeda recruits and just thought that since the IRA had several long-term sleeper teams in place in London, they could have wreaked a million times more havoc. Which was true, they could’ve. But could’ve and should’ve are different things, and a guerrilla group that goes all-out, does everything it can, is doomed.

The first job of a guerrilla force is to continue to exist…

That’s how every modern guerrilla army except Al Qaeda has played, and that’s why every one of those groups has lasted longer than Al Qaeda did.

This seems to ring true. Looking at the pattern of terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe since 9/11, here’s what came next (and seemed at least vaguely Islamic extremism-related, so not necessarily Al Qaeda even):

  • December 2001 – Richard Reid’s attempted shoe-bombing.
  • October 2004 – Indonesian Embassy in Paris is bombed by the “French Armed Islamic Front,” though presumably Algeria-related.
  • July 2005 – the 7/7 Tube Bombings in London.
  • July 2005 – attempted duplication of 7/7; minor damage.
  • March 2006 – Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar drives an SUV onto the UNC Chapel Hill campus to “avenge Muslims,” injuring nine.
  • July 2006 – attempted suitcase bombings in Dortmund and Koblenz, in retaliation for the Muhammad cartoon publication. Failed to detonate.
  • August 2006 – foiled transatlantic plot between Heathrow and the United States.
  • August 2006 – Afghan Muslim Omeed Aziz Popal hits 19 pedestrians with an SUV in San Francisco, killing one.
  • December 2009 – the attempted “underwear bombing.”

There is very little in that list that was an objectively “successful” terror attack, in the sense that with the exception of the 7/7 Bombings, few people were killed in total. Yet somehow, every single one of these – including if not especially the failed attempts – has provoked a stronger and more intrusive security backlash.

There are a few possibilities with Al Qaeda today. The first is that they’ve been so disrupted and shattered that there’s no organizational capacity left to stage large terror attacks. The second is that they’re biding their time, rebuilding capabilities in order to strike. And the third is that we’ve reduced Al Qaeda to a shadow of its former self, yet preserved enough of the command structure that we can keep tabs on all of its associates and prevent any strikes by them.

But even if that leaves them unable to mount much more than a failed pants bombing around Christmas, that might just be all they need (see: failure as a strategy). Look at what that ‘attack’ – which killed and injured none – has wrought: the whole Yemen affair, a bigger bureaucratic push for the “rape scanners,” and a whole revamp of the no-fly lists to include Nigerian nationals and other useless security theater. They don’t need to succeed to have catastrophic effects on American politics and the ever-so-delicate American psyche. Even non-Al Qaeda actions, such as walking through airport security the wrong way, can paralyze an entire transportation corridor for hours and hours.

So where does the IRA come in? While Al Qaeda is still active and deadly in the immediate theater (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.), it has little reach beyond its borders. Especially not as an organization its trying to kill people. Instead, the IRA strategy of as few casualties as possible – in many cases zero – aided by numerous telephoned warnings and carefully-chosen targets has enabled the organization to not be the target it might have been.

The IRA had this “Nerf” strategy of…not killing civilians, which seemed weak to me. But it worked way, way better than I could have imagined. First of all, by not reacting to LVF hit teams, the IRA kept the focus on the Brits, who they considered the real enemy. The Loyalist hit teams, I realize now, were a classic SAS attempt to turn the whole Ulster fight into a tribal war, so the British could come off as the impartial referees trying to keep the savages from tearing each other apart. If the IRA had settled for taking all these Loyalists down into nice soundproofed basements and giving them some hands-on experience of their favorite games, it would’ve been satisfying short-term but would have fed right into the enemy propaganda model.

Not only was the IRA never systematically wiped out, it was incorporated into peace efforts and brought into the government itself after the Good Friday accords.

The point is that in the long run, killing civilians – if you’re fighting an insurgent, guerrilla, terrorist-style war – is counterproductive. That’s not to say that for these groups ‘terrorism’ in and of itself might be ineffective. Rather, it’s all about targeting. If instead of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and (presumably) the White House, bin Laden had selected a virtually empty Statue of Liberty, an early-morning deserted Lincoln Memorial, or the Washington Monument, wouldn’t the blow to our psyche have been nearly as great? But even if we were just as horrified, would we have pursued him for ten years with the same fervor?

Either way, whatever command hierarchy Al Qaeda once had will now certainly cease to be. The rigid discipline required to avoid killing civilians at all costs will be impossible to impose on disparate, franchised mini-Qaedas – and that might, in the long run, lead to shooting themselves in the foot. One can only hope.

Patriot’s Day

The British route to Concord and the route of the Patriot riders.

I meant to post this yesterday, but dropped the ball on it. Today (yesterday) was Patriot’s Day, and for those of you not living in the Boston area (or Wisconsin, for some reason), that means a celebration (and Monday off in honor) of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Lexington was the first battle that saw colonial blood spilled. At Concord, we finally shot back.

It’s one of my favorite holidays, complete with reenactors all across the state, the Boston Marathon, and a Red Sox game played at 11 AM. So I figure this is as good a time as any to announce that my paper on the Battle of Concord, “Privates and Patriots,” has been accepted for presentation at the NEASA conference this November. It’s a comparison of British and American (or if you like, loyalist and rebel) perceptions of that day’s battle, and an attempt to discern fact from exaggeration. Here’s a little excerpt:

With Pole’s companies still at the South Bridge and Laurie’s detachment at the North Bridge, Colonel Smith’s troops still in the town square had set the courthouse aflame. Since 0900, Colonel Barrett’s forces had grown in size with companies from Acton, Bedford, Lincoln, and Carlisle joining those already mustered in Concord. Upon seeing plumes of smoke from the center of town (and mistaking those at the South Bridge for a larger conflagration), the young Lieutenant Joseph Hosmer turned to Barrett and asked, “Will you let them burn the town down?” The captain of the Acton company, Isaac Davis, declared to those who might question their willingness to fight for a town not their own that “I haven’t a man who isn’t afraid to go.” Barrett and the various company captains at Punkatasset held an impromptu war council. The verdict was simple and clear: “To march into the middle of the town for its defense, or die in the attempt.”

So on this day (yesterday), remember Lexington Green and the Old North Bridge. Remember the running battle fought all the way back to Boston, around the “Bloody Angle” and Parker’s Revenge; Fiske’s Hill and The Bluff. And remember that every side has its own story.

By the rude bridge that arched the flood
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurl’d
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard ‘round the world

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Concord Hymn”


They came three thousand miles and died
To keep the past upon its throne
Unheard beyond the ocean tide
Their English Mother made her moan

– James Russell Lowell, inscribed on the grave of the British soldiers


Stephen Graham to Speak at the LSE

Back in April, I wrote about emerging patterns of urban warfare and the new surveillance state that continues to grow in modern cities. Much of what I wrote was inspired by Geoff Manaugh’s amazing work at BLDGBLOG, but also by Stephen Graham’s new book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. If that sounded interesting to you and you’ll in be in London next week, some great news:

Cities Under Siege

LSE Cities Book Launch

Date: Monday 7 June 2010
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building
Speaker: Stephen Graham
Respondent: Gareth Jones
Chair: Dr Fran Tonkiss

Cities have become the new battleground of our increasingly urban world. From the slums of the global South to the wealthy financial centres of the West, Cities Under Siege traces how political violence now operates through the sites, spaces, infrastructures and symbols of the world’s rapidly expanding metropolitan areas. Drawing on a wealth of original research, Graham shows how Western and Israeli militaries and security forces now perceive all urban terrain as a real or imagined conflict zone inhabited by lurking, shadow enemies, and urban inhabitants as targets that need to be continually tracked, scanned, controlled and targeted. He examines the transformation of Western militaries into high-tech urban counter-insurgency forces, the militarization and surveillance of March international borders, the labelling as “terrorist” of democratic dissent and Politics/Geography protests, and the enacting of legislation suspending “normal” civilian law.

But best of all…

This event is free and open to all with no ticket required. Entry is on a first come, first served basis. For more information, email d.tanner@lse.ac.uk.

I cannot wait. See you all there.

Different Strokes for Different Folks, or, Whatever Floats Your Boat

Regardless of what the true story is with the Israeli interception of a Gaza-bound flotilla, all sides and interested parties will take away from it what they want to. Much like the al-Durrah incident in 2000, the flotilla intercept will be used a prism through which any side can view the conflict as a whole.

For instance, the earliest reports that were unable to describe anything more detailed than Israelis boarding the flotilla and killing ten implied a massacre for which Jerusalem was directly responsible. But already video has come out with the true nature of the “peace activists” revealed (via Information Dissemination):

Of course, this in no exonerates Israel of responsibility for the raid in the first pace. If nothing else, this was a public relations catastrophe that could easily spark a third intifada. And it’s hard to see how the result couldn’t be predicted on either side. Galrahn calls it a given:

It is hard for Americans to draw any analogies, because we don’t have a relationship like the one between Israel and Palestine.

But if 1000 people from Mexico, whom our government presumed was mostly made up of drug cartel supporters, tried to sail into San Diego with the expectation of running the blockade of the Coast Guard and creating a political demonstration through confrontation – I assure you the odds of people getting killed would be pretty high.

Just like they were in this situation.

Either the flotilla itself was an intentional provocation – or not. It really does push the limits of the imagination to assert that no one had any idea a flotilla like that would possibly provoke Israel. But as Abu Muqawama explains, it’s Israel that should have had an even clearer idea of the possible consequences:

But for the sake of argument, and putting ourselves in the shoes of an Israeli naval commander, let’s assume the most malevolent of motivations for the people participating in the peace flotilla. If I am in charge of doing that for the Israeli Navy, I am going to assume these people are smart and are deliberately trying to provoke a crazy response from my sailors and soldiers that will produce ready-for-television images that both isolate Israel within the international community and further raise the ire of the Arabic-speaking and Islamic worlds. I mean, that is my base assumption for what this group is trying to do. So naturally, the last thing I would want my forces to do would be to overreact, right? [emphasis in original]

One need not assign blame to anyone in order to see this as the colossal fuckup that it is. As usual, absolutely no one wins this game.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Last week, Russian defense firm Concern Morinformsystem-Agat announced it had designed a clever new launch system for cruise missiles: the Club-K. Designed in the form of a standard shipping container, the missiles can then be launched from essentially anywhere: on a train, from a ship, from a tractor-trailer in the middle of nowhere. They use satellite guidance systems. And in case this seemed like yet another cute idea the Russians had, the system makes use of the 3M-54TE, 3M-54TE1, and the 3M-14TE missiles – all of which are tested and proven. The missiles come in two flavors: anti-ship and anti-ground.

This is naturally troubling on a number of levels, though actually not quite so many as one might imagine at first glance. The most immediate concern is that this particular style of camouflage allows a merchant ship to carry enough firepower to knock out an aircraft carrier – a continuation of asymmetric warfare at sea that Robert Gates has been acknowledging quite a bit recently. Asymmetric threats in general stand to gain the most from this weapon; the sheer banality that the missiles are hidden behind (the container looks so normal) is a clever disguise. Watching that video definitely provokes one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” moments.

Iran and Venezuela are already lining up to purchase the Club-K, and others will soon follow suit. Of course, Venezuela is a highly overrated security problem, but the threat posed by the Club-K is not existential; but one of harassment and annoyance. Iran, on the other hand, poses a clearer danger both itself and through intermediaries. And as Al Sahwa points out:

While it is true that al Qaeda won’t buy this weapon system from CM-AGAT out right, I think we have to recognize that nations like Iran have no qualms in providing groups like Hamas and Hezbollah weapons. The primary limiting factor for a terror organization utilizing this system is most likely the satellite navigation system. A non-Nation State organization would probably need access to a Nation State’s satellite infrastructure, although this is strictly a personal assumption.

However, seeing as some of the weakest links in American border security are the ports, we’re at huge risk there. Is it just me or does the Club-K look like it could also be a toy for eccentric billionaires?

Urban Jungle Warfare

An American solider in Sadr City, Iraq, 2008. Photo: Zoriah.

Geoff Manaugh at the ever-fantastic and always impressive BLDGBLOG has a post up about Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism and urban warfare in general.

The city is obviously going to be the defining social construct of the 21st century, but whether that happens in the benevolent, ‘new urbanist’ way that’s all the rage these days seems increasingly unlikely. From Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums:

The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.

One is reminded of John Robb’s take on cities and the coming urban warfare, along with his prescription against urban conglomerations. Cities are immensely important nodes in a country’s system, and taking them down is easier, more profitable, and much more effective than as was practiced in the first half of the twentieth century.The will to besiege a city that continued up through the World Wars at Leningrad, Liege, and Namur is no longer there, but that brute force method is no longer needed. And the material rewards – not to mention the political and social effects of urban devastation – are more promising than ever.

Continue reading

The Next Island Chain

All too often, a newspaper’s article about an aspect of the Chinese military uses an alarming headline, builds up the “threat,” and then contradicts itself within the first few paragraphs. This time, it’s the New York Times in an article titled “China Expands Naval Power to Waters U.S. Dominates.”

YALONG BAY, China — The Chinese military is seeking to project naval power well beyond the Chinese coast, from the oil ports of the Middle East to the shipping lanes of the Pacific, where the United States Navy has long reigned as the dominant force, military officials and analysts say.

Well, OK, so far so good. Nothing there that we didn’t know already.

The strategy is a sharp break from the traditional, narrower doctrine of preparing for war over the self-governing island of Taiwan or defending the Chinese coast. Now, Chinese admirals say they want warships to escort commercial vessels that are crucial to the country’s economy, from as far as the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca, in Southeast Asia, and to help secure Chinese interests in the resource-rich South and East China Seas.

Yeah, that’s also nothing new. The ‘three island chain plan‘ has been around for decades; this was just the logical next step. They’re in the Gulf of Aden already conducting anti-piracy operations.

The overall plan reflects China’s growing sense of self-confidence and increasing willingness to assert its interests abroad. China’s naval ambitions are being felt, too, in recent muscle flexing with the United States: in March, Chinese officials told senior American officials privately that China would brook no foreign interference in its territorial issues in the South China Sea, said a senior American official involved in China policy.

Well, seeing as the South China Sea is a part of the first island chain – an arena China’s been capable of defending and projecting itself into for some time – this doesn’t change anything, really. Much like the United States will brook no interference in its own territorial issues. I’m not even sure what the problem is here that Wong sees…

The naval expansion will not make China a serious rival to American naval hegemony in the near future, and there are few indications that China has aggressive intentions toward the United States or other countries.

Oh, there it is. Thank you, Edward Wong, for leading us on with five paragraphs about the growing menace of the Chinese Navy and abruptly telling us “oh, you know what? Don’t worry about all that stuff I just said. It doesn’t matter.” Sea denial has been the constant refrain of the Chinese for a decade; the fact that we’re just catching on now is the alarming part. That’s why China’s focus is on asymmetrical naval warfare – not carriers to fight our carriers, but land-based missiles to sink our carriers.

Continue reading

“A Small Thermal Exhaust Port…”

Its defenses are designed around a direct large-scale assault. A small one-man fighter should be able to penetrate the outer defense.
[…]
The Empire doesn’t consider a small one-man fighter to be any threat, or they’d have a tighter defense.

General Dodonna

Some good news for the US Navy:

Military experts say the Fifth Fleet has come a long way since Iranian gunboats crippled it within hours in a notorious war game five years ago.

In fact, says John Pike, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Global Security Web site, the Navy was well on its way to solving the challenge of fending off the swarming swift boats before the war game began.

In that test, an enemy “red team” headed by retired Martine Corps Gen. Paul Van Riper deployed the gun boats and propeller-driven suicide planes to paralyze the Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.

It took Riper less than two hours to knock it out of commission.

Key to the shocking result was Van Riper’s strategy of neutralizing the American advantage in big guns and cruise missiles by getting in close before hostilities began.

But the Navy now has the MK 182, “the mother of all shotgun shells,” fired by 5-inch guns deployed on every major ship in the fleet, says Pike.

Nice to see the USN thinking small, fast, and swarming. Even if it’s just a defensive strategy, the vulnerability of the navy as is to asymmetrical threats – be it dinghies or land-based anti-ship missiles – is pretty damning. Clearly a step in the right direction.

Of course, as Norman Polmar insists, “it always depends on how it starts.”

The Coming Naval War with China?

There’s a new article making the usual rounds, from the Q1 2010 issue of Orbis. James Kraska’s “How the United States Lost the Naval War of 2015” [abstract only] is definitely an interesting read; it’s one of those future/alternate histories examining, essentially, how we might get there.

Kraska hypothesizes a Chinese missile attack on the USS George Washington while “conducting routine patrols” off of China’s coast. China immediately denies all responsibility and in fact aids in the rescue of several hundred sailors, out of the original complement of 4,000. In addition to the international perception of China as uninvolved (much less the aggressor), the United States is blamed for the ecological disaster caused by the George Washington‘s nuclear propulsion system.

China’s ability to conduct such an operation is chalked up to a combination of naval spending cuts, the reassignment of “an entire generation” of officers to COIN and conventional desert warfare in the Middle East and central Asia, and “the environmentalists in charge of strategic U.S. oceans policy.”

‘Ridiculous’ is certainly the first word that comes to mind, and commentators like Thomas Ricks certainly don’t disagree, but there’s a small point to extract from Kraska’s article. His assumption that the increasing budget and growing naval aviation programs of the PLAN will directly challenge the USN for control of East Asia is a little much. He’s right on the nose, however, with the specter of asymmetrical naval warfare.

Robert Kaplan wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly a few years back, “How We Would Fight China.” It covers a lot of this in great detail. The psychological impact of asymmetry at sea is particularly telling – Kaplan notes that “the effect of a single Chinese cruise missile hitting a U.S. carrier…would be politically and psychologically catastrophic, akin to al-Qaeda’s attacks on the twin towers.” It’s hard to talk about China without getting melodramatic, apparently.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to take away from all this would be: do we still need carriers at all?