Tactics and Strategy: adding to the Brave New War commentary

There is a difference between tactics and strategy, a point that seems lost on some. John Robb discusses the former in Brave New War: the tactics of the enemy as well as recommendations, implied and explicit, on how to  deal with current and future attacks. These are all very good, and I especially like his bazaar model, which all contribute to the discussion. However, this book has been highlighted as a resource on strategy on how to combat the “enemy”. This book simply does not do that. It does not provide a strategic solution to current or future threats. Matching a threat and attempting to stay ahead of the threat does nothing to actually eliminate or neutralize the threat.

An awareness of how somebody will attack, a tactic, doesn’t bring with it the understanding of the enemies strategy. Do we care about their goals? Damn straight we do, otherwise we’re playing wack-a-mole, sometimes to the effect of playing into their hand. Do we continue to address terrorism — a tactic — or the roots of terrorism?

Terrorist acts that do not constitute part of a strategy, without an end state beyond the act itself, are simply criminal acts. The arsonist is a criminal. The arsonist who sets fire to a Hummer dealership to attempt to change policy is a terrorist (i.e. Earth Liberation Front). The person who shoots from a trunk because of the thrill is a criminal. The person who shoots doctors, or bombs clinics, to dissuade is a terrorist (i.e. Eric Rudolph). (Of course Bruce Hoffman is the suggested read for more on this) 

It is fascinating, and more a little disappointing, to continue to hear comments like this that accept enemy attempts to attack our will but cannot comprehend the reverse. How very ironic, especially when it comes from those who support “4GW” and supposedly understand the changing nature of warfare.

Robb, from what I’ve read on his blog, as well as heard and read in interviews, seems to get the need for a real strategy and a need to get into the enemy holistically. However, this barely comes out in the book however, and that is a problem.

We need to move beyond the tactic of terrorism, itself something of limited real utility. Max Abrahms, in a paper in International Security (direct download) last fall, does a good job in analyzing, and busting conventional wisdom, the effectiveness of terrorism. He shows, directly and indirectly, that our focus on effects of al-Qaeda’s tactics, while ignoring their repeatedly stated goals that mobilize support, is counterproductive. At the same, we expect foreign (and domestic) populations to pay attention to our goals while ignoring the effects of our tactics. Asking people to pay attention to what we say and not what we do, while telling them to ignore what the “enemy” says and pay attention to what they do continues to fall short when our credibility — an asset based on information — is increasingly in question (especially after four years in Iraq).

The goals, intent, and desires of leaders and agitators form only part of the game here. The real focus our efforts must be on the support systems of the enemy, which include physical (sanctuary), financial (money to buy things), moral (religious leader backing), and social (friends and family). The enemy targets the same for us, either directly or by chance because of whatever limitation (geographic access, arms effectiveness, numbers of recruits, etc).

Modern conflict is, too often, asymmetrical, as Robb currently points out. As I noted in my review, “information asymmetry reduces the fungibility of hard power assets” that plays both ways. Employing information operations requires understanding the enemy, to separate them from their support. We can’t kill them all because as we do, the “them” actually becomes a greater population, overtaking neutrals and eventually allies.

Fernando Lujan, in his excellent Plan B in Iraq, rightly hammers the importance of information, not just in IO but in cultural and regional awareness. On the latter, troops shouldn’t be rotated as often and when rotated, put back into their old territory.

War, or rather, Unrestricted Warfare, means power “will be in readiness, that information will be omnipresent, and the battlefield will be everywhere.” This means all weapons and technology can be superimposed at will and all the boundaries lying between the two worlds of war and non-war, of military and non-military, will be totally destroyed. The two Chinese colonels who wrote that made it clear that many of the current principles of combat that are based on Western notions of war will be modified and rewritten, a point Robb goes into.

However, deterritorilized conflict today often has a center of gravity on ideology, culture, society, or economics. All of which are based on information. Secondary to these many conflicts is the physical space. Modern battlefields discount the need for enemy’s order of battle, and sometimes even knowing his tactics. Increasingly important is knowledge on media availability (foreign and domestic), audience receptivity (will they listen), public opinion (what will they think if they do listen), and the roles and functions of information systems to understand what could be termed “information channels”. Information may be force multiplier or neutralizer as information is put into the channels for listening. Modern communications make it easy to engage core constituencies and to fine tune the message for a broad range of listeners that include current and potential supporters. Unlike Winston Churchill’s messages intended to be overheard by the US before Pearl Harbor, a broadcast that required particular planning, secondary audiences today are easily acquired, sometimes unintentionally so. Information is often commingled with messages or actions of conflict and reduces asymmetry, bringing weak actors to the level of great actors.

The line from Clausewitz that war is the extension of politics must be changed. Today war is politics. Every act in war is political. The realization that war is no longer something between states has set in. Since the end of World War II, the usual formula for conflict had only one side with direct state participation. Hierarchical Industrial Age warfare meant victory upon the capture of the capital city. It also meant the maneuver of large forces that had certain weaknesses based on their hierarchical structures.

Opponents in small wars frequently do not have such obvious wire diagrams. Identifying the center of gravity in these groups is important for operations seeking effects defined as “physical, functional, or psychological [resulting] from specific military and non-military actions.” These “effects-based operations” are about contested spaces that are no longer defined by geography but by ideology and perceptions.

Effects-based operations are systemic attacks intended to influence – primarily through the power of information – the four networks of support upon which all insurgent and terrorist groups rely: physical, financial, social, and ideological. Physical support is the harboring of individuals and the storage or transport of material necessary to sustain the effort. Like any other enterprise, financial support is required to sustain the mission, communicate, and attack. Social support takes the form of group rewards, recruiting, and stories that create a legacy. Ideological support provides justification for the groups actions. This can take the form of social, moral, or religious support.

Today, we need to communicate with the individuals holding RPGs, as well as his friends and social groups, for example, because, as Robb points out, the enemy is often a self-healing “organization”. In other words, if we take out a node, sometimes regardless of criticality, the gap will be readily filled, sometimes by another organization in the bazaar. The fighter we face today in Anbar may not be the same as we faced yesterday as groups shift and our geographic focus shifts as well. We must look at how
they recruit and what motivates their fighters and supporters.

Insurgents fight for various reasons. Focusing on combating the tactic of terrorism is incomplete, we must address the motivations of terrorism and the networks of terrorism, both of whom locate specific facilitators of recruitment and encouragement that rely in part on misinformation by the enemy and propaganda coups handed to them by us.

To affect real threat reduction and mitigation, we must focus on the strategy. We will never be safe, and we never were, but at the very least we need to understand our own role in empowering the enemy.

2 thoughts on “Tactics and Strategy: adding to the Brave New War commentary

  1. Great post. Let me add one thought:You keep saying that we need to distinguish between tactics and political goals, and I agree, BUT… it seems obvious to me that tactical changes drive political changes as well. If Al Qaeda is able to successfully change American political goals by using the tactic of terrorism (using currently illegitimate tactics to bring attention to legitimate political goals) then that changes the whole strategic/political picture. Could that not force a re-orientation of the state itself? Robb’s book is currently sitting on my bookshelf (I feel kind of bad commenting on it when I haven’t even cracked it open yet) but it does seem to me that, even if it does solely discuss tactics as you say, it must implicitly deal with the political picture because tactical innovations change the political picture (I think Jeremy Black wrote a book on that process).

  2. If Al Qaeda is able to successfully change American political goals by using the tactic of terrorismThe means is not the end. The tactic, in this case terrorism, or it could be propaganda, free heating oil for the poor (say in the US), free education and a safe place for children, etc, all leads to an end. Terrorism, which is some act to scare, usually with death but also with economic or other consequences, are all intended to influence somebody. Earth Liberation Front, the group that torches Hummer car dealerships and new construction in nature areas, don’t kill, but they mean to influence policy.
    If you commit terrorism just for the sake of it, saw torching a building or killing people, then you’re just a criminal or psychopath. Of course you can be a criminal or psychopath in the employ (with or without awareness, doesn’t matter) of a group seeking change, in which case the act is terrorism, which is a strategy.
    The end game is important, otherwise we’re simply talking about unrelated criminal acts.
    Read Robb’s book. It’s a good read, I gave it four stars on Amazon. But it needs to be read for what it is otherwise we continue in the Clash of Civilizations track of assuming acts based on superimposed and stereotypical perceptions of our own.

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