February 27, 2008

An Adaptive Enemy

Insurgents begin from a position of weakness and must build strength over time. Survival is precarious in the beginning, and insurgent groups face the accelerated Darwinian laws of warfare against a more powerful enemy.

In 2003, an insurgent fired rockets at Balad and stood behind the rockets to fire them. We called him "the crispy critter." The "crispy critters" are dead. The ones who survived 2003-2008 are incredibly experienced, savvy, and tactically competent fighters.

Each year, the Spring Offensive in Afghanistan kicks off as the radical Pakistani madrassas graduate their new cadres of militants. The students who survive the massed attacks learn quickly their first lesson as guerrillas and move on from there.

Recent reports on the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan show continuing adaptive insurgencies that will challenge the counterinsurgents that fight them.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban threatened to begin attacks on cell phone companies and infrastructure unless the companies shut down service at night. They claimed that the cell phone companies (there are now 4 major companies in Afghanistan and dozens of small pirated systems using some of the countries wireless spectrum) were aiding the coalition by providing them information at night that allowed them to target militants.

On first reading this Kip was, as were some Afghan legislatures, incredulous. The Taliban would be hurting themselves as much as anyone else if they were to succeed in getting the networks shut down (or in damaging their infrastructure). However, upon further consideration, this appears like a sound and adaptive tactic. So long as the Taliban don't attack the physical infrastructure in areas where they need it but use terrorism against cell phone company workers, they can win some concessions from the companies or, perhaps, allow some damage that increases frustration with the government through enforced neglect of the system.

The cell phone infrastructure also ranges across the country and is impossible to defend, allowing the Taliban to use select sabotage in areas that are not well protected and in which the loss of cell phone service to them would not be damaging but would prove that the government is unable to protect recent economic gains. It also could be used to stir ethnic tensions by attacking service in other-than-Pathan economic areas.

It is, on further consideration, an interesting and potentially very damaging tactic if they truly adopt it. On the other hand, given the degree to which Afghanistan's 3 million cell phone owners love their service, it could backfire if the government and ISAF answered with an excellent Information Operations campaign (like I said, it will likely be a very damaging tactic).

In Iraq, a suicide bomber was able to attack Shiite pilgrims by placing the explosives within or under a wheelchair. The insurgents have had to find increasingly adaptive and lethal means of carrying out suicide bombing as a result of Iraqi and Coalition countermeasures.

Hezbollah, until it stopped using suicide bombing, similarly had to adapt against Israeli tactics, using bicycle and even donkey bombs to get to or past checkpoints or convoys without being detected early.

Suicide bombing, so long as you continue to have a seemingly endless pool of recruits, is among the most easily adapted tactics and one to which there will never be foolproof defenses so long as insurgents continue to evolve.

It requires adaptive counterinsurgents to face off against this kind of enemy. Unfortunately, the US Army continues to bleed or burn out much of its best and brightest capable of this kind of change while high level party men continue to stifle innovations suggested and adapted at lower levels.