April 25, 2013

Bringing Structure Back to Irregular Warfare

Structural approaches to international relations
have gone somewhat out of fashion in recent years. Burdened with their
associations with Cold
War geopolitics
and “billiard ball” realism, structural
questions seem peripheral to the major issues of our day, in a world where
transnational criminal actors, insurgents, and state collapse appear to prevent
the dominant security challenges. Even as questions of relative U.S. decline
enter the security the debate, it is easy to focus analysis on great power
balances and underplay questions of civil war and other challenges, as if they
too were peripheral to structural models.

Back in fall 2010, the
eponymous blogfather highlighted a Kalyvas and Balcells article

making an argument that a major structural change – the end of the Cold War –
altered the local dynamics of civil war-prone countries, altering the
availability of “technologies of rebellion” (irregular war, conventional war,
and symmetric non-state conflict). Guerrilla war, without foreign patrons and
the associated mobilizing social networks they inaugurated, dimmed in
feasibility, while feeble states that enjoyed the benefits of Cold War competition
crumbled into relatively symmetric but unconventional conflict between armed
groups (the “new wars” that theories of conflict focusing on 1990s sub-Saharan
Africa might be familiar with), or else became more susceptible to conventional
civil war. Consequently, there might be danger of over-extrapolating future
conflicts from Iraq and Afghanistan’s decreasingly typical regular wars.

Abu M raised some important questions:

Yeah, this is all fine and good, but speaking in plain
English, if the United States were to intervene in a conflict, might that
external intervention change the conflict in unpredictable ways? Maybe it
boosts the capacity of one party, and maybe a rival party (say, Iran) jumps in
and boosts the capacity of another party. Maybe, before we know it, the
conflict has morphed into a robust insurgency in which one actor is employing
irregular means. And maybe policy-makers should internalize the lessons of Iraq and
Afghanistan lest they lead the U.S. military into another, ahem, quagmire. 

Here, though, is where examining the combination of
big-picture geopolitics and local conflict dynamics becomes all the more
important. At a structural level, Iraq and Afghanistan were both importantly
prone to the kind of irregular escalation pointed out above. Iranian
unconventional warfare in Iraq and Pakistani unconventional warfare in
Afghanistan obviously enjoy more political interest and logistical feasibility than
a conflict in, say, North Africa, where those state sponsors would be at a
relative disadvantage.

A significant question is, then, how does relative U.S.
decline alter the prospects for new powers to enhance and appropriate the Cold
War tactics of the bipolar era? There are several possibilities. For example,
large U.S. commitments such as Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to make
irregular warfare with foreign patronage relatively more attractive to
insurgents and third party intervening states alike. On the other hand, if the
result of downscaling Iraq and Afghanistan-like endeavors is an increase in
security force assistance, foreign internal defense, or burden-sharing that
propels foreign ground forces further to the forefront in securing U.S.
interests, does this preserve or even increase foreign interests in backing

Another important factor to consider is how useful the
aforementioned “technologies of rebellion” are to rising states. While Iran and
Pakistan spent years developing the kind of transnational networks to
facilitate robust support of insurgency, it is unclear at what distance they
can project this power, and to what extent powers with the brute resources and
expanse of interest that might justify adopting such strategies, such as China,
can develop unconventional warfare capabilities and tap into the transnational
networks in a way comparable to Iran in Pakistan in their own neighborhoods, or
the Soviet Union at a global scale.

Given many emerging economies’ interests in securing economic
gains rather than inflicting combat attrition, backing friendly state forces
(or outbidding rivals for them), along cutting deals with warlords might be a
better use of resources. Insurgency was extremely useful to the revisionist
USSR in the context of bipolar superpower competition as revolutionary ideology
spread and empires crumbled. To a cadre of rising states facing a waning U.S., the
operating environment is vastly dissimilar, and despite their strength, few
have the kinds of transnational ties or logistical and military capabilities to
engage in a similar insurgency-centric mode of unconventional warfare. While
many countries maintain robust unconventional warfare capabilities, their
ability to export this model is far more regionally-limited than the USSR’s.
The U.S. is actually far better poised to engage in classic unconventional
warfare operations, but because of the current nature of its interests and
normative commitments to building state authority, it will need to focus on
building the capabilities of state and parastatal actors instead.

Why do these
relatively abstract, structural questions matter beyond academia? Force
planning based off of historical analysis has its limits. Beyond the clichés
about preparing for the last war, or failing to learn its lessons, attempting
to get a sense of how the international structure alters the prevalence of
these “technologies of rebellion” – which are not simply reactions
to U.S. strength
or changes in technology in the conventional sense – helps
us think more realistically about the types of threats we are likely to face.

Further, examining
these methods as “technologies” dependent on a structural, social, and
institutional context better explains when and where they are likely to be
effective. As I have argued before, to say the state is in decline or that
non-state actors are in decline misses the real change that Kalyvas and
Balcells point out here – that insurgency, which benefitted disproportionately
form the social and structural environment of the Cold War, is not necessarily
the kind of threat that future “irregular” conflicts will pose. Overdrawing
lessons about combating non-state actors from Iraq and Afghanistan – and in
turn, from counterinsurgency lessons that drew heavily from our understanding
of Cold War era insurgencies, will not provide effective guidance for
understanding a civil wars in collapsing states or areas without serious state

Structural thinking,
despite its association in security studies with great power war obsession,
provides a useful tool for thinking about defense policy and assessing future
security threats even in an age when likely conflicts will not be directly with
great powers. Even in a world where great power conflict remains rare, the fact
remains that the capabilities and distribution of great powers matters has
always mattered immensely in shaping other conflicts. In a world where the vast
majority of wars are still fought with Cold War surplus, and interventions rely
on power projection platforms built up in the expectation of World War III or
massive conventional conflict, and where international norms and legitimacy are
still largely the product of a concert of powerful states, the big issues still
matter. Treating state and non-state actors as part of a security system rather
than  symbolic of divergent worldviews is
a necessary first step in shaping a policy for an era where geopolitical
complexity rises as our own resources diminish.