According to generals like Rupert Smith and David Petraeus, postmodern conflict is radically different from warfare between industrialized states, such as the American Civil War and the world wars of the 20th Century. It does not begin with a condition of peace or return to it after the total defeat of the enemy, but rather is a "continuous crisscrossing between confrontation and conflict," often with indecisive results (Smith 19). Confrontations with North Korea and Serbia, for example, continued long after the end of the actual fighting on the battlefield, and the political issues that gave rise to the conflicts remained unresolved. These types of conflicted often dragged on for years or even decades, as in Afghanistan and Somalia, and were always fought among the people, with enemies who had a strong tactical advantage over their better funded and equipped opponents because of their familiarity with local cultures and conditions. In addition, postmodern conflicts are media wars, fought out in living rooms around the world due to a 24-hour news cycle. For the new theorists of counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare like Smith and Petraeus, the main goal in this prolonged conflicts is not even to defeat the enemy on the battlefield but to win the 'hearts and minds' of the local population so it will turn against the insurgents. This is why COIN warfare always offers inducements of social, political and economic development. Unlike the generals, Andrew Bacevich calls for nation building at home, pointing out the desperate political, social and economic crisis within the United States, and a wide variety of problems that have been neglected since the 1970s. As a declining superpower, heavily in debt, the U.S. can no longer support these foreign adventures and long, drawn out wars, and indeed public opinion seems to have turned very sour on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Gen. Petreaus firmly believes the U.S. can and should win. This may prove very difficult, however, in the context of the worse economic crisis since the 1930s, a revived isolationist and inward-looking public mood, and doubts about whether such wars are winnable at all, at least at any reasonable cost.
Political and military leaders who fail to take into account the importance of cable news coverage and the new forms of Internet communications will have failed in their missions before they even begin. Objectives in these wars generally will not be the total destruction or submission of the enemy, and "the tools of industrial warfare are often irrelevant," given that the opposition often consists on non-state actors who are not armed with tanks, planes, submarines and artillery (Smith 20). In Iraq after May 2003, for instance, there was "little utility to the force" assembled there after Saddam Hussein's army had been defeated. It could not fulfill the tasks of reconstruction and nation building and was "neither trained nor equipped for the task" (Smith 12). In the so-called War on Terror, there will never be any "decisive victory" in the old-fashioned sense because of the very nature of the enemy. As in most conflicts after the Cold War, force has been "misapplied" without useful results (Smith 27).
In the West at least, the decision to use military force will remain a political one, but in postmodern conflicts, politics and military force will be constantly intermingled, while the forces used will no longer be generic but specifically tailored to meet each specific situation as it arises. From the 17th to the 20th Centuries, Britain had a military, political and diplomatic strategy that was well-suited to its situation as an island power, even though the conditions that existed in that period are now fundamentally altered and the older policies no longer apply. In the past, it was mainly a sea power with far flung commercial and imperial interests, and maintained only a small standing army in peacetime. Diplomatically, it practiced a balance-of-power strategy with consummate skill, in order to prevent any rival industrial powers like France, Germany, Japan or Russia from dominating Europe or Asia. Indeed, the United States, Britain and their NATO allies continued this in its Cold War containment policies against the Soviet Union. During the period of its heyday as an imperial power, the performance of Britain's ground army was often poor compared to the navy, as in the Crimean War, Boer War and first three years of World War I. None of this is even remotely applicable to the types of military confrontations occurring in most of the world today.
According to the new paradigm of warfare, most conflicts will no longer be of the industrial-interstate variety, and adapting to this reality will require another revolution in military thought. Such transformational thinking will finally accept the fact that "we are living in a world of confrontations and conflicts rather than one of war and peace" (Smith 374). Decisive victories are no longer possible in the traditional sense and the political roots of confrontations will remain in place after the end of military action. Military force alone will never resolve these conflicts, especially those in which the enemy appears to be nameless and "faceless," such as "insurgents" and "terrorists" in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Philippines (Smith 376). Their typical weapons will be small arms and Improvised Explosive Devices set off by cell phones, and they will be concealed in and "amongst the people" (Smith 370). Massive use of force and high tech weapons will not defeat them, and insofar as these cause great destruction to civilian lives and property will actually be a victory for the enemy. Israel learned this in its 2006 invasion of Lebanon, when it inflicted tremendous damage on Hezbollah and civilians alike, thus losing the political and public relations war despite some limited military successes. Such conflicts against relatively low tech enemies may never really be one at all, but only managed and contained, with the enemy having a natural advantage over industrial states and militaries trained to fight conventional wars against other states. They will always end up fighting on battlefields that the enemy "has set and on his terms" (Smith 379). Western-style militaries have faced this exact type of situation repeatedly over the last twenty years, from Somalia to Afghanistan, fighting guerillas and armed civilians "who pick the location, time and context of every battle and skirmish" (Smith 377). In fact, they find it very useful for propaganda purposes that the Western powers inflict massive casualties on civilians.
In Iraq after 2003, this problem was especially difficult after the defeat of Saddam Hussein's regular army due to the insurgency that dragged on for eight years. Both the U.S. And its coalition partners initially failed to determine the goals and motivations of the insurgents, such as the restoration of the Sunni Ba'athist state, a Shi'ite regime allied with Iran or an Al Qaeda-style theocracy. Some were simply seeking "the destruction of the state which they no longer ruled," while the religious extremists concentrated in mosques and schools that the Western militaries could not easily target (Smith 383). They lacked intelligence and information about their opponents and therefore had no real means to coerce, deter or defeat them, nor did they have clear political and military objectives that could rally public support. Simply using constant force against guerillas without knowing who they are or what goals they desire "will likely as not reinforce the opponent's position rather than weaken it" (Smith 384).
Establishing security and order may be a worthwhile goal and one which the local population will support, but that begs the question of whose order it will be and who will enforce it. In Iraq, the "desired outcome was a democratic state operating by the norms of Western democracies and open to free trade with the West" (Smith 404). Obviously this goal was never attained, to put it mildly, and outside the Kurdish zone at least the final outcome remains uncertain at best. No one on the coalition side gave sufficient thought in 2003 to how these lofty goals might be achieved in reality or who would administer the new Iraqi state. If the Ba'ath Party was destroyed, there was always a high probability that it would be replaced by sectarian imams and mosques allied with Iran or Al Qaeda rather than by liberal democrats. This remains a problem in all Middle Eastern countries today where secular dictatorships are being challenged or overthrown by popular revolutions. Without answering the ultimate political questions, then, military force is not only ineffective but downright counterproductive. Beyond immediate military victory over Saddam Hussein, few people on the civilian or military side of the U.S. government gave sufficient thought to these hard questions of nation building, nor were the Western militaries well trained and equipped to deal with this situation. In fact, when Western-style militaries and their tanks, planes and heavily fortified bases appear in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, they automatically seem to be the enemy 'Other' rather than liberators (Smith 414).
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