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Saturday
23Aug

Notes Toward a Theory of Asymmetric Warfare

For several years now, I've been trying to come up with a model of asymmetric warfare that places it within the more general social scientific rubric of social interaction. It's simple enough to come up with descriptive and explanatory models, but I wanted to create one that had some predictive (or at least post-dictive) capability. And, as an anthropologist, I also wanted the model to be applicable across a wide variety and range of time and space, and cover as many cultural types as possible.

For over a decade, I've been using various forms of evolutionary theory and evolutionary psychology, melded in with concepts of emergence, to look at a variety of different patterns of social interaction. This formed the basis of my starting point. As always, I like to go back to the basics and, with evolutionary theory, this tends to mean looking at the minimal characteristics necessary for a Darwinian system to operate. The minimums have been elucidated by Wm. Calvin back in 1997 in an excellent article. These are:

  1. There must be a pattern involved.
  2. The pattern must be copied somehow
  3. Variant patterns must sometimes be produced by chance
  4. The pattern and its variant must compete with one another for occupation of a limited work space.
  5. The competition is biased by a multifaceted environment.
  6. New variants always preferentially occur around the more successful of the current patterns.

When it comes to "warfare", there are two different sets of patterns involved: the first defines the "conventions" of what constitutes "warfare" (what I use the term "Games" and "Rules" for), while the second is the variety of Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) involved in a "convention". In stable culture areas (actually homeostatic), conventions tend to be produced that meet the requirements of the people involved. This could be something along the order of overpopulation (e.g. the Flowery Wars of the Aztec period), environmental problems with herds (e.g. cattle raids in pastoralist cultures), or agreements that only "soldiers" will actually fight (e.g. Western Europe after the Peace of Westphalia to the start of the Napoleonic wars). In the model I'm building, these conventions or "games" operate across a culture area within the "limited work space" of the application of violence to achieve ends, while TTPs operate within the "limited work space" of a game.

Within the broad definition of a game, i.e. the acceptance of underlying principles, any conflict where the "players" accept those principles and operate according to them will be, by definition, "symmetric" because of that agreement. Conflicts which a), do not accept those principles, and b), include "battlespaces" beyond the "rules" are, by definition, "asymmetric". Thus, for example, al Qaeda accepts a definition of media and symbol system regardless of geographic boundaries as the primary "battlespace" (workspace), while Coalition forces use the concept of bounded geography as the primary battlespace. This is a classic example of an asymmetric conflict; it is "asymmetric" because the players are using different workspaces and different game rules.

Now this model works nicely in a homeostatic culture area, but that is really quite limited. Most cultures nowadays are either operating in a "stressed" ecology with one or more vectors of development that will push them out of a stable work space. For warfare, at least in the West, this push started with the development of mass armies (breaking the civilian /soldier dichotomy), got accelerated by the introduction of breach loading rifles, and really started rolling with the introduction of mechanization.

By the end of World War II, it wasn't enough to be a "state" in order to "play the game". You also had to be able to mobilize a decent force with significant mechanized components (which requires either a significant industrialization on your part or a lot of aid). By the 1980's, almost nobody could "play the game" since the cost of supporting such a military force was well beyond the means of most states, and certainly beyond the means of most non-state actors.

So, what's a poor, non-state actor supposed to do?

The answer, as it turned out, was simplicity itself: change the game. This had already been popularized in the 1945-1970 period with the Wars of National Liberation which provided potential players with an alternate gamebook, with a nifty red and gold cover: the Maoist Three Stage War of insurgency. Of course, that particular game relied on certain environmental supports, the most important of which was the existence of the Cold War (and its use of proxies). By the time the Cold War melts and we are down to a single super-power, it just doesn't work. It did, however, produce certain patterns that survive quite nicely in the modern era, the most important of which was the realization that you can win a war without ever winning a single "conventional" battle (thank you Algeria and Vietnam). Of course, in order to do this, you have to attack the opponent's will to fight not on the battlefield, but in the press back home and in your own hinterland.

Building a model that can account for this shift requires identifying the various work space in which conflict takes place (aka "battlespaces"). What I have tried to do in the model so far, is to look at he conditions that create and encourage the creation of  "new" battlespaces, by examining the effects of technological "extensions" that produce them. This should allow me to develop a predictive model of where new battlespaces will open up, and what type of conflict will take place in them. At least, that's the goal of the model.

--

Marc W.D. Tyrrell, Ph.D., is based at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, Carleton University, and is Associate Researcher at ICAN, University of Technology, Sydney. He blogs at In Harmonium.

[Ed's Note: this post summarizes arguments first presented in

three stages, here, here, and here, at In Harmonium.]


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Reader Comments (2)

Really interesting, Mark. I like your focus on symmetry in rule-sets v. tactics per se. But I wonder if you overstate the differences between the rules with which the USG and al-Qaeda are operating by using the global war on terror as an example. I don't see the US as more territorialized in their focus - both are and are not to different degrees. And both are using the media and psy-ops more generally as key "battlespaces." Does this imply that the war is less asymmetrical, because the USG has essentially adapted by throwing out older "quaint" rule-sets to suit the new landscape? Or if there is indeed a qualitative difference here (other than the obvious state / non-state aspects) how do you operationalize it?

Aug 24, 2008 at 2:41 | Registered CommenterDiodotus

Hi Diodotus,

I probably am overstating the difference somewhat, and I certainly agree that AQ is, in part, territory oriented, although nowhere near as much as the US is. And yes, the US is using PSYOPS (and IO and CA) as part of a concerted effort. Unfortunately, the US is also hamstrung by a mistaken interpretation of the Smith-Mundt act (I'm getting that from Matt Armstrong at MountainRunner BTW), which means that they are artificially limiting their infospace operations significantly. Also, I would suggest that much of their PR strategy is so hopelessly archaic that it keeps reminding me of bronze swords < grin>. As a case in point, I get the rss feed from RC East in Afghanistan, and it reads like a bad caricature of 1950's press releases.

Honestly, I don't think the US has adapted to the infospace war at all well, at least the one outside of their immediate areas of operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan. From what I can see, their thinking is based too heavily on concepts of broadcast media and there is almost no real consideration (outside of Gen Caldwell) of how to use network media. In terms of asymmetries, I would say that the advantage that the US has in three-dimensional space over AQ, and it's huge, is about the same as the advantage that AQ has over the US in infospace.

Aug 24, 2008 at 13:50 | Registered CommenterMarc Tyrrell
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