Difficulties of confronting unconventional warfare

Words of caution for military retaliation

Strategists of unconventional warfare have for decades sought to turn the anger and might of a military giant against itself. Thus, the September 11 attackers stand in a tradition of unconventional warfare with a considerable track record of success.

  1. Small militant groups at the fringes of society were able to challenge much more powerful enemies using guerilla warfare strategies in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
    • Che Guevara, icon of unconventional warfare movements in Latin America, taught that small groups of militants should avoid direct military engagement with powerful governments. Instead, the primary goal in early phases is to provoke governments into heavy-handed response. This embitters large numbers of innocent civilians who provide a sympathetic social base for terrorists, and ultimately recruits and financial support.
    • The Viet Cong used unconventional tactics successfully to turn the civilian populace of South Vietnam against the U.S.-backed government in Saigon; the Afghani resistance accomplished the same goal in their ten-year struggle to drive vastly superior Soviet troops out of Afghanistan.
    • Today’s terrorists are using with far greater sophistication the same tactics that ensnared the U.S. in Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan, and which have engulfed large segments of Latin America in ongoing violence.
  2. Unconventional strategy capitalizes on the tendency of powerful governments to rely on outdated doctrines of security.
    • Traditional military doctrine, which seeks to defeat the enemy by overwhelming force, assumes an enemy with conventional fighting forces (armies) which are easily identified, located, and isolated from civilian populations. It also assumes readily detectable weapons with limited capacity for destruction. All are outdated assumptions.
    • Terrorists who engage in unconventional warfare blend into civilian populations, making it impossible to engage them without widespread, indiscriminate destruction of civilian populations.
    • Compact explosives, portable missile launchers, atomic weapons the size of a suitcase, biological weapons, and massive international trade now mean that even a small number of indistinguishable individuals can cause large-scale destruction. “Defeat” of such an opponent is an out-dated concept.
    • Over confidence in the effectiveness of superior conventional force makes it relatively easy for states to be enticed into costly mobilization. If heavy damage is inflicted on civilian populations, the civilian support base for the unconventional group will be exponentially expanded.
  3. Unconventional strategies rely on the fact that military combat usually unites civilian populations who are casualties.
    • Terrorists face a difficult problem: the communities they seek to mobilize are diverse. These groups are almost always on the fringes of their society, in the same way that extremist hate-groups are on the fringe of American society. Even when many agree with the goals of terrorists, few would normally support military combat against a more powerful nation.
    • Terrorists benefit from the tendency of outsiders to overlook these distinctions and to treat whole groups as though they were the part of the terrorists’ group.
    • Thus, those relying on unconventional warfare depend on the response of their powerful victims to create something that they cannot alone create: a broad seedbed of sympathizers among people previously apathetic or even hostile to their cause.
  4. The challenge in dealing with unconventional warfare: to limit their capacity to do grave harm without doing large scale, grave harm in response and to address the concerns in larger populations which those using the unconventional warfare try to exploit. Key elements:
    • Prudent defensive measures at home
    • Military restraint abroad
    • Engagement and consultation with the domestic populations abroad to recognize, strengthen, and collaborate with the majority elements in those populations which oppose violence.
    • An active effort to understand and address the desperation of those populations which terrorists seek to exploit – If we are seen as respectful of and concerned for their needs, they will not become recruits for terrorists.

At the time of publication, Ron Kraybill, PhD, was professor of Conflict Studies at Eastern Mennonite University’s Conflict Transformation Program.