Nasty Little Wars

December 1, 2000 Topic: Security Tags: KosovoYugoslavia

Nasty Little Wars

Mini Teaser: Ask the Chechen fighters--the future of war is nasty, brutish and anything but short.

by Author(s): Anatol Lieven

NATO's victory in Kosovo represents not a new paradigm but simply a
new turn in an old historical pattern that we would do well to study.
On the one hand, over the past five centuries Western technological
superiority has repeatedly brought military victories and ensured
Western domination of the globe. On the other, in every age there
have been numerous occasions when Western powers suffered local
defeats, sometimes so severe as to drive them from a region
altogether or bring down regimes in Europe. The reasons for these
defeats were generally to be found in a combination of local culture,
geography, and Western arrogance and ignorance.

The difference today is that Western tolerance of casualties is
lower, and the stakes--at least when it comes to the potential use of
weapons of mass destruction by non-state actors--are a great deal
higher. In 1879 the British could lose more than 1,500 men in an hour
at Isandlwana, shrug it off, and go on to conquer Zululand. In
1993-94 the United States was forced out of Somalia after 18 men were

What the examples of Mogadishu, Beirut and Grozny demonstrate is that
today the most dangerous terrain for the West is not the mountains or
jungles of the past, but the city. There, the automatic rifle and the
rocket-propelled grenade still give local irregulars technological
advantages of which their nineteenth-century equivalents could only
dream, and which Western forces still cannot neutralize. The most
dangerous enemy, meanwhile, is not the regular general, but some
combination of terrorist commander, ward politician, traditional clan
leader transposed to an urban setting, and criminal warlord or gang

Most Western military hierarchies desperately want to believe that
future wars involving their countries will be regular affairs against
regular enemy forces, preferably fighting at sea or in the middle of
an open desert. But to fight the United States on such terms would
indeed be suicidal--which is why our enemies are unlikely to attempt
it. Western technological superiority is only one reason why this is
not the kind of war we have to fear. Equally important is that the
ruling elites of most of the important states around the
world--Russians, Chinese and Indians included--are already to a
considerable extent included in the international economic order, and
as such have much more to lose than to gain from war with the United

The real danger comes not from them, but from the excluded: all those
numerous social and ethnic groups who, for reasons of culture,
history or geography, are unable to partake of the world banquet.
Many of these groups and individuals are far too weak and miserable
to threaten any major power. But some have proud cultural traditions
that make it very difficult to accept peripheral, second-class
status; others have strong fighting traditions that give them a
distinct edge in certain kinds of warfare, organized crime, and the
areas where the two intersect. To fight successfully against such
people on their own ground requires a level of local knowledge that
is exceptionally difficult for outsiders to acquire. It may also
require an urban gang leader's mixture of flexibility and utter
ruthlessness--neither of which is encouraged by the militaries of
Western democracies. As Rick said to the German officer in
Casablanca, "Well, Major, there are parts of New York I wouldn't
advise you to try and invade."

Imperial Precedents

During the 1999 Kosovo war, the amount of damage inflicted by NATO
planes and missiles, compared to the complete inability of the
Yugoslav air defenses to inflict damage in return, was indeed highly
reminiscent of certain nineteenth-century campaigns. On November 3,
1839, two small, elderly British frigates shattered the Chinese
southern fleet off Chuenpi, in the first major engagement of the
First Opium War. Hundreds of Chinese were killed; one British seaman
was wounded. This set the scene for other such nineteenth-century
battles, like Ulundi in 1879, when the British killed thousands of
Zulus for the loss of ten men oftheir own, and Omdurman in 1896. The
First Opium War also echoed even more comprehensive victories three
centuries earlier, when, thanks to superior technology (and
infectious disease), a handful of Spanish adventurers destroyed the
great empires of the Aztecs and the Incas.

Unlike nineteenth-century Western victories, the most important
aspect of the NATO air campaign was not its effect on the enemy's
armed forces. Yugoslav forces on the ground in Kosovo suffered only
around five hundred dead. (Moreover, there is strong evidence to
suggest that most of those deaths took place when the Kosovo
Liberation Army, or KLA, launched an offensive over the mountains
from Albania. This forced the Yugoslavs to come out of concealment
and concentrate against the KLA, and thereby exposed them to NATO
fire.) What was indubitable, and much more important, was the effect
of NATO's bombardment on Yugoslav infrastructure. NATO air forces
(or, rather, those of the United States, with limited European
assistance) demonstrated with complete conviction that any large,
fixed target such as a bridge, power station, oil refinery or factory
could be destroyed from a safe distance. As long as U.S. cruise
missiles and "smart bombs" are around, the United States will be able
to inflict severe damage on the economies of much more powerful
states than Yugoslavia at a very small cost in U.S. lives.

But to defeat or deter a state, as the British did in the case of the
Manchus or NATO did in the case of Yugoslavia, you have to be
fighting against a state. Yugoslavia surrendered as it did because
the Yugoslav Army and police are the disciplined forces of a modern
state, and were under the effective control of a semi-autocratic
president, Slobodan Milosevic. When Milosevic decided to give in--not
because Yugoslavia could not have gone on resisting for a
considerable time, but for his own political reasons--the Yugoslav
forces obeyed and withdrew from Kosovo.

If the Serbian population in Kosovo had been much larger, and had
supported its own autonomous militia under local warlords, would such
forces have surrendered? If not, how would NATO have coerced them? If
the new regime in Serbia or a future one should support indirect
attacks on NATO forces, how will NATO respond if economic and
diplomatic pressure should fail to work? Will it be by defeating and
occupying the whole of Serbia and suppressing any armed revolt from
among the population? If not, how?

The trouble is that bombing bridges and factories has no effect on
irregular forces, and bombing villages and concentrations of people
is supposedly outlawed today by the rules of humanitarian
warfare--though this prohibition is likely to prove a brief one when
we next get involved in a really important war. The only recourses
for NATO in Kosovo against an autonomous Serbian militia would have
been either a compromise involving the partition of the province
between Serbs and Albanians, or giving massive help to the KLA to
crush the Serbian militias on the ground. In the latter case--as with
U.S. help to the Croatian army in 1995, or the Israeli alliance with
the Christian militias in Lebanon in 1982--NATO would have borne
moral responsibility for the massacres of Serbian civilians that
undoubtedly would have followed.

While NATO's victory over Kosovo may therefore be considered a more
or less impressive event in the history of warfare between states, it
provides no instruction whatsoever for other kinds of war to which it
has been linked: wars against peoples in arms; and wars against
decentralized, anarchical or "tribal" societies. It also provides no
answers for the dilemmas involved in urban warfare and in occupying,
administering and policing recalcitrant areas.

To make the point, between the two Western victories against Iraq and
Yugoslavia came the debacle of U.S. involvement in Somalia. During
the urban fighting in Mogadishu, many aspects of U.S.
tactics--weaponry, intelligence and, above all, political analysis--
proved wanting to some degree. Somalia also proved the limitations of
Westernhumanitarian concern in real battles on the ground. According
to Captain Kevin W. Brown of the U.S. Marine Corps, during the
October 3, 1993 attempt to capture General Mohammed Farrah Aideed,

"U.S. restraints [on the use of force] unraveled once Aideed's rebels
began to exact a toll in American lives. In the ensuing desperate
rescue attempt, our forces fired at rebel gunmen who were
interspersed among crowds of Somali civilians. . . . When facing
fierce opposition, both Russian and U.S. rules of engagement have
either been disregarded or relaxed once infantry forces began taking
heavy casualties. This pattern has held true over the past 50 years
of urban conflict. . . . What is the proper balance between avoiding
collateral destruction and properly protecting our infantry forces?
Unfortunately, history reveals that neither the U.S. nor Russian
militaries have found a way to simultaneously accomplish both
objectives in the face of a determined and capable urban foe."

This is not intended as a criticism of the way in which firepower was
used or threatened in Somalia, for in the last resort and when faced
with death, soldiers like most other human beings will fight with all
the means available; and the second duty of every commander--after
the achievement of victory--is to his own men. The Rangers' fight in
Mogadishu should, however, be a most searing reminder that the sort
of orderly, "sanitized", limited war fought by NATO over Kosovo
remains very much the exception, both historically and in today's

Essay Types: Essay