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

The Gulf War and Kosovo were both preceded and followed by other
instructive defeats. The stationing of U.S. troops in Lebanon in
1982, as in Somalia, led to dangerous mission creep. This, in turn,
alienated much of the local population, drew U.S. troops into ethnic
conflict, and, finally, exposed them to devastating terrorist attacks
from elements of the local population. In Kosovo, the NATO occupation
since the end of the war there has failed to protect the local
Serbian minority, and has also failed to create a democratic, let
alone multi-ethnic, Kosovo. As a result, NATO will sooner or later be
faced with a set of choices, every one of which may involve a measure
of moral disgrace and political humiliation.

By not invading and occupying Iraq in 1991, the United States avoided
terrorist and guerrilla attacks by local militias. This decision,
however, also meant that Saddam Hussein would stay in power and
remain a threat and an irritant to the United States (as well as to
his own people) ever since. In other words, Western victory in the
Gulf left George Bush with a dilemma for which military superiority
gave no solution. For as Major General Robert Scales has observed,
"without physical occupation warfare is nothing more than punishment
from a distance, something that any nation with a will to resist can
endure indefinitely." And even if the enemy government does give in,
the effect may prove short-lived.

Fighting Tribes

Given sufficient technological superiority, organized states under
"rational" leaderships can be defeated with relative ease. Once their
leaders accept defeat, the war is over. Perhaps even more important,
once conquered they can be administered using the bureaucratic
institutions and habits of mass obedience inculcated under the former

It is vastly otherwise with tribal and semi-tribal societies, whose
social disciplines are based not on submission to state authority or
laws given from above, but on forms of "ordered anarchy": where no
permanent, centralized authority exists, and where there is no "army"
that can surrender--only local volunteers without uniforms or regular
units, fighting on the basis of blood, personal ties or religious
allegiance. Too many Western observers and staff officers in every
age have dismissed such adversaries as "savages", their sacrificial
courage as mere "fanaticism"--and have subsequently paid the price.
As Kipling put it concerning the Sudanese followers of the Mahdi,
"You're a poor benighted heathen but a first class fighting man." In
covering wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan and elsewhere, I formed a deep
respect for such locals as warriors--the same people seen as alien
and often contemptible from a Western cultural perspective.

Not merely is it far more difficult to defeat such societies (at
least without murdering much of the civilian population in the
process), but officers and officials of modern states often have the
greatest difficulty understanding how such societies work and
devising even theoretical means of dealing with them. Russian
officials who planned the intervention in Chechnya in December 1994
have good cause to remember this, as do U.S. officials who served in
Somalia. A key aspect of these societies is summed up by the
anthropologist I.M. Lewis in a passage about the Somali tradition,
aspects of which have carried over into the urban clan and gang
warfare of today:

The Somali have no indigenous centralized government. And this lack
of formal government and of instituted authority is strongly
reflected in their extreme independence and individualism. Few
writers have failed to notice the formidable pride of the Somali
nomad, his extraordinary sense of superiority as an individual, and
his firm conviction that he is sole master of his actions and subject
to no authority save that of God. If they have noticed it, however,
they have for the most part been baffled by the shifting character of
the nomad's political allegiance and puzzled by the fact that the
political and jural unit with which he acts on one occasion, he
opposes on another.

The complex clan, family, religious, personal and opportunistic
allegiances of ordinary Somali fighters are not amenable to
examination and analysis by U.S. satellites or unmanned spy planes.
The same goes for the Chechens, who, though not nomadic, are a tribal
people, with no tradition either of generating their own state or of
accepting one from outside--except, to a limited extent, when this
comes in the name of Islam. "In peacetime, they recognize no
sovereign authority and may be fragmented into a hundred rival clans.
However, in time of danger, when faced with aggression, the rival
clans unite and elect a military leader."

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Russian
imperial army won a whole string of victories over the Turks and
various European rivals. It even fought Napoleon to a standstill. But
it took decades to subdue comparatively tiny numbers of Chechens and
other tribesmen in the mountains of the Caucasus. Nor was this a new
pattern: the Spanish conquistadores subjugated the great Aztec and
Inca empires in a few years--and then spent several centuries
attempting to subdue much smaller numbers of primitive Yaquis,
Apaches and Araucanians in the deserts of northern Mexico and the
freezing wastes of southern Chile.

Such successful opposition could exist even in close proximity to the
most developed states of the day: the British state did not succeed
in "pacifying" the Gaelic clans of Scotland until after the Jacobite
revolt of 1745, and then only by repressive measures, the savagery of
which prefigured that of the anti-partisan wars of the twentieth
century. This long British failure was due not only to the rugged
terrain of the Highlands, but to the clans' mixture of highly
decentralized authority with fanatical loyalty to the clan chiefs. As
a result, the British authorities could rarely be entirely sure that
an apparent ally would not change sides at a crucial moment. Nor
without massive repression could the British force the highlanders,
or the Gaelic Irish clans before them, to accept the authority of the
new British state. In all these cases, the other side was
strengthened not just by ethnic and cultural loyalties but also by a
profound attachment to an ancient way of life menaced by modernizing

Afghanistan and Chechnya

Throughout its modern history, Afghanistan has displayed similar
features. As bewildered and infuriated Western journalists and
officials used to say of the Afghan mujaheddin: "You cannot buy an
Afghan--you can only rent him." The British-Afghan War of 1839-42
provides a perfect counterpoint to the contemporaneous First Opium
War. Whereas in China the defeat of the imperial army and navy led to
a settlement with the imperial government and an end to the war, in
Afghanistan in the 1840s, as in the 1980s, the multi-headed tribal
and religious resistance could not be defeated in this way because
there was no unified enemy authority with whom it was possible to
make a settlement; and because, unlike the unarmed and generally
passive Chinese peasantry, the Afghan tribesmen--like the Chechens
and Native Americans--were fierce fighters, honoring warfare, trained
to fight without mercy from an early age, and equipped with firearms
that (like the Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades of partisan
forces today) were extremely effective in certain circumstances.

In China, British officers at the time recognized the complete
impossibility of invading and occupying the inland provinces, given
the huge size of their territories and populations and the very small
size of the British Army and its Indian auxiliary troops.
Fortunately, there was no need to do so. When the British had
demonstrated their ability to move at will down China's rivers, and
had menaced Beijing, the resistance of the Chinese government

In Afghanistan, the British defeated the Afghan forces with relative
ease when the latter tried to defend the supposedly impregnable
fortress of Ghazni in a straight fight. But there, too, the British
did not have remotely enough troops to garrison the whole country. By
late 1841, the force based in Kabul consisted of only one British and
three British Indian infantry battalions and one cavalry regiment,
with other "armies" in Kandahar and Jalalabad. The British thus
relied on local Afghan allies, motivated by a mixture of political
allegiance to the British puppet ruler, Shah Sujah, and British
financial subsidies. Neither proved sufficient. The presence of
"infidel" troops in Muslim Afghanistan whipped the anger of religious
leaders and their followers into a frenzy. As so often occurs in such
situations (for example, as with U.S. support for the Shah of Iran),
infidel British support for Shah Sujah, far from strengthening him,
actually undermined his authority over his own people. For one thing,
the British could not check atrocities by Shah Sujah's followers
against their personal and political enemies. As well, the British
government of India--under pressure from the government and
Parliament in London to economize--finally refused the funds
necessary to strengthen the British camp at Kabul and cut the subsidy
to the tribes who controlled the British lines of communication.

The result of all this was the defection of the British allies, a
general rising, an appallingly bungled attempt to retreat from Kabul
across the mountains in midwinter, and the destruction of the entire
British force. In addition to all their other failings, the British
force had been encumbered by an immense train of camp followers,
servants and officers' luxuries--a syndrome not without its parallels
in the comforts the U.S. Army now expects when deployed in the field.

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