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

In 1842 a much stronger British Army returned to recapture Kabul and
wreak vengeance on its inhabitants: but the lesson had been learned.
Never again did the British attempt permanently to station troops in
Afghanistan, or reduce its rulers to the completely subservient
condition of the British Indian princes. Instead, the British relied
on a variety of "indirect" means to exert influence over Afghanistan.
This approach saved them from renewed disasters and the draining
financial and human costs of an endless war of occupation.

But it also meant that throughout the entire period of the British
Empire in India, Afghanistan was the source of a whole variety of
security threats: notably, the preaching of anti-British jihad by
local Muslim religious leaders (like the "Fakir of Ipi"), and the
continual raiding of British territory by tribal "bandits." During
the period of their presence on the Afghan frontier,the British tried
various responses to these dangers, from the use of locally recruited
elite troops (the famous Scouts and Guides) to seize individual
troublemakers, to aerial bombardment of villages and flocks, to
full-scale military expeditions.

By the 1920s, civilian casualties resulting from these tactics were
drawing strong criticism from the Labour Party in Britain, and from
socialist and pacifist groups abroad. More important, the effect of
all these responses tended to be both limited and temporary, because
it was largely pointless to try to improve things by putting pressure
on the government in Kabul. This government did not control its own
territory and its own subjects in the frontier areas.

This same set of problems confronted the Russians after their
withdrawal from Chechnya following Chechen victories in 1996. The
Russians pulled out completely (rather than trying, as a minimum, to
retain some sort of "security zone" in northern Chechnya) because
they believed that the Chechen commander, General Aslan Maskhadov--a
former Soviet artillery colonel with whom Russia had been negotiating
the previous year via the Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe--would prove an effective leader and would pursue a policy
of pragmatic cooperation with Russia. Unfortunately, while Maskhadov
did indeed win presidential election in January 1997 with almost
two-thirds of the vote, the destruction, militarization and
brutalization caused by the war, together with Chechen traditions of
resistance to authority and of raiding, meant that it proved
completely impossible to create any kind of effective Chechen state.
Instead, Chechnya became the base for a great wave of kidnapping and
raiding into surrounding Russian territory. Even more menacingly, a
strong group of international Islamic revolutionaries (led by a Saudi
Arabian who had fought in Afghanistan) established itself in Chechnya
and formed an alliance with Chechen warlords. The group's explicit
intention was to launch a jihad to drive Russia from the northern
Caucasus, and in August 1991 it did indeed invade the neighboring
Russian republic of Dagestan, leading to the second Russian attempt
to reconquer Chechnya.

By 1999 the great majority of Chechens were bitterly hostile to both
the Muslim radicals and the Chechen warlords--or, at least, that was
the view of the Chechen refugees with whom I spoke in December of
that year. The casualties inflicted by Russian bombardment have also
bitterly alienated most Chechens--just as the civilian casualties
inflicted by U.S. troops in Mogadishu infuriated even those Somalis
who loathed Farrah Aideed.

Unavoidable Conflicts

While the United States could withdraw from Somalia without any great
cost beyond damaged pride, there was clearly no way that in the long
term Russia or any other modern state could tolerate the existence on
its own frontier of the kind of threats that Chechnya represented
from 1996-99. In other words, although there has been much to condemn
in Russian policy and tactics, it is also true that Russia was faced
with a dilemma that we would do well to study.

Critics will say that the United States can always avoid such
conflicts by simply refusing to get involved in them, but to assume
that this will always be possible would be outrageously complacent. A
country that would spend tens of billions of dollars to create a
missile shield to help save North Korea from committing suicide,
while failing to prepare for urban and partisan warfare, would in all
likelihood be regarded by future generations as having established
new parameters for both paranoia and irresponsibility. Apart from
anything else, such an outlook would require the assumption that our
leaders will never make mistakes or engage in reckless military
deployments--a rather optimistic assumption, given the historical

After all, U.S. administrations did not intend that U.S. troops
should be blown up in Beirut, shot to pieces in Mogadishu, or face a
possible ground war in Kosovo. And quite apart from the likelihood of
blunders, there may at some stage also be real and inescapable
reasons to intervene in areas of vital U.S. interest--for example, in
the Persian Gulf or Central America. Terrorism may also compel such
interventions, especially if at some stage terrorists gain access to
weapons of mass destruction. The existence of states that foster or
tolerate terrorism has led the United States in the last fifteen
years to bombard targets in Libya, Afghanistan and Sudan, and the
latest attack on the U.S.S. Cole has elicited vows of retaliation
from U.S. leaders. In the former Soviet Union, terrorist actions
helped lead Russia into its second invasion of Chechnya and are
becoming a source of Uzbek intervention in neighboring states. This
is the down side of the "global village": that it does indeed contain
universal threats and requires a measure of universal policing.

No army--least of all that of the world's hegemonic superpower--can
assume that it will not have to fight in cities. Since the beginning
of recorded time, cities have been the seat of government, wealth and
military power, and armies have had to besiege and capture them.
Today, as more and more of the world's population lives in cities and
the cities themselves continue to expand, it would be simply
ludicrous to draw up any military strategy that did not have urban
warfare as a major component.

But if anything, U.S. armed forces (with the exception of the
Marines) are adapting less, rather than more, for operations on the
ground involving relations with hostile or potentially hostile local
populations. Useful strides are being taken in producing equipment
for urban warfare, but there will always be a limited degree to which
weaponry can compensate for the risks, the brutality and the moral
ugliness of this kind of fighting.

Moreover, as the British have discovered in Northern Ireland, even in
a small territory, successful armed policing operations require very
large numbers of men. In Kosovo--also a very small territory--sheer
lack of manpower has been partly responsible for the failure of the
NATO forces adequately to protect the Serbian minority from their
Albanian neighbors. When it comes to high-technology weaponry, most
of the political talk of the U.S. military's unpreparedness is
nonsense; but when it comes to the inadequacy of present manpower
levels for repeated and prolonged emergency deployments, it is only
too accurate.

Perhaps most important of all are the intellectual and cultural
weaknesses of Western armed forces in general, and U.S. forces in
particular, when it comes to the armed policing of alien societies.
In part, this factor reflects worries about suffering heavy
casualties among ground troops, and (to a lesser extent) about using
ground troops to inflict heavy casualties on civilians--as may well
be unavoidable on occasion. As well, it reflects the sheer lack of
knowledge and insight that is inevitable when officers and officials
go into a place on six or even three-month contracts--the norm for
Western officials in Kosovo. Old-style Western colonial officials had
their faults, God knows, but they did at least spend their entire
working lives in the countries they were governing.

Misplaced Rationality

The passionate desire of so many U.S. military thinkers to believe in
the efficacy of air power alone reflects an equally passionate desire
to avoid thinking about this kind of issue. Perhaps almost as
important as the fear of casualties is the desire to impose order on
warfare, which is alien to the essentially chaotic and irrational
nature of war itself, but which appeals to old tendencies in the
military mind and military culture. These tendencies have only been
strengthened by the computerization of the U.S. military machine,
with its impression of control, rationality, cleanness and distance.

From this point of view, one is concerned to learn of the U.S. Army's
intention to rely on the RAND Corporation to help draw up some kind
of "general doctrine" of urban warfare. While a purely military
doctrine concerning methods of isolating and storming a citymay well
be useful, it should already be obvious to the U.S. military that the
great majority of future urban operations will not be straightforward
military battles like Stalingrad, but will involve strong elements of
politics and partisan warfare. Given the enormous differences between
societies, a universal doctrine would be of little use. The key
factors must be a willingness to learn from experience and to listen
to outside advice as needed. Today the best teachers of the U.S.
military concerning urban warfare would be former Vietcong, Somali
and Chechen urban fighters--and they are not impossible to find. Yet
it seems that too many members of the military hierarchy and its
advisers have learned nothing and forgotten everything from Vietnam.
The reason for this is not individual foolishness, but the military's
very nature as a modern, Western, "rational", bureaucratic
machine--together, of course, with deep Western cultural and social

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