In my comments on Lex’s post on 4G warfare, I argued that Fourth Generation Warfare didn’t really exist, at least, not as usually defined. I thought I would expand on my arguments because I think that the myth of 4GW diverts attention from the reality of most modern conflicts and frustrates our ability to win such conflicts.
(Note: Although much disagreement exists about the taxonomy of nthG warfare, for the sake of brevity, I will use just the term 4GW to describe the entire swath of associated concepts.)
I think the attributes of 4GW are best expressed in terms of the attributes of the organizations that fight using 4GW tactics. Lets call them 4th Generational Warfare Groups (4GWGs). The theory says that a 4GWG will have the following attributes:
A. Stateless: The group is not based in an integral state (country). Supposedly, this attribute makes the group nearly impossible to defeat since they lack a base which an opponent can destroy or a territory which an opponent can occupy.
B. Decentralized Forces: The forces of the 4GWG do not cluster together like a conventional army but spread out into small units and usually blend in with a civilian population. Further, each unit carries out attacks on its own initiative, usually striking at targets of opportunity. Supposedly, this makes the group hard to defeat because they possess no command centers to destroy and little communications to disrupt. Destroying one unit does not affect the operations of other units. Trying to militarily defeat such an organization becomes an unending game of whack-a-mole.
C. Memetic warfare: The group’s primary weapon is not violence but propaganda. They leverage relatively-small-scale attacks with media to create the illusion of a physically powerful group. They exploit innate divisions within their opponents’ social and political structures. They appeal to pacifists. Supposedly this greatly amplifies their power to defeat integral states, especially liberal democracies which have no coordinated defenses against memetic warfare and many internal divisions.
I do not think that any real-world group has ever possessed all of these traits, nor do I believe the biggest myth of 4GW, i.e., that it is highly successful.
To make this digestible, I will break this argument up into several posts, each covering a single attribute. Let’s start with the Stateless Actor.
I consider the Stateless Actor to be greatest 4GW myth. I believe that virtually all supposedly “stateless” groups since WWII have fallen into one of two categories: (1) covert proxies of states or (2) factions in a civil war fighting in a disintegrated state. (At times, a group could fall into both categories.)
The supposed non-state actors of the Cold War that most 4GW theorists point to in support of their theory have, with the ending of the Cold War, been shown to have been highly dependent proxies of a superpower. Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Min, the PLO, the Sandinistas etc. all turned out to be covert proxies of Soviet intelligence who relied heavily on Soviet training, money, material and advisors to support their struggles both before and after their successes.
In the post-Cold War world, many 4GW theorists point to Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda as Stateless Actors. I think this categorization is a joke. Hezbollah began as a faction in the Lebanese civil war and only rose to prominence as a dependent proxy of Iran and Syria. If those states cut off their support, Hezbollah will implode in a matter of months. The early Al-Qaeda began as a quasi-stateless group, but they did not carry off any of their large-scale attacks until they moved their leadership to Afghanistan and became the internal security force of the Taliban regime. The leadership of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban inter-married, which in their cultural context means they formed one entity. In truth, 9/11 was carried out by an arm of the Afghan government, an entity which represented the fusion of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
I also think that upon examination all major 4GWGs turn out to have some kind of territorial base, either within a patron state or in a region of a disintegrated state. They require such bases for training and organization, and loss of those bases cripples the group. Integral-state opponents of the 4GWGs usually cannot attack those bases initially, due to military or diplomatic limitations, but when these conditions change the opponent destroys the base and does significant damage to the group. The PLO, for example, had de facto bases in communist-era Romania, Bulgaria and the Soviet Union. Further, they tried to carve out their own territories in Jordan and Lebanon. They were driven out of both territories by direct conventional military action. When they also lost their bases in the former Warsaw Pact, they retreated broken and ineffective to the occupied territories. They only survived due to the continued support of Arab states and gullible liberal democracies.
The other groups often called stateless are factions in civil wars. Such groups may or may not have an external patron, but I don’t think they usually qualify as stateless, because they almost always rapidly acquire territory within the disintegrated state over which they exert military control. For example, Hezbollah controls a big chunk of Lebanon and the Lebanese government openly acknowledges that it cannot militarily control that region. As in the case of bases above, if an opponent can or will seize the territory, they will cripple the 4GWG.
I believe that the myth of the stateless group arose as a mutual diplomatic fiction during the Cold War when it behooved each side to try to prevent every little conflict from escalating into extinction-level nuclear war. For example, if the United States government officially stated that the PLO was an arm of the Soviet Union, it would be required to take retaliatory action against the Soviet Union whenever the PLO killed Americans or attacked an ally. Further, each side liked to portray its proxies as plucky Davids empowered by the justice of their causes and defeating the evil Goliath superpower and its minions. Factions within liberal democracies that ideologically oppose defense spending or military action eagerly embraced the myth in order to frustrate military action. The electorates support action against explicit and dangerous totalitarian enemies, but they grow ambivalent if the opponents appear as unsupported and uninstigated indigenous actions of underdogs. By simply redefining the enemy, the pacifistic factions escape criticism for not engaging the enemies of democracy.
A large number of supposed stateless groups evaporated at the end of the Cold War when their patron state failed. Attacking Afghanistan crippled Al-Qaeda. Bringing 4GW conflicts to an end first requires jettisoning the myth of the Stateless Actor, and instead seeking to neutralize the state sponsors of 4GWGs or to control their territorial bases. Until we do that, we are just trying to push a rope.
[Note: Please restrict comments to the concept of Stateless Actors. That will keep the comments from spiraling out of control.]
Decentralization: Myths of 4G Warfare Part II