Decentralization: Myths of 4G Warfare Part II

In part one, I examined the myth that Fourth Generational Warfare Groups (4GWGs) do not depend on the resources of an integral state, or do not have a territorial base, and as such offer no target which an opponent can attack or neutralize. In this post, I examine the second myth of 4GW: the myth of decentralized forces.

The myth holds that 4GWGs lack any cohesive or centralized command structure. Instead, small autonomous units strike on their own initiative (at least until the terminal phase of the campaign). If true, this state of affairs would render 4GWGs nearly immune from most forms of military attack. Fortunately, it is not true.

[Note: a lot of disagreement exists about the definition of 4GW. I am interested in the politically significant, popular definition pretty much summed up by this Wikipedia entry. Stricter definitions don’t seem to map onto any real-world groups and thus have no direct relevance at this point.]

The most commonly cited successful 4GWGs are groups such as communists in China, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua and sub-Saharan Africa as well as post-Cold War groups such as Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda. Supposedly, these groups lacked strong central direction and hierarchal command structures. In this model, they attack like bees who individually swarm out over a threat to the hive without any central directive to do so. Since disrupting enemy communications and coordination remains a primary means of defeating an enemy, the lack of centralized command and internal communications would hypothetically make such a group very hard to defeat.

In the case of communist organizations during the Cold War, the idea of decentralized command and control is clearly ridiculous. Following from Lenin, all communist organizations were deeply hierarchal and rigidly controlled from the top down by a small cadre of dedicated revolutionaries under the direction of the Soviet Union. The illusion of decentralization originated from propaganda and the limited ability of temporally autonomous units to strike at targets of opportunity meeting strict, predefined attributes. Communists always used political officers within units or cells to make sure that members did not deviate ideologically or tactically from the central command.

The post-Cold War examples of Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda at times seem to move closer to the decentralized ideal, but even here we find they don’t really reach anything near like a swarm-like organization. Hezbollah centrally plans and controls all major operations from its bases in the territories of South Lebanon as well as its command and training facilities in Syria and Iran.

Al-Qaeda also exhibits centralized command and control for individuals formally in Al-Qaeda, i.e., those individuals oath-sworn to bin Laden or one of his senior lieutenants. Organizationally, Al-Qaeda resembles revolutionary communist organizations and is probably modeled on them. There are Al-Qaeda “affiliates”, small regional groups that exchange technical information and money with Al-Qaeda but follow their own orders, but which exhibit rigid internal controls.

I believe the myth of decentralization arises in part from the myth of the stateless actor. Groups operating from within a sanctuary of some kind appear decentralized because an opponent seems unable to seriously disrupt the groups’ protected command and control. Likewise, their material resources, money and training also reside within the sanctuary. The only parts of the organization exposed are pre-programmed, pre-trained and pre-armed expendable units. Fighting such a group is like trying to wipe out an ant colony without killing the queen. No matter how many ants one kills on the surface, more soon appear from below.

All supposed real-world 4GWGs do have a central nexus, the loss of which will cripple the organization. The fall of the Soviet Union crippled or destroyed dozens of 4GWGs around the world. Al-Qaeda shattered when it lost its state base, and its activity since the fall of Afghanistan has been anemic at best. If these groups were as decentralized as most 4GW theorists assert, then the loss of one particular region would not alter their operations very much.

Fighting a 4GWG requires identifying the nexus and neutralizing it. Pretending it doesn’t exist is lethal.