Why America Will Face Even Deadlier Insurgents in the Future

World Politics Review, 03.05.2019
Steven K. Metz , profesor e investigadordel War College Strategic Studies Institute (SSI)

A construction worker walks amid a cloud of dust as a bulldozer removes debris from destroyed shops in Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 18, 2017 (AP/Felipe Dana).

The United States, especially the American military, hates counterinsurgency. It is ethically and politically difficult, at times impossibly so. To do it, American troops and government officials must prod a problematic ally to undertake deep reforms while facing off against an often ruthless enemy. Terrorism, assassination, subversion and sabotage are persistent and more common than the type of pitched but conventional battles that the U.S. military prefers, in which it can assert its technological advantages.

Whenever the United States becomes involved in counterinsurgency, it eventually wishes that it hadn’t. As Judah Grunstein wrote this week, the recent counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan were just “the latest episode in the U.S. military’s long cyclical history of fighting counterinsurgencies—known variously as small wars, unconventional warfare and asymmetric warfare—as they arise, then tossing aside the operational lessons learned when they were no longer needed.” Yet the U.S. military keeps repeating this pattern, believing that the defeat of an ally would be worse than attempting counterinsurgency, or that it can keep its involvement limited. Afterwards, American officials often vow that they will never do large-scale counterinsurgency again, but then they do.

Chances are that at some point in the future, whether in a year, a decade or several decades, the United States will come to the assistance of a friend or ally facing an insurgency. When this happens, the enemy that American counterinsurgents confront will be very different from the insurgents of the past, since insurgency itself is rapidly evolving.

In a recently released report for New America, Peter Singer, a leading expert on the changing character of conflict, described how emerging technology may affect future counterinsurgency. The “game-changing technologies of tomorrow,” Singer writes, will have “incredibly low barriers to entry,” thus giving insurgents access to things like robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing. This means that if, or when, the United States again takes on counterinsurgency, it cannot automatically assume across-the-board superiority as it could in the past. “The United States,” Singer warns, “could one day find itself fighting a guerrilla force that brings better technology to the fight.”

But technology is only one aspect of the ongoing evolution of insurgency; changes in organization and strategy are at least as important.

Most 20th-century insurgencies relied on formal, hierarchical organization. From Asia to the Americas, insurgents wanted to take over the state, so they mirrored governments. They had a leader with subordinates of various ranks. They also had specialized political, administrative and military directorates. In a sense, this simplified things for counterinsurgents. Security forces could decide which component of the insurgency was most important, and then target it. If the assessment was correct and the counterinsurgents were able to destroy the part of the insurgent movement that they chose to target, they could win. The road to success was more or less linear.

Then, insurgency changed. This first became clear in Iraq, where the insurgent movement that emerged after the 2003 U.S. invasion broke from the old model and offered a preview of insurgency’s future. Rather than being built on a formal, hierarchical organization under the command of identifiable leaders, it was a loose network of small groups, some composed of local Iraqis and some of foreign fighters, all working toward a common purpose but without central direction. Rather than taking orders, each group observed and learned from the others—often via online broadcasts of attacks—and then emulated successful operations. Rather than receiving orders from higher-ups, they swarmed on targets, then dispersed when facing pressure from American forces. This dispersal could be tactical, as when a small band of insurgents simply went home after an attack, or it could be strategic, as seen in the ongoing movement of the Islamic State’s fighters from Iraq and Syria to other parts of the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

For the United States, this evolution means that as soon as it helps one ally improve its security forces, augment its intelligence capabilities and, hopefully, begin political and economic reform designed to undercut support for the insurgents, the enemy moves and the whole process must begin anew. The good news is that networked, swarming insurgencies don’t seem to be able to take over countries the way that some hierarchical 20th-century ones could. The bad news is that they are very difficult—perhaps even impossible—to eradicate.

As insurgencies shifted from hierarchies to fluid networks, they have also melded with organized crime. During the Cold War, many insurgent movements found that by adopting leftist rhetoric and ideology, they could attract support from the Soviet Union or another communist nation. Today few countries actively support insurgency, so insurgents must generate their own resources. Luckily for them, arms are easy to come by on the global market if they have money, but that’s the rub—sustaining an insurgency takes money. Lots of it. Taxing local people is often not enough, so insurgent movements turn to robbery, kidnapping, smuggling, poaching, illegal resource extraction, narcotics production, human trafficking and online crime.

It is impossible to say today where an insurgency ends and a criminal gang begins. And to make things worse, these insurgent-criminal hybrids are becoming globalized, developing alliances and partnerships with criminals and extremists around the world. Insurgency, in other words, has become one more aspect of the interconnected, complex, parasitic dark network of violence and extremism undercutting security and prosperity.

In the coming decades, the merging of these two dynamics—the technological developments Singer described, and the organizational and strategic changes characterized by the shift to loose, transnational networks and the melding with global crime—will produce insurgencies even more vexing and more deadly than their forebears. The United States would still rather avoid them, but that may not be possible. The challenge, then, is for security experts, military strategists, the intelligence community, law enforcement and political leaders to all grapple with the onrushing evolution of insurgency and find some way to be effective when the United States is once again drawn into the fray.

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