What does it take to win in asymmetrical modern warfare?
This article stems from my personal experience during service and subsequent interaction with members of officers of other nations, so please, take this as my personal observation rather than anything else.
Warfare is a brutal arena, believe me, what you see in the movies or the newspapers does not justify how it actually is. It is something that can only be appreciated if you’ve actually experienced it yourself otherwise it is something very difficult to understand and therefore appreciate. This is why you would often see service members roll their eyes when someone, like an academician or journalist, tries to lecture them about it. The ground realities are a completely different environment to exist.
In that regard, I build this article from an exchange I was a part of between a Pakistani army officer who had served in the two Battles of Swat, an American veteran who had served during the Battle of Fallujah, a war historian from the UK and yours truly. We were discussing the different performances of the Pakistani military in Swat and the American one in Fallujah. For those who do not know, Fallujah was a very difficult battle for the American and allied forces against the Iraqi insurgency (please, let’s keep the politics aside for a moment); however, Pakistan was successfully able to clear and hold Swat. On papers, it should not have been so.
The main contention?
The contention we agreed were thus: technology has changed the way that the military perceives and reacts to operational issues. Moreover, militaries of the world have become very politically sensitive; their operations need to cater to that aspect of the operations as well. For example, the British did not commit their full weight behind the Second Battle of Fallujah out of the fear of casualties on their sides fearing the ramifications politically (Mark, 2012). As we entered an era dominated by asymmetrical warfare it was important to take this into consideration as well on a level which was not there before.
Why Fallujah and Swat?
As a very brief recap, let’s see why these two arenas (Fallujah and Swat) warrant comparison; both were urban battles, both had a conventional force fighting an unconventional one, both had one side enjoy a relatively high degree of air superiority, both had to cater to a civilian population caught in the middle and both had to be held with the military catering to a damaged infrastructure and both were highly politicized engagements.
Though it should be noted that Swat is a mountainous region where as Fallujah is mostly flat terrain therefore, Swat would be considered a much more difficult terrain in terms of operational planning and execution.
The key difference
The key difference in the way either force approached the battle is quite deep and needs some elaboration. Take into consideration how both these forces understand an operational issue, let’s say for instance, the Americans had lost an area and need to take it back or hold it and so have the Pakistanis faced a similar issue. The answer to this question would be quite different.
The Americans would want to have a complete domination in all dimensions such as reconnaissance of the area, drones patrolling the skies or a close air support system nearby to support the troops on ground in case the tides are turning and would prefer to go in on their terms when they are the strongest, supported by allied forces or artillery and so on. They would also prefer to monitor the area first as it is to be held and maintain a more concentrated presence.
The Pakistani forces know that they do not enjoy these privileges in a lot of areas and would take the approach of going in with infantry and paramilitary forces and setting up on ground presence such as check posts or build a garrison in the area once it is held with troops spread to monitor the area while keeping high tech expensive machinery such as helicopters in reserve.
The key difference on the operational level is because of the economies and political will backing each force.
The key to winning modern asymmetrical engagements
We finally come to what makes success in this arena. The answer is surprisingly low tech which caught many militaries by surprise when this nature of warfare came to the forefront. I would like to highlight that the militaries had evolved in the Cold War era where technological superiority usually meant victory. Therefore, conventional forces were focusing on getting the best systems possible.
In that focus the grunt on the ground was neglected; he was supposed to have better weapons, night capabilities, better armor, better equipment to face an enemy of made of a similar mentality.
However, warfare is also a clash of ideas: the system of Alexander the Great’s sarissa phalanx which dominated the world was defeated by the much more flexible Roman manipular system.
We saw the same thing here: a versatile infantry based army drilled to be adaptable to face a determined enemy proved to be better than an army which relies on its technological superiority against a similar enemy.
The American veteran was surprised to hear that Pakistan’s army has every regiment trained on infantry role and used its cavalry units (personnel only) on such a role in order to hold areas if the infantry units were still engaged in clearing further enemies. He remarked that at the time he was serving such incidents were extremely rare and would be considered unorthodox; perhaps the only US counterpart that would consider this acceptable would be the Marine Corps. However, Pakistani army officer’s often joke that they are a boot force (remarking that the infantarian mindset dominates the army).
This is why we were ready to interact with the enemy on his terms without significant support i.e. infantry vs infantry where it was needed. My senior from the Army remarked, ‘Sir, this is war, if it asks for blood, we will pay it but win.’ Where he got the response, ‘Oh, it’s a nightmare for us. You lose a platoon this will be huge!’ (As a side note please know that he’s talking about his career 2000-2010).
The take away seems that we need to focus on the infantry. I find it quite poetic that the essence of the infantryman has not changed much in the evolution of warfare. It takes steel nerves, physical conditioning and yes, equipment but the mindset of a warrior who is ready to get up-close and personal to win.
This is the ever-changing yet never-changing nature of warfare.
Urban, Mark, Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the Secret Special Forces War in Iraq , St. Martin's Griffin , 2012, p.65
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