May 072008

Force has a utility and it will retain that characteristic. But utility is not an automatic, a priori function of the use of force. It depends on when, how, to what extent and what end force is being used

That today’s “war” is different from yesterday’s is a realisation slow in coming but definitely setting in. In his remarkable 2006 book, Of War and Law, David Kennedy kicks off with the introduction titled, appropriately, “War Today” and has this to say:

“The point about war today…is that…War and peace are far more continuous with one another than our rhetorical habits of distinction and our wish that war be truly something different would suggest. A phrase like ‘the war on terror’ can evoke so much precisely because wars of metaphors have blurred with the wars of combat on the ground. The distinction between them is far more tactical assertion than material fact.”

We have determined the irony of military-technological advancement through RMA as coming up short on a response to what Rupert Smith describes as war among the people or what is more a series of “conflicts” that, in the best case scenario, settles down into confrontations, diabetic, simmering cases that we have to live with.

Does this mean the use of force or the threat of its use has become a thing of the past? Not really. Force has a utility and it will retain that characteristic. But utility is not an automatic, a priori function of the use of force. It depends on when, how, to what extent and what end force is being used.

If the adversary is amorphous, he does not present the advantage a military will have against an identifiable (or recognisable) grouping and engaging it. Usually such adversaries are states. The only asymmetric advantage that one side can have on the other in a conventional war is through superior performance in a straight test of arms.

Militaries do not have this luxury when lines between conflict and peace, the civilian and the combatant, blur. That is the asymmetric advantage of the insurgent.

As Smith puts it so incisively: “…the essence of the practice of war is to achieve an asymmetric advantage over one’s opponent; an advantage in any terms, not just technological. If your opponent has found a way to negate your industrial and technological advantage, and for whatever reason you are unable to or unwilling to change your own parameters so as to regain the advantage, then you must fight on the battlefield he has set and on his terms.”

Juxtapose this with evidence that most armies will be facing “formless opponents” who will not be “located in a single place that can be easily defined for battle”, that they will be “of and amongst the people” and one should begin to get some idea of where and how the fight will take place and what the degree of difficulty will be.

Interestingly, however, one thing remains constant: the political decision to start a conflict and the objective the military is required to achieve. Indeed, given the degree of difficulty, Clausewitz’ Zweck und Ziel (the political objective and the military aim), implying both the entry point into a conflict and the exit point, acquires a new urgency.

As a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, I had the good fortune of interacting with American scholars and think tankers in the run-up to the Iraq war and in many a discussion raised the issue of how victory was to be defined. Did it simply mean the destruction of the Iraqi army and the removal of the Ba’athist regime? If yes, the “coalition of the willing” would be successful.

But that apparently was not the only objective; destroying the regime was the basic condition to be created for bigger aims: reconstructing and restructuring Iraq and using that as a model for social and political re-engineering of the states in the arc of crisis.

As Smith points out, if the alternative to a secular but oppressive Ba’athist regime were to be religion, made more vociferous because of sectarian and ethnic fault-lines, then thought should have been given to the yield curve such a course of action would create.

Moreover, is social and political re-engineering a task that militaries can perform? The answer is an obvious no.

This is just one example. There are other factors. What is the level of threat; would removing one presumed threat create a bigger or a different one; are ways other than using force available to us; do we have other levers in place that can be used in tandem to move beyond the point at which the use of force has actually removed a threat; what are the aspirations of people which we will be or are fighting; how do they perceive the situation; are we putting a priority on, as Smith says, what we must do or what can best achieve the objective; is it even possible to think that in situations that vacillate between conflict and confrontation a clear-cut, precise victory can be achieved?

These questions are in no particular order and they are just the tip of the iceberg. But what they demand is a “change in our concepts of analysis”. They also imply that in many, if not all, cases involving wars among the people, we may have to lower our expectations; change our attitude to timeframes; transform our ideas about a linear, sequential linkage between use of force and a downstream political process.

Within states, as in the case of taming the tribal areas, it also means not just a rethink on using force and ensuring its utility but also the manner in which we have tried to fight the unfolding contest. Such a review, it needn’t be said, would involve all four stages: political, strategic, theatre and tactical.

At the highest end of the spectrum then, the state would require diplomatic engagement with other state players so their conduct can be influenced; while at the lowest end of the spectrum such review would necessitate a more innovative employment of force than has been in evidence thus far. However, it must be remembered that all four levels are part of a seamless continuum and not separate, standalone activities.

Ejaz Haider is Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and Consulting Editor of The Friday Times. This is the final article of a three-part series. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 7/5/2008

 Posted by at 6:35 pm

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