11th Asian Security Conference on "The Changing Face of Conflict and Strategy in Asia"

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  • Rapporteur Report on Session I

    February 03, 2009
    Conflict and Strategy
    Prepared by V. Krishnappa and Namrata Goswami

    The character of warfare is undergoing changes in an age of growing sophistication in technology and concepts. The key question therefore that requires answering is: how can one effectively deal with this change in a strategic sense? The first session on “Conflict and Strategy” dealt with this pertinent question in some detail. While earlier, conflicts were of an inter-state variety, the present context is dominated by intra-state war or irregular war thereby questioning earlier concepts and ways of thinking about war. This aspect was ably pointed out by the panelists in this session.

    The session started with the Chair, General V. P. Malik indicating the conceptual and paradigmatic change that has occurred with regard to issues concerning the character of war in the 21st century. He argued that rapid advances in science and technology, a more liberal approach to the concept of sovereignty and security, the intense media focus on military operations, high cost of maintaining armed forces, Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), cyber-warfare, and the debate on the feasibility of redrawing national boundaries through coercive means is taking centre stage with regard to issues on war and peace.

    In his paper titled “Thinking Strategically”, Col. John Warden stated that the US army lost the Vietnam War due to the absence of an overarching strategy though tactically, it was excellent. Therefore, despite good tactics in war, victory might not be achievable due to the absence of strategic planning. In contrast, success in the First Gulf war was due to good strategy. He pointed out that strategy is a long term plan based on four important aspects: where, what, how and the exit strategy. Answering the “what” question requires pinpointing the place where the coercive intervention is to be undertaken and why is it necessary. The “what” question indicates the character of the intervention: is it a war on “terror” or a counter-insurgency operation or for establishing democracy in the target state? The “how” question implies the manner in which military means are to be applied. Time is crucial in this aspect as a long drawn military engagement could result in defeat. Col. Warden also indicated that while mapping out the timing and character of the operation, the exit strategy must also be planned in advance. For this to happen requires a rather deep understanding of the future and adding the correct value to it strategically, based on an open process of planning and consultation between the members of the team, by which he meant the main actors involved in the planning and operational processes of a strategy.

    Dr. Rod Thornton in his presentation on “The Conflict in Afghanistan and the Evolution of Counter-Insurgency” primarily focused on the Taliban insurgency in the Helmand province in south Afghanistan, and the British and American counter-insurgency operations there. He also indicated that in terms of strategy, the political directive for these operations should be coming from the Karzai government which sadly enough is not happening on the ground. Due to the lack of a unified and coordinated strategy in Afghanistan, the Taliban has resurfaced in the Helmand province since 2003. Also, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) suffers from different mandates of the countries involved in it. For instance, while the British and the American military are open to more intense anti-Taliban operations, the German army posted to the ISAF is very wary of any body bags due to zero tolerance in Germany to a soldier’s death in Afghanistan. According to Dr. Thornton, the British Army faces a dilemma in Afghanistan. On the one hand, it is against the use of excessive force in civilian areas for fear of casualties. On the other, the Taliban is increasing its presence amongst the civilian population. The British also followed a policy of negotiations with the Taliban through village elders but this did not improve the security situation there. The US army meanwhile is involved in “search and destroy” operations which are resulting in high civilian casualties. Dr. Thornton argues that the US could shift to “clear, hold and build” with an additional 30, 000 troop surge in Afghanistan. Targeting the Taliban leaders is, however not productive as Taliban insurgency is not dependent on individual leaders. Poppy cultivation is another tricky issue because it generates two consequences; one positive and the other negative. While on the positive side, it invigorates the local economy, on the negative side, it also feeds the Taliban insurgency. This is another dilemma for the ISAF.

    Sir Lawrence Freedman in his paper “Regular and Irregular War” points out the shift, at least in Western countries, from regular to irregular wars where the “confined military space and time” are not set apart from “civilian time and space”. The key strategic challenge is therefore to separate the armed militants from their civilian constituencies. This character of warfare is therefore understandably disliked by regular armies more trained in conventional warfare. According to Freedman, contemporary conflicts have three distinguishing aspects:-

    • Military operations are now subject to more debate with frequent questions asked on “why and how” a war is being fought and its “probability of success”.
    • There is need to garner international support for a war by forming coalitions with parties who might not have too much stakes in a war.
    • Since contemporary wars are mostly irregular, there is a need to separate militants from their constituency.

    Freedman indicates that irregular wars will inevitably require regular armies to interact with the civilian population. Civilian structures will have to be dismantled in order to undermine the enemy. According to him, regular warfare is on the decline due to the readiness to solve great power disputes through means other than war as well as the obvious superiority of the US forces vis-à-vis other states. Irregular warfare however is not a novelty but a colonial legacy though the present context is very different. Factors like military means and political legitimacy, role of international public opinion and intervention forces and the consequences of inter-communal violence is challenging the way one is thinking about armed conflict. According to Freedman, the focus today is on terrorism, the most primitive form of irregular warfare. Extremist Islamic groups justify attacks on civil society not only in an instrumental sense but also for retributive reasons as punishment for past oppression and present humiliations. However, terrorism overtime changes into insurgent movements moving away from civilian targeting to building civilian support bases from where they target regular armies. Civil society can provide sanctuaries, supply lines, recruits, and intelligence to an insurgency. Freedman’s advice to counter-insurgency operations is to be sensitive to the local population if their support against the insurgency is to be enlisted. Also, the key to successful counter-insurgency operations is dependent on how much military strategy is integrated with political strategy.

    The “Question & Answer” session was lively centering on issues of tactical and strategic differences in warfare, the aims and motives behind a particular operation, the use of non-state actors (terrorist groups) by states in foreign policy, the cultural differences between the Western and Asian understanding of strategy, and the lack of national strategy with regard to issues concerning war and peace. It was also pointed out that strategy as it means in business organizations is very different from what it means in war and peace. While the former is about an organization’s long term planning and goals, the later is concerned with the linkage between military means and the political objective requiring political oversight in war. It was also pointed out during the discussion that the failure of the US army in Vietnam and the negative situation in Iraq and Afghanistan is due to the absence of strategy. The lack of clarity regarding the “War on terror” was also pointed to. It was also stated that the aim of the British army in Afghanistan was to stop Taliban support for the al Qaeda. However, the tendency to apply the strategy in Iraq to Afghanistan must be avoided since Iraq is a much more developed nation-state than Afghanistan.

    In conclusion, the Chair indicated the importance of the politicians and the military working together towards mapping out the future strategically especially with regard to India. He also indicated the importance of political oversight whenever there is the use of force.