Adapted from Chapter Five of Barry Scott Zellen, The Art of War in an Asymmetric World: Strategy for the Post-Cold War Era (Continuum Books, 2012).
In the chaotic post-Cold War world, America’s primary military challenge has been presented – especially since 9/11 – by what COIN theorist David Kilcullen has called a virtual state, a globalized insurgency by a non-state entity that aspires to overthrow the Westphalian order altogether and replace it with a neo-medieval system in the footprint of the old Caliphate that once stood on the territories of the eastern Roman Empire. America’s opponent aspires to overthrow the very order composed of nation-states, and in our effort to meet this challenge we are finding the key battlegrounds are primarily frontier states where the Westphalian order never truly established firm roots, and where the recognized, formal state boundaries do not accurately reflect the underlying cultural, linguistic, and ethno-national topography.
In these frontier regions, we are finding clans, sects, tribes and unrecognized nations remain the most enduring units of political order and the most viable subcomponents for us to weave together into a coalition of the willing – not an alliance of free states like that which fought against Saddam in the desert war of 1991, or which stood side by side against the Soviet threat throughout the Cold War, or which bravely rolled back the invading forces of both the Nazi and Imperial Japanese empires – but of determined non-state entities that equally oppose the neo-medieval vision of Islamist insurgents under Al Qaeda’s banner of theological liberation, and which – with America’s support – can now hope to enjoy a national restoration, so that the future world order better reflects underlying political realities than the present chaotic mess, and thus delivers greater stability.
These new partners might be small in size and possess limited hard power assets, but they are nonetheless essential – as they control the land, and in so doing are for more genuinely sovereign than many of the states that now surround them. Despite their small size and limited military assets, their endurance across the ages is testimony to their strength. Like the quantum power unleashed when the atom was split, and a veritable tsunami of energy was released from the tiniest of specks of matter, these rugged units of enduring political order are often stronger than the larger states that have long asserted sovereignty over their homelands. And it is to them that we must now turn in partnership as we try to imagine a new order that looks beyond the artifice of the state, to a more durable edifice of world order.
International relations, and in particular its realist tradition, has for much of the post-Westphalia period been state-centric, since in modernizing Europe, the nation-state became the dominant unit in the European, and soon global, international order. As a consequence, modern international relations theory has followed from the European experience, positing the state as the foundational unit of world order. But this has not always been the case, even in Europe – and much less so elsewhere in the world. In fact, the current global asymmetry, while a break from the post-Westphalian tradition as understood through a western lens, is not as discontinuous with history as seen from other vantage points, whether from the tribal perspective along the modern state’s fringes, or from the southern hemisphere where the modern states was itself imposed from the north, with traditional boundaries between languages and peoples often ignored, sometimes intentionally as a result of divide-and-conquer colonial policies. The tribe-state fault line is thus important for an accurate understanding of world order; but it is but one fault line in the complex sub-state topology of world politics. The real challenge for America is understanding how to re-assemble these sub- and trans-state components into viable states, and what sorts of sovereign units will make for a more durable world order.
When viewed from on high, the Global War on Terror (GWOT)’s scattered zones of conflict present numerous commonalities, and even while as diverse as they are dispersed, they may be effectively viewed as a single theater of operations, which we could describe as global operations in frontier territories where sovereignty is still defined by ethnic identity at the sub- or trans- state level. A comparative look at the ideas that undergird the great theorists of popular insurgency, the revolutionists against modernity itself, has yielded much food for thought – whether Gandhi’s nonviolent, people-powered movement against British rule; Mao’s now classical approach to guerrilla strategy placing it along a progressive tactical/strategic/grand strategic continuum; Bin Laden’s jihadist model of insurgency as a “Holy War” against both colonial rule and western secularism; even the indigenous Zapatista movement, one of the first post-Cold War rebellions against the modern state in what has been described as the world’s first “netwar,” presenting a template for indigenous rebellion and national restoration that can help inform our current efforts to restore order to the GWOT’s tribal zones.
Most GWOT battlespaces are along porous borders where sub- and trans-state peoples continue to live a largely traditional lifestyle, and where formal “state” sovereignty remains a figment of the mapmaker’s imagination. In this vast tribal belt, governance remains a local, regional and tribal affair with age-old systems and structures in place to ensure a social and political order. While sometimes described by westerner as “ungoverned,” this is a misnomer: in the absence of an overarching assertion of national sovereignty, there remains a continued tribal sovereignty as there has been for eons. It is this continued tribal sovereignty, if properly understood, that can lay the foundation of an enduring world order, and which can ensure an enduring peace if properly understood, effectively nurtured, and properly engaged. Indeed, adjacent tribal regions sharing linguistic, cultural and political traditions can, with encouragement, coalesce into new states that better reflect the underlying political realities than their now divided homelands.
This has long been the dream of many divided peoples, whether the Kurds in Southwest Asia, or the Shan of Southeast Asia. Numbering in the tens of millions, straddling state boundaries imposed by war, treaty and/or colonization, these peoples may now enjoy a second chance for national restoration. So much is in flux, and with this flux so much has become possible: the Middle East is engulfed by a region-wide revolution against dictatorial regimes, with regimes crumbling at a pace unprecedented since the collapse of Yugoslavia and later the Soviet Union. The West, struggling under the strain of a decade of War in Iraq and Afghanistan, and China, struggling from an economic deceleration that threatens the stability of communist rule, are unlikely to commit significant resources to foreign engagements – and may prefer to partner up with emergent democratic forces in anticipation of a sweeping transformation of world politics, adopting an “outsourcing model” with new strategic partners who can both effectively and tolerantly govern their tribal homelands in the democratic spirit.
During the last few years, America and its GWOT allies re-learned the art of tribal warfare, and more important, coalition warfare with tribal allies, a military and diplomatic art America has long excelled at, from its pre-revolutionary engagements in King Philip’s War, to its decisive conquest of the western plains after the long series of asymmetrical clashes known as the Indian Wars. While seldom celebrated, these strategic experiences have defined America’s approach to military power, adapting European strategic concepts to our new, frontier nation emerging from the virgin wilderness of the New World. When America stepped onto the world stage in the twentieth century as a great power, its approach to war was intimately shaped by these tribal engagements, and the lessons learned along a chaotic and expanding frontier where state sovereignty collided with the remnants of tribal sovereignty. America’s colonial experiences in the Philippines and in the Americas were marked by its offensive application of methods cultivated during its Indian Wars, and used against foreign opponents on distant battlefields.
While the GWOT has been perceived largely as a civilizational clash between Islamist forces and the West, it is more accurately described as a continuation of the same millennial conflict that began when European states and pre-Colombian indigenous tribes collided in the Americas, and on other continents as well from Africa to Asia, and even throughout Europe’s own fractious medieval history. The perpetuation of these intense, asymmetrical, and often annihilatory clashes between modern states and pre-existing tribal peoples has been a recurring axis of conflict for centuries, but has less often been perceived to be the salient fault-line of conflict—perhaps in part because the historical legacy of America’s own military expansion tends to be under-emphasized in favor of the preferred narrative of its founding myth: the triumphant victory of democracy over tyranny.
Properly understanding the underlying tribal dynamic, however, is nonetheless essential—and can spell the difference between military defeat and decisive and enduring victory. During the Cold War period, numerous battles were fought between East and West, but more often than not these conflicts were waged in weaker states, many only just emerging from the colonial experience. In several of these Cold War hot spots, sub-state indigenous minorities controlled substantial swaths of territory, and were engaged in protracted conflicts with newcomers to their homelands. The ideological lens that defined these conflicts was but a mask to an underlying clash of tribe and state; not in all conflicts, to be sure, but in many, from the bitter civil war in Guatemala that raged for half a century, pitting the descendants of Spanish colonists against the remnants of the Mayan nation that once ruled over the highlands of Central America, to the decade-long anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan, where the United States entered into a unique war-time alliance with Afghanistan’s tribal peoples.
Today’s GWOT again features many of these same sub-state entities in the notoriously fractious state of Afghanistan, which is more an amalgamation of tribal enclaves, some of whom are allied with us, and others such as the Taliban, a post-Soviet movement that pacified much of post-war Afghanistan in the 1990s, and the Al Qaeda movement, which also emerged from the anti-Soviet struggle and whose founders were once part of America’s war-time coalition against the Red Army. During the long anti-Soviet Jihad, it was Afghanistan’s many tribes, never truly united apart from their common occupying foe, that rose up, under American arms, against the militarily superior Soviet armed forces, holding their own, and later turning the tide of that war, until Moscow’s military commitment evaporated amidst the sweeping and frenetic pace of domestic reforms and revolution that resulted in the Soviet collapse. This unique coalition of tribal allies helped to rout the Red Army, proper payback for Moscow’s earlier proxy victory over America and its allies in Indochina.
Then, America’s military alliance with the Hmong and other hill tribe allies nearly achieved victory over Vietnamese Communist forces; but during that long engagement, it was America’s will that evaporated first, resulting in an unforced strategic withdrawal after a decade of hard-fought tactical victories. And in defeat, much was learned of long-term strategic and tactical application. But because that knowledge was not properly internalized or codified into doctrine, it was gradually lost—with painful consequences in the early years of the GWOT.
While much of post-World War II international relations (IR) theory has been influenced by Kenneth Waltz’s famously elegant but dangerously overly simplified “three images,” with the individual, state, and system defining the salient levels of analysis for international relations, most of our post-Cold War challenges have taken place in the unrecognized nooks and crannies of the international arena, an unmapped terra incognita of the Waltzian universe where a “fourth image” has long been at work, a tribal image that is not only pre-state but also trans-state and sub-state – and in some cases, such as the Shan of the Lanna Kingdom, post-state as well. Traditional tools of statecraft, refined by the centuries of post-Westphalia diplomatic and military history, are of only limited utility here. In these tribal zones, where formal state sovereignty has never fully reached or where it has been lost, borders tend to be porous, and sub-state and trans-state tribes, stateless nations, and minority cultures tend to predominate at the local and regional level.
There is a wealth of knowledge from America’s tribal warfare experiences that could inform a new COIN doctrine, not one that overly emphasizes hearts and minds, nor one that overstates the complexity of the new environment of war, but one that more properly recognizes the inherent and enduring duality of war, not so much its nonlinearity as its contradictory and internally conflicting dimensions, such as the dual sovereignties of tribe and state, and the dual necessity to wage conventional and counterinsurgency warfare at the same time, against two distinctly configured opposing forces. Building on Jim Gant’s “one tribe at a time” thesis, and embracing the detailed ecosystem approach of David Kilcullen, this new doctrine could replace the current focus on complexity with a reaffirmation of sovereign duality. As critics of COIN theorist John Nagl, like Gian Gentile, argue, conventional military power remains essential for victory, a pre-requisite for population-centric tactics, as America learned tragically in Vietnam, and nearly so in Iraq. In the former, America’s conventional withdrawal sealed the fate for its abandoned ally in the south; in the latter, America’s conventional victory came so quickly, it found itself unprepared to pacify the postwar environment as an insurgency erupted, forcing it to relearn the art of COIN that we had mastered in Indochina.
Twice America forgot the essential, dualistic interconnection of conventional and counterinsurgent warfare; one without the other would by definition neglect one of the key pillars of order, one of the three legs of Clausewitz’s trinity of war. In Vietnam America won hearts and minds and defeated the long festering insurgency plaguing the south for a generation, only to neglect the conventional military power of its opponent, which, unchecked, quickly achieved a decisive victory. In Iraq, America quickly overwhelmed its opponent conventionally in its historic drive to Baghdad in a mere three weeks, largely because its opponent stood down in anticipation of its shift to guerrilla operations. But America’s initial neglect of the hearts and minds, and its strategic myopia that favored the technology of force transformation over boots on the ground, left the human terrain unchecked, and among which its opponent regrouped for its lethal counter-strike in the form of insurgent warfare. America’s experience in Afghanistan was similarly myopic: it quickly achieved conventional battlefield dominance, but did not successfully leverage its decisive military victory, enabling the Taliban to similarly regroup, and to regain its footing for its long-simmering but no less effective counter-strike.
The challenge for America now is to properly conceive of strategy like the masters of the art of war have done, as a dynamic process requiring constant balancing and rebalancing. The balance of power concept that dominated modern European diplomatic and military history, as a metaphor for the unsteady equilibrium of peace in a world of anarchy, serves us well when we consider America’s experiences at war in both Indochina and throughout the GWOT; each time, America has neglected to sustain a properly dynamic balance, though in Vietnam it tried for the better part of a decade before throwing in the towel. By recognizing the underlying, often tribal, political structures of these new conflict zones, and remembering its own frontier warfare experiences as it expanded ever westward, integrating former tribal territories into its sovereign framework, America can better equip itself going forward, and remember that the trinity of war, across the ages, has required recognition of, and accommodation with, all three core pillars of political order: the government, the military, and the people.
The methods identified, operationalized, and systematized on the front lines of the GWOT, whether Kilkullen’s “28 articles” or Gant’s maxims on tribal coalition warfare, present a valuable cornerstone for a new, and enduring, doctrine to guide military operations in tribal zones, one tailor-made to restore political order to the chaotic tribal belt that defines so many fronts where the GWOT has been fought, and where the currently unfolding Arab Spring has found its most fertile ground, and which no doubt will define the front lines of future conflicts where the modern state and pre-state tribal entities continue to collide. Indeed, once the GWOT concludes, these tribal zones will remain strategically important for the coming peace and could serve as vital bases from which American power can be nimbly projected in the event of new conflicts arising.
Abandoning its hard-won gains in these tribal zones can only result in future setbacks to American power, as witnessed after America’s Mujahideen allies routed the Soviet Red Army a generation ago only to see its commitment to their cause wane upon the Soviet collapse, when America’s attention turned elsewhere. Just as its continued, multi-generational military presence has helped ensure the peace in Europe, Japan and Korea, a similarly long-term commitment to the security of these tribal zones will be essential to ensure our hard-won victories in the GWOT do not become tomorrow’s missed opportunities—it is no coincidence that America’s past strategic withdrawal from chaotic tribal zones have blown back to haunt it, as evident from events that tragically unfolded in Afghanistan and Somalia upon our withdrawal a generation ago, or a generation earlier, when its anti-communist KMT allies withdrew from mainland China, turning Shan State into a Cold War battleground and providing the Burmese generals with their excuse to invade Shanland – a situation that America can now help to remedy, at long last, by aligning its strategic interests in this fast-changing world with the just aspirations of the Shan people.
The second part will be coming out soon - Editor