Lessons in Irregular Warfare

Sri Lanka’s suppression of the Tamil rebellion is a model for defeating a hybrid enemy.

Colombia’s success in combating drug trafficking and the ongoing guerilla efforts of the FARC may provide lessons for the war in Afghanistan, said the country’s foreign minister, Jaime Bermudez, last month. “Colombia has learned a lot,” he said and so has the Pentagon which previously cited “Plan Colombia” as a model for its counterinsurgency efforts in the Middle East.

The FARC is typical of modern day “hybrid” combatants: organizations that mix conventional guerilla warfare with terrorist and criminal activities. Other examples include Hamas and Hezbollah in Gaza and Lebanon respectively as well as the Iraq insurgency and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both Israel and the Western forces in the Middle East struggle with how to fight this phenomena. The Pentagon’s interest in the Colombian experience is a smart move although at the Small Wars Journal, Niel Smith points out that Sri Lanka’s recent suppression of the Tamil rebellion provides an even better model for defeating a hybrid enemy. He lists the following requirements:

  • Unwavering political will;
  • Disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal;
  • No negotiations with the forces of terror;
  • Unidirectional floor of conflict information;
  • Absence of political intervention to pull away from complete defeat of the [enemy];
  • Complete operational freedom for the security forces — Let the best men do the task;
  • Accent on young commanders;
  • Keep your neighbors in the loop.

Smith admits that, “Most western readers will find the lack of concern for civilian casualties in this strategy disconcerting.” A more “ruthless” counterinsurgency strategy will, however, resolve a conflict more quickly and therefore produce less collateral damage whereas the “population centric” approach, “while humanistic, takes longer, with uncertain probabilities of success.” In the end, such a policy, which is now adopted in Afghanistan, is likely to leave more innocent civilians dead than a campaign ruthlessly focused on defeating the enemy.

Although, for now, Western troops are determined to incur as little damage on the Afghan population as possible, sometimes exposing themselves to greater risk in the process, the United States Defense Department under Robert Gates is anticipating to fight ever more irregular wars in the future. Over objections from legislators, the secretary called the production of the F-22 fighter plane to a halt while investing $700 million in research and development of unmanned craft which are currently flown over Pakistan to combat Taliban sanctuaries there. Plans have already been drawn up for the development of unmanned aircraft systems over the next forty years.

The Navy is also planning ahead, building to much as 55 Littoral Combat Ships which will allow the force, in the White House’s words, to “focus on increasing naval capabilities that support presence, stability and counterinsurgency operations in coastal regions.” The costs of acquiring the LCSs have trippled already and instead of opting for one design, the Navy wants both Lockheed Martin’s Freedom class and General Dynamics’ Independence.

Lastly, the administration is taking serious steps to protect the country from cyber attack.

General James N. Mattis, current Commander, US Joint Forces Command and former Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation of NATO nevertheless believes that the United States “are not superior in irregular warfare” as of yet. “And that’s what we’ve got to be.” He stresses improvisation as the military’s most powerful of tools. Gates can provide all the necessary equipment, but the men in uniform have to change their tactics in order to succeed at irregular warfare.

Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated Kruzel’s position when he noted last year that, “Today’s challenges and threats are not strictly military in nature, solved or countered by military means alone. We owe future generations a longer term view of security.”