As I wrote a few days ago, a new pattern of warfare is emerging in the Middle East and Africa. This “new blitzkrieg” isn’t really new, but it is asymmetric warfare at its best, pitting swarms of fast-moving, lightly armed fighters operating as a network against hidebound hierarchies of Western-trained and equipped “professional soldiers”. These state forces have a bad track record of crumbling under the tempo of swarming, networked attackers; and the only thing that has proven capable of stemming the tide is early airstrikes followed with a robust military “prop-up and mop-up” campaign, as demonstrated by French and African Union forces in Mali. The outcomes aren’t that great in any of the recent cases – but it’s much, much worse when any regional government has fallen to the non-state forces.
So, what does it all mean?
First, it suggests that the international community needs to agree on a framework for regional interventions, and this framework should address the following strategic and operational truths:
- The existing government may not be very good – but the alternative will probably be worse. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi – neither were model leaders by according to the liberal democratic ideal, but life for the majority of Iraqis and Libyans was better under their rule. The same can be said for Bashar al Assad and Nouri al Maliki, although in the latter case especially, “better” is a relative statement, since an average of over 1000 Iraqi civilians have died or been wounded every month as a result of internal violence (bombings, shootings, etc) during his tenure as Prime Minister.
- No population has benefited from the long-running civil wars or instability that has resulted from an existing state government being overthrown by networked opposition elements; and few regional governments are able to beat these networks quickly and decisively on their own. Thus, the West should consider making short-term, limited intervention on the side of existing governmental bodies the norm. Mali is a model for this type of intervention, using a Western QRF to buy time for state and regional forces to assemble, a combined effort to eliminate the opposing network, and a planned transition to a UN peacekeeping force as the method to ensure a stable outcome and continued international involvement.
- Without a pre-planned response, which includes the basic strategic framework and a properly-sized reaction force, history shows that the international community will dither on the sidelines, sometimes providing varying degrees of support to the network or to the state, but rarely acting quickly and decisively enough in support of the state actor to stall the network blitzkrieg, defeat the majority of the network forces, and install the appropriate post-conflict stabilization mechanisms needed to prevent widespread violence from breaking out again.
- The “trigger” for the international response must be well-understood and publicized; and should be set at a threshold high enough to account for a modicum of the internal unrest and civil strife that is currently endemic in many countries in Africa and the Middle East. Such a threshold would probably need to specify level and pace of conflict, presence (or lack) of diplomatic avenues of resolution, and several other measures beyond a simple casualty count.
Second, it means that with such an international framework in place, there will be a need for responsive forces that maximize air-to-ground combat power, aerial reconnaissance, transport, and refueling, along with light, mobile armored vehicles and mechanized/air mobile infantry, engineers, and military police – and that a key component to these forces will be multi-lingual personnel who both understand regional cultures and are able to work well with a range of military partners – host nation and supporting regional forces.
Third, it raises the question of why Africa, which lags the Middle East considerably in per capita income, is far ahead when it comes to organizing regional military responses to regional crises. African Union states have often provided the direct support of regular forces (vice indirect support in guns, money, and fighters) in response to regional conflicts, unlike their counterparts in the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council. Although the African record is far from perfect, it is better, and the key difference is in the use of regular units vice the support of networks.
Finally, it opens the door for increased cooperation between historic competitors in the international security arena. By agreeing to weigh in on the side of states, regardless of their liberal policies (or lack thereof) it is likely that such a plan could gain the concurrence by China and Russia required to enact a standing Security Council Resolution. These major players oppose (on principal) ad-hoc interventions intended to topple existing autocratic governments, but might be more supportive of a norm to ensure regional stability by supporting states, regardless of their internal political structures.
A litmus test for this would obviously be how such a framework would have worked in the case of Ukraine, a state in turmoil which is not located in the Middle East or Africa, but instead right on the doorsteps of both Russia and Europe. I would posit that, in fact, the “trigger threshold” would never have been met in Ukraine, due to the relatively peaceful nature of both the overthrow of the Yanukovych government and the resulting Crimean referendum to break away from Ukraine and re-enter the Russian Federation. With regards to the ongoing military crisis in Eastern Ukraine, this would probably not cross the threshold due to the static nature of the conflict (which is more a case of separatism than governmental overthrow) and the presence of diplomatic avenues for resolution, which are non-existent between ISIS and the Iraqi government.
So, that’s the opinion of one old Cold Warrior turned Long Warrior… What do you think?