Insurgency: Modern Warfare Evolves into a Fourth Generation

By Hammes, Thomas X. | Strategic Forum, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Insurgency: Modern Warfare Evolves into a Fourth Generation


Hammes, Thomas X., Strategic Forum


Key Points

Fourth-generation warfare, which is now playing out in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a modern form of insurgency. Its practitioners seek to convince enemy political leaders that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. The fundamental precept is that superior political will, when properly employed, can defeat greater economic and military power. Because it is organized to ensure political

rather than military success, this type of warfare is difficult to defeat.

Strategically, fourth-generation warfare remains focused on changing the minds of decisionmakers. Politically, it involves transnational, national, and subnational organizations and networks. Operationally, it uses different messages for different audiences, all of which focus on breaking an opponent's political will. Tactically, it utilizes materials present in the society under attack--to include industrial chemicals, liquefied natural gas, or fertilizers.

Although these modern insurgencies are the only type of war that the United States has lost (Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia), they can be overcome--witness Malaya (1950s), Oman (1970s), and El Salvador (1980s). Winning, however, requires coherent, patient action that encompasses the full range of political, economic, social, and military activities. The United States cannot force its opponents to fight the short, high-technology wars it easily dominates. Instead, the Nation must learn to fight fourth-generation wars anew.

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On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq. While most Americans rejoiced at this announcement, students of history understood that it simply meant the easy part was over. In the following months, peace did not break out, and the troops did not come home. In fact, Iraqi insurgents have struck back hard. Instead of peace, each day Americans read about the death of another soldier, the detonation of deadly car bombs, the assassination of civilians, and Iraqi unrest.

Barely 3 months later, in August, a series of bombs hit a police academy graduation ceremony, the Jordanian Embassy, and United Nations (UN) headquarters in Baghdad. The Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim (leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) was killed, and an attempt was made to kill the Baghdad chief of police. These attacks marked the opening of the anti-coalition campaign that continued through the turnover of authority to the Interim Iraqi Government. As of this writing, the violence continues as Iraqi authorities struggle to provide security for their people and work to rebuild their country. Unfortunately, Iraq has become the scene of another fourth-generation war.

At the same time things were degenerating in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan was moving into fourth-generation conflict. While al Qaeda and the Taliban were not attacking U.S. troops directly, they were moving aggressively to defeat the U.S.-supported Hamid Kharzai government. Decisively defeated in the conventional campaign by a combination of U.S. firepower and Northern Alliance troops, the anti-coalition forces have returned to the style of warfare that succeeded against the Soviets. The Taliban's emphasis on derailing the recent presidential elections shows they understand that fourth-generation warfare is a political rather than military struggle. By trying to prevent Afghans from voting, they sought to undermine the legitimacy of whoever won the elections. Instead of defeating the government's security forces, they plan to destroy its legitimacy. While polling for the presidential election proceeded without major incident, it remains to be seen whether this positive step has set the Taliban back politically--and much more contentious legislative elections are just over the horizon.

In Iraq, the attacks on and threats against oil pipelines are economic and political in nature. …

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