Rebuilding Afghanistan's National Security Forces: Fighting Asymmetry with Symmetry

By Boera, Michael R.; Birch, Paul R. | Military Review, March-April 2011 | Go to article overview

Rebuilding Afghanistan's National Security Forces: Fighting Asymmetry with Symmetry


Boera, Michael R., Birch, Paul R., Military Review


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A SYMMETRY: WAYS TO exploit it, and means to counter it pervade the thinking of military professionals as much today as it did a decade ago. The Guardian, immediately after 9/11, pointed out that "asymmetric warfare" had become a "buzz phrase." (1) The need for military professionals to be experts at asymmetric warfare has become a dominant theme in Western military literature and thinking. (2) The U.S. Department of Defense directive that addresses irregular warfare says plainly, "IW favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capacities, in order to erode an adversary's power, influence, and will." (3) Quoting this guidance, U.S. Joint doctrine advocates asymmetric means for conducting counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare. (4) Individual services' doctrinal publications continue the theme, and many nations either borrow directly from U.S. doctrine with respect to this point or echo similar themes. (5)

To those engaged in the campaign to build security capability within Afghanistan, the conflict remains "asymmetric" by current definitions of the term. Insurgent military capabilities exhibit (to borrow from General Montgomery Meigs' definition of asymmetric warfare) "an absence of a common basis of comparison" with the military capabilities of the coalition nations fighting and working to stabilize Afghanistan. (6) Although earlier U.S. Joint doctrine identified asymmetry as applying only to techniques used against friendly forces, later scholarship recognized that asymmetric techniques are used by both sides. In fact, the search for an asymmetric advantage is the key to any successful combat endeavor, whether in irregular war or conventional war. (7) Whatever insights we have gained into asymmetric warfare in recent years, solid techniques for waging successful asymmetric warfare are harder to come by.

Those of us gathered around a dining table at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) compound listened intently, therefore, when a senior advisor and retired flag officer from one of our coalition partner countries asserted, "We must combat asymmetry with symmetry." (8)

This was a novel turn of phrase. Was unfamiliarity with the wars occurring in southwest Asia causing him to neglect the character of war there? No: he was drawing on extensive experience as a veteran of the Iraq War and had been working for months in Afghanistan.

Had he dismissed the body of knowledge germane to fourth-generation warfare, expanded recently at the expense of thousands of coalition and Afghan lives? (9) Was he advocating that the coalition find a way to turn the struggle in Afghanistan into a conventional war, one that ignores "hearts and minds" and instead uses large-scale maneuver tactics to bring stability to Afghanistan?

The answer to these questions is an emphatic "No." Far from dismissing received wisdom about how to conduct effective counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare, the speaker, British Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Cameron Maxwell Lamb, was offering a useful way to consider the nature of asymmetry and helping spur some creative thinking essential to success in asymmetric warfare. In summarizing his observation--"symmetry of all parts of the government, its armed forces, the coalition, the international community, those in the fight, and those supporting the fight will, if applied with rigor, overwhelm those who have had to contest by asymmetric means"--he offered something that all coalition forces must appreciate: some of the most effective force multipliers in the Afghanistan COIN struggle are the professionalism, standards, and discipline that coalition forces impart. (10) Military organizations displaying--and passing on--these positive influences offer a welcome alternative to the chaos and misery inflicted on a nation that has suffered for more than three decades under insurgency, civil war, and oppressive governments. …

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