Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

The Concreteness of Asymmetric War: Fragments of Experience

Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

The Concreteness of Asymmetric War: Fragments of Experience

Article excerpt


Asymmetric warfare takes its name from the pitting of a weaker opponent against a stronger one, and from the use of war-fighting techniques that are vastly different from traditional military tactics. It is the use of these untraditional methods that enables the weaker side stand up to its stronger adversary.1 The radical difference of asymmetric warfare from what is now mostly referred to as conventional warfare lies both in the ethical aspect of the conflict and in the types of actions that typically take place, as well as in the instruments brought to bear and the strategies used.

The ethical aspect that characterizes asymmetric warfare is the disregard of any of the ethical standards governing warfare that prevail among most developed nations, replacing it with an ethic founded on religious and/or political fanaticism, disregard for human life, and the justification of every means of struggle that supports the desired end. The goals of the struggle never appear to be negotiable, and the general psychological condition of those engaged in such warfare can be summed up as "victory or death."

The concrete acts involved in asymmetric warfare serve to educate the younger generations in religious and/or nationalistic fanaticism up to and including martyrdom, with frequent recourse to suicide bombings, generalized bombing, armed attacks, targeted murders, kidnappings (even of persons unrelated to the conflict, for ransom), and the intimidation of populations. The tools used cover an extremely wide range: from traditional weaponry to explosives and chemical weapons to all the means of psychological warfare, propaganda, and indoctrination offered by the information and communications technologies of the Internet society, to the so-called shadow economy. The general strategy of a weaker adversary in an asymmetric campaign is to extend the war to the territory of the stronger side (typically an industrialized country). These states, in a centuries-long evolution, had succeeded in shifting such conflicts away from their cities and countryside to the boundaries of their world and beyond.

The Practice of Asymmetric Warfare

That this form of conflict can be legitimately included in the 'war' category seems to be demonstrated by statistical data: between January 1990 and March 2012, worldwide terrorist attacks caused 8,254 deaths and 12,576 wounded, with an increase in losses between the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century of 560 percent.2 All this carnage took place during a period that historians and political scientists have considered a period of peace for the industrialized countries (if exceptions are made for the out-of-area small wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). A useful comparison in this regard is that in the Second Gulf War in Iraq, the coalition's human losses were a total of 4,836 deaths - that is, just slightly over half of those produced by twenty years of asymmetric conflict involving non-state actors.

It should also be pointed out that asymmetric conflict does not consist solely of the clash between fundamentalist Islam, represented by AI Qaeda, and the industrialized countries - "Jews, crusaders, and their apostate puppet regimes in the Islamic world," in typical Islamist parlance - as one can at times be led to think due to its strong public impact. Many other movements, both national and international, now adopt this form of struggle, as testified by the impressive list assembled by Gabriel Weimann:

* From the Middle East, Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement), the Lebanese Hezbollah (Party of God), the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Fatah Tanzim, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Kahane Lives movement, the People's Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI-Mujahedin-e Khalq), the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), and the Turkish-based Popular Democratic Liberation Front Party (DHKP/C) and Great East Islamic Raiders Front (IBDA-C). …

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