The New Griffin of War: Hybrid International Armed Conflicts

By Reeves, Shane R.; Barnsby, Robert E. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The New Griffin of War: Hybrid International Armed Conflicts


Reeves, Shane R., Barnsby, Robert E., Harvard International Review


Famed seventeenth-century jurist Hugo Grotius warned that in warfare belligerents must "not believe that either nothing is allowable, or that everything is." The latter belief holds that any and all tactics are allowed in warfare, while the former, a largely Christian theological view, holds that warfare is immoral and any resultant actions are therefore prohibited. Grotius understood that unilateral adherence to either of these notions would lead directly to an unworkable paradigm. Rejecting each beliefs most extreme position while simultaneously adopting their reconcilable characteristics, Grotius began to develop a feasible legal framework for conducting warfare. Ultimately, as Oxford University's Karma Nabulsi describes in her outstanding work Traditions of justice and War, by seeking the "middle ground" between these two seemingly incompatible views Grotius successfully shaped a conciliatory, realistic model for regulating warfare. The resultant middle ground, which recognized the necessity and legality of "just" wars while proscribing certain aspects of military conduct, solidified Grotius's legacy and, more importantly, set the stage for the profound legal developments--particularly in the 20th century--that would circumscribe subsequent conflicts, including those in which the United States finds itself today.

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The Future of Warfare

Reminiscent of the unworkable opposites Grotius encountered, contemporary prognostications concerning the near-term future of armed conflict too often settle into a misleading "either/or" construct. One group of theorists vehemently argues that the future remains one of "asymmetric warfare," which is generally understood as conflict between two unequal adversaries where the weaker opponent uses unconventional or indirect methods to exploit the superior opponent's vulnerabilities. Typically set between a state actor (such as the United States) and either an ideologically motivated non-state armed group (such as Al-Qaeda) or an insurgent group (such as the Taliban in Afghanistan) these conflicts are often labeled as "non-international armed conflicts," "terrorism," or "guerilla warfare," and currently dominate resources and intellectual capital. However, a growing cohort of theorists rejects this asymmetric warfare prediction. This group--warily watching the increasing militarization of Asia, recognizing the sectarian breakdown of the Middle East, and observing the nation-state fragmentation of Africa--contends instead that "conventional warfare" between national armed forces, commonly referred to as "international armed conflict," is the future of warfare.

This ferocious theoretical debate has created a false dichotomy between these competing scholarly predictions. Limiting predictions in this way ignores the reality that contemporary conflicts are both difficult to define and are often an amalgamation of characteristics from traditionally unrelated forms of warfare. For example, state actors regularly use the indirect tactics of asymmetric warfare by blurring the line between combatant and civilian, conducting cyber-attacks, and lethally targeting individual actors in order to gain a strategic advantage over their non-state adversaries. Similarly, non-state armed groups and insurgencies do not hesitate to use devices of conventional armed warfare, including traditional weaponry, in conflicts with state actors.

Further confusing attempts to categorize warfare is the often overlapping nature of modern conflicts. For instance, it is not uncommon for battles to simultaneously rage between state adversaries, insurgent groups, and transnational terrorist organizations in the same geographic location. Therefore, in actuality, "asymmetric warfare" and "conventional warfare" are the extreme boundaries on a vast spectrum of warfare possibilities. Neither purely asymmetric nor purely conventional, modern conflicts are, rather, hybrids that display traits from both forms of warfare. …

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