Asymmetric wars


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THE terrorist attacks in the U.S. on 11 September 2001 were made feasible by the globalization process. This may seem an implausible assertion but is true. Globalization is after all a product of the revolution in information technology, in cyber money transfers, and of free and widespread movement of human beings. These components of globalization contributed significantly in bringing together the many strands of activities in different countries and continents required to make the tragic but spectacular strikes against the homeland of the sole global superpower.

It was a classic case of a small band of suicidal warriors taking on the might of a superpower on the latter’s territory. The lack of symmetry between the two could not have been starker. It has rightly been called an ‘asymmetric war’. The impact of this form of war on international relations is likely to be wide-ranging and far-reaching. It is also going to affect nation states in all parts of the globe.

Information technology has enabled the weaker side in asymmetric wars to remain ahead of the intelligence, command, control and technical means of most countries’ ability to foresee and prevent major terrorist attacks. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 killed thousands of innocent civilians in a short time. It was mass destruction of human lives carried out with aircraft being used as missiles to strike physical targets.

The U.S. in particular reserves the right to use all its power, including nuclear weapons, against those who use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction against it. The U.S. administration had no finite target to respond to with its military power. The shadowy leader Osama bin Laden was operating from Afghanistan and was not to be found. It was found necessary to make the Taliban government the target. By naming Taliban as the enemy, it was possible to turn the military power of the U.S. against a tangible target and objective. It was not difficult to dislodge the Taliban government from Kabul. It has, however, not removed the threat of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests by Al Qaeda or its sympathizers. Thus, asymmetry continues to be built into the conflict.

Asymmetric war is being conducted in the Middle East between the Israelis and Palestinian people. Israel is in a position to strike with its military capability at any place of its choosing. The Palestinians cannot match that power or defend against it. The asymmetry with Israel is attempted to be redressed by the use of Palestinian suicide bombers who choose their own place and time of attack. The same is true of Chechnya, and was true in Northern Ireland, and many other places in the last 50 years.

India now faces a virulent form of asymmetric warfare conducted from sub-state players based in Pakistan. The new and menacing dimension of asymmetric wars now lies in the ability of the sub-state and weaker players to use technology to cause catastrophic damage. The technology of information flows, of rapid money transfers and the technology of human beings moving rapidly across the globe are being used effectively as weapons in this war.

The new warriors of asymmetric wars have a new face and persona. Fifty years back a guerrilla or insurgent or terrorist was at the lower end of the technology spectrum. In India and other developing countries, he or she was a machete wielding, lungi wearing, tree climbing warrior. They communicated through runners, pigeon carriers, and signalled to each other in combat through bird and animal calls.

The modern asymmetric warrior is a techno-terrorist. He is educated, is technology literate, can live and merge in the urban milieu, can move across continents with ease, can pass off as a bespoke citizen who can be an asset as a rent-paying householder. He joins local clubs, participates in community work in societies which he is targeting, and has plenty of capital in both cash and credit. The theatre of this new war has moved from the deserts and jungles in poor developing countries to the urban sprawls of major metropolitan centres in developed states.



The asymmetric warrior does not operate in battalions or brigades. He does not need sanctuaries in forests or mountains. He does not need to extort money in small amounts from impoverished rural populations or from traders. He generates capital through a narcotics network. He works the entire narcotics cycle ranging from poppy cultivation through cocaine processing and international smuggling to narcotics peddling on the streets of major capitals of the world.

The money generated through the narcotics trade becomes part of an international arms dealers’ matrix, which supplies weapons, explosives, radio sets, satellite communications, and transportation arrangements. These include registered ships, crews and papers that pass muster at international ports. Today, there is a possibility of such networks laying their hands on weapons of mass destruction like biological and germ dispensers and means of chemical warfare. If these are combined with innovative means of delivery like agricultural spray aircraft, balloons, drones, river craft, and runaway rail trains, damage on truly catastrophic scales may no longer be considered to be in the realm of fiction.



Asymmetric wars are not fought to defeat the military of the stronger adversary. There is no specific military objective to be attained in such wars. Attacks on military targets are only incidental to the larger aims of such wars. In asymmetric wars terrorists choose civilians and military personnel or locations as objects. The target, however, remains the state and its governing establishment. Asymmetric wars aim to make the ruling establishment look incompetent and ineffective in the eyes of the people whom they rule. They show up the state to be incapable of protecting the lives of its citizens. In this way asymmetric wars have reversed the principle of wars not being deliberately directed against population centres.

Democracies and liberal societies offer freedoms to all their citizens and others living in the country. These freedoms also make them more vulnerable than other states which control their populations with an iron hand. Freedom of movement, employment, residence, education and speech are used in asymmetric wars to both penetrate and subvert population segments and to sow disaffection.

These freedoms have been exploited by the warriors of asymmetric wars to strike at the homeland territory of the country which is otherwise impossible to attain even by major military powers. This has led to a new situation where no country can any longer consider its territory safe from asymmetric wars. As a consequence of these new developments the U.S. administration has had to restructure its security apparatus and work on creating a department of homeland security. Other states have taken recourse to creating tougher laws on surveillance, privacy of individuals and on curbing freedom of movement and employment.

The response of the affected states to wars waged by non-state or sub-state players is undergoing change. Most states had faced, and continue to face, the challenge of asymmetric wars from within their territory. In such cases states have used their military power against non-state players. This has been done selectively and within the limits of national laws.



India has followed this approach since its independence in the north eastern states and in recent years in J&K. The Chinese have attempted to meet the challenge through demographic re-engineering. They have brought in the Han Chinese population in disaffected provinces to gain control over indigenous peoples. Tibet and Xinjiang provinces of China are significant examples of such policy choices. Russia has used its full military power including tanks, heavy artillery, combat aircraft and helicopter gunships in an attempt to quell the rebellion of the Chechens.

The U.S. presents a different approach altogether. It has used its global military reach to strike at governing regimes in states that support asymmetric wars. It has attempted to legitimize the use of military force for intervening in sovereign states on grounds of humanitarian needs. It has done so unilaterally and outside the ambit of UN authority or sanctions. Israel has also acted in this manner by striking at civilian targets in Palestine and of late by striking directly at the Palestine authority.

A new doctrine of pre-emptive military strikes is beginning to take shape. Pre-emption of the perceived threat through military attacks and removal of leadership considered hostile is set to become the doctrine by which powerful states will fight asymmetric wars. The right to pre-empt and of naming the target adversary will remain in the hands of major powers.



What the foregoing analysis shows is an increasing trend towards direct and unilateral military action against regimes that are seen to be directly or indirectly a part of the asymmetric war. Continuing with military operations in Afghanistan even after a new government is in place demonstrates this policy as never before. What this portends for the future is that major powers will determine the rules of war to bring about an international order of their choice. They will attempt to restore the goalposts of international order whenever needed to suit their interests. U.S. intentions to find a way, military or otherwise, to bring about a regime change in Iraq is a case in point.

The new model of forcing a change in the adversary’s policy through unilateral military action is gaining ground in other parts of the world. North Korea has attempted to trigger fears and anxieties in South Korea and Japan through missile tests and naval intrusions. This also speedily brought the U.S. into direct negotiations with North Korea. This was effectively used by North Korea to obtain substantial economic aid as a price to demonstrate restraint on nuclear matters.

The Chinese have done so in the South China seas. India has deployed its defence services in war readiness against Pakistan for six months and is likely to retain the measure at least until October 2002. The military standoff between India and Pakistan is made infinitely more dangerous with the possession of nuclear weapons by the two countries. It is the nuclear dimension of the crisis that led to energetic action by the U.S., Britain and other nations towards lowering the possibility of war between the two countries. Indian actions have been the result of its need to meet the challenge of asymmetric war with its decided military advantage. Unfortunately, that decided advantage is likely to become the cause for a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, if the two countries go to war.

The global reaction to terrorism and the military response to asymmetric wars by major powers has also had a positive response. It is no longer feasible for terrorist organizations to claim responsibility with impunity for terrorist attacks. They are likely to be immediately proscribed or banned or subjected to a military response by the affected or aggrieved nation. It will also make states sponsoring or supporting such terrorist groups subjected to international sanctions and even military action.



The Pakistani dilemma on pursuing its policy on J&K exemplifies this new gain from the global response against terrorism. It is unwilling or incapable of putting down terrorist groups operating from its soil against India. It cannot also overtly support such groups or allow them to use the territory of Pakistan for terrorist acts in J&K. The Indian military deployment on its borders puts Pakistan on notice if it does not show results on the many promises made by President Musharraf on fighting terrorism. Terrorist groups have been forced to either change names or their operating methods in order to evade punitive international action. It is likely that the funding of terrorist groups will also come down as a result of these developments.

The negative consequences of these developments will, however, be more serious if they are not addressed soon enough. It cannot be denied that the war against terrorism runs the risk of being viewed as a war against Islam or as focused against Islamic people. It cannot be denied that as a consequence of the conjunction between the religious beliefs of terrorist groups and their geographic locations, most, if not all, military action is being directed against Muslim groups.



Coupled with the Middle East conflict, this pattern has already created a strong reaction among Islamic peoples. The feeling of helplessness in the face of military might of major powers, and a sense of injustice due to unilateral actions of such powers, will inevitably lead to a reaction. That reaction is more likely to come in the form of a greater than before reliance on asymmetric wars. This likelihood is fuelled by the inability of the international community to agree on the definition of terrorism. The attempts by nationalities and states to duck the issue of what differentiates terrorism from a freedom struggle is going to make matters even more difficult.

Asymmetric wars are a consequence of long standing asymmetric international power structures. Lack of equity in international order and the injustices that stem from it provide the breeding ground for international terrorism. Decisive military action remains a valid instrument against states and groups professing and practising terrorism for the foreseeable future. Equally urgently, the removal of injustices in the international order will need to be the cornerstone of a global vision for eliminating terrorism. In the absence of such initiatives, asymmetric wars are likely to continue threatening the prevailing international order.