Sat, Mar 10, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Soldiers are no longer the key to winning conflicts

Supporters of an increase in forces in Iraq mistakenly believe that troop numbers are what matters most on modern battlefields

By Shlomo ben-ami

Shlomo Ben-Ami

In recent days, Italy's government fell after losing a parliamentary vote on the country's troop deployment in Afghanistan, while Britain and Denmark announced that they would begin withdrawing their troops from Iraq.

Whereas the administration of US President George W. Bush is deploying an additional 21,000 US soldiers in Iraq, and is pushing for more allied troops in Afghanistan, the US' allies are rejecting its Middle East policy. They are increasingly convinced that "victory" will be elusive in any asymmetric conflict between states, however powerful, and religiously driven armed insurgents.

Former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's dogma of military "transformation" -- the technological upgrading of an army's capacity to enable decisive victory with fewer troops -- failed resoundingly in Iraq.

Nor could Israel, with its overwhelming technological advantage, defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon. More rockets and missiles fell on northern Israel in 33 days than hit Britain during all of World War II.

So the Israelis now must reckon with an entirely new phenomenon: an asymmetric entity, Hezbollah, with nation-state firepower.

So the fierce debate over whether to increase the size of US ground forces in Iraq is beside the point. Neither the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s nor NATO's experience today vindicates the claim that troop numbers are what matter most on the modern battlefield.

When geo-strategic military front lines are non-existent, as in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, mass no longer equals victory. The great military thinker Carl von Clausewitz's notion of "decisive battles" as the "center of gravity" of war is simply irrelevant to conflicts that have no visible "center of gravity."

Indeed, while wars from the time of Hannibal's defeat of the Romans in 216BC to the Gulf War of 1991 had this center of gravity, with a massive concentration of force capable of bringing an enemy to its knees, such industrial inter-state wars have now become an historical anachronism. Most states nowadays lie within borders that are widely accepted as legitimate and they are under increasing pressure to abide by humanitarian rules of conduct in times of war.

In fact, the obligation of states to abide by these rules regardless of whether their enemies abide by them is what makes asymmetric wars especially insoluble. Moreover, in an era of global media and international war crimes courts, the criteria for states' use of military force have become more complex than ever.

Inter-state combat may still occur where strategic front lines can be found, such as Israel's border with Syria, India's border with Pakistan, and the border dividing the two Koreas. In such cases, war, as the Egyptians showed in 1973, might still serve as an avenue to resolving a conflict. The Syrians might be tempted to launch an offensive against Israel with the objective of breaking the deadlock over the future of the Golan Heights.

However, in the case of Kashmir, the asymmetric conflict currently fought by proxies and terrorist groups might not degenerate into all-out war precisely because India and Pakistan have mutual nuclear deterrence. Indeed, such asymmetric conflicts through proxies have become the new conventional way that states avoid the price of a general war.

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