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Asymmetric warfare

The idea of asymmetric warfare fuses together many previous and more specific ideas of guerilla warfare, espionage, atrocity, violent resistance, sabotage, non-violent resistance, and terrorism. It is a broad and inclusive term coined to recognize that two sides in a conflict may have such drastically different strengths and weaknesses that they resort to drastically different (thus 'asymmetric') tactics to achieve relative advantage - including attacks on "civilians".

Indeed, the rise of all forms of asymmetric warfare in the 20th century (including bombing civilian populations) challenged all ideas of what a "civilian" was or how or why they were to be kept immune to conflicts. This has led to numerous difficult political and ethical controversies, and a general fear that the definition of civilized society may have to change, as higher standards of moral liability, e.g. for taxpayers to a military regime, e.g. for consumers to the victims of the processes of production, are more and more integrated by Internet, global telecom and other media.

Contrasted with low-intensity warfare or unconventional warfare, what characterizes asymmetric warfare is, typically, that one side morally condemns the other for its tactics.

Table of contents
1 Is it terrorism?
2 War by proxy?
3 The end of conventional war?
4 Age of amateurs?
5 Suicide society?
6 Are there any civilians any more?
7 Urban warfare in asymmetric warfare
8 Sources

Is it terrorism?

When asymmetric warfare is the only strategy employed by a given group, it is usually accused of terrorism, as asymmetric methods by definition do not reliably conquer or hold territory or means of production. Thus there is no "endgame", in military parlance, merely a continued escalation of attacks. Note that this criticism applies even to the side that is using conventional military tactics, if the asymmetric methods are preventing it from retaining or using territory it captures. By this definition, both the United States in the Viet Nam War and Israel in the West Bank may reasonably have been considered to have engaged in "terrorism" - to the degree their violence was for symbolic purposes.

Another argument is that a group very powerful and skilled in conventional tactics leaves no avenue of opposition other than asymmetric tactics. Either its opponents accept whatever peace process the powerful side offers, or they effectively surrender. This leads some in the peace movement to side with the conventionally less powerful side regardless of other tactics. If nothing else this discourages rewards for escalation by technology.

Yet a third argument is that asymmetric warfare cannot be "terrorism" because nation-states themselves engage in it! Patricia Zengel, in "Assassination and the Law of Armed Conflict", 1991, is summarized by Calder as concluding "...that there is no longer any convincing justification for retaining a unique rule of international law that treats assassination apart from other uses of force."

War by proxy?

This conclusion is controversial, obviously, and rarely stated in public. But debate on the definition and use of the term "assassin" is inseparable from the similar debates surrounding freedom fighter, terrorist, guerilla, spy, saboteur, provocateur, double agent and other terms which are commonly used to describe players in asymmetric warfare. It is only seemingly neutral when no loyalty or political motive is claimed or assumed, and only money motivates, i.e. when it is not part of a general strategy of asymmetric warfare.

The complex funding and cooperation between "terrorist" groups may be maturing into a full assassination market in which these motives would usually be impossible to distinguish, even in principle. It would be a way for mercenaries, assassins, terrorists, and others to charge for their skills at asymmetric warfare, perhaps even action by action, without a clear tactical unit organization.

The end of conventional war?

Throughout the 20th century, all armies relied more and more on tactics of the guerilla, spy, saboteur, provocateur, double agent and even terrorist. This underscored that the advantages of having no tactical unit organization were greater than the control such units provide:

"Therefore when you induce others to construct a formation while you yourself are formless, then you are concentrated while the opponent is divided... Therefore the consummation of forming an army is to arrive at formlessness. When you have no form, undercover espionage cannot find out anything intelligence cannot form a strategy." - Sun Tzu

Age of amateurs?

Global trade and mass movement of people, modern seduction and "brainwashing" techniques, religious fanaticism, the political futility of opposing undemocratic leaders or occupying powers by non-violent means, and other factors combine to suggest that the most likely future assassin is not a high-priced pro, but rather an ordinary citizen who has no prior record and whose political motive is obscure or incomprehensible. Historian Barbara Tuchman suggests that the late-19th-century anarchist assassins who killed five European (and one American) head of state from 1880 to 1901, were of this category, and although all paid with their lives, none seemed to care.

Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer, 1951, characterized the fanatic as a person incapable of self-concern, but not someone wholly destitute - there was a certain level of economic prosperity wherein the ordinary citizen had no material threat to basic survival, but also insufficient recreation or any chance to advance socially. And that this tended to fuel mass movements.

When the first few female suicide bombers attacked Israeli targets in 2002, it sparked new fears that the methodology of brainwashing had transcended longstanding cultural boundaires, and was heralding an age of amateurs who would be deadly weapons in asymmetric warfare: unknown, uncaring, unable to be distracted or dissuaded from their mission, once they were set out on it.

Suicide society?

Although such tactics seem wasteful, disorganized and immoral to conventional unit commanders who seek to preserve their own men and morale, there are many societies where sacrifice for the whole is respected, or even encouraged. In particular Chinese tactics and Japanese tactics have emphasized this:

"Induce them to adopt specific formations, in order to know the ground of death and life." - Sun Tzu

Like the assassins of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and [Robert Kennedy]? in the 1960s, or the modern suicide bombers, they would likely appear from nowhere, kill their target, and be quickly caught or be already dead. Their families or loved ones may well benefit, as in the case of Palestinian suicide bombers in the West Bank during the Intifada. They may believe in some afterlife of pleasure--as the original "Hashishim" did--or simply seek to sacrifice self for a loyalty group.

Are there any civilians any more?

The sheer numbers of such people in the developing world, plus the lack of education and opportunity, and an abundance of ruthless tactical leaders who will happily employ even children as tools, suggests that the age of highly trained professional assassins, soldiers, or even "terrorists" may well be over. The new assassin or terrorist may be every frustrated individual with nothing to live for, every true believer, and in some places every grieving man. A grim future. But perhaps, in some ways, necessary:

Given that there is more and more information about the origins of commodity and other products available to purchasers, and the activities undertaken by corporations and governments about these and their violations of the ethical standards of those purchasers, there is also more and more pressure to end a series of practices, e.g. rainforest destruction, child labor, prison labor, labor movement suppression, human rights abuses, that have hitherto been assumed to be outside the realm of civilian concern.

If, however, asymmetric warfare targeting offending civilians or taxpayers becomes the standard means of furthering such causes, there may simply be no way to avoid such retaliations for real or imagined harms. There may well be one person on this planet with sufficient grievance to seek out and harm one other such person who is indirectly responsible for harms done to loved ones.

Various news reports on the way Palestinian suicide bombers are compensated indicate that such motivates predominate, and that taxpayers to the Israeli government are indeed deemed morally responsible for all actions of soldiers on the West Bank. This argument has, then, proven effective in at least one major sustained conflict. It may well motivate other distressed peoples to adopt asymmetric warfare to end occupations, economic "exploitation", and destruction of natural ecologies and societies.

Urban warfare in asymmetric warfare

Unlike the conventional wars - where one army fights another army in wide open battlefields - the asymmetric warfare tends to take place inside densly populized urban terrain. Therefore, urban warfare is a prominent part of the asymmetric warfare. Usually, the weaker party is persuading the war to take place inside of its own cities for serveral reasons: 1. A populated city is much harder to conquer than an open field. 2. The urbanized city is much easier to defend because it is full with tall buildings, narrow alleys and sewage tunnels. The building can provide excellent sniping posts while the alleys are ideal for planting booby traps. 3. If the attacking force is a Western army, adhering to international law and western moral values, it must restrain from using heavy fire power and indiscriminate bombing. Thus, the party barricading in a city won't have to face warplanes, heavy artillery and massive tank assult. 4. "Media War": a war on urban terrain is bound to cause some civilian casualties and extreme damage to civilian property. Photos of dead civilians and ruined street broadcast on TV make a strong impact in favor of the party barricading in the city and undermine the moral of the attackinf force. 5. Often, the barricading party is using the immunity that civilian gain under international law in order to prevent attacks on its combatants. It mainly does it by using "Human Shield" - a tactic which is declared a war crime. The use of the weaker party in Human Shield is mostly ignored by the world media and different human right organizations.


Robert Kaplan, "The Coming Anarchy", The Atlantic Monthly, 1994?

Barbara Tuchman, "The Proud Tower, Europe 1880-1914" re: anarchist assassins

UN reports on use of child soldiers as assassins

Sun Tzu 6