Calls for military intervention in Syria are becoming louder in view of the worsening situation. But NATO states are not much inclined to get involved - the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a warning.
This was not war as he knew it.
On his first mission in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the situation was still relatively clear: John Nagl led a US Army tank platoon against Iraqi troops that had invaded Kuwait. "I fought against a conventional enemy wearing uniform," he says.
12 years later, he was again deployed to Iraq. "I fought in a counterinsurgency campaign in Al Anbar and that was a very different kind of war," Nagl told DW. It was "so different that the character of the fight was almost completely changed." Nagl says he "fought against an enemy who waged war from the shadows, who was almost invisible, indiscernible from the general population, a much more challenging task in many ways."
Among other areas in Iraq, the lieutenant colonel was deployed to Fallujah, where hundreds of civilians were killed in 2004 and large parts of the city were destroyed.
Fighting in Iraq was an enormous challenge, Nagl says: "We had a great deal of learning to do while under fire."
Today Nagl, retired from the Army, is one of the most influential experts on asymmetric warfare; he co-authored a US Army manual on counterinsurgency operations that is trend-setting within NATO.
"Conventional armies are designed to defeat other conventional armies, they are hammers designed to pound nails," Nagl says. "When you try to tighten screws with a hammer you are going to have difficulties."
Imbalance in power and tactics
The most comprehensive study ever conducted on the issue analyzes a total of 286 insurgencies from 1800 to 2005 - and shows the magnitude of the problem: up until the first World War, the world powers were victorious in four out of five armed conflicts, but that proportion has dropped continuously ever since. Between 1976 and 2005, just one out of four insurgencies has been defeated.
Jason Lyall, who teaches political science at Yale University and co-wrote the study, blames the development on mechanization.
"When you replace men with machines, you have fewer soldiers to go on patrols in the villages, to go out and find information about your insurgent foe," he told DW. Then, he says, soldiers "move further and further away from the demands of what a counterinsurgency would dictate."
A major problem in asymmetric warfare such as in Afghanistan, where highly equipped armies face weaker groups, is to distinguish between insurgents and civilians. Tracking insurgents becomes more difficult and the armies constantly run the risk of killing innocent onlookers - thus inadvertently fuelling the insurgency. That's an experience Syrian dictator Bashar Assad currently faces: the insurgency is growing ever stronger despite the bloody crackdown on the opposition.
In a counterinsurgency campaign, you are not fighting for control of the territory, but for the support of the population, John Nagl points out - "even if that means taking greater risk for your own soldiers; even if that means that sometimes the insurgents get away."
"To accept the risk in order to protect the population is something that Germany is also learning over time," Nagl says. Beginning in late 2009, Germany's Bundeswehr has been operating under a new counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes protecting the population in Afghanistan. It is a means to an end: the military strategy requires that the Taliban be separated from the population. So the strategy also includes increased Bundeswehr combat operations against the Taliban.
Asymmetric warfare is a completely new challenge for Germany. While the Defense Ministry says it is making the Bundeswehr fit for the requirements of a changed security situation, that leads to the question as to whether equipment and training shouldn't be changed to be geared more strongly toward fighting insurgents. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a sobering effect on the nations involved and military experts do not expect comparable missions anywhere else anytime soon.
"The Bundeswehr was late in discovering counterinsurgency as a conceptual issue," Hilmar Linnenkamp of the German institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin told DW. "I wonder whether they may have even missed the point, because what we now seem to be doing is rather supporting insurgencies." In Libya in 2011, NATO member states supplied the insurgents with advisors and arms shipments - a strategy employed 2001 at the start of the war in Afghanistan.
The next decade will be characterized by that model, says Jason Lyall, "because it reduces the political commitment and it seems to maximize exactly where the US' and other allies' leverage is, which really is in the uncontested use of air power."
Fear of a ground offensive
NATO nations do not yet show any willingness to intervene in Syria along those lines, but the issue is bound to arise as the opposition grows stronger. According to Lyall, the strategy raises ethical questions: first, there is a danger of supporting potential war criminals, he says, and then, "if you are going to intervene with air power, are you actually encouraging would-be insurgents to take up arms and are you encouraging the spreading of insurgencies into different places?"
Lyall fears "a knee jerk reaction" - with air power being deployed without considering the consequences. The fall of the Assad regime might require troops on the ground which might "start off a really dangerous cycle of another quagmire forming," Lyall says.
The authors of the US Army Field Manual on counterinsurgency seem to be aware that there is no patent remedy to the issue: "A counterinsurgency campaign is, as described in this manual, a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations conducted along multiple lines of operations" that requires "a mix of familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with non-military agencies."
And the manual concludes, "The balance between them depends on the local situation. Achieving this balance is not easy."
Author: Dennis Stute / db
Editor: Michael Lawton
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