In asymmetric wars, the struggle is over people—because the people hold critical information

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The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish the kind of war on which they are embarking. —Carl von Clausewitz

It seems unfathomable now, but by directive, at that time we weren’t even allowed to use the term “insurgency” or “insurgents,” even though everyone knew that’s what we were facing every day.… It was very frustrating for soldiers operating in these conditions because they rarely saw the enemy but were constantly reacting to the variety of methods they employed to attack them. This was the reality we were settling into after a month or so on the ground. —Colonel Brynt Parmeter, USA, Retired, on soldiers trained for a big conventional war finding themselves facing an asymmetric one, in Iraq in 2004.
This story was told to us by Colonel Brynt Parmeter, USA, Retired. At the time, he was Chief of Operations (“CHOPS”) in charge of a critical section of the 1st Infantry Division operation staff responsible for the current and near-term operations of the division. Among his many duties were morning updates and evening radio net calls, to ensure a common understanding of current and future activities among commanders and staff.

Prior to deployment, the 1st Division had trained in much the same way that U.S. Army units based in Germany had done throughout the Cold War, maneuvering combat units to engage and destroy a conventional enemy. A number of the division’s members were veterans of the first Gulf War. Ground fighting there had lasted just ninety-six hours and resulted in an overwhelming victory for the U.S. and Coalition forces over the Iraqi military. This had seemed a validation of the U.S. military’s approach to defeating its foes through technological dominance of the battlefield from air, sea, and land. Aside from the recent peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, the unit had little experience with insurgency.
Unfortunately, neither the train-up nor the experience in the first Gulf War did much to prepare the 1st Division’s leaders and soldiers for what they found in Iraq: roadside bombs, assassinations of village leaders friendly to the Coalition, and the destruction of bridges and other infrastructure. “Vehicle-borne explosives starting to pop up,” Parmeter explained, “and you had small arms fire attacks just randomly through urban areas and land mines placed to hit our forces.”

Though the 1st was suffering nowhere near the casualties seen on D-Day or throughout World War II, it was not uncommon to experience more than fifty enemy attacks a day across the division’s area of operations, and there were casualties every day. These were not clustered around any front—attacks could happen at any moment, anywhere U.S. forces were deployed across the increasingly restive country.
Major General Batiste’s purpose in reminding his soldiers of the 1st Division’s powerful history at Normandy was to give them an additional source of support and stability to draw on during those challenging times. But his reminder also highlighted what a different tactical challenge the division faced and how, in essence, they were better prepared for battles like Normandy than for Tikrit. In Iraq, the 1st Division soldiers had a steep advantage over the enemy—unprecedented firepower, vehicles, and technology—but they rarely had the opportunity to use these against the elusive and seemingly invisible insurgents. Even the most advanced surveillance systems had a difficult time confirming whether an individual was the enemy and whether the people surrounding him were combatants or civilians.

Fortunately, Major General Batiste and most of the senior leaders quickly recognized that this fight was unlike the first Gulf War and more like the “small” subnational wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the U.S. military had played a peacekeeping role. Both the 2nd and 3rd Brigades had spent time in Kosovo, where they had encountered a similar, though much less violent, insurgency. Batiste knew that the 1st Division needed to conduct precision actions: raids and other operations to find and capture or kill the insurgent groups and individuals responsible for the violence. To do this, they first had to learn to engage with the local population, gain their trust, glean fragments of information from them, and piece these together into a coherent intelligence estimate. Each step in this process represented a major challenge.

About a month after the D-Day commemoration, an insurgent dressed in police uniform detonated a car bomb at a building occupied by 1st Division soldiers and Iraqi policemen, killing many of both in Samarra, a city forty miles from Tikrit. This marked the beginning of a period of intense insurgent activity: every patrol entering Samarra met some combination of small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, improvised explosive devices, and indirect fire. Later in the summer, the 1st Division and other units pushed into the city and drove out most of the insurgents. Afterward, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry stayed to conduct “hold-and-build operations” while the other units withdrew. Parmeter described the variety of activities this entailed:
On one day, patrolmen would go out and meet with a group of primary school teachers to figure out how we could set up an education program in a town. On the next patrol two hours later, we would try to set up a terrain-denial patrol around a known mortar-firing location. Two hours after that we would go and meet with the mayor and his city infrastructure team (which may or may not even have existed) to try to figure out how we could fix an electrical problem or water problem in the town. And then our last patrol would be to go to secure a police recruiting drive to protect the individuals that might want to sign up to attend a training academy—which we had to set up—to be future policemen. All of this was part of Major General Batiste’s directive to conduct intelligence-driven operations and protect the population from the insurgents. This made the population more likely to provide information on bad actors when they had it, which helped us interdict planned attacks and successfully target insurgents.
The months that followed the initiation of combat operations in Samarra were trying, with numerous attacks suffered, and a strong effort by the insurgents to push Coalition forces out. Parmeter described their strategy:
It was during this stage that every one of the U.S. soldiers in Samarra realized that we gained very little through violence in the form of kinetic responses. They were often the worst response especially in urban and other areas with a high risk of collateral damage. In fact, we suspected that for every Iraqi killed or injured by U.S. forces, we were essentially creating more new insurgents. On the contrary, for every non-kinetic action where we were assisting the population, like helping with the hospitals, schools, critical infrastructure, and other similar activities, we were taking the power away from the insurgents and encouraging greater support and collaboration from among the population. According to Parmeter, the 1st Infantry Division realized that they were in a war fought for the support and cooperation of the local population—a population who could provide information—completely different from the war their forefathers waged in 1944 and 1945 or that they themselves had fought in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991. It would be two years before Lieutenant General David Petraeus and Major General James Mattis would compile the lessons Parmeter and his fellow soldiers were learning into FM 3-24—the U.S. Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual—the first resource of its kind since the Vietnam War era. (Pg.7)


One legendary division, two very different wars. There are innumerable technological and political differences from one conflict to another sixty years later. However, when it comes to theories of war and paths to victory, many of the starkest differences between those wars come down to one important dichotomy: symmetric versus asymmetric.

Symmetric wars include international contests such as the two world wars. The victor is generally the side with superior weapons and larger armies. They also include civil (or “subnational”) wars where protagonists of roughly equal capacity fight primarily over territorial control. In the later stages of the Vietnam War, for instance, combatants from North and South Vietnam fought along well-defined fronts as in international wars, with victory secured by a combination of superior weaponry, numbers, and strategy. Civilians matter in these conflicts, of course, but mostly because they provide soldiers and resources to the battlefield.

Asymmetric wars, by contrast, are contests where one side enjoys a heavy matériel and capabilities advantage. These include the post-9/11 U.S. engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as numerous historical examples. In Napoleon’s struggle to control the Iberian Peninsula, he didn’t face one central opponent but instead fought many “little wars,” the origin of the term “guerrilla.” Nearly a century later, after Spain ceded the Philippines to American control, the United States waged a three-year war within this newly acquired territory against multiple semi-independent insurgent groups. It ended officially in victory in 1902 but saw sporadic violence for years afterward. On the Eastern Front in World War II, Hitler’s army struggled to root out insurgencies, notably the Yugoslav Partisans and Polish Underground State, but also the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, who would go on to fight the Soviet Union until 1949, long after that war had slipped from public view.

In symmetric wars, the struggle is primarily over territory. Information plays an important role, to be sure, but it is not decisive in the same way. Both the D-Day landing in Normandy and the 1991 U.S. invasion of Kuwait involved deception campaigns designed to make the enemy think the main attack would be in a different location than it was. But the value of a given piece of information in symmetric conflicts can vary greatly. Knowing who the opposing commander is or where he is, for example, is of little value if he is in a well-protected bunker too far behind enemy lines to be targeted with available means.

In asymmetric wars, the struggle is fundamentally not over territory but over people—because the people hold critical information (which is true to a greater extent than in symmetric conflicts1), because the ability of the stronger side to take advantage of any given piece of information is always very high, and because holding territory is not enough to secure victory. The stronger party in asymmetric conflicts can physically seize territory for a short time whenever it chooses to do so. But holding and administering that territory is another thing altogether—as so many would-be conquerors have learned. If the stronger side knows the location of a commander, hideout, or arsenal it can remove that threat, but if it does not, then there is no well-defined front on which to push and the weaker side will continue to be able to operate. Put more simply, asymmetric conflicts are information-centric. We will use that term in the chapters to come to refer to asymmetric conflicts and specifically to discuss the role played by tips passed from civilians to the government or dominant combatant.

Consider the 1st Division in Iraq: they and their Iraqi allies had massively superior conventional military capacity. Insurgent strategy depended on being able to blend into the civilian population. If insurgents could enlist the support of the population, they could move forces, acquire weapons, and conduct attacks using roadside bombs and other improvised devices, thereby preventing the Iraqi government from consolidating control. On the other hand, if insurgents were identified and their movements reported, it was relatively easy for the Coalition and Iraqi government to suppress them, using advanced weaponry and skilled regular or special operations forces. The battle was not over territory. Victory required a flow of accurate information, mostly provided by civilians.

Globally, asymmetric civil wars have become the prevalent form of conflict since World War II. By one calculation, asymmetric subnational conflicts made up a majority (54 percent) of all subnational conflicts between 1944 and 2004, and were especially prevalent during the Cold War (66 percent).2
Understanding asymmetric warfare is especially important today from a Western strategic standpoint. For example, every major war the United States has fought since Korea, except for the first Gulf War and the first few weeks of the second, has been an asymmetric subnational conflict. As figure 1.1 illustrates, the United States and NATO launched new interventions in asymmetric conflicts almost year every between 1975 and 2005.

This trend will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Partly this is because geopolitics have generated a large number of fragile countries. Also, as drones, missiles, surveillance, and other weapons technologies applicable to subnational conflicts have improved, becoming more lethal, specialized, and expensive, the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening in terms of conventional war aimed at capturing territory. The weaker side is increasingly unlikely to survive when it tries to fight a conventional war, as ISIS’s fate in Iraq and Syria so clearly demonstrates. With the United States as the last remaining military superpower, when it or NATO enters with their weapons technology, the conflict increasingly becomes asymmetric, even if only the local ally deploys forces on the ground. And when the weak side strategically switches to insurgency tactics (e.g., ambushes and improvised explosive devices [IEDs]), rather than fielding troops along some front in an attempt to control territory, the resources and technology advantage of the strong side are no longer enough to win the war, for reasons we will explain in a few chapters.3

In this book, we will examine the crucial role information plays in today’s wars, particularly those the United States has fought since 9/11—and is still fighting and can expect to fight. We argue that taking a conventional approach, based on a symmetric warfare doctrine, will waste lives and resources, and risk defeat. However, taking a smarter approach can improve strategy and make dramatic gains in efficiency. Two major new tools enable this smart approach: research methods that were unavailable just fifteen years ago and data science, including the analysis of “big data.” Our use of these tools has already yielded an important central finding: in information-centric warfare, small-scale efforts can have large-scale effects. Larger efforts may be neutral at best and counterproductive at worst. If this more nuanced view can guide policy, lives and money could be saved.

Colonel Parmeter’s story of the 1st Division being caught unprepared for an asymmetric conflict has analogues throughout the U.S. military and NATO and, more importantly, among aid and development agencies as well, both inside and outside government. In the next chapter, we describe our first contacts with development professionals in Kabul, who echoed the same theme: being caught unprepared, without a doctrine. More generally, the World Bank estimates that 1.5 billion people live in countries affected by fragility, conflict, or violence.4 Because many of those are asymmetric conflict zones that lack front lines or forces in uniform, fragility means that people and property are unsafe. Those conditions, now familiar to conflict researchers, imply that many of the conventional approaches to addressing poverty through development programs may be ineffective and could even worsen violence. (Pg.12)

WE&P by: EZorrilla.

Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict Kindle Edition

by Eli Berman (Author), Joseph H. Felter (Author), Jacob N. Shapiro (Author) 

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