The Problem With Asymmetrical Warfare

The idea behind asymmetrical warfare is not a bad one – it just has one fatal flaw. That thought was probably the second to last thing that went through Osama Bin Laden’s mind when the SEALs came calling. The last thing that went through his mind was an American bullet.

Asymmetrical warfare is the type of warfare most frequently practiced against the United States – mostly because there’s no other real option. Simply put, it is a strategy focusing on side-stepping a stronger enemy’s strengths and focusing all one’s limited resources at the enemy’s weakest points – hence the asymmetry. Saddam Hussein tried to fight the United States symmetrically in Desert Storm and in the first days of the Iraq War. He decided to put Iraqi troops head on against United States Army and Marine Corps forces. He got his ass handed to him and currently resides in Hell right between Stalin and Mao.

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Al Qaeda under bin Laden and Zawahiri could never have hoped to defeat American forces in a stand up battle – not least because the organization did not field an actual conventional force (except, perhaps, in conjunction with its Taliban hosts). It had to fight asymmetrically, to take advantage of gaps in American capabilities while evading American strengths. The particular form of decentralized but high-impact terrorism it chose to employ did, in fact, do both. Yet it has still failed. The key to the War of Terror – or whatever this struggle is being called this week – is understanding how al Qaeda miscalculated.

Bin Laden exploited American complacency and its false sense of security to launch the 9/11 attacks. The attacks were devastating without doing material damage to the nation. The United States could have absorbed dozen of such blows, but their impact resided not in the physical effect of collapsed buildings and murdered citizens but the psychological effect on the populace. That was the target, not the Pentagon or the World Trade Center.

And to some extent, that strategy seemed to be working. Voices soon arose calling the attacks the result of America’s own actions in the Middle East. Pressure rose to pull out of the region entirely. This was exactly what al Qaeda sought with its strategy – it could never force America out of the Middle East at the point of a gun. It had to convince America to want to withdraw – leaving a vacuum that the “strong horse” could then fill.

Like so much of life, there is an illuminating analogy to be found in a bar fight. In a bar fight, the little guy is almost certain to get pounded if it comes to a face to face brawl. That’s just a fact – the stronger guy usually wins unless – for whatever reason – he chooses not to press his advantage. Asymmetrical bar fighting means the little guy using tactics designed to keep the big guy from simply walking over and pummeling him. Perhaps the little guy can convince the big guy that he’s not worth the trouble, or that perhaps he’ll get a few good punches in before the big guy body slams him. Maybe the little guy can get others to disapprove, shaming the big guy into not fighting – think the UN and the media.

It’s a powerful strategy – if the big guy cooperates. That is, if the big guy fails to follow through, the little guy can prevail. Spain is a good example; Al Qaeda blew up several railroad stations and the Spanish fell all over themselves to elect a government dedicated to turning tail and running from Iraq. Al Qaeda had perfectly assessed the moral bankruptcy and cultural cowardice of this quintessentially post-Christian European democracy.

But Al Qaeda has still failed, and it did so because of the major weakness with asymmetrical warfare. It depends on the big guy choosing not to pound the little guy into the floor.

Al Qaeda believed that America’s will could be broken like that of the craven Spaniards, that drawing blood would render the spoiled, decadent Americans woozy and terrified, eager to abandon the Middle East to the fundamentalist jihadis. Bin Laden misjudged.

America did not fold like a house of cards. Instead, it leveraged all of its strengths – military, technological and intellectual – into the fight. The weakness of asymmetrical warfare is that the war is only asymmetrical as long as the stronger opponent allows it to be. America didn’t; it put its strengths against Al Qaeda’s weaknesses. As long as it held to that commitment, Al Qaeda was doomed.

Commitment is the key to defeating asymmetrical warfare. A strategy designed to achieve its ends by convincing its opponent to allow those ends to be achieved fails the moment the opponent chooses not to cooperate. On 9/11, America chose not to cooperate.

For a decade, America employed the full weight of its power against its jihadi enemies. Thousands of them are dead, with others imprisoned. Iraq is a democracy, and Afghanistan no longer a staging area. Jihadis wandering through Yemen, Somalia and other loathsome places look nervously to the sky for the Hellfire that can come at any moment bearing a one-way ticket to virginville.

They counted on America giving up; we didn’t. Strategic patience and commitment defeat asymmetrical strategies. Osama bin Laden found that out last week – in the seconds just before a Navy SEAL who may not have even graduated from high school when bin Laden sent his minions to bomb the U.S.S. Cole pulled the trigger.


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