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How the weak win wars


How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict
(Ivan Arreguin-Toft)

This is an odd book, but interesting nevertheless. It seems that political science departments have been infected with a mania for quantifying things that can't be quantified, causing Professor Arreguin-Toft to attempt an exact measurement of all the 'small wars' of the past two centuries. They run from Peru rising against Spain in 1809 to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. His attempts to manipulate this data are sometimes laughable, as when he solemnly assures us (in a footnote on page 109) that when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, 'the halved ratio of relative material power comes to 24.21 to 1 in favor of Italy'. Not twenty-four to one, and not twenty-five to one. but 24.21:1. Put that in your spreadsheet and smoke it!

Another odd thing: the good professor or his editor doesn't seem to know that Asians put the family name first. As a result, Chairman Mao gets referenced in a footnote as 'Tse-tung, 1961'. And the military philosopher Sun-tzu (meaning Master Sun) appears in the index as Tzu, Sun, which is like alphabetizing our present author as Professor, Arreguin-Toft.

That apart, I enjoyed the book. It's based on five case studies: Russia's first rape of Chechnya, 1830-1859; the Boer War, 1899-1902; Italy in Ethiopia, 1935-1940; the Vietnam War, 1965-1973; and Russia's misadventure in Afghanistan, 1979-1989. And there's our first lesson about insurgencies: they tend to last a very long time, with the median of these five being our eight-year slog in Vietnam. That's two presidential terms--far too long for most American appetites. (It's notable that the two longest conflicts were both pursued by a totalitarian government in Moscow.)

Incidentally, as the sub-title suggests and as is reinforced frequently in the text, Arreguin-Toft has the very devil of a time trying to define the wars he's writing about. He is not alone in this. Today I got in the mail a monograph from the US Army's Strategic Studies Institute, which speaks of 'insurgencies and other unconventional asymmetric irregular wars'!

Here are my notes from How the Weak Win Wars:

'Indirect defense strategies [terrorism, guerrilla war, passive resistance] presuppose a certain level of restraint on behalf of attackers. When strong actors employ a strategy that ignores such restraint [strategic bombing, torture, assassination], weak actors are unlikely to win, both because there would be no one left to win for, and GWS [guerrilla warfare strategy] depends directly on a network of social support for intelligence, logistical support, and replacements.' (For example, Ghandi if he'd tried 'passive resistance' against Nazi Germany instead of Britain.) 'Barbarism works as a COIN strategy because by attacking either or both of the essential elements of a GWS – sanctuary and social support – it destroys an adversary's capacity to fight.' (p.41)

Of Russia in the Caucusus: 'The Russians were slow to adapt, yet adapt they did, though with mixed effect'. (p.50) I wrote much the same about Russia's second Chechen campaign in the 1990s.

The emperor Haile Selasse, speaking to his army on the eve of battle in 1935: 'Soldiers, I give you this advice, so that we may gain the victory over the enemy. Be cunning, be savage, face the enemy one by one, two by two, five by five in the fields and mountains.
    'Do not take white clothes, do not congregate as you've done now. Hide, strike suddenly, fight the nomad war, snipe and kill singly. Today the war has begun, therefore scatter and advance to ictory.
' (p.121) Alas, the Ethiopians were too proud: they fought in the open and wore white garments instead of camouflage, and they were defeated.

More than any academic I have read, Arreguin-Toft is honest about who was the aggressor in South Vietnam: 'By 1959 the DRV [North Vietnam] had shifted emphasis from political agitation to preparation for war. It sent 4000 troops to the South and began formal construction of ... the Ho Chi Minh Trail.... It also began smuggling arms to the South by sea. In 1960, the DRV established the National Liberation Front to coordinate the war in the South.' This would come as a considerable surprise to such liberal propagandists as Frances Fitzgerald. 'By 1961, Viet Cong (VC) forces had begun escalating attacks against Diem's government in the South. Assassinations of village leaders and provincial officials had risen from 1200 a year in 1959 to 4000.... In 1963 the DRV and VC began more aggressive and larger-scale actions against South Vietnam.' (pp.148-49)

Of the various hypotheses he tests against his five case studies, Arreguin-Toft likes the direct – indirect strategy notion the best. The stronger side wins when it uses the same sort of strategy as the weaker side (most obviously, the Italian army against Ethiopian warriors in battle array). The weaker side wins when the strategic principle is opposite (the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese when they used guerrilla tactics against General Westmorelands 'search and destroy' sweeps):

'weak actors ... win wars against much stronger adversaries when they are able to adopt and maintain an ideal counterstrategy. Strategy, in other words, can multiply or divide applied power.
Strong actors come to a fight with a complex combination of interests, forces, doctrine, military technology, and political objectives, but because armed forces are thought to be versatile in their employment, and because strong actors are only relatively, and not absolutely, strong, strong actors do have choices in the strategies they use.' (p.200)

'similar approaches ... imply defeat for the weak actor and victory for the strong. These wars will be over quickly, making political vulnerability ... irrelevant. By contrast, opposite approaches ... favor weak actors at the expense of strong actors. They will drag on, forcing strong actors – especially democratic strong actors – to make tough and costly decisions in order to continue with any prospect of success.' (pp.203-4) In other words, barbarism vs. guerrilla war as in Chechnya, or conventional war against a conventional defense as in Ethiopia, favors the strong. A conventional war against a guerrilla defense, as in Vietnam, favors the weak.

'In same-approach interactions the strong actor wins because there is nothing to deflect or mediate the use of its material advantages in resources, including soldiers and and wealth. In opposite-approach interactions, the strong actor's resources are deflected (weak actors attempt to avoid open confrontation...) or directed at values which don't necessarily affect the capacity of the weak actor to continue to impose costs on the strong actor (e.g. capturing cities and towns). (p.204)

'If weak actors choose a conventional defense strategy, strong actors can lose if they attempt to use strategic air power (indirect-approach) to win. The costs in terms of time and collateral damage which inevitably follows such attacks provoke outrage internationally, and often domestically as well. Either sort of outrage can create pressure to cease hostilities short of achieving a strong actors political goals. If weak actors choose an indirect defense strategy, strong actors can lose if they attempt a conventional attack strategy (direct-approach) to win. GWS is specifically designed to trade time for territory, so unless strong actors are willing to commit millions of troops for decades, they are unlikely to win against an adversary that avoids contact and strikes when and where least expected.' (p.221)