Counterinsurgency and Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) are two ways of saying the same thing. War compels an enemy to submit to your will. 4GW is a form of warfare. It is still a technique for compulsion. However, it does not focus directly on the enemy military force but directs a narrative (a storyline which may bear little similarity to the facts) at the enemy population in order to convince them to do something, for example to stop supporting their military. Gunplay, bombing, and other kinetic operations (including security operations, a free press, and free elections) are useful in a 4GW so far as they fit into and reinforce the chosen narrative.
Colonel T. X. Hammes writes:
In January 2002, one ‘Ubed al-Qurashi quoted extensively from two Marine Corps Gazette articles about 4GW. He then stated, “The fourth generation of wars [has] already taken place and revealed the superiority of the theoretically weak side. In many instances, these wars have resulted in the defeat of ethnic states [duwal qawmiyah] at the hands of ethnic groups with no states.”
Essentially, one of Al-Qaeda’s leading strategists stated categorically that the group was using 4GW against the United States—and expected to win. Even this did not stimulate extensive discussion in the West, where the 9-11 attacks were seen as an anomaly, and the apparent rapid victories in Afghanistan and Iraq appeared to vindicate the Pentagon’s vision of hightechnology warfare. It was not until the Afghan and Iraqi insurgencies began growing and the continuing campaign against Al-Qaeda faltered that serious discussion of 4GW commenced in the United States.
In a 4GW war, both militaries direct their strategic narrative against the populace that supports their enemy military. Democracies that fight a 4GW have added vulnerabilities that can lead to defeat in a 4GW much like the US defeat in Vietnam and Israel’s defeat in the 2006 HizbAllah conflict in South Lebanon.
Major Erik Claessen writes:
According to Galula, “The basic tenet of the exercise of political power [is that] in any situation, whatever the cause, there will be an active minority for the cause, a neutral majority, and an active minority against the cause” (italics mine). It takes considerable political interaction to make the neutral majority choose sides. The majority of the counterinsurgent’s electorate is only marginally interested in politics. In a democracy, three types of actors can generate the political interactions necessary to make the neutral majority choose sides on an issue: the government, the opposition, and active minorities. All three must compete to gain media traction because the average constituent either cannot, or will not, handle more than a few political issues, and the media largely decides what those issues are.
I have simplified the situation somewhat in my diagram.
“Because rhetorical campaigns are such an integral part of mobilizing public and political support, there is a tendency to oversell the message. The constant temptation to manipulate and distort information frequently leads the public to develop unrealistic expectations about the nature or likely cost or efficacy of military intervention.”
This initial justification for the involvement in COIN becomes a de facto contract between the government and the electorate. The government must abide by this contract or pay a high political penalty. Because the most important terms of this contract are the expected duration, nature, and cost of the counterinsurgency, the insurgent can inflict a political penalty on the government by prolonging the conflict, changing the perception of its nature (e.g., from a “war of liberation” to a “war against imperialist oppression and cruelty”), and/or increasing its cost. None of these require the insurgent to attain military victory.
The second consequence of a government’s decision to undertake COIN is that the political opposition can exploit the conflict for electoral gain. In a democracy, the opposition represents the electorate’s alternative to the government.
As the diagram shows, the opposition will represent both the government and active minorities as too extreme, and itself as the only centrist and reasonable alternative: the compromise party. It is hard to argue with this logic. In addition, the more attention that is paid to the military conflict, the more likely the populace is to respond to emotional arguments and search for a compromise position.
As Claesson points out, this makes a widely disseminated pro-military narrative counterproductive in a democracy fighting a counterinsurgency or a 4GW. The discouraged electorate is the central problem in 4GW for democracies.
A discouraged electorate can be devastating for the democratic counterinsurgent, akin to destruction of his armed forces. The counterinsurgent must have a strategy to prevent this from happening. However, the three steps that might preclude such discouragement are impossible to take. The counterinsurgent cannot start a war without justifying it to his electorate; he cannot include the opposition in the government and abandon the government’s political priorities for the entire duration of the war; and he cannot curtail the activities of the active minorities that oppose the counterinsurgency.
Yet, as Max Boot points out and Claesson repeats, there is one way to minimize the possibility of a discouraged electorate. Keep it quiet and make sure the conflict is not closely covered in the media. Some ways to keep it quiet are:
- Use minimal numbers of regular military forces in country.
- Focus on training mission that can be performed out of country.
- Leverage indigenous counter-insurgents.
- Use private military contractors (letters of marque?).
- Minimal forces cannot protect the media or NGOs in country.
Both the Hammes and Claessen articles are well worth reading. Taken together they show both the dangers and a path out of our current troubles with the 4GW against Al Qaeda, quite possibly a path to victory.