Asymmetrical War

At first the notion of »asymmetrical war« is a description of a more or less obvious phenomenon: since 1945 there are less and less wars between states and more and more conflicts between regular forces on the one side and irregular formations on the other side. The state-to-state war - predominant in the time after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 - was characterized by two similar kinds of army: a symmetrical disposition.

Since 1945 the destructive power of weapons of mass destruction had the result that there were less and less state-to-state wars. In the two military blocs, the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, it was known that a clash was only to make at the price of total destruction. In the same period partisan warfare got more and more importance.

In this conflicts (that the historian Sebastian Haffner already in 1966 described as »new wars«) the armies of states were confronted with rebels hiding in the civilian population and sometimes identical with it: an asymmetrical disposition. Whenever the partisan or guerrilla warfare was made extremely stubborn, it was nevertheless made on a low level.

There were no decisive battles, no obvious front lines. Instead: wear and tear, pinpricks, attrition, political-psychological fight to get the backing of the civil population. In the last decades this »asymmetrization of war« was often pulled up as a figure, last of all in the context of terrorism.

The Berliner political scientist Herfried Münkler - who had considerably influenced in Germany the debate about so-called »new wars« with a book that had the same title and who has in the political feature something like a sovereignty of definition - made this expression to one of the most important pillars of his conception.

Münkler maintains in this book that the asymmetric disposition of war led to a process of independence and to a release of violence. The state-to-state war as established after 1648 has been »cherished« since the legality of the state came along with rules and political differentiation - differentiation between war and peace, battlefield and back area, combatants and civilians. The guerrilla war had revoked these limitations.

In partisan warfare there is no peace, but also no declared state of war, the battlefield may be everywhere, the combatant is not to distinguish from the civilian. Terrorism, so Münkler, will speed up this release. »Terrorism became«, so he states, »(...) terror war waged worldwide and without any self-restraint in the choice of the victims.« (2002:189)

Thus international terrorism is synonymous to the release of violence, to the expansion of horror. It's dissolving order and makes civilians at random to victims.

It is strange, bizarre and disgusting that in Europe and especially in Germany a thesis like this does not meet with the smallest resistance. Though it is contradictory to all real experiences: for the release and totalization of violence in Europe there was no need of communist partisans, radicalizing students, city guerrilla or islamistic assassins.

Totalizations of war and violence may proceed from quite different constellations. We, in Germany, should remember that it was not irregular terrorism but a most regular state and its patriotically mobilized population that were responsible for the greatest release and expansion of violence and horror in the 20th century.

And one should also take into consideration that Münkler's thesis of released and non-state violence is only borrowed. Münkler makes no secret of this fact. He himself is re-establishing this reference at several occasions: the reference to Carl Schmitt and his writings about state, war and partisan.

The theorist of constitutional law and of the state of emergency, the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt may be seen as the one who importantly shaped the thesis of the irregularization and the release of war. In 1963 Schmitt published a lecture he gave - at invitation of the Franco regime - before in Spain: »Theory of the Partisan«.

Here Schmitt distinguishes between a »tellurian« guerrilla rooted in the soil - as proceeding in the fight against the Napoleonic occupation of Spain in 1808 - and the professional revolutionary-partisan motivated by communism of the 20th century. Schmitt thinks that just this communist partisan had abolished the limitations of war.

Schmitt's approach was object of many discussions - although its author in 1945 was not allowed by the allies to teach in university and his writings are stocked until today in the poison cabinets of the libraries. But the - in my opinion - most remarkable sentence was overlooked: The Soviet snipers, to give the gist of Schmitt's thought, took hostage the German uniform wearers during their occupation of Russia.

Here all is said: the release of violence has it's cause not in the fact that German occupying forces starved out systematically the civil population, carried out massacres, carried off hundreds of thousands Jews into concentration camps and transported millions of other Russians as slave labourers to Germany, but in the fact that the partisans did not reveal themselves to be regular fighters.

The sniper is the criminal, the man in the German execution squads did only his duty. Schmitt has no doubt that this is also valid in other constellations. Thus it was the violence of the insurgents in the anti-colonialist wars in Southeast Asia (and not the politics of resettlement of the colonial masters) that destroyed the social weave and spread fear and horror.

This - in the end absolutely insane - distortion of real inequalities and asymmetries is characteristic of decades of debates on war - no matter whether one is talking about »Low-Intensity-Conflicts«, »new wars« or »international terrorism«.

The Israeli military historian Martin van Crefeld who played an important part in the international discussion and who, among others, provoked the debate on the so-called new wars in the beginning of the 1990 years, claimed in The transformation of war (1991) that the principles of warfare stated by Clausewitz became invalid. The conflicts of the future are not carried out by state-run forces but by »groupings today called terrorists, guerrillas, gangs and robbers«.

So far, not completely wrong. From this, in a lecture at the HU Berlin (2003), van Crefeld draws far-reaching conclusions. After the attacks of 9/11 he is painting a global scenario of threat on the wall and demands: the North has to react with the establishment of a comprehensive security system.

Because the partisan-terrorist of the present is characterized by a hyperflexible, modern kind of warfare and is always superior to regular armed forces.

Al Qaeda - a group about which there is only few conclusive information, the little one knows comes from secret service sources and is often a result of torture - is presented by van Crefeld (as if all was well known a long time) as a high technological, transnational great structure that is always some steps in advance to the bureaucratically organized army forces.

Even in view of technological weapons this organization is ahead - because after all the 11 September 2001 died as much human beings as during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

It has nothing to do with sympathy with the political Islamism and its attacks if one points to the fact that one of the frequently repeated formula of the last five years is wrong. The attacks of New York, Madrid and London had shown ruthlessness but no new quality of horror. Who nevertheless claims for this position did not spend the last 60 years on this planet.

The indifferent murder of thousands of civilian is no invention of islamistic assassins or of the »international terrorism« as is said nebulously.

The calculated use of horror, intimidation by killing civilians, systematic attack on non-combatants is since decades part of the warfare - also and even of those »stable states« that since 2001 in a stubborn effort try to present themselves as the hoard of enlightment, civility and security.

Against the thesis that »the stable states« of Western Europe and North America (according to Münkler) have enclosed violence whereas the partisan and the terrorist is unleashing violence, there is a lot of good arguments: The existence of state-legacy is the condition of the industrial mobilization of a society for the war.

With the concentration on the tendency to unleash violence in the southern wars one tries apparently to externalize the problem and to give to the northern states the part of defenders of the civilisation. The expressions »irregularization of the war«, »international terrorism« and »disintegration of the state« are discourses of legitimation for the geo-politics of the USA and the EU...

But the most important argument is that the history of the irregularization and asymmetrization of the war has quite a different dimension. It is right that the expansion of partisan movements in the 20th century is connected with asymmetric constellations of power.

If a political system has nearly the only function to defend the interests of small elites, but at the same time fundamental changes are structurally excluded, so the armed rebellion suggests itself and is perhaps even essential. With Marxism it seemed to exist a future-oriented theory of social revolution.

This is the reason why guerrilla movements - by the way, as a rule without the support of the Soviet Union (in China Moscow did not supply Mao's partisans but the formations of the rightist Tschiang Kai-Shek) - grow to such an extend.

To this situation which is really asymmetric - a highly armed state is confronted with rebellious populations widely without means - at least the western military command (in the Warsaw Pact countries it seemed to be different) answered with an extensive irregularization.

The National Security Doctrine and Low-Intensity-Warfare are two essential elements of the restructuring of security and military concepts in the USA. The greatest (regular) military power of the world »irregularized« itself.

The realization of the National Security Doctrine had in many countries the consequence of a reconstruction of the state. By this the rule of law was reduced or even abolished. One could assist to a creeping authoritarian penetration, to the declaration of the state of emergency and to open military putsches.

At the same time the USA forced the building of anti-riot units (to understand as Counter insurgency and not only as Counter guerrilla). Such troops, like the Green-Beret special units, were trained as well in »psychological warfare« as in »robust methods of interrogation« and anti-terror terror.

The new army handbooks, published since the 1960 years, show something like a bio-political profile: the life of the civil population as a whole (and not only the hostile forces) became to a subject of military thinking and acting. So the Colombian army handbooks about the combat against guerrilla suppose to the soldier to act at the same time as policeman, psychologist, secret service agent and bio-politician.

They have to arrest and to interrogate, to manipulate the population with the help of disinformation, uncertainty and tricks, to investigate it and to record information on it and even to make its health to a means of war - even by vaccination campaigns or medicine embargos for a whole region.

Van Crefeld was right in one point: the asymmetry of partisan warfare is for the state that fights against it a political problem. The state owns still nearly all means of violence but because it is fighting not against an army but against parts of the population its violence hits always also the civilians. But such attacks increase the legitimation of the insurgents.

This is the reason why van Crefeld and others maintain that in an asymmetric war the partisan or terrorist is always superior to the power of the state.

What they don't say is that the fight against rebellions has already found answers to this problem. The answer to the asymmetric constellation of guerrilla or partisan warfare was a re-symmetrization. That's a further and perhaps the most momentous aspect of the irregularization of the armed forces: on referred to Napoleon's maxim »against partisans one has to fight as partisans«.

In the beginning of the 1960 years the US military advisers forced in the whole world the setting-up of civil or paramilitary units. The population was organized at the side of the army, und by this was built a new balance. It was no longer the state on the one side and the population or the partisan on the other, but the break went directly through the population.

As a state serving to the economic and social interests of a minority is not able to organize its defence of the basis of convictions but has to fall back on propaganda, intimidation or even pressure, with the militarization of civil life also arbitrary is milled into the affected society.

In fact, the civil or paramilitary organization of the population left in nearly all societies in which it was practiced terrible stigmata.

In Guatemala one can speak of a population that has traumatic wounds for over a whole generation. In the case of Turkey even the EU-commission is describing the system of village protectors as one of the most important causes of constant violations of human rights and obstacle to democratization.

The re-symmetrization has one further aspect. In the wars of the past years the irregular defenders of the state, the para-institutional units became apparently to a kind of anti-riot-guerrilla. So in Colombia the para-military forces act in fact at the side of the security forces but at the same time they are also a third protagonist of war.

With their class terrorism - they made thousands of massacres of civilians, but exclusively of members of the lower class: small farmers, slum inhabitants, workers organized in the union - they irregularized the war and abolished all limits to violence.

But the notion of terrorism does not more apply to a crime of violence than to the massacre committed with a power saw: here on really has to do with a systematic, politically calculated use of horror.

But just with this release of violence the political situation in Colombia was dammed: the state is no longer the enemy of the rebels. It seems to a victim of the terrorism from the left and the right. The conflict was re-symmetrized.

Thus there are movements of violence release in war, but they have a quite different character than in the thesis of van Crefeld or Münkler. It may be the state itself that is abolishing the rule of law to re-establish order - like a continuation of Carl Schmitt who maintains that it belongs to the character of sovereignty to suspend the law.

Michael Hardt and Toni Negri wrote in Multitude (2002) - about which one may be of a different opinion - about this other violence release in war.

It seems, they say, that we after the end of the cold war »have been catapulted back into the nightmare of a permanent and uncertain state of war that suspends the international law and does not allow a clear distinction between peacekeeping and warfare.« With this they do not refer to terrorism but to the warfare of the »stable« states themselves.

There is going to be a police intervention unlimited in time and space, that has not to be declared as war and may nevertheless be done. Foreign affairs and domestic policy, external enemy and internal opponent mix together.

And this practice is justified by universal arguments: with the reference to the »human whip terrorism« and the invocation of »justice«. In the »just wars« of our time, so Hardt/Negri, is to be find the echo of the religious wars.

It is a release of violence including the legalization of torture, the installation of lawless zones, the transportation of men into camps, the killing of civilians, the intimidation with the help of the global systemic horror - though not committed by small groups but by highly armed and equipped military powers of the world.

In this context Hardt/Negri refer to the reflections of Giorgio Agamben on the state of emergency. Agamben (2002) outlined how order is established by the suspension of the law, how the sovereignty of the state comes along with lawlessness and pure violence.

In the cry for power, so the thesis of Agamben coming from Walter Benjamin (but also from Carl Schmitt), is located the arbitrary; we have to do with a force of law without law, with a »force of law« (where »law« is crossed out).

That's the most momentous release of violence, the highly dangerous asymmetrization, the most far-reaching irregularization of war we are observing today: the lawless terror coming from the interior of the state of law itself.

Two years ago I stopped short reading in the US weekly newspaper Newsweek that there were discussions in Washington to play in the Iraq the »Salvadorenian Option«. Meant was the use of irregular, non-governmental, para-governmental units - death squadrons, paramilitary units, militias... - to re-establish a situation of order.

The news was twice remarkable. In the USA was admitted that the terror of the rightist death squadrons by which the rebellion in Central America was repulsed, had been a military strategy. At the same time one confessed to a form of the indirect, bio-political war. I Think one should discuss this phenomena as war-governmentality.

The immediate, regular intervention of the state is not sufficient to re-establish stability. Governmentality is distinguished by indirect intervention: there is nothing that is administered and ordered, there are produced situations in which the population is encouraged to a certain kind of action. Thus governmentality has a productive effect.

The use of horror, the terror of the death squadrons is destructive, intimidating, worrying, and my even be productive. Order and states of panic, power and intimidation are in a multi-layered manner tied together. In the Iraq the formation of Shiite militias, as suggested by members of the US-administration two years ago, lead in the meanwhile to the outbreak of civil war.

I don't believe that this is the hoped-for situation. Governmentality may fail, produce unintended situations, block productive connections.

But an evaluation like this is at this point not in my intention. More important is that we have to do with an extensive, worrying transformation of the forms of government and war, putting in the shadow all we commonly are understanding as terrorism.
(Translation Ronald Voulli)