Economy of Force and Asymmetric Conflicts

Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy had a piece posted a couple of days ago that just caught my eye.  It basically talks about the current status of terrorist training camps and what the itinerary for the typical attendee entails.  It's pretty brief, but I think it covers some interesting subject matter.  And let me preface the rest of my comments by also saying that I am no expert on terrorism.  The following passage is the one that I focused on:

Typically recruits are given lessons on how to handle
small arms such as AK-47s and PK machine guns as well as
rocket-propelled grenades, tactics for attacking military convoys, and
instructions for planting mines.  Pre-2001 al Qaeda camps also trained
their recruits on sniper rifles and mortars, but this is rarer today.
Students found to be quicker learners are given more specialized
training in skills such as bomb-making or operational security. 

1) I think the notion that prior to 9/11 these individuals were more likely to be trained in some of these conventional forms of weaponry, like sniper rifles and mortars, is an interesting point.  Not that RPG's and assault rifles aren't conventional weaponry, but I'd guess they take considerably less training to use than is required to become a good sniper or to train a mortar team.  I've never served in the military, but it seems to me that mortars are useful primarily for taking out infantry units, or perhaps even light vehicles.  Some of my recent reading that, at least in part, covers US efforts to engage groups like al Qaeda prior to 9/11 really points to more of a covert/special forces sort of effort.  And let's not forget cruise missiles.  Given this kind of threat, it's not immediately clear to me why training your recruits in these particular weapons/tactics would be effective.  And given al Qaeda's MO it doesn't seem like either tool is really conducive to inflicting the kind of damage and fear that a bomb can.  If anything, I would imagine that these tools (sniper rifles and mortars) would be more effective after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan when they are confronting military units that seem to conform to more conventional patterns of warfare.  Especially given that the terrain in Afghanistan in particular seems conducive to utilizing well-trained snipers.  And given the video footage I've seen of patrols walking along narrow mountainous paths, mortars would also appear to be effective tools. 

This may seem like minutiae when we think in terms of the US military, but I think such details are much more important when we look at much smaller outfits like al Qaeda and the Taliban, as it seems to dictate the nature of the threat military personnel face.  Furthermore, if al Qaeda's primary mission is to strike out at foreign assets and citizens then the time spent training members how to use more conventional forms of weaponry (even machine guns) would seem to be time taken away from training that is more directly useful for that primary mission.       

2)  There has been some talk in the media regarding the risk that attempts
like this most recent one simply serve to clog up our intelligence and
law enforcement networks, potentially allowing greater threats to slip
by undetected. I would leave this to a better game theorist, but it seems like this provides a neat opportunity to model smaller group decisions on how to employ force and utilize intellectual capital(perhaps something like this exists already?).  Training a good sniper probably takes a lot of time and energy.  So not only does the group have to determine how to expend resources, or what mix of training to provide on which weapons, but it also has to decide which individuals to train more comprehensively.  Intelligent recruits are more likely to receive greater levels of training, but it also seems like they are more likely to be the ones to engage in the most dangerous missions as well.  So it seems that a group must also determine where to set the bar in terms of defining low-quality recruits and high-quality recruits.  Setting the bar higher will filter out more low-quality people, but major operations will likely take longer to plan and complete.  Setting the bar lower means that you can carry out more operations, but they're probably going to be of lower intensity and perhaps more likely to fail.  Where you set the bar also determines the mix of resources and training that you will provide.  Finally, where you set the bar might also be a function of the approaches taken by the other groups/cells that share your goals.  Even if these groups operate in relative isolation, planners can still look at the strategies employed by these other groups and choose to either emulate them, or pick a different strategy that complements the approaches taken by other groups.   

If someone is aware of something like this that already exists, I'd be interested to take a look at it.  I know papers exist that look at recruitment, as well as the variation in using violence in an indiscriminate or discriminate fashion, but I think the question here is a little different.  My understanding of terrorist cells is that they tend to operate in a relatively autonomous fashion–even if multiple groups claim the mantle of al Qaeda.  So the question here seems to be which type of cell do you want to be?  One that pops up infrequently but with potentially devastating attacks, or one that is more capable of frequently harassing the enemy but with comparatively little harm done in each individual attack?  Can you convert back and forth as needed?     

3) Lastly, I am also interested in the extent to which military forces can adjust to suit their needs.  The idea of the military and industrial worlds scratching each others' backs is not new.  And Defense Secretary Gates has made headlines recently regarding his comments on cuts to defense spending and major weapons systems.  Making such cuts is notoriously difficult.  Backers of major systems like the F-22 often point to potential adversaries down the road (like China) as a justification for maintaining such programs, even if their current utility is quite low.  Alternatively, is it possible that al Qaeda's shift away from tools like mortars and sniper rifles reflects a change of tactics in response to new circumstances?  A lack of time and resources to devote to higher standards of training?  A little of both?  Does bureaucratic self-interest really hamper the ability of large military organizations to adjust according to the needs of the current conflict?  If so, how much?  To what extent does the lack of entrenched bureaucratic interests (as far as attachments to particular modes of combat or weapons systems) aid organizations like al Qaeda in their ability to engage much larger militaries?      

Again, I realize that some of the details I've focused on are pretty fine-grained, but I think it provides a basis on which to dive into some of these broader questions.  Thoughts?

Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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