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January 22, 2012


Non-State Agents at the Apex of Strategy

by Mike M

A great new find for thinking about strategy:  Infinity Journal, a “journalzine” on broad-scope strategic issues.  Its several issues so far have featured nice short essays by the likes of Colin Gray, Edward Luttwak, Tony Cordesman, and T. X. Hammes.  Free to subscribe.  In one recent essay, for example, Dr. Eitan Shamir of the Prime Minister’s Office in Israel writes about strategy for non-state actors.  (You may need to subscribe to see the whole thing.)Some see Israel’s approach to this nettlesome issue as pressuring civilian populations from which non-state actors emerge, Shamir explains, with the idea of “diminishing popular support” for those groups.  Yet this is a “misunderstanding of Israeli strategy.”  Instead, “the Israeli approach was not designed to pressure either the government to restrain organizations or to diminish their popular support”; it was “much more limited” and “primarily designed to merely persuade the other side that any action against Israel will result in a high price—thus achieving deterrence.”

When Shamir portrays the approach as a third alternative to the leading schools of COIN (enemy-centric and population-centric)—the new one being “deterrence-based”—this doesn’t seem entirely fresh, in view of the massive literature on the problem of “deterring non-state actors.”  But Shamir’s argument arrives at an important time.  The United States is urgently looking for a convenient dumpster in which to offload the full-scope COIN mission—yet the strategic and especially political reality of militants and terrorists isn’t going away.  Meanwhile, the broader national security landscape is becoming flatter, with more non-state agents—from terrorist and militant groups to patriotic hacker militias to criminal networks to radicalized diasporas and more—wielding tools of “agentcraft” (the emerging parallel to statecraft) that match state power.  You know the list—cyber, social mobilization, economic disruption and terrorism, and so forth.

So the question of what strategies states will use to deal with this exploding roster of challengers—which we’ve thought about for some years as a sort of interesting café exercise—is now likely to become a central obsession of planners in dozens of capitals.  The waist-high stack of reports, books and articles churned out so far on “deterring non-state actors” catalogues the wide range of strategies states have employed.  As one study has laid it out, the concepts include punishment (go after the leadership, attack the civilian base, hit the sponsors of the movement), denial (build better defenses, deny sanctuaries, change hostage policies) and inducement (autonomy or self-rule, prisoner release and so on).  One blanket answer may be that there’s no blanket answer:  Depending on its goals, character, or the personality of its leadership, a non-state actor may be more or less deterrable, more or less subject to incorporation into the social and political mainstream, more or less.  Strategies must be contingent, targeted, tailored.

But we may still require a starting point, a theory of how we view our strategy for dealing with non-state groups:  Is the goal to “end” them (as in post-9/11 absolutism) or something less?  How do we conceive the security demands of a world of dozens of agents who affect security, of overlapping sovereignties?

Shamir, for example, describes an approach of “inflicting pain on the population or by severely impairing the enemy’s military capabilities” to generate a deterrent effect, a model he calls a “severe impairment” strategy.  He stresses the limited ambitions of the strategy:  “It is not about changing local societies or about nation building.  It is not about achieving victory and annihilation of the insurgents.  It will not prevent these groups from rearming and regrouping in preparation for the next round.  At best, it will secure quiet borders for a few years.  In contrast to the first two approaches described earlier, the deterrence approach tries to avoid lengthy occupation and the prolonged presence of soldiers on hostile territory.”  Interesting language in light of the recent Defense Guidance.

A few basic starting points would seem to be:

  1.  The strategy must have a partial, not absolute, version of success.  The public must be prepared for an era of recurrent security episodes.
  2. Few serious non-state threats today, because of extremism, absolutism, or grievances, can be integrated into societies through inducements.  Punishment and denial will take the lead.
  3. We have only begun to scratch the surface of denial strategies—“resilience”—in part because of a frankly dangerous squeamishness about the public-private boundary.
  4. The punishment category now represents a playbook with dozens of options developed or refined over the last decade (training, drones, covert ops, SOF).  A tailored combination can be developed on a case-by-case basis.

But as we move toward a broad strategy for dealing with non-state actors or agents, the biggest decision to be made might be a philosophical one, and it reflects a powerful lesson of the last decade.  Is the state at war with these groups, or is their control a matter of the rule of law?  If the latter, we’re in the realm of law enforcement, thought admittedly reinforced with some hard-hitting stuff appropriate to a different world than your grandaddy Emmitt the Sheriff knew.  If the former—the world that the Bush administration architected after 9/11—then societies the world over will plunge neck-deep into a context of never-ending war, never-ending constraints on freedom, never-ending foreign adventures, never-ending abuse to the fabric of society that comes from a war footing.

One thing is clear:  Despite all the fireworks over issues like the Patriot Act, we have not had a serious national debate over what kind of nation we want and expect to be in the emerging national security environment.  Actually, another thing is equally clear:  If we don’t make that decision consciously, events will damn sure make it for us.

1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Matt J
    Jan 23 2012

    Law, war and strategy . . . Philip Bobbitt’s territory here (Shield of Achilles, Terror and Consent). Are “law” and “war” mutually exclusive? Arguably the U.S.’s position for many decades is that we wage war on behalf of international “order” if not always strictly in accordance with international law. Our current enemies and many likely future threats are all over that gray area between law and war, but we don’t seem to be seeing a great deal of actual evolution in law or “norms” to account for the changing reality. Perhaps this is an indicator of the actual scale of these non-state threats . . . if they were truly serious one would expect to see evolution to account for them. Or perhaps the state is simply unable to adapt, as many have argued. Personally I tend toward the former view, but expect rapid evolution in current understandings of law and war once the first actual use of a nuclear or similarly devastating weapon by a non-state actor actually takes place.


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