- The Washington Times - Monday, November 4, 2002

Asymmetric warfare is a concept rapidly becoming a buzz word that describes how the weak can defeat the strong.
The United States, though its statecraft and armed forces are organized to deal with "peer competitors" countries like us with similar if opposed statecraft and forces now finds itself having to look at having to deal with a range of potential asymmetric threats that Saddam Hussein will enlist.
In the past, an asymmetric or unconventional threat would often become a conventional one. The victorious Continental Army of 1781, the Chinese People's Liberation Army of 1948, the Viet Minh of 1954 and the North Vietnamese of 1975 had all originated as ragged militias, but used foreign support to become better at conventional conflict than their enemies.
But others saw asymmetric warfare as not a stage in conflict but as its end. Che Guevara became the theorist of Marxist-Leninist asymmetric warfare, believing conventional warfare unnecessary as capitalist states worldwide were ripe for defeat. Che's lack of success and ultimate demise underlines the difficulty of implementing asymmetric strategies. Osama bin Laden tried to apply Che's tactics to an Islamic fundamentalist ideology. Bin Laden did not bring down his enemies, but instead provoked retaliation that defeated his own al Qaeda and sympathizers in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Yemen and elsewhere.
Saddam turned to asymmetric warfare after he failed at conventional conflict in 1991. Asymmetric warfare provided new value to weapons of mass destruction for Saddam (or others that share his goals). Such weapons are intended to deter and prevent regional coalitions being formed to use conventional force against an asymmetric threat. Weapons of mass destruction are thus redefined as those that keep the state supporters of terrorism safe from a conventional challenge (as defeated al Qaeda in Afghanistan), providing the shield while some of the unattributable (and relatively low cost) elements of asymmetric warfare provide the sword. Support for terror, false-flag operations, covert biological warfare release, attempts to use third parties to attack computer and communications networks, internal penetration in the region or even classic guerrilla warfare cannot be cleanly removed by even the most skillful military operations. But while they have the potential to inflict painful losses, it is hard to see how these actions can defeat the United States.
Saddam has demonstrated few successes at asymmetric warfare. The assassination plots in the Gulf, the attempts at political penetration in Jordan both predate 1991. Even if hindsight ascribes what we now see as natural disasters to Saddam, they have all combined done him little good. Yet, Saddam appears to retain an unshakable Osama-like view of the irresolution of his opponents and their fundamental weakness. The Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon is seen as more recent evidence that Saddam's enemies will not stand up to asymmetric warfare backed up by guerrilla action.
Saddam has embraced the rhetoric of popular resistance to direct the nationalist feeling he rallied during the 1980s war with Iran to this new cause. He reviews parades brandishing a symbolic Lee Enfield rifle one captured from a British battalion defeated by Iraqi rebels in 1920. Saddam will use his own population as hostages staging a massive "siege of Baghdad" is seen as a likely goal increasing their own suffering and loss of life in the hope that this will force opponents to change their policies. He will also likely aim to make an invaded Iraq ungovernable, destroying oil and infrastructure as in his retreat from Kuwait in 1991.
Saddam will try and create symbols for resistance and create self-images for his adversaries they will find unacceptable. Eight-year-old boys are likely to be given small-caliber handguns and plastic charms that they will be told will make them bullet-proof. He will only need a few to succeed in using them to produce new hero-martyrs and disturbing images for the television news.
It is hard to see Saddam's asymmetric warfare strategy as more than desperation. Yet, the United States had a difficult time adapting to unconventional opponents in conflicts such as Vietnam and Somalia. Now, we can expect the threat to possess greater sophistication, to use increased sensitivity to casualties friendly, civilian and enemy alike and the realities of the globalized economy and its 24-hour news cycle.
The asymmetric warfare challenge remains a real one.

David Isby is a Washington-based author and national security consultant.

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