Enigma of the Underdog in Asymmetric War

“War has allegedly now been transformed from a regular, conventional, purportedly symmetric exercise into an irregular, unconventional, asymmetric event, which must be understood anew”.

Asymmetric war can simply be defined as “conflicts between nations or groups that have disparate military capabilities and strategies”. Conventional wisdom asserts that if there is a war between two individuals, the stronger is sure of his victory. But historically, there have been instances when the weaker overpowered the stronger. The famous case of David and Goliath comes to mind, where Goliath was so sure of his ability to crush his opponent that took off his helmet before battle; whereupon David, with a single blow of his slingshot, downed the gigantic Goliath and finished him off. Another example of an asymmetric battle is that of the Scythian nomads and the Persian army in the early 6th BC. Robert D. Kaplan in The Art of Avoiding War narrates how the Scythians, nomadic tribes of the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea (Ukraine today), faced Darius’s infantry near the sea of Azov. “Darius sent the Scythian king, Idanthyrsus, a challenge:If you think yourself stronger, stand and fight; if not, submit.” Idanthyrsus replied to Darius “since his people had neither cities nor cultivated lands for an enemy to destroy, they had nothing to defend, and thus no reason to give battle.” Scythians in small groups skirmished with the Persian army and then quickly withdrew, over and over again. Darius’ army had to retreat from Scythia without having a proper chance to fight. Kaplan asserts that “Killing the enemy is easy, in other words; it is finding him that is difficult.”

Asymmetric war has existed for centuries but in the last half-century there have been conflicts that were initiated by weak states, such as Egypt’s attack against Israel (1973), Saddam Hussain’s attempt to annex Kuwait (1990) and NATO’s response, Argentina’s attempt to get back the Falkland Islands, and Uganda’s invasion of Tanzania (1978) are some of the examples among many.

War is a phenomenon which requires flawless planning, a shrewd strategy, as well as a well-trained and equipped military to execute the commander’s intent. If the above-mentioned components have been worked out, then, despite the obvious disparity between weak and strong militaries, there still are chances that the underdog may prevail over the strong adversary.

Arash H. Pashakhanlou in The Underdog Model: The Theory of Asymmetric Airpower put forth six factors i.e. (i) creativity, (ii) sufficiency and external support, (iii) commitment, (iv) intelligence, (v) dispersion and concentration, and (vi) the engagement of vulnerable military targets. If a careful analysis of any military conflict is drawn between two contenders, one can find that all of these six factors are part of their strategy, with the only missing component being belief. Belief is a powerful weapon but does not reside in every military. An underdog, who has a belief that no power can undo it, is more likely to believe that his survival is sine qua non for staying as a unique entity. This very rationale is highly applicable to the case of David and Goliath, where David believed he had Divine support to help him defeat Goliath.

Basically, a powerful state may have better standards of creativity than the weak adversary. Actually, the threat perception of the weak is different from the stronger and therefore this becomes a war of survival versus a war of policy goals. Survival is the ultimate objective for any nation, group, ethnicity, or tribe and therefore, it favours the underdog during any war.

Another factor that has not frequently been mentioned in war studies literature is that the war stamina of an underdog may be longer than that of the strong adversary. The reason for this prolonged stamina is the decentralization of leadership. In case of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. and allied troops continued a military campaign for 20 years and there were no chances of the Taliban’s survival. Contrary to the US spy agency’s classified assessment about the prospective Taliban’s take over, President Joe Biden assured his people that Kabul was unlikely to fall. But the Taliban put up fierce resistance and wrested control of Kabul within weeks after the pull-out of US and allied troops. In such an asymmetric war, the will to lose fighters on the Taliban side was stronger than on the other side. The Taliban had a belief that they would not be finished by US troops and that turned out to be true. The US used air power extensively, including drone strikes to destroy safe havens, but even without any air force the Taliban were able to inflict heavy losses to the US Air Force (USAF). America and its allies lost a total of 274 aircrafts in the Afghanistan war. It included 96 UAVs,27 contract aircrafts,118 rotary-wing and 33 fixed-wing aircrafts. This loss of aircraft includes accidents as well.

Another glaring example of asymmetric airpower is found in the Vietnam war. The theory of asymmetric airpower in the case of the Vietnam war caused a loss of about 8,000 US aircrafts. One of the reasons included the deployment of US ground forces. They needed emergency close air support plus air interdiction to seek enemy strongholds and vehicles. Operations were poorly planned and executed, underestimating the impact of guerilla warriors. The literature has extensively been published by the proponents of airpower but, the influential theories of airpower by Giulio Douhet, John Boyd, John Warden, and Robert Pape do not focus on the crucial issue of asymmetry.

Inferring some lessons from the Vietnam war, Saddam Hussain, during Operation Desert Storm, believed that thousands of casualties of American soldiers would be unacceptable to the US public and would erode public support for the war. He knew that “The U.S. relied on its air force but the bloody ground action would be the ultimate determinant of any war with Iraq”. He boasted that American society would not accept 10,000 dead in one battle but Iraq surely could. The reason for the underdog not to prevail in Operation Desert Storm was the extensive use of airpower. President Bush had promised his people that “Operation Desert Storm would not be another high casualty operation like Vietnam”. Otherwise, what Saddam had planned in case of a ground battle could turn the table on U.S. forces.

Countries with an established democratic system and over-extended commitments overseas at least cannot afford casualties of their troops in overseas battles. An increase in the number of casualties creates resentment among government quarters that such a campaign is counter-productive and should be called off. It can be concluded that asymmetry in some cases favors the underdog who has strong belief and nothing to lose against a stronger adversary.

Enigma of the Underdog in Asymmetric War

About Dr. Rizwan Naseer 1 Article
Dr. Rizwan Khan

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