Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fair fight suits the powerful

The Taliban aren't fighting fair, according to Afghan general Mohiudin Ghori. General Ghori said a few weeks ago that Taliban fighters were putting women and children onto rooftops as human shields, and shooting from behind them. This must be extremely frustrating for the Afghan and Coaliton forces trying to fight them without killing civilians. If only the Taliban would come out from hiding behind civilians and fight a legal, conventional war...

Of course they would lose that war, very quickly. The US has shown time and time again that it is very effective against conventional armies. In the first Gulf War, the US-led coalition destroyed the vast Iraqi army at the cost of only a few hundred allied troops. The 2003 Iraq invasion took less than two months to overthrow the entire Iraqi state. Some Iraqi soldiers had simply stripped off their uniforms and abandoned the army rather than face certain defeat against the American juggernaut.

Of these deserters, however, there were some who kept their weapons, and fought a guerrilla war in civilian clothing, hiding among the civilian population and taking advantage of American unease at widespread civilian killing to keep an insurgency going. In 2003 the Coalition lost 580 troops. Since then it has lost 4,118: "peace" has been much more violent than war for the Coalition military, because the Iraqi rebels had discovered that where fighting fair (conventional war pitting soldiers against soldiers) had failed, fighting dirty might succeed. Peace has been much more destructive of Coaliton troops too in Afghanistan, compared with the brief war to remove the Taliban: Coalition deaths rose from 12 in 2001 to 519 last year.

The situation is clear: rapid collapse of conventional armies against the US, followed by slow, bloody campaigns of attrittion fought among civilians and indifferent to rules of war. These campaigns cause the US much more trouble than the conventional battles.

All this makes me wonder whether rules of war are really meant to protect the powerful, not the innocent. Ireland reached independence after an asymmetric guerrilla war against the British - a war fought by secret bands of soldiers hiding among civilians and killing and intimidating Irish collaborators. Having won its freedom through these grubby means, Ireland was later able to abandon that kind of paramilitary violence and tut-tut when other groups here and abroad carried it on.

My concern is that groups change their outward moral stances depending on how convenient they are. Once a weak rebel force becomes a powerful nation state, it abandons guerrilla fighting and embraces a new concept of a "fair fight". Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization shows that primitive tribes often used brutal total war tactics: deliberate targetting of food supplies and property, massacre of "civilian" women and children, enslavement of weaker populations and so on. It was very rare for tribes to capture prisoners of war - anyone unfortunate enough to fall into enemy hands would be killed or enslaved. But there is a simple explanation for this abuse of prisoners: food.

Primitive tribes lived always on the edge of famine, with little surplus food left to feed prisoners. This might also explain why so many countries have replaced capital punishment with life imprisonment as the countries grew wealthier. In the old days they couldn't afford to feed an unproductive prisoner, today there is enough surplus food to keep them going for life. So we in wealthy countries can pontificate about the treatment of prisoners of war in poor countries, because we have plenty surplus food - which they don't have. I wonder if various rules of war arose out of convenience, to be shelved once they had lost their usefulness.

(Keeley also noted that civilised armies only managed to defeat tribal fighters by mimicking their tactics - the old rules went out the window faced with the realities of premodern war.)

It's good that developed nations try to limit their warfare and avoid civilian deaths. But it may be worth remembering that when powerful, wealthy nations demand that much weaker enemies fight fair and obey the same rules, they are demanding that the weak surrender every advantage they have and face certain defeat. They won't do that. Shameful as the use of human shields and behaviour like this is, would developed countries act any differently in the same desperately uneven situation?


  1. Vidar StefanssonMarch 4, 2010 at 2:44 AM

    I certainly agree that developed countries would turn to guerilla tactics if faced by an overwhelming enemy invasion. One doesn't have to look further than World War II, when many developed countries came under Nazi occupation, and guerilla warfare and the execution of collaborators were the rule.

    One thing I do think has been different in modern conflict is the terrorism perpetrated against civilians, to create chaos. I'm not so certain that would happen if, say, Finland came under the occupation of Russia (again). The World War II guerillas certainly did kill civilians who collaborated with the Nazis, and innocent bystanders were killed in attacks on Nazi targets, but civilians weren't targeted by themselves just to create chaos. The Belgian resistance never threw grenades into public buses, or planted bombs in market squares. This has been seen quite a lot in Iraq, Israel and Afghanistan, and I find it totally deplorable, and morally totally different from guerilla warfare.

  2. Yes I guess ideology plays a role in it, as the sectarian bombings against Sunni/Shia civilians in Iraq compare unfavourably with the French Resistance, for example.

    Though Northern Ireland did have deliberate attacks on civilians including, with the 1998 Omagh Bombing, the mass murder of 29 civilians. In every conflict there will be a few who kill indiscriminately, though usually they are held back or punished by the rest.

    Writing this I was also reminded of attempts by the medieval Christian Church to ban the use of crossbows since its simplicity of use meant the peasant and the trained knight were put on an even playing field for once: the powerful didn't like the sounds of that!


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