Thursday, November 16, 2006

Where next?

“[V]ery few of the new manifestations in war can be ascribed to new inventions or new departures in ideas. They result mainly from the transformation of society and new social conditions”. Dr Gray, in the reading contained in the packet "How Has War Changed Since the End of the Cold War?", quotes this passage from Clauswitz to make the point that that war, the effort to impart one’s will on another by force, would not change. Those fighting, the reasons they fight, the constraints under which they fight, will change, but the conflict would remain recognizable to observers from one era to the next. That being said, the types of conflicts that the world community will be facing in this era, while not new under the sun, will certainly be unlike anything that the current generation of world leaders will have experienced.

Dr Gray makes another point that is germane to the analysis of characteristics of post Cold War conflict. He says: “Trend spotting is not a good guide to the future.” Another way to put this is that the future is never a straight line from the now. Or to borrow a theory that race car drivers live by: “Aim for the wreck because by the time you get there, it will be gone.” Predicting the future based only on what we see now is probably a fool’s errand, therefore it is necessary to make some guesses based on historical precedent, as well as what we can observe now. Given these caveats about predicting the future, we can say that fanatical Islamists remain on the offensive around the world, seeking to gain the means to carry out “catastrophic terrorism,” in the words of Dr Gray. Militant Islam is expansionist, aggressive, convinced by their ideology that they deserve to rule the world and as yet, undefeated. So long as such an ideology remains viable, its adherents will continue to press the conflict. Iran is attempting to gain a nuclear weapon, and making overt threats toward Israel and has a nihilistic force in Hezbollah that seems willing to endure any sacrifice to inflict casualties. Once they get a nuclear weapon, Islamists will either use it or blackmail the West into submission. Chester Crocker makes the point in Taming Intractable Conflicts, pg 83, that negotiating with individuals driven by religious ideology seems pointless. “The jury is still out on whether conflicts involving religion are inherently more intractable than other conflict, whether religious-ideological issues make it harder for warring elites to compromise without being seen as betraying their principles, and whether religious disputes have a zero-sum quality that other disputes lack.” In other words, there has been no evidence that conflicts born of religious ideology end other than in total victory for one side or the other.

Another characteristic of conflict will likely be some kind of conventional war in Asia. There are a number of historical animosities in Asia that have been tamped down because of variety of reasons but perhaps most notably because of American engagement in North Eastern Asia. Since America must contend with emergent threats in Southwest Asia, regional players in Asia have had more latitude to assert their particular interests, and there are numerous points of friction, any of which could start a conflict. North Korea is aggressively threatening its neighbors is such a way that is forcing South Korea and Japan to respond. Japan’s unfortunate history in Korea causes both North and South to feel threatened by the idea of a resurgent Japan. China’s navy is aggressively patrolling in Taiwanese and Japanese waters and menacing American warships in international waters. China is opening threatening Taiwan with missiles and encroaching on Vietnamese economic exclusion zone in the pursuit of oil and natural gas reserves. With America looking away, similar conditions that prevailed in 1950, any or all of these hot spots looks likely to result in a conventional cross border conflict.

But if we are trying to imagine what the next conflict will be, I imagine that the conflict will spring from what Donald Rumsfeld calls the “unknown unknowns.” Some type conflict will happen, that as of right now, we cannot predict. When it happens, however, the necessity to engage in conflict will seem imperative and inevitable. I can remember in the summer of 2001 being tasked with providing input to a large “10 year way ahead” predictive analysis paper being prepared for CINCPAC. 50+ analysts worked for weeks thinking about this task then providing input to that document. Within 6 weeks, the entire document was shredded as being completely irrelevant to the new facts on the ground.

In the post Cold War era, the characteristics of conflict that we world will face include a war of annihilation against an implacable ideological foe, similar to the conflict of World War II, a conventional cross region war in Asia similar to the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the China-Vietnam War, the Rape of Nanking, or the Chinese Civil War, and an unexpected and as of now, unexpected conflict somewhere else in the world that will nonetheless demand international participation.