One of my former professors, Richard K. Betts, writes in today's Los Angeles Times about the problems posed by asymmetric warfare. In "How Superpowers Become Impotent," Betts describes some of the ways that guerrillas have countered the enormous military might of the United States in Iraq and Israel in Lebanon.
The problem for military superpowers, Betts notes, is that their adversaries refuse to fight in ways that the superpowers prefer. As a result, there are few options left to the superpowers.
To win with our conventional military, we would have to fight like beasts, slaughtering noncombatants. Americans rightly shrink from this in Iraq, but we are stuck, with no victory in sight. Israelis, feeling their backs to the wall, used military power with less restraint in Lebanon, killing hundreds of civilians to maximize the odds of getting Hezbollah soldiers and supplies. But this approach is self-defeating, spreading bitterness among victims that mobilizes more support for Hezbollah.
Short of barbarism, there are only two ways to reduce guerrilla ranks faster than new recruits refill them. One is to rely on special forces such as Green Berets, but the few we have are spread thin in hot spots around the world. The other is to saturate a country with regular troops standing on every street corner. But our Army is too small to do this in more than one country at a time.
It is crucial, Betts suggests, for superpowers to win the support of the people from whom guerrillas draw their support. This requires fighting humanely and reconstructing war-torn societies quickly and efficiently.
Betts concludes with a comment on the Bush administration's effort to deal with terrorism:
The Bush line that aggressive action in Iraq was the way to counter terrorism got it backward; it has embittered more Muslims and energized more terrorists than it has eliminated. We need to focus on combating Al Qaeda, not multiplying new enemies. Where we do have to invade--as in Afghanistan after Sept. 11--we should do so with overwhelming force and overwhelming help, to tempt the locals to buy into our brand of peace so we can leave quickly.