By lex, on November 30th, 2010
Asymmetric warfare is the term of art for a conflict between two belligerents with markedly different levels of military power. The weaker power, unable or unwilling to engage in a stand-up fight, will use strategies and tactics that exploit the characteristic weaknesses of the stronger one. When such tactics blur the line between soldier and civilian, politics and war, they are often referred to as “fourth generation warfare,” or 4GW.
Fourth generation warfare “takes place on all fronts, economical, political, the media, military, and civilian.”
To which list we may now, it appears, add “scientific“:
Unidentified assailants riding motorcycles carried out separate bomb attacks here on Monday against two of the country’s top nuclear scientists, killing one and prompting accusations that the United States and Israel were again trying to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.
The slain scientist, Majid Shahriari, managed a “major project” for the country’s Atomic Energy Organization, Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, told the semiofficial IRNA news agency. His wounded colleague, Fereydoon Abbasi, is believed to be even more important; he is on the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions list for ties to the Iranian nuclear effort.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that “undoubtedly the hand of the Zionist regime and Western governments is involved” in the attacks. He also publicly acknowledged, apparently for the first time, that the country’s nuclear program had been disrupted recently by malicious computer software that attacked its centrifuges.
The two scientists are among the most prominent in the Iranian nuclear world, and the brazen daylight attacks on them seemed certain to worsen tensions over the country’s controversial uranium enrichment efforts.
Your host does not ordinarily condone the use of terror-style bombings on civilian non-combatants, but these particular attacks – whatever their source – were remarkably precise. They seem less designed to inflict terror than to remove identified actors from the chess board. (While the Persians invented chess, it’s useful to remember that Americans invented asymmetric warfare). It is likely that, contrasted against a broad aerial campaign that might temporarily delay Iran’s nuclear weapons program, they are economical in both human and political terms. And Iran, of all nation states, has little recourse to protest in the courts of world opinion about acts of state sponsored terrorism.
If it seems strange that the world’s last superpower – or one of its powerful proxies – finds itself using the strategies and tactics of traditionally weaker belligerents, consider this: For most of the last 200 years, weaker powers engaged in asymmetric warfare have almost always lost. But since 1950 – roughly corresponding to the proliferation of television – the weaker power has almost always won. Civilized states have become too, well – civilized – to witness the kind of violence needed to destroy insurgencies root and branch. We do not lack the capacity to shatter the Iranian nuclear program, indeed the Iranian state itself – we lack the will.
But the assassination of scientists and even cleverly crafted computer network attacks are little more than delaying tactics; scientists will be replaced, and networks will eventually be sanitized. They kick the can of what to do about Iran – what to really do – down the road a bit, but do little to change the underlying dynamics of the game being played: Even Ahmadinejad’s domestic political opposition supports a nuclearized Iran.
The question I find myself asking is, to what end game are we delaying? What further information do we need to execute the strategy that leads to that end game? Because if these actions support some broader strategy they are morally acceptable, even if personally repugnant. But if we’re just delaying the arrival of an accepted inevitability, then they are little more than murder.