A new version of maneuver warfare is being utilized mainly by Islamic fundamentalist forces to seize territory from government forces trained, equipped and organized along the Western model.
This “new blitzkrieg” relies on lightly armed fighters mounted on “technicals” – 4×4 trucks with heavy machine-guns, light cannons, or automatic grenade launchers mounted on the vehicle. Here are some key factors we should be thinking about in order to potentially combat these forces in the future.
- This isn’t new. The exact same tactics were used by the Taliban in 1994 to seize massive areas of Afghanistan in the early phases of their military takeover of the Afghan state.
- This is asymmetric warfare at its best. When this method is used against government forces in the Middle East and Africa, the decision-making cycle of the non-state forces, (which are organized as a network) will consistently outperform the rigidly hierarchical government forces, which will frequently be paralyzed by a lack of communication and poor understanding of frontline realities. Real-world examples have repeatedly confirmed earlier studies which predicted the superior performance of networks in crisis situations.
- The tactical prescription for success is a swift initial reaction by a regionally-located Quick Reaction Force (QRF). The French version of this force, and a suggested US counterpart are described here. Like fighting a bacterial infection, the key is to quickly administer the antidote – in this case, airstrikes to break up the columns of advancing technicals, which will usually be exposed and highly vulnerable to air attacks, followed up with ground operations integrated with government forces. We have examples of the success of this approach – the French succeeded in stemming the tide in Mali using exactly this method, but not without losses – one Gazelle attack helicopter was shot down by the rebels, and eight French soldiers killed. We also know that when this does not happen quickly, the non-state forces will tend to overrun their government opponents, as seen in Afghanistan, Central African Republic (CAR) and now Iraq. The side that enjoys air superiority has a better chance at tactical success – this is true even when it is the network which gains the upper hand in the air through the support of Western air forces, as in the case of the Libyan rebel movement in 2011.
- Few regional government forces can succeed on their own; this has been demonstrated by the recent cases of Mali, CAR, and Iraq. Even Syria, which boasted the fourth strongest military force in the region found itself on the ropes when attacked by the networked forces of Syrian rebels and their Islamist supporters, and one of their major advantages was in maintaining control of the air, thus eliminating opportunities for their opponents to maneuver freely on roads and in open country. Mali required additional French and African Union forces on the ground to break up the Islamist/Taureg offensive once it had been stalled by French air strikes.
- Outcomes; the best cases are still pretty bad. Where the state is able to blunt the initial network assault, the outcome in Syria (and the earlier example of Afghanistan in the 1990’s) is civil war along sectarian lines. If the network forces win and the state is overthrown, as in CAR and Libya, the result appears to be weakened government institutions, endemic in-fighting between rival militias, and sectarian violence up to and including ethnic cleansing. Mali represents the “best case” where the state remains in power and the network opponents are more or less completely dispersed, but even here, the picture isn’t pretty. The newly installed democratic government recently faced a no-confidence vote over its handling of the ongoing Taureg insurgency in the North.
What does all this mean? That will be the subject of another post, but for now, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.
It should be clear, though, that the “new blitzkrieg” is here to stay, until its effectiveness can be disproved to those forces that will otherwise choose to use it. In fact, we should not discount the probability that well-funded organizations like ISIS will be able to improve upon the model by adopting the use of light civilian aircraft modified to drop barrel bombs and serve as aerial gunnery platforms, or deployed in a kamikaze role against fortified positions or key infrastructure.
I have 2 questions (which are genuinely questions as I really don’t know)
You say ‘this isn’t new’ and give the example of Afghanistan in 94. Does this type of warfare have deeper roots (anti colonial insurgencies for example) or is there a significant difference with what emerged in Afghanistan in 94 (or is it just old tactics in a modern world) ?
My (unexpert) impression is that a lot of ISIS (IS) gains were developed through long term strategy (making alliances with sunni tribes/elites etc, working through dissatisfied communities, capturing important towns (oil producing areas, dams etc) – sometimes with little pushback )
Does this complicate the “new blitzkrieg” concept, which could be seen more as a marketing ploy by ISIS with all the real, hard work done over the past number of months ? (if you see what I mean)
New is a relative term – there are aspects of this type of warfare that are very old indeed.
This “new blitzkrieg” model encompasses the idea of “swarm attacks” by light, mobile forces which dates back to Mongol warfare.
It also showcases the difference between warriors/fighters versus soldiers; the warrior is relatively free to act independently within a loose framework of ideals, is motivated by faith, sees death as a glorious end, and has few qualms about killing the enemy to punish apostasy, set an example, or simply tie up loose ends. The soldier, on the other hand, is supposed to follow orders from his direct superiors, act within the strict guidelines set by the state, to be motivated by his paycheck and a sense of national pride, sees death as failure, and generally has to be coerced into killing.
In these regards, there are some parallels with some anti-colonial warfare, such as the Zulu Wars – the Zulus did use swarm tactics, but were significantly less mobile since they moved by foot. The “new blitzkrieg” is a departure from the heavier, armored approach used by the Germans in that these fighters don’t need to carry large stocks of fuel, ammunition, or food – instead, they can refuel at any gas station, loot munitions from vanquished opponents, and feed off the countryside – again, a reversion to an older model of warfare.
ISIS is certainly operating, in large part, in friendly territory – the population was not supportive of the government, though it wasn’t overtly hostile. But any hard work that ISIS was doing in the last few months was north of the border, fighting in Syria, raising funds, and preparing to shift its focus to the South.
The push toward Baghdad was a logical reaction to the stalemate in Syria, and the realization that Iraq would be functionally a much easier area in which to establish the core of an Islamic Caliphate.
ISIS leadership probably chose the strategy based on both the recent successes (CAR) and near-successes (Mali) of this tactical approach, and the accurate assessment that (1) Iraqi forces would be easier opponents than the Syrian Army, and (2) that the international community, and especially the US, would be unlikely to commit military support to the Iraqi state.
very interesting , thanks for the response.