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Small Wars

This Week at War: A Conflict Without a Name

Is Mexico's drug violence an insurgency or a totally new kind of war?

Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images
Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images

What kind of problem does Mexico have?

On Feb. 15, gunmen on a highway in central Mexico stopped a vehicle with U.S. diplomatic license plates and shot the two men inside. Killed in the attack was Jaime Zapata, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent. A second ICE agent was wounded. In response to the attack, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) declared that "this tragic event is a game changer" that "should be a long overdue wake-up call for the Obama administration that there is a war on our nation’s doorstep."

Should what’s happening in Mexico be described as a war? On Feb. 7, U.S. Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal described Mexico’s troubles as a "form of insurgency," an assertion that immediately provoked a strong rebuke from Mexico’s Foreign Ministry. U.S. policymakers need to fashion a strategy in response to a dire security situation across the border that does not seem to be improving. But as Clausewitz advised two centuries ago, before doing so, they would be well advised to first understand what kind of conflict they face.

In a piece for Small Wars Journal, Robert Bunker, a researcher at the University of Southern California, discussed five conflict models by which analysts might classify the troubles in Mexico, encouraging experts on each of the models to cooperate with each other in order to achieve a deeper understanding of the situation in Mexico.

In Bunker’s taxonomy, gang studies, the specialty of some criminologists and law enforcement practitioners, is one way to analyze events in Mexico. Students of gang operations analyze how gangs capture control of neighborhoods, prison populations, and local drug markets. Next is organized crime studies, also the purview of criminologists and law enforcement practitioners, but a level of criminal activity that would imply more organizational sophistication and broader territoriality than that implied by gang studies. A third classification is terrorism studies, a focus of academics and government officials at the national and international levels. Under a terrorism model, cartels in Mexico would use terror to compel compliance from rival gangs, government officials, and non-combatants. Insurgency studies are the fourth paradigm, currently an interest of academics and military planners. Under this model, cartels could ultimately form shadow governments either in parallel or inside the legitimate government. Finally, there are future warfare studies, a province of academics which hypothesizes the creation of new transnational organizational structures that could both combine and supplant governments, security forces, criminal organizations, and corporate interests.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government struggled against two problems. First, it failed to correctly characterize the initial nature of its adversaries, how they were organized, how their networks of relationships operated, and what tactics they would employ. Second, adversaries in both conflicts rapidly adapted to changing circumstances; U.S. planners were slow at first to understand these adaptations and adjust themselves, although they improved in this regard later in each conflict.

The Mexican government currently believes it has a straightforward organized crime problem, and as the Westphal incident illustrates, has little patience for alternate points of view. Should analysts and the policymakers on the U.S. side come to a different conclusion, it could make cooperation with their Mexican counterparts difficult.

Bunker arues that signs of all five models are present in Mexico. He also seems to have a lingering fear that the fifth paradigm and the worst-case scenario — some new form of sophisticated, transnational, criminal-military organization — may yet predominate. It is this scenario that neither the Mexican nor U.S. governments seem prepared to contemplate. Bunker’s call for cooperation among the analysts sounds like timely advice.

Can the United States cope with 21st century warfare?

It’s been nearly a decade since the 9/11 attacks and most Americans sense by now that warfare in the 21st century has turned into a frustrating slog. Many are likely sick of their government spending hundreds of billions of dollars every year on defense, yet failing to deliver decisive results against its adversaries or even delivering a sense of improved security. Is there a gap between the 21st century style of warfare and what the Pentagon actually spends its money and time preparing for? It may be time for a close examination of modern warfare and what adjustments U.S. society will have to make in order to cope with a new and seemingly inscrutable battleground.

In 2010, the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute organized a conference for just this purpose, the results of which were summarized in a long essay written by two of the conference’s participants. The conference yielded conclusions on what kinds of adversaries are likely to predominate in the current era, what strategies and tactics they are likely to employ, who is likely to actually participate in modern wars, and what new challenges policymakers will face in organizing for modern security challenges.

Nation-states still prepare for traditional conventional conflict, if only to deter the recurrence of 20th century, industrial-scale bloodletting and preserve the geopolitical status quo. But those preparations have not stopped alternate forms of warfare from breaking out. At least one party in every ongoing conflict in the world today is composed of non-state groups: spontaneously organized militias, part-time insurgents, full-time terrorists, amateur cyberwarriors, professional mercenaries, or some other type of irregular combatant. Uniformed soldiers of nation-states still go to war, but almost never against uniformed soldiers from another nation-state.

There are several reasons for this denationalization of warfare. Most obvious is the strong incentive for combatants to avoid modern military firepower by acting as civilians and by living among the non-combatant population. Combatants also learned during the second half of the 20th century that it was possible to win a war of attrition against a wealthy nation-state by avoiding decisive military engagements and implementing political and propaganda strategies in support of an open-ended but low-intensity campaign.

Irregular combatants have recently learned to further improve their odds by remaining as anonymous as possible. Anonymous cyberwarriors avoid cyberretaliation; insurgents in decentralized cells avoid intelligence officers who are experts at disrupting organizations. And with nation-states now having strong political incentives to avoid having their soldiers overtly engaged in warfare, their leaders may increasingly hire irregulars and anonymous proxies as their combatants. An odd result of these layers of deception will be confusion over when a war has begun, when it has ended, or whether some security problems are really wars at all.

In the West, warfare has become a narrow technical profession, but this may change. For the United States, war is waged by a relatively tiny group of volunteer professionals who are supplied and supported by another sliver of specialized technicians. In many places, armed contractors outnumber the soldiers, which blurs the line between who is a combatant. At the same time, legal developments concerning war all trend toward restricting the military freedom of action of nation-states, a tendency that has encouraged the growth of unregulated irregular and anonymous combatants, actors to whom states may increasingly turn.

U.S. policymakers face steep challenges in coping with the modern era of warfare. Aircraft carriers, submarines, and stealth fighters are an insurance policy against very costly conventional combat, but the threats requiring these costly levels of insurance coverage may soon be too abstract for many taxpayers. Meanwhile, after a decade of frustration and indecision, there remain questions about whether the U.S. government is capable of sustaining an effective campaign against irregular and anonymous adversaries. Policymakers have to resolve these challenges if they are to convince the public they are still relevant to modern security problems.

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