Episode 64 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast explores the interplay between urban spaces and irregular warfare.
Our guests begin by examining how demographic and economic shifts are increasing the importance of urban centers around the globe. They then explore the realities of urban combat and the ways that densely populated areas and local politics can complicate irregular warfare activities, specifically discussing the question of whether urban spaces favor the insurgent or the government. They end with a conversation about how the United States can address shortcomings in its force structure and training to optimize its approach to urban conflict in the twenty-first century.
John Spencer served over twenty-five years in the Army as an infantry soldier. He is currently the chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point, where he leads the Urban Warfare Project and hosts the Urban Warfare Project Podcast. His new book, Understanding Urban Warfare, which he coauthored with Dr. Liam Collins, serves as the anchor for today’s conversation.
Sergeant Major Charles Ritter is a Special Forces soldier and currently serves as the deputy commandant of the Noncommissioned Officer Academy at the US Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He is also the producer of the Pineland Underground Podcast and has over twelve combat deployments with extensive experience in leading US soldiers in urban environments.
Kyle Atwell and Ben Jebb are the hosts for Episode 64. Please reach out to Kyle and Ben with any questions about this episode or the Irregular Warfare Podcast.
The Irregular Warfare Podcast is a production of the Irregular Warfare Initiative (IWI). We are a team of volunteers dedicated to bridging the gap between scholars and practitioners in the field of irregular warfare. IWI generates written and audio content, coordinates events for the IW community, and hosts critical thinkers in the field of irregular warfare as IWI fellows. You can follow and engage with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or LinkedIn.
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Given that the character of the wars that the U.S./the West has been involved in, post-the Cold War, have been "revolutionary" in nature — with the U.S./the West being the one's seeking to achieve "revolutionary change;" this, so as to provide that the states and societies of the world might be made to better interact with, better provide for and better benefit from such things as capitalism, globalization and the global economy. (Two discussions of this phenomenon provided immediately below):
“Robert Egnell: Analysts like to talk about ‘indirect approaches’ or ‘limited interventions’, but the question is ‘approaches to what?’ What are we trying to achieve? What is our understanding of the end-state? In a recent article published in Joint Forces Quarterly, I sought to challenge the contemporary understanding of counterinsurgency by arguing that the term itself may lead us to faulty assumptions about nature of the problem, what it is we are trying to do, and how best to achieve it. When we label something a counterinsurgency campaign, it introduces certain assumptions from the past and from the contemporary era about the nature of the conflict. One problem is that counterinsurgency is by its nature conservative, or status-quo oriented – it is about preserving existing political systems, law and order. And that is not what we have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, we have been the revolutionary actors, the ones instigating revolutionary societal changes. Can we still call it counterinsurgency, when we are pushing for so much change?”
(See the 2013 Small Wars Journal article “Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency” by Octavian Manea; an interview with Dr. David H. Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell.)
"Within the existing framework of international law, is it legitimate for an occupying power, in the name of creating the conditions for a more democratic and peaceful state, to introduce fundamental changes in the constitutional, social, economic, and legal order within an occupied territory. This is the central question addressed here."
(See the 2006 article "Transformative Military Occupation: Applying the Laws of War and Human Rights," by Sir Adam Roberts.)
Given this such "revolutionary" nature of the U.S./the West's political objective post-the Old Cold War, how might this effect various aspects of our discussion here — re: (a) irregular warfare in (b) urban environments?
Re: the "achieve revolutionary change" aspect of U.S./Western foreign policy, that I address in my initial comment above, let us consider irregular warfare in urban terrain:
1. First, from the perspective of "foreign internal defense:" Wherein, the goal is to "keep the ally that you have got," to wit: a friendly government that, along with you, is working hard to achieve — and/or has already achieved — such "development" changes as the U.S./the West might appreciate (for example, "development" more along market-democracy lines.) As to this such suggestion, consider the two quoted items provided below:
“ 'The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement, enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies,’ Mr. Lake (then-National Security Advisor to President Clinton) said in a speech at the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University.”
(Item in parenthesis above is mine. See the September 22, 1993 New York Times article “U.S. Vision of Foreign Policy Reversed” by Thomas L. Friedman.)
"a. An IDAD (Internal Defense and Development Program) integrates security force and civilian actions into a coherent, comprehensive effort. Security force actions provide a level of internal security that permits and supports growth through balanced development. This development requires change to meet the needs of vulnerable groups of people. This change may, in turn, promote unrest in the society. The strategy, therefore, includes measures to maintain conditions under which orderly development can take place."
(Item in parenthesis above is mine. See our own Joint Publication 3-22 "Foreign Internal Defense." Therein, see Chapter II "Internal Defense and Development Program" and Paragraph 2 "Construct.")
2. Next, from the perspective of "unconventional warfare." Wherein, the goal is to deal with an unfriendly government, to wit: one that would stand in the way of the U.S./the West's efforts to, for example, achieve "development"/achieve "revolutionary change" more along market-democracy lines — (a) in the subject country itself — and/or (b) potentially elsewhere. Again, I will provide two quoted items:
"In the same way that the conventionally focused American way of war is defined by America's technical and industrial capacity and technological edge, the American way of irregular war is tied to our notions of religious pluralism, democracy, and, above all, human rights. And although the American way of war protects us against near-peer powers and guarantees the lanes of global commerce, the American way of irregular war protects our way of life by both promoting our worldview and giving people the tools to realize the same opportunities that we have had. … "
(See beginning at the last paragraph of Page 5 of the Introduction chapter to Rand paper by LTG [ret.] Charles Cleveland entitled: "The American Way of Irregular War: An Analytical Memoir.")
"Advocates of UW first recognize that, among a population of self-determination seekers, human interest in liberty trumps loyalty to a self-serving dictatorship, that those who aspire to freedom can succeed in deposing corrupt or authoritarian rulers, and that unfortunate population groups can and often do seek alternatives to a life of fear, oppression, and injustice. Second, advocates believe that there is a valid role for the U.S. Government in encouraging and empowering these freedom seekers when doing so helps to secure U.S. national security interests."
(See the National Defense University Press paper "Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone" by Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin)
3. Last, re: irregular warfare in urban terrain, let's look an important difference/an important distinction — between (a) people living in urban/littoral areas and (b) people living in rural/inland regions — difference/distinctions which may be important to our discussion here. This such difference/this such distinction being that (a) the people living in the urban/littoral regions, these such people seem to be the U.S./the West's "natural allies;" whereas, (b) the people living in the rural/inland areas, these such people seem to be the U.S./the West's "natural enemies," as addressed below:
China: "Many of the findings (which have not yet been peer reviewed, and are subject to change) are intuitive to those who have some basic familiarity with Chinese ideological trends: Respondents who are more nationalist also tend to support both the current 'Chinese Socialist' political system — along with the limitations it places on civil rights and liberties — and state control over the economy. In contrast, those who view Western ideals more favorably tend to support constitutional democracy, human rights, and free market reforms. In Chinese political terminology, the former are commonly called 'leftists,' and the latter 'liberals.' These terms are more than mere descriptive labels; they represent fairly coherent intellectual and political factions that are consciously antagonistic towards each other. Pan and Xu find that leftists enjoy greater popular support in lower-income, inland regions, compared to wealthier coastal provinces, whereas the opposite is true for “liberals.”
(See the April 24, 2015 Foreign Policy article "What it Means to Be ‘Liberal’ or ‘Conservative’ in China: Putting the Country's Most Significant Political Divide in Context," Taisu Zhang.)
Afghanistan: "If the history of Afghanistan is one great stage play, then the United States is no more than a supporting actor, among several previously, in a tragedy that not only pits tribes, valleys, clans, villages and families against one another but, from at least the end of King Zahir Shah's time (Afghanistan's first "developer"/first "modernizer"?) has violently pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional."
(See the Washington Post's posting of Michael Ho's September 10, 2009 U.S. State Department resignation letter.)
(Note: As we know from our own experiences here in the U.S. of late, this exact same such difference/this exact same distinction — between the more secular, the more educated and the modern people living in the main economic growth-producing urban/littoral regions of the U.S. — and the more religious, the less educated and the more traditional people living in the less economic growth-producing rural/inland regions of the U.S. — this such difference/this such distinction — in "terrain" — will play a vital role in determining the course of the U.S./the West's future also. Yes?)
Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:
In addressing the challenges presented by (a) irregular warfare in (b) urban terrain, is the above information helpful?
Roughly a hundred years after the events of Apocalypse Now, the world has gone to hell. All the skyscrapers are now abandoned, and the only buildings that remain standing are run-down apartments and old schools. There are now no leaders in the world, and the American military has stepped in to protect the last shred of civilization. The problem is that the soldiers can't get anything done without killing innocent people, and so they send one of their own on a mission to infiltrate a gang and find a way to bring peace to the city.