Posting is a bit sparse for me at the moment, because I'm off on a leadership training course for work. (For those who read the novel last year, this is the course which the LeadFirst training which Kristy was sent off on was based on. I've elected to jog with the general rather than run with the seals, as I'm told the seals will be keeping an 8min mile pace for three and a half miles, while I generally can only keep up that fast for a mile and a half.)
The consulting company putting on the course is made up primarily of retired military, and so a lot of the talk we heard in the opening discussion today about their information-based leadership philosophy was drawn from examples in Iraq and Afghanistan. This got me thinking a bit about how the nature of war is in part determined by the objectives of the two parties. Assymetric war, such as we fought in Iraq against the insurgency (after the old style war against the Baathist regime was over) and the war we continue to fight in Afghanistan, is in part assymetric because the two sides have different objectives.
The US came into Afghanistan with two objectives: Topple the Taliban and set up a more stable and friendly government.
If our opponents there (Al Qaeda, Taliban, various tribal groups) had the same set of objectives (defeat our army and set up a stable government there) the two sides would fight a traditional war. If your army was not capable of winning such a war, it would make sense to surrender and stop fighting. However, perhaps in part because it's clearly not possible to win a conventional victory against the US military and in part because our opponents in Afghanistan are willing to settle for a country with no functioning state but instead just power wielded by local armed bands and tribal groups, our opponents in Afghanistan have settled on "keeping the US from achieving its objectives and making staying costly" as their primary objectives. With those objectives, it doesn't matter if they lose most encounters with US troops. It doesn't matter if they can't take and hold territory. So long as they're keeping the US from enforcing peace and order, they're gaining their immediate objectives and making progress towards their long term objectives.
It's the asymmetry of the objectives which makes it possible to wage war with a drastically mis-matched force.
There's a tendency to act as if this is a fairly new phenomenon, but arguably it's very old. With all the World War One reading, it strikes me that one of the things that make Serbia such a hard nut for Austria-Hungary to crack was that for Serbian nationalists, making the Austrians fail was an objective they were willing to fall back on even when it became clear that defending the Serbian state which had existed before the war was no longer possible. Russia faced this in even starker terms trying to control the peoples of the Caucasus in the 1800s. Even going back to the Classical world, this was one of the defining characteristics of the people the Romans had trouble conquering. If there was a tradition of a government of sorts, the Romans could defeat that government and replace it, but tribal people's whose only objective was to throw the Romans out were far harder to conquer. The Roman's ability to crush any formal state they might set up didn't matter to them because they didn't insist upon a formal state.