It is clear that the current debate over the future configuration of the military is a divisive and extremely important one.
While Secretary Gates, bowing to the budget realities of the Obama administration, is cutting programs while moving toward a stronger focus on irregular warfare and special forces,the clear resolution to the debate is that both sides have considerable merit. Some common ground must be found, and it is a question of focus, not a question of either or. The recent North Korean missile challenge also serves as a reminder that traditional state actors and threats cannot be ignored.
There is no doubt that non-state armed groups are occupying more space around the globe, both in areas of obvious strategic concern to the United States, and those that may not seem to be of particular concern but contribute to overall instability. Most of these groups are irregular, fragmented and more similar to the movements in Afghanistan/Pakistan than regular movements.
While it is often difficult to see the specific security challenge these groups pose, the overarching threat of radical Islamists operating in this manner is not. All the major Islamist terrorist attacks against the United States (1998 US Embassy bombings in East Africa, 2000 USS Cole, 9/11) were all carried out by a non-state actor operating from what was conventionally described as a failed state (Afghanistan). That threat was underestimated by successive administrations, and the price paid has been horrific.
But the groups that will form the most pressing threats in the future, I believe, will be modeled on Hezbollah, able to mass troops, deploy advanced weapons systems and fight for territory, while remaining outside of direct state control.
This is because Hezbollah (like the FARC and somewhat similar to HAMAS), have the resources and state backing to be the hybrid forces that are the future.
Hezbollah is not a state actor, nor is the FARC. But they both enjoy two things that set them apart: state support (for Hezbollah, Iran and Syria; for the FARC, Venezuela and Ecuador) and the ability to generate independent funding for their operations. In the case of Hezbollah, it is a wide array of criminal and contraband activities. For the FARC it is drug trafficking and kidnapping.
In many ways, this is the ideal situation for any irregular force, and presents a whole different set of challenges to states. The asymmetrical aspects of the conflict take on added dimensions.
The non-state groups can operate from the sanctuary of a friendly state, but are not wholly dependent on it. The state they are attacking (Israel, Colombia) cannot effectively move against them unless they are willing to go to war with another state, something that is often too high a price to pay.
If the terms of the alliance were to become too onerous, the irregular force can survive because it is not entirely dependent on the state. The state can use the non-state force for specific actions that it would not carry out as an internationally-recognized government.
As groups like the Taliban and others move more heavily into drug trafficking and other economic adventures (see the Guardian story on the Taliban’s use of emeralds now and see if reminds you of the blood diamond trade in West Africa), they will become more like Hezbollah, particularly if they can gain state sanctioned sanctuary in Pakistan.
The stakes are high and the challenges are multiple. The hybrid groups that can fight both ways make it imperative that the United States also retain the capacity to fight both types of wars. It is not an either/or proposition. It is, unfortunately, a double threat.