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Americans and Asymmetric Conflict: Lebanon, Somalia, and Afghanistan.

Americans and Asymmetric Conflict: Lebanon, Somalia, and Afghanistan. By Adam B. Lowther. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2007. 230 pages. $75.00.

Adam Lowther's analysis of America's experience in asymmetric conflict affords a unique perspective in a burgeoning genre. The author explores America's role in conflicts characterized by disproportionate capabilities and ill-defined objectives. He succeeds in painstakingly tracing the history of unconventional military theory. Lowther provides a superbly systematic analysis of US involvement in Lebanon, Somalia, and Afghanistan. The analysis, however, struggles when conceptually differentiating "asymmetric" conflict from other forms of unconventional engagement. Lowther is eager to suppose a fundamental distinction between "asymmetric" conflict and guerrilla or irregular warfare, but his justifications are ultimately confounding. The author does provide instructive lessons that should be remembered in any future conflict; unfortunately, he offers few suggestions regarding force structure and doctrine.

The reader is left wondering how are we to reconcile current conflicts that see an under equipped and loosely organized adversary challenging the world's military superpowers? Lowther suggests that we must first turn to classic eastern and western military thought to fully appreciate the historical roots and the forgotten regularity of wars defined by asymmetric means. While eastern theorists defined principles for "averting pitched battles," western military thought remained fixated on conventional tactics and strategies. Lowther provides an exhaustive survey from Sun Tzu to Liddell Hart, adeptly exploring the intersection and divergence of eastern and western military thought. While he successfully canvasses authoritative generations regarding military theory, his efforts to extract asymmetric associations are often strained and unconvincing. For example, his analysis of military leaders and theorists such as Jomini, Napoleon, Clausewitz, and Mahan is superbly concise and informative, yet he later suggests that all are essential to an accurate understanding of asymmetric conflict. It would seem that Lowther is attempting to cite every military theorist regardless of his relevance to unconventional conflict.

Lowther then attempts to differentiate asymmetric conflict from guerrilla and irregular war. He asserts that "asymmetric and guerrilla warfare are similar in many respects but differ at the broadest of levels: grand strategy." He suggests that while a guerrilla's grand strategy seeks to overthrow the incumbent political system, asymmetric actors aim to "force a change in his adversary's foreign policy." Asymmetric conflict, according to Lowther, differs from guerrilla warfare in that it involves external intervention and relies heavily on the employment of terrorist tactics. The author claims that guerrillas abstain from indiscriminate violence against local populations, while asymmetric actors seek paradigm shifts in grand strategy, relying on terrorist tactics that indiscriminately target noncombatants. This distinction between guerrilla and asymmetric war is the most controversial factor in Lowther's analysis.

If guerrillas seek the overthrow of an incumbent regime and asymmetric actors aim to fundamentally alter foreign policy, one would expect substantiation from the author that this is in fact the diagnosis from his case studies of Lebanon, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Lowther's methodology for his case studies, however, fails to substantiate the claim that asymmetric conflict should be understood independent of guerrilla and irregular war. Scholars such as Professor Stathis Kalyvas of Yale University and Jason Lyall of Princeton University have posited that guerrillas often resort to and succeed through the application of selective and indiscriminant violence. Kalyvas, in The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars', demonstrates qualitatively and quantitatively the impact of selective violence by insurgent and counterinsurgent forces in their attempts to achieve control and collaboration. More importantly, Kalyvas finds that barbarism is often associated with irregular war. Jason Lyall analyzes data related to random Russian artillery strikes in Chechnya and finds that not only is indiscriminate violence a tool for coercion by counterinsurgents, but it can also be utilized to drive down the level of insurgent attacks. Clearly, scholarly debate continues on the efficacy of violence in irregular war, but it is unclear why Lowther attempts to draw his distinction between asymmetric and guerrilla actors through their use of strategy and violence, facts that are empirically unsupported.

Lowther does, however, offer a number of insightful "lessons learned" that are constants in the American unconventional military experience. He finds that human intelligence capacity remains weak, force capability often turns to technological innovations rather than sufficient troop strength, American forces demonstrate a proclivity for static defenses, and interagency coordination for nation-building is often ad hoc. Similarly, Stephen Biddle, in Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare, warns against associating the rapid defeat of the Taliban as validating a transformation in warfare defined by limited manpower and high technology. Instead, he cautions that we should understand that eliminating the Taliban's influence is an entirely different objective; one not achieved in Afghanistan and that could only be expected to succeed with the presence of a much larger ground force capable of conventional and unconventional operations. Therefore, as Lowther substantiates, we still face the consequences in Afghanistan of a strategy that abandoned paradigms based on sufficient force capability. One might expect such a result, however, if the means necessary derives from an ill-defined strategy.

Americans and Asymmetric Conflict provides a rich survey of military thought that is instructive for those seeking a concise source on unconventional warfare theory. The case studies of Lebanon, Somalia, and Afghanistan are balanced and insightful, and hold value for future contingency planners. They are also an excellent resource to supplement other primary sources related to similar conflicts. It remains unclear, however, why the author chooses to characterize asymmetric conflict as a contemporary phenomenon that is defined by the use of terrorism. Lowther's "lessons learned" corroborate many of the accounts of current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but leave this reviewer wondering how the author's understanding of asymmetric conflict supplants competing explanations related to unconventional war.

Reviewed by Major Matthew M. Zais, Instructor of American Politics, Policy, and Strategy, US Military Academy.
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Author:Zais, Matthew M.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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