Playing with fire in the Ukraine

Back in 1989, William Lind was one of the team that first coined the term ‘fourth generation warfare’ – referring to low-intensity conflicts involving highly decentralised insurgency tactics, non-state combatants, and strong emphasis on propaganda and psychological warfare.

(In case you’re wondering, first generation warfare was about line and column tactics, as in the Thirty Years War; second generation was more mobile and involved indirect fire but still tended towards pitched battle, as in World War One; third generation was all about manoeuvre warfare that aimed to bypass the enemy’s troops and attack from behind, as well as targeting civil populations, as with blitzkrieg tactics in World War Two.)

Now, Lind observes, it looks as though Russia’s long-disparaged military has learned a few tricks from the 4GW playbook and is using them to considerable effect in Ukraine. Among them: cyberwarfare, strong emphasis on the information campaign, skilful use of special operations troops to grab the initiative (“if an operation fails, Russian prestige is not on the line, because it can deny ownership; if it succeeds, Russia can give the credit to the locals, strengthening the legitimacy of the elements it supports”).

Crucially, Russia’s tactics in Ukraine are also based on “a supportive ethnically Russian population … by leveraging loyalty to ‘Mother Russia’ among ethnically Russian citizens of Ukraine, Russia has been able to maintain a light footprint, reducing the diplomatic and economic price of her actions.”

But, Lind continues, this last tactic is very much a double-edged sword for Russia – and here’s his crucial point (emphasis added at the end):

The Russian Federation includes many peoples who are ethnically non-Russian. Others can use them as the Kremlin has used ethnic Russians.

Here we begin to see a lesson from 4GW which Russia has not yet learned: once the disintegration of a state is set in motion, it is very difficult to halt or reverse. Russian actions are destroying an already fragile state in Ukraine. The Kremlin appears to believe it can spur or reign in state disintegration in eastern Ukraine, pushing it far enough to prevent Ukraine from joining the West but halting before the east becomes anarchic. That may be optimistic.

While the West assumes events in eastern Ukraine are driven by Moscow, just as Moscow says events in Kiev are driven by the West, there is increasing evidence that, green men or no, local Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine are not taking orders from anyone. Local struggles for power and loot are becoming more influential than any outside actors. A “Brinton thesis” cascade of small coups, leading ever toward the greatest extreme, may already be underway. If so, chaos will spread, deepen, and defy all efforts at control, regardless of who is behind them. Moscow needs to remember that it can no more order the tide to retreat than can Washington.

For states, playing with 4GW is playing with fire. Some tactics and techniques may be drawn from it and used effectively by states. But states need to remember that those tactics and techniques work best in a weakening state and also contribute to a state’s dissolution. The emergence of new stateless regions is in no state’s interest. However clever its tactics, if Russia finds itself facing prolonged stateless disorder in eastern Ukraine, it will have failed strategically. A higher level of war trumps a lower. 

A turning point for Nigeria’s insurgency?

The last two weeks have seen a storm of insurgent activity in Nigeria: Shell’s onshore output has been halved to around 140,000 barrels a day, Chevron has lost about the same again (taking the aggregate output lost to over to a fifth of Nigeria’s total) – and for the first time Lagos has been attacked.  According to,

Fighters from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) attacked the facility, the first strike in Nigeria’s economic nerve centre since the oil insurgency was launched in 2006. Rescuers said five people were burnt beyond recognition in the blast.

“The militants went into open shooting with the naval officers guarding the facility but they were overpowered. They used dynamite to destroy the manifold,” said Geofrey Boukoru, a member of the emergency rescue team.

The militants arrived in four speed boats, exchanging fire sporadically with the navy for about three hours before hurling dynamite into the facility, said a senior official from the Pipelines and Products Marketing Company, an affiliate of the state-run petroleum corporation.

The Lagos attack took place just before the federal government’s planned amnesty release of Henry Okah, the head of MEND – a release that, in the event, still went ahead despite the attack.  MEND has since said in a statement that it “considers this release as a step towards genuine peace and prosperity if Nigeria is open to frank talks and deals sincerely with the root issues once and for all” – although as Abubakar Momoh of Lagos State University observes to AlJazeera, “What the government has done in the case of Okah is like treating the symptom and not curing the disease … there are issues that drove the militants to the trenches. Until those issues are resolved in a fair and just manner, there will never be peace in the Niger Delta.”

As David noted back in November last year, counter-insurgency expert John Robb has called Henry Okah “one of the most important people alive today, a brilliant innovator in warfare”. Here’s Robb’s account of how Okah did it. (more…)

William Lind simmers 299 editorials into 3 bullet points

William Lind is (along with Martin van Creveld) the godfather of fourth generation warfare theory, so it’s worth sitting up straight when he publishes his 300th On War column and decides to distil the lessons of the previous 299 columns down into three points.  Here they are, together with his conclusion:

  1. So long as America pursues an offensive grand strategy, Fourth Generation war will ensure her defeat. The reason is Martin van Creveld’s concept of the power of weakness and its intimate relationship with legitimacy. In a Fourth Generation world, legitimacy is the coin of the realm. At root, Fourth Generation war is a contest for legitimacy between the state and a wide variety of non-state primary loyalties. American power lacks legitimacy because, on the physical level, it is so overwhelming. That is the power of weakness: anyone who stands up to the American military becomes a hero. In turn, any state the American military supports loses its legitimacy. The more places America intervenes militarily, the more states lose their legitimacy, to the advantage of Fourth Generation, non-state entities. In effect, we have a reverse Midas touch. Only a defensive grand strategy, where we mind our own business and leave other states to mind theirs, can break us out of this downward spiral.
  2. Second Generation militaries cannot win Fourth Generation wars. Second Generation armed forces, such as those of the United States, fight by putting firepower on targets. This wins at the physical level, but as it does so it brings defeat at the moral level, which is decisive in 4GW. The best current example is Pakistan, where the combination of Predator strikes and arm-twisting of the Pakistani government has undermined the legitimacy of the Pakistani state. That state now stands on the verge of disintegration, which would give al Qaeda and other Islamic 4GW forces the greatest victory they could imagine. The image on Osama’s cave wall should be a Predator, with the title, “Our best weapon.”
  3. There is no chance America will adopt a defensive grand strategy or reform its military to move from the Second to the Third Generation – a necessary though not sufficient step in confronting 4GW – so long as the current Washington Establishment remains in power. That Establishment is drunk on hubris, cut off from the world beyond court politics and thoroughly corrupted by Pentagon “business as usual,” which knows how to buy whatever political support it needs. Like all establishments, it sees any real change as a threat, to be avoided. So long as it reigns, nothing will change.

What are the implications of these three observations? Militarily, they portend continued failure and defeat. We will fail to get out of Iraq before the next phase of that war begins, or, worse, an Israeli attack on Iran costs us the army we have in Iraq. We will be defeated in Afghanistan, because we will refuse to scale our strategic objectives to what is possible and we will continue to alienate the population with our firepower-intensive way of war.

We will push Pakistan over the brink into disintegration, which will be a strategic catastrophe of the first order. We will ignore the disintegration of the state in Mexico, while importing Mexico’s disorder through our ineffective border controls. We will not even be able to stop Somali pirates. What does it say about us when the whole nation rejoices because the U.S. Navy, the most powerful navy on earth, defeated four Somali teenagers?

It does not end with this. These foreign policy failures and military defeats – or even more embarrassing “victories” – become just two of a larger series of crises, including the economic crisis (depression followed by runaway inflation), foreign exchange crisis (collapse of the dollar), political crisis (no one in the Establishment knows what to do, but the Establishment offers the voters no alternative to itself), energy crisis, etc. Together, these discrete crises snowball into a systemic crisis, which is what happens when the outside world demands greater change than the political system permits. At that point, the political system collapses and is replaced by something else. In the old days, it meant a change of dynasty. What might it mean today? My guess is a radical devolution, at the conclusion of which life is once again local.

That would be, on the whole, a happy outcome. But I fear this will be a trip where the journey is not half the fun.

Are we helping Pakistan?

I’ve been visiting Pakistan on and off for a couple of years now – and each time things have got much, much worse (see this bleak assessment from 12 months ago).

Now the country has been plunged into further crisis. The Mumbai attacks put new pressure on its fractious relationship with India. The shootings in Lahore have severed its sporting links with the rest of the world.

These are calculated attempts to isolate and destabilize the country – attacks that have been planned by people who understand how to probe a culture’s weak points, and are skilled in the art of systems disruption.

They have consistently achieving outcomes disproportionate to the resources invested. But have we – the West I mean – done the same?

Here’s six questions I’d like to have the answer to. They all relate to the the country’s army, which is a dominant force in Pakistan’s politics and economics – and is an institution that has iconic status, even though it is losing legitimacy and respect.

Today, the Pakistan army finds itself in a strikingly similar position to that of the US military in Iraq before the surge. It is fighting a series of interlinked insurgencies. And it is losing badly – mostly because it’s fighting the wrong war.


  1. How much money are the UK and US channeling to the Pakistan military?
  2. What proportion strengthens Pakistan’s ability to fight 20th century wars?
  3. And what proportion is directed at counter-insurgency and 4th generation warfare?
  4. Has a systematic and concerted attempt been made to pass the lessons learned in Iraq onto Pakistani senior and mid-level officers?
  5. If so, is there evidence that strategy is switching from targeting militants to protecting Pakistan’s people (perhaps the fundamental COIN tenet).
  6. And given that all modern armies boast about their commitment to outcomes (or effects based operations), what outcome has the UK and US’s vast post-911 investment in the Pakistan military delivered? 

UK strikes online

UK jobs for British Workers

Wildcat strikes have gone viral in the UK – oil, power and nuclear workers have all walked out and the government is scrambling to get the situation back under control.

No panic buying as yet, but if the strikers push a little harder, we might see signs of a systemic disruption.

Of course, no 4th generation strike would be complete without an online presence – Twitter doesn’t seem to be playing much of a role as yet, but there are a number of bulletin boards out there. Bear Facts is one that’s providing coordination for an otherwise highly distributed action:

This site has been specifically designed for engineering construction workers i.e. Welders, Platers, Erectors, Pipefitters, Mechies, Scaffolders etc for the purpose of improved communication and the sharing of information.

We all know how hard it is to keep in touch with what’s going on in this game when we all work on different sites across the country.

Action is now taking place nationwide. Demonstrations are taking place outside sites from Teeside to Wales. Scottish workers have downed tools and taking part in demonstrations in support. The government is being lobbied by the trade unions, in other words…the gloves are off and the fight is on!!!

Of course, half of those registered on Bear Facts are probably infiltrators (both journalists and spooks) – informal SMS networks are probably carrying most of the sensitive information, as they’re so much more secure.