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August 23, 2006

Asymmetric Conflict: How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict - Ivan Arreguín-Toft

Posted by Jeremy Black

How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict
by Ivan Arreguín-Toft
Pp. xv+250. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006
Hardback, £45; Paperback, £17.99

The acute difficulties faced by the Israeli military in Lebanon have strengthened interest in the topic of asymmetric conflict. Although this is not the book that is needed, it is not without interest. A political scientist with a background of service in the US Army, including as a military intelligence analyst, Dr. Arreguín-Toft sets out to offer a theoretical perspective on why the weak win wars.

He does so by means of a theoretical section which is then followed by five case studies: Russia in the Caucasus, 1830-59; the Second Boer War; the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-40; the USA in Vietnam; and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

A number of variables that might explain the contrasting success of strong states in asymmetric conflicts are evaluated, for example "democratic social squeamishness". Arreguín-Toft concludes that the strategic interaction thesis best explains the situation (p. 18):

According to this thesis, the interaction of the strategies actors use during a conflict predicts the outcome of that conflict better than competing explanations. If … when actors employ similar strategic approaches … relative power explains the outcome … when actors employ opposite strategic approaches … weak actors are much more likely to win….
The case-studies are each examined from the perspective of the overall thesis. For example, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, he argues that strategic interaction explains why the Soviets failed in 1980-2 - by pursuing a conventional attack strategy against a mujahideen guerrilla warfare strategy. In 1983, however, the Soviets switched to a barbarism strategy, but, Arreguín-Toft argues, still failed because the mujahideen were able to rely on intelligence and logistical support from foreign powers.

Much of the discussion will not surprise military historians, and many readers may be dismayed by the heavy emphasis on the theoretical model, rather than detailed research on operational and strategic issues, not least the decision-making processes of the combatants. Some readers may also dissent from the conclusions as applied to current American security concerns and foreign policy (p. 227):

If it wants to win the peace … it must support its resort to arms by eliminating foreign policy double standards and by increasing its capacity and willingness to use methods other than violence to resolve or deter conflicts around the world. So long as the United States continues to support corrupt and repressive regimes in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, terrorists and insurgents will continue to frustrate US interests in global peace and prosperity.
This appears a simplistic account of the politics of much of the world, of American policy and of the response to it, each of which is over-determined to accord with a model.

More generally, it is valuable to think in theoretical terms and Arreguín-Toft raises an important point when he demonstrates that strong states have become less effective with time. However, rather than differentiating between causal factors, it is more pertinent to argue in favour of multi-factor explanations that cannot be readily separated. Much scholarship fails to address theoretical factors explicitly but, nevertheless, implicitly rests on a theoretical base. It may well be better to discuss the theories explicitly, but to do so it is best not to adopt an overly-rigid approach.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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