New Paradigms for 21st Century Conflict

 By David J. Kilcullen 

Despite our rather rosy hindsight view of World War II, there was considerable dissent at the time about the war’s aims, conduct, and strategy. But virtually no one disagreed that it was indeed a war or that the Axis powers were the enemy/aggressors. 

Contrast this with the war on terrorism. Some dispute the notion that the conflict can be defined as a war; others question the reality of the threat. Far-left critics blame American industrial interests, while a lunatic fringe sees September 11, 2001, as a massive self-inflicted conspiracy. More seriously, people disagree about the enemy. Is al-Qaida a real threat or a creature of Western paranoia and overreaction? Is it even a real organization? 

Is al-Qaida a mass movement or simply a philosophy, a state of mind? Is the enemy all terrorism? Is it extremism? Or is Islam itself in some way a threat? Is this primarily a military, political, or civilizational problem? What would “victory” look like? These fundamentals are disputed, as those of previous conflicts (except possibly the Cold War) were not.

British General Rupert Smith argues that war—defined as industrial, interstate warfare between armies, where the clash of arms decides the outcome—no longer exists, that we are instead in an era of “war amongst the people,” where the utility of military forces depends on their ability to adapt to complex political contexts and engage non-state opponents under the critical gaze of global public opinion.

The new threats, which invalidate received wisdom on so many issues, may indicate that we are on the brink of a new era of conflict. Finding new, breakthrough ideas to understand and defeat these threats may prove to be the most important challenge we face. Read the article 


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