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The Incongruities of Asymmetric War

An earlier version of the following paper was presented at the 2017 Telos Conference, held on January 14–15, 2017, in New York City. For additional details about the conference as well as other upcoming events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Assessing asymmetric wars in the abstract is a problematic task, even though most are “small wars” fought by “big nations.” Armed conflicts with these characteristics brim with persistent, undeclared, and low-intensity violence. It rarely is extinguished, and the lingering injuries sustain even more violence on the same scale. Many of these small wars began in Asia, Africa, Latin America, or the Middle East during, or not long after, World War II. Armed resistance there never completely ended; instead it intensified with decolonization and/or postcolonial state failure. Now virtually institutionalized in many violent wild zones around the world, low-intensity wars also flare up as asymmetric conflicts between rich countries and poor peoples, Westernized nations and anti-Western movements, liberal democratic states and illiberal theocratic insurgents after 1989.

In the wake of the Cold War, however, asymmetric warfare analyses often have lent misplaced concreteness to these chaotic confrontations by reducing them to delimited dyadic contests between well-defined antagonists, like the struggles of reactionary states with popular revolutions, foreign interventions against indigenous resistances, urban modernizers with rural reactionaries, or entrenched oligarchs against rebellious peasants. The twentieth-century struggles across occupied Europe by partisans against the Axis, the Vietnamese Wars against Japan, France, or the United States, the ongoing Chinese civil wars from 1911 to 1949, or the armed uprisings in Portugal’s African colonies often exemplify such distinctive asymmetrical wars. Yet, in actuality, the battles are more ambiguous. Each putatively well-defined side in the warring dyad involves the churn of complex conflicted coalitions. This conceptual expectation of two dueling antagonistic sides at war, however, steers their interpretation of these struggles toward diplomatic or strategic discursive conventions that track tit-for-tat moves by aggressors on targets or attacks and counter-attacks exchanged by warring antagonists and protagonists. Two opposing forces are depicted as well-organized blocs fighting to contain, if not end, aggressive activities associated with foreign incursions, terrorist groups, peasant uprisings, urban insurgencies, criminal quasi-states, religious radicalism, failed states, military dictatorships, or environmental disruptions.[1]

While these analyses are not always mistaken, they are usually incomplete. Asymmetric wars are misunderstood inasmuch as the analyses behind them ignore all the associated political conflicts of the combatants with their allies, competitors, or even within their own ranks in addition to confrontations with their declared foes. Without breaking this stranglehold of dyadic-centered tactical analysis of asymmetric war strategies, more refined explanations will never be effective. Simple dyadic categories dropped over complicated polyadic conflicts occlude too many of the social forces mobilized in the changing multidimensional alliances of asymmetric wars.

Therefore, nuanced political competitions within asymmetric warfare get lost when outsiders and/or the victors reduce, afterward or from afar, their messy polymorphous complexities to crisp dyadic simplicities. Even though harsh violence is always happening, conceptual ordering regimes generally categorize only certain variants of organized violence as instances of “asymmetric warfare,” while ignoring many other brutalities. Perhaps these distortions track the polemical undercurrents in political analysis, which Schmitt identifies in the churn of the political:

First, all political concepts, images, and words have a polemical meaning. They are focused on a specific conflict and are bound to a concrete situation; the result (which manifests itself in war or revolution) is a friend-enemy grouping, and they turn to empty and ghostlike abstractions when this situation disappears. Words like state, republic, society, class, as well as sovereignty, constitutional state, absolutism, dictatorship, economic planning, neutral or total state, and so on are incomprehensible if one does not know exactly who is to be affected, combated, refuted, or negated by such a term.[2]

Asymmetric warfare plainly has its own hidden polemics. To overcome the shortcomings of such reductive ordering, then, studies of asymmetric war must focus on how the diverse crosscutting groups of friends and enemies shift with the violence behind their social disorder.

In Multitude, Hardt and Negri see contemporary conditions of “life in common” grounded within “the global state of war”[3] in which the myths of stable sovereign authority are presented as materially significant, but these myths are cloudy polemical mystification. Security, settlement, and stability are rare. The forces at odds in today’s global war are not small elite cadres following fixed strategies in accord with classic political realist rules. Rather they express pluralizing battles between many mixed mangles of would-be rulers, or “polyarchs.”

As Neumann suggests, war fighters constantly invent on the fly multiple schemes to ply their tactics with, and against, their shifting ranks of friends and enemies in polycratic free-for-alls. Behind these veils of engineered ignorance, the hard realities of permanent resistance, unrelenting hegemony, and networked struggle shape economies and societies at war. Embedding them in low-intensity warfare normalizes those biopolitical options that arise for would-be rule with small victories.[4] Bellicose relations in day-to-day private communal competitions over the power to govern with broad spatial and temporal hegemony usually are the stakes of asymmetric war.[5] The low-intensity warfare between non-states, resistant populations, outside interests, and would-be state sovereigns, all tussling for hegemony in specific territories, expresses the high-intensity politics of polyarchs conducted by other means after the Cold War.[6] The domination of a stable state is imagined as the determinate actions of one large overarching party, bloc, or region, dominating all others from some hard and fast core; but polyarchy points to the pluralized conditions of many smaller powers aspiring to this status, only to not to gain it. Their limited control in some places, at some times over some people, through some governance practices, therefore, must coexist with other forces competing to control the same people, times, and places in different ways. From the outside, this state of political affairs appears to be anarchy, but within these continuous low-intensity conflicts such currents of violent force and peaceful support cancel out in the unresolved ambiguities of polyarchy.

For the armed struggles of semi-legitimate and quasi-organized agents tied together across the countries of Southwest Asia, many types of subnational, national, and supranational polyarchs—like Al Qaeda or DHS, ISIL or the CIA, Iranian Revolutionary Guards or the ISI, Kurdish Workers Party or NATO, the Gulf Coordination Council or Ansar Allah—play through plural armed struggles by armies, militias, and for more control against each other—from local levels up to global scales of influence—through these fuzzy conditions of violent engagement.[7] In the chaos of contested control, the fluidity of illegitimacy/legitimacy, power/powerlessness, and ruly/unruly disorder enable polyarchic forces to push competing programs for order simultaneously, as they each seek dominance.[8] Unable to attain full hegemony, many groups are less concerned about legitimating their armed might than keeping whatever material control they have where and when they exert it—retaining existing patches of turf secure for their fighters and supporters usually is just enough success to persist.

At the political boundaries Dahl identifies between “closed hegemonies” and “polyarchies,” better principles of governance for imposing effective ethical values and political rights rarely come into balance.[9] His sterile Cold War–era program to stabilize “polyarchy,” as a mode of popular rule uniquely suited to liberal capitalist society, finds a rougher articulation against the global conditions of the long war on terror. Polyarchy and polyarchs must be pressed harder.

To return to its semantic roots, “poly” (many) and “archos” (rulers) implies government of some sort by more than three, or even many, persons or groups. First found in European juristic and political discourses in the early seventeenth century, polyarchy as an idea captures the context of discomforting realities. There are territories with plural coexistent governance, which frequently is brutal, exploitative, and inadequate because of these coincident pluralized aspirations for power. Even when experienced by many people, social forces, and institutions over contested spaces and/or commonly grouped populations with multiple rules and rulers, ultimate authority can be elusive and fluid. Any person, organized group, or agency that exerts limited control, and aspires to be the preeminent force among many rulers, is a polyarch.

Washington pretends “the country of Afghanistan” is gaining capacity to exercise normal territorial sovereignty in accord with ordinary political realism. It has national borders, a national capital, and a national territory surrounded by similar entities with comparable attributes on the world map as well as on the ground in Southwest Asia. Yet, Afghanistan allegedly had those attributes in 1973. This made little difference as it shattered repeatedly for now nearly 45 years in battles of its Communist Party (Khalq and Parcham) factions, the Soviet invasion, a broadly supported resistance by the mujahedeen against the Red Army, Russia’s strategic retreat, the rise of the Taliban, Al Qaeda’s infiltration, and the American-led invasion after 9/11.

The small politics of these mixed international/domestic Afghan struggles have reached far beyond lines drawn in contemporary Western diplomatic agreements or the old territorial maps of European empires. Ideological struggles, sectarian Islamic differences, ethnonational frictions, and narcocapitalist networks enabled multiple polyarchic powers to wander away from legitimating global realist practices. Moreover, violent conditions from the past are not absent from how power plays continue to unfold today across Afghanistan or America. After all, mujahedeen can be radicalized over the Internet in Minnesota. After hearing appeals from the mountains of Afghanistan in the name of ISIL, they attack their American compatriots in North America as self-radicalized lone wolves. And American veterans of the Afghan war return home from multiple deployments unable to adjust to civilian routines. Once some see news reports from Syria about ISIL atrocities, they find their own way through Iraq or Turkey to fight with the Kurdish resistance against all their enemies. Inside and outside, friend and foe, here and there are contorted in the asymmetries of these “small wars.”

Networks of polyarchic forces with varied capabilities, diverse interests, and non-identical goals, like “the Syrian resistance to the Assad regime” in that nation’s civil strife since 2011, engage continuously in conflicts—asymmetric, bellicose, and protracted by nature. The rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria pits multiple players against its would-be caliphate in both countries’ territories. In addition to the Syrian and Iraqi armies, Soviet and American troops, multiple local organizations in both countries, like Hezbollah, Iraqi Popular Mobilization forces, the Kurdish peshmerga, and PYD (Democratic Union Party) militias, are all locked in the struggle. Inasmuch as they aspire to become monopolistic users of force within some swath of territory, and control over some population, rule of these polyarchs still remains incomplete, nascent or absent. Even within putatively stable orders, mismatched polyarchs will battle one another as long as fighting such multi-front wars cash out positively for every group in engaged such battles with one another to maintain tolerable measures of greater governance within their overlapping zones of control. Over time, such polyadic armed and diplomatic struggles for supremacy may lead to near victory for one bloc, or at least greater defeat for more of its opponents. For the most part, however, the low-intensity asymmetric warfare of almost all against almost all persists.

As Metz and Johnson assert, “in the realm of military affairs and national security, asymmetry is acting, organizing, and thinking differently than opponents in order to maximize one’s own advantages, exploit an opponent’s weaknesses, attain the initiative, or gain greater freedom of action.”[10] Geopolitically, the conditions that trigger different thinking “concern at least three drivers and methods of conflict . . . first, there is the political-economic or other motivations, second the tactics, and third the weapons utilised in asymmetric war—which itself is usually defined by the negative.”[11]

Mobilizing efforts to study the motives, tactics, and armaments of warring polyarchs, who tussle with one another over years of interminable violence, conveys another sense of polyarchy that is useful to this conceptual framework. Many polyarchic players aspire to rule, but they never fully gain final authority due to their fragmented motives, ineffective tactics, and/or inadequate arms. Their codes of authority are conflicting, but also coincident; their claims to legitimacy are contradictory, but also contested; and, their capabilities for governance are challenged, but also coevolving—all in the ebb and flow of their respective struggles to claim undisputed control. Like ISIL or Al Qaeda, insurgent polyarchs tend to endure, but without full control, genuine legitimacy or complete authority. Insurgent polyarchs, then, morph back and forth into indigenous and/or foreign agents, working within and/or without the main zones of conflict, and continuously shifting their alliances and/or antagonisms to leverage shifting tactical conditions and political imperatives in this perverse regimen of sustainable despoliation.

Whether in Somalia, Kurdistan, Iraq, Colombia, Angola, the Congo, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Sudan, or Yemen, the push of polyarchs for greater power in these conflicts implicitly constitutes a strange collaborative order out of disorder. For such wars of one against many, or most against many, or even a few against all, sustained turmoil can even gain such mutable quasi-states a strange negative nationhood, like the Taliban in Afghanistan/Pakistan or ISIL in the Levant, that survives for years.

Where there is no territorial integrity, sovereignty is limited. Populations are caught in chaos, and all these incomplete would-be governments are patchy. Polyarchs also engage with outside interests as much as any regular state formation in open or clandestine commerce. Chaos becomes profitable in contraband trade, human trafficking or narcocapitalist exchange, when these deadlocks endure over decades. In these conditions, which the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, or the Taliban illustrate, the capacities of the belligerents differ significantly enough for each faction to exploit the weaknesses, or limit the strengths, of all the others in petty competitive intrigues. These moves succeed just enough to fail, in toto, which further sustains all the polyarchs, in part, as petty competitors scheming to acquire greater authority.

Insurgents, terrorists, insurrectionists all are actors, but how they group themselves as circles of enemies and friends fluctuates with the existential conditions of disorder that maintain the equilibrium of enduring enmities. After the Cold War, the structural causes of asymmetric conflict emerge from both high politics in the international domain of declared state-to-state conflict and the small politics of endless struggles over personal power, organization primacy, governance strategies or agency budgets.[12] One must turn to the murkiness of “intermestic” politics, which Schmitt basically assumes in his construction of “the political” is improbable.

Yet, the intrusion of the international into the domestic, and the multiple linkages of the domestic beneath, behind, or beside the international leave friends and foes to be determined more contingently and contingently in these mangled spaces. Many friends and foes are to be found or lost in sub-state agencies, segmented social movements, systemic resistances, and savage violence cycles. They sustain a thousand asymmetrical agendas for “conducting the conduct” of violence within these mangles of practice in being ecumenical about amity and enmity.

The insights of Clausewitz and Foucault are equally apropos.[13] Concerning Clausewitz, war equals “a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means” in the asymmetric plural battles of polyarchs.[14] This is normal, and most telling intermestically. Following Foucault, in modern economies and societies, politics equals “the continuation of war by other means” as its practices and theories endowing diverse polyarchs many strategies to plot out violence into a “grid of intelligibility” in contested struggles by ever-shifting social forces.[15]

One must consider the fictive sovereignty of the Afghan “nation-state,” or the multidimensional battles in the Syrian “civil war,” to map out all of these incongruities in asymmetric warfare. The hybridity of “politics” and “the political,” as Clausewitz or Foucault frame them, weave the ambivalences of intermestic struggles through this turmoil. Schmitt’s notions of political realism, in turn, may not quite fit. When they “become empty and ghost like abstractions when this situation no longer obtains” in asymmetric war’s incongruous and inconstant constructs of “the political,” polyarchic alliances shift their shapes repeatedly in the “small politics” of Afghan or Syrian territories under contested governance. When deployed by incumbent regimes or their foreign allies with so many other external and internal friends and enemies amid civil strife, no one can know definitively either “the concrete opposition” or how all warring parities might approach “a concrete situation” of each polyarch fighting in small, but also long wars.

Despite their need to compete in complex power games, polyarchs may simply lack military and strategic efficacy. Their constitutional pretexts for exerting legitimate governmentalizing state authority also are unclear. The other political players in their spaces are foreign and domestic; but, at the same time, they too are pursuing self-interested campaigns of war, crime, and exploitation by other means. To find profits in chaos, gain privileges within stalemates, and accrue positions of limited authority from not pushing for full complete power, in turn, soon proves to be a governance program for decades, as the existence of Al Qaeda or the Taliban illustrate.

A concrete example of these contradictory political agendas in asymmetric war stands out in the circumstances surrounding the death of the first American serviceman during President Trump’s watch in the Global War on Terror. On January 29, 2017, SEAL Team 6, and a detachment of United Arab Emirate (UAE) troops were dropped into al-Ghayli, a village in Yemen’s Bayda province to kill or capture Qasim al Raymi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). U.S. Navy SEAL, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, was killed in an intense firefight on this raid, three other U.S. service members were injured in this action as well as a number of the soldiers from the UAE.

Much went sideways during this engagement, which centered on the compound of a local tribal leader, Abdulrauf al Dhahab, who opposed the current Yemeni government and its Saudi allies, but maintained friendly ties to the AQAP. A supporter of ISIL and its new Islamic Caliphate, al Dhahab was killed in the raid along with 13 others. The al Dhahab family has been closely involved in Yemen’s recent civil wars, and the family’s senior male elders all were brothers-in-law to the notorious New Mexico-born, U.S. citizen, and Al Qaeda activist, Anwar al Awlaki. The object of a successful “targeted killing” on September 30, 2011, al Awlaki was a remarkably effective propagandist on the Internet for Al Qaeda, ISIL, and radical “lone wolf” terror recruits around the world. His 16-year-old son was killed by another American drone strike in the area during October 2011, and then al Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter was in the buildings attacked on January 29 by SEAL Team 6. She died of gunshot wounds in the firefight, which involved many local men and women in al Dhahad’s compound exchanging gunfire with the Navy SEAL unit and their allied forces. The raid was a mixed success. Some intelligence data was taken, but Qasim al Raymi was not located. The civilian deaths and losses to coalition forces also were high. Yemen denied the United States and its changing mix of regional allies permission make similar raids in the future, which will be flouted as soon as needed to gather more intelligence on the ground.

Here the raw realities of almost all warring against almost all in asymmetric war are evident. Yemen, the al Dhahad family, local tribal groups, and AQAP all claimed to rule this village; and, some times in a number of ways, each does. Likewise, the US, its Saudi and UAE allies, GCC opponents to Iran, and SEAL Team 6 all showed up this day to exert their sovereign power over the locals for global gains. The manifold intrigues of the small politics at play here in the geopolitics of the region, the Yemeni state, and the AQAP expose the asymmetry of the struggle as well as its geopolitical discontinuities. As fighters in this conflict along with the Yemeni state, fluid coalitions of Saudi and Arab Gulf state backers, and Iranian-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen, on the one hand, were all willing to take the punishment and move on. Yet, the teams of the United States with its European allies against ISIL, and the al Dhahad and al Awlaki families, on the other hand, fanned the flames of battle between all of these polyarchs, who have been fighting on several fronts against different enemies, and with varied friends, for years.

This one incident reveals much about contemporary asymmetric war. Within intrigues between changing friends and enemies, polyarchic forces always fight beyond dyadic struggles. Each force falls short of imposing full sovereignty, but their capabilities keep them in the field. Authority is contested, and legitimacy is illusive, but unflagging asymmetric violence sustainably keeps developing polyarchic power in the mangles of armed clashes and political intrigues. With these skills, one faction in the long run may become hegemonic. Meanwhile, they all retain what is needed to survive as contemporary war machines.


1. See A. J. Mack, “Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars,” World Politics 27, no. 2 (1975): 175–200; John P. Cann, Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese Way of War 1961–74 (Sohlihull: Helion, 2012); Diana Lary, The Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social Transformation, 1937–1945 (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010); and Alastair Horne, The Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954–1962 (New York: NYRB Classics, 2006).

2. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, exp. ed., trans. and intro. George Schwab, with a foreword by Tracy B. Strong and notes by Leo Strauss (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 30–31.

3. Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri, Multitude (Cambridge, MA, Harvard Univ. Press, 2004), pp. 12–17. The turgid turmoil of multiple groups with different agendas all wrestling with one another is captured well by Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933–1944 (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2009), as he appraises the undeclared civil wars of late Weimar Germany. Neumann suggests in civil strife that “the homogeneity of the people is almost non-existent,” and leads to “polycracy, that is, “the conjoint body of independent public agencies . . . subject to no parliamentary supervision has destroyed the unity of political decisions” (p. 44).

4. See Timothy W. Luke, “Placing Powers/Siting Spaces: The Politics of Global and Local in the New World Order,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 12 (1994): 613–28.

5. Michel Foucault, Society Must be Defended (New York: Picador Chicago Press, 2003), p. 68.

6. Ibid.

7. See Stuart Elden, Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2009); Ariel Ahram, Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State-Sponsored Militias (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 2011); and Andrew Mumford, Proxy War (Oxford: Polity Press, 2013).

8. See Charles Tilly, ed., The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1975). His studies of nation-state formation address how national hegemony slowly forms in conditions of considerable polycratic competition between urban classes, geographical sectionalism, feudal estates, religious bodies, mercantile guilds, regional warlords, and external interests.

9. Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 6–8.

10. See Steven Metz and D. V. Johnson, II, Asymmetry and U.S. Military Strategy: Definition, Background, and Strategic Concepts (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute/U.S. Army War College, 2001); and Timothy W. Luke, “Angola and Mozambique: Institutionalizing Social Revolution in Africa,” Review of Politics 44 (July 1982): 413–36.

11. A. McKillop, “Strategy, Military Tactics, and Weapons: Asymmetric War and the New Geopolitics,” Global Research, January 27, 2014.

12. Frank N. Schubert, Other than War: The American Military Experience and Operations in the Post-Cold War Decade (Washington: DC: Joint History Office/Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2013).

13. Michel Foucault, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991).

14. Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976) ch. 4, see 24.

15. Foucault, Society Must be Defended, p. 48.

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