War, Causes, and Winning

War, Causes, and Winning

There are two main causes for war in the modern world. One is simple territorial aggression, based on a lust for power. A nation’s leadership comes to believe that they are somehow entitled to expand their control of lands or people. In the past, this would have led to invasion and conquest; in the modern world, a different form of control is seen, that of the threat. When one power is so large that it’s secure from military action by its neighbors, rattling the sabers is usually enough to force those neighbors to allow the larger one to exert control. We’re seeing this around the edges of the new Russian Empire and also in China.

The danger here is when the saber-rattler misjudges its neighbors. Two regions of the world now face unrest because the two largest nations on Earth are attempting to expand. Russia is active around its European borders and has pushed into the Middle East. China, in addition to disputed Asian border regions, is expanding into the South China Sea, an area claimed by several other nations.

But territory can be lost as well as won, so it must be defended. That’s the weakness of a large nation. Defending those extensive borders is costly. What Russia has been doing, arming the disaffected around her borders to create instability, can be turned back on her and used to counter to further expansion. It’s a risky tactic, but so is what Russia is doing. A miscalculation can lead to world war three.

The second cause is religion, often allied with a kind of tribal identity. Once again, power is an underlying cause, but in this case national size is unimportant. A combatant need not even be a nation. People and their belief systems are the sources of power.

Unless governments understand this, their efforts can’t succeed. US and Western attempts to counter the ISIS and the Taliban treat the two ideologies as if they were nations. Russia is taking a slightly different approach; Putin intends to control Assad and let him deal with the IS ideology. Russia’s risks are moderate and Putin gains influence by having a presence in the Middle East that neighbor states cannot ignore. Will Russia succeed where others have failed?

I don’t think so. They’re directing their operations at territory, not ideology.

Simply put, in a war with religious overtones, you can only succeed if you counter the religious base. That means targeting the mosques and clerics. It means targeting the ‘caliph’ of the caliphate. That means targeting the people involved, without regard to territory.

I see a similarity between this type of war and the American Civil War. That one dragged on until Union commanders realized that destruction of the Confederate armies was the key to victory. Removing support from those armies was also necessary.

No nation or coalition has understood that the only way to destroy the Taliban or ISIS is to take the field with armies and pursue the enemy to destruction. No one has been willing to attack the source of their support, religion. So IS and the Taliban can afford losses among their soldiers; across the Middle East, religious leaders recruit replacements and send them across national borders to join the ‘armies’ of the Taliban and IS.

But that’s the key to winning.

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