The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Shadow War

A long time ago, General William Tecumseh Sherman said, "War is Hell." It's been about 170 years since Sherman uttered those words, and the United States has entered "Hell" many, many times during that period. Sometimes, our entry into war was fully justified. Other times, it was at the urging of gray-beard establishment types (military, diplomatic, and political) who suggested that only kinetic violence could protect our country for some foreign evil, or project strength to dissuade bad actors from attacking us. In more than a few cases, they were wrong, and the price was steep.

After years of war in the cesspool that is the Islamic Middle East, the United States has very little stomach for continuing conflict in the region. Most, but not all, of us recognize that there are truly bad actors in the world—brutal, dictatorial, authoritarian, hegemonic, fanatic regimes that would do us grave harm if they could. They are NOT our friends and never will be. But to defeat them using conventional warfare, we would have to destroy them, and that's a strategy that is too costly in lives (both theirs and ours) and treasure.

Iran is one of those bad actors. I suspect that the Mullahs think they understand the American public's reticence to enter into still another conflict in the Middle East and will try to use it to their advantage. In the past month, they have tried to goad Donald Trump into a limited kinetic strike, so that they could play the victim. Trump, to his credit, resisted the establishment gray beards and instead initiated what may well become this century's preferred kind of warfare—a cyberattack.

Richard Fernandez comments on this:
Even though the Washington Post sources called the strike "a long-in-the-making cyberattack that took down Iranian missile control computers" it still caught conventional wisdom by surprise. Just as the Battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval engagement conducted beyond the visual range of opposing fleets the recent exchange of strikes marks the first public battle between two nations in which only automata died. Pundits just didn't know what to make of it. However, matters are unlikely to end there. The New York Times speculated it would eventually stray into more intuitive territory which
could include a wide range of activities such as additional cyberattacks, clandestine operations aimed at disabling boats used by Iranians to conduct shipping attacks, and covert operations inside Iran aimed at fomenting more unrest. The United States might also look for ways to divide or undermine the effectiveness of Iranian proxy groups....
One former American military commander said there was a range of options that the Pentagon and the C.I.A. could pursue that could keep Iran off balance but that would not have “crystal-clear attribution” to the United States. An American operation that was not publicly announced could still deter further action by Tehran, if Iran understood what United States operatives had done, the former officer said. The types of responses the United States could undertake are broad if the United States was willing to use the same tactics that Iran has mastered, said Sean McFate, a professor at the National Defense University and the author of “The New Rules of War.”

“If we want to fight back, do it in the shadows,” he said.

Mr. McFate said the United States could put a bounty on Iran’s paramilitary and proxy forces. That would create an incentive for mercenary forces to take on Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies.
It will not be a game. That only robotic agents have perished so far does not mean the end of war, only a change of its forms. The effects of virtual conflict are real, the economic cost stupendous. A successful cyberattack inflicts considerable financial damage on the target, rendering vital equipment inoperable. It costs money to diagnose the damage, patch it and test the fix. Before the system can be restored it would be necessary to ensure there was no residual malware. Although Iran has denied any damage to its missiles the unbridled fury of their public response indirectly confirms they are hurt.
The new cyberwarfare approach changes the narrative rather considerably. A staple of Islamist regimes—human shields—is nullified, along with cries of collateral damage, complaints about disproportionality, and of course, inflated claims of civilians deaths. Wreckage is harder to spot on video, yet severe damage does accrue. As Fernandez notes, it's a shadow war.

But here's the thing. The bad actors remain bad actors. Cyberwarfare can hurt their regimes, but it will not result in their overthrow. Fernandez comments:
So far hybrid warfare has proved capable of devastating their countries but not toppling its leaders. Despite ration lines in Cuba, a Venezuelan economy so bad even Russian arms dealers are wary of selling to them, a North Korea heading for another starvation winter the brutal regimes in these countries rule in perfect safety, willing if necessary to stay in power to the death of their last wretched citizen. Reuters paints the haunting picture of towns in a socialist Venezuela reduced to a "primitive isolation" that may well be the eventual fate of Iran.
Whether it's socialist Venezuela or Islamist Iran, their despicable leaders will do whatever it takes to maintain power. Starve their people. Check. Wreck their economy. Check. Foster mass out-migration. Check. Allow children to die due to the failure of their health system. Check.

Fernandez concludes with this haunting statement: "Welcome to the world where open warfare has been abolished and secret warfare never ends."