Since 1945, we have lived through a time when, thanks to the Cold War nuclear standoff and US military supremacy, there have not been any all-out wars. This relatively happy time, however, might be coming to an end.
Carl Von Clausewitz, in his classic study, "On War," pointed out that there are conflicts "where a decision [meaning a decisive, total victory] is not the objective." This is a good description of what we now call "Limited War," that is to say, a war of attrition fought with a relatively low level of violence but a high level of politics and propaganda . Limited war is what we are now seeing in various degrees in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Kashmir, the Arab-Israeli conflict and wars in Africa. These limited wars endure because one, or sometimes both, parties to the conflict cannot inflict total defeat on their enemy, but at the same time, cannot bring themselves to make peace. These wars, therefore, go on and on and on at a low level of violence, with no end in sight.
Clausewitz also stated that "the history of war, in every age and country, shows not only that most campaigns are of this [limited] type, but that the majority is so overwhelming as to make all other campaigns seem more like exceptions to the rule." Substitute the word "war" for "campaigns," and one can see that all, or almost all, of the wars being fought today are of the limited kind.
In a limited war, the principal goal of at least one of the forces involved is to preserve itself and its freedom to be able go on fighting. To put it another way, the commander's intention is to maintain an Army "in being." George Washington's main strategy against the British was keeping his Army intact, and thus keeping up long-term pressure on the British to give up and go home.
Today's Taliban and other Islamist groups are keeping their various wars going in the hope that their Western enemies will one day get tired and disappear
What makes 21st century limited wars different from those fought by Europeans and Americans in the 18th century, is that they are now fought using limited means for unlimited ends. For the Islamists, their unlimited end is the destruction of the current Muslim nation states and their replacement by a Islamist Caliphate, and eventually, the global military triumph of their religion. For the West, the unlimited goal is that of a world order based on democracy and human rights.
In the Arab-Israeli conflict, Hamas and the bulk of the Palestinian Arab population have the "unlimited" goal of wiping Israel off the map. The Israeli goal is to survive as a Jewish state inside "secure and recognized borders, " -- a limited strategic objective. This asymmetry between Israel's virtually unlimited military power but limited strategic goals on the one hand, and Arab military weakness but unlimited strategic objectives on the other, is typical of the majority of post-1945 wars.
Soviet imperialist Communism is perfect example of an unlimited Utopian strategic goal in its wish to transform the world into a new, universal communist state. The USSR was prevented from directly achieving this objective by US military, economic and political power. Instead, the militarily weaker Soviet Union turned to supporting dozens of small-scale, anti Western wars around the world, from Vietnam to Central America to Africa to the Palestinians and West Germany. The men in the Kremlin excelled, at least for a while, at using limited violence in pursuit of unlimited ends.
America's limited wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are currently being fought in an unprecedentedly restrained way. The complex US rules of engagement ensure that every bomb, every rocket, every missile and almost every bullet fired is subject to legal review, both before and after combat. America's NATO allies all have placed similar limits on their own use of firepower.
The enemies in these wars, however, may not be supervised by battalions of lawyers the way that American and other Western forces are. They are sometimes restrained, nevertheless, at least theoretically, by their need to avoid antagonizing the local populations they are trying to control. Yet as we have seen in Algeria, Iraq and elsewhere, Jihadis tend to end up attacking the people they are supposedly trying to enlist. In Afghanistan, as Jihadi bombs have killed far more civilians than have members of the Afghan or NATO armed forces, the Islamists sometimes refer to their casualties as "involuntary martyrs."
Since 2001, the Jihadis have failed to carry out any large scale attacks on US soil. There is no indication, however, that they are going to stop trying to replicate the 9/11 attacks, or at least inflict enough damage on the Americans to remind them that they are still at war with Muslim extremists and their allies. In this instance, the Islamists are not limited by any need to conciliate a local Muslim population, but by their lack of capability.
As the ultimate purpose of the Jihadists -- to establish a global Caliphate -- is unlimited, it is likely that eventually, the Jihadis will carry out an attack, or a series of attacks, that will match the size and violence of their ambition. They may be deterred by the fear of US or Western retaliation, but that is not certain. The spectacle of American and allied internal political bickering since 9/11 must certainly have encouraged the Jihadis to imagine that limited, and occasionally clumsy, US and Western responses, are the worst they can expect.
Another major attack on the lines of 9/11 might provoke a response from America or its allies far more violent and unconstrained than anything seen so far. This may in part be caused by budget cuts which reduce the number and accuracy of the West's precision weapons and which will lead to a substantial increase in so-called "collateral damage."
This economic factor, brought on by current US budget cuts, may play a greater role in future conflicts than it did in the recent past. An extremely violent, short -term, relatively unrestrained air campaign, such as the one President William Jefferson Clinton unleashed against Serbia in 1999, is less expensive than a than a long, drawn -out, limited military operation, especially one that requires large numbers of ground troops. Although the 1999 air campaign failed to destroy the enemy's deployed forces in Kosovo, it did wreck large parts of Serbia's civilian infrastructure. It was this destruction that forced the Belgrade government to surrender.
That kind of campaign, with few limits, may be a far better model for future US operations than the one being followed now in Afghanistan and Iraq. It will, however, be bad news for the proponents of the so-called "Humanitarian War." Humanitarian restraint has long been used as a tool against people who are thought to be susceptible to its appeal to cripple their ability to defend themselves against aggression.
One occurrence, from the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, is an early example of how the idea of humanitarian war could be used against Americans by appealing to their supposed desire to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. During the siege of the Belgian town of Bastogne, the German commander sent a message to the surrounded Americans demanding that they surrender. The German General threatened to annihilate the town with his artillery and then added, "All serious civilian casualties caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with well-known American humanity;" however the American commanding General, Anthony McAuliffe, refused to surrender, writing in reply:
"To The German Commander: Nuts. The American Commander."
When a German officer asked what "Nuts" meant, the American replied, "It means, Go to Hell."
As wars become more bitter and drawn out and levels of both violence and violent propaganda increase, and as more international and media pressure direct our allies and us to surrender in the name of humanitarian concerns, we can only hope that our Wester leaders will say the same.