Guerillas, Warlords, and Militias Fight More Like State Armies, Warns Stephen Biddle

April 6, 2021 9:30 am (EST)

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While nonstate fighters are expected to wage war with suicide vests, assassinations, and roadside bombs, this assumption “can lead to defense policy choices that leave Western states ill-prepared for the demands of future warfare,” warns Stephen D. Biddle, adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in a new book.  

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In Nonstate Warfare: The Military Methods of Guerillas, Warlords, and Militias, Biddle challenges the notion that nonstate actors fight very differently than state armies do. After two decades of emphasis by the U.S. military on nonstate actors, such as Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Jaish al Mahdi in Iraq, Biddle finds that “there is nothing intrinsic to nonstate status in the conduct of war.” 

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Drawing from 137 interviews conducted with state and nonstate participants from military campaigns in Croatia, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, and Somalia, as well as investigations of case studies including Hezbollah and the Vietcong, Biddle finds that “some nonstate actors have already adopted more intuitively ‘state-like’ military methods than some states.”

In 2006, for example, the nonstate Shiite militia Hezbollah—“armed with modern, precision-guided antitank weapons”—responded to an Israeli state offensive with a conventional military defense in southern Lebanon. Biddle explains that the Israeli army had reoriented away from conventional combat to improve its effectiveness at irregular warfare, so “when it instead faced a surprisingly state-like defender in Hezbollah the result was unexpectedly heavy casualties and near defeat for a well-equipped Westernized state.” 

“For Hezbollah, the stakes in its conflict with Israel were high,” Biddle writes. In fact, Hezbollah considered the stakes existential. “Defeat in a prospective war with Israel would strike to its very identity and reason for being as a political entity, and a defeat would threaten serious losses to deeply held values.” 

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Biddle, who is professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, also notes the importance of Hezbollah’s “elaborately developed formal institutional structure,” consisting of an elected leadership council that appointed a secretary-general and oversaw political, administrative, military, and security operations. “Decision making in these institutions was shaped largely by the authority of office . . . rather than personality,” he writes, creating a stable structure with the capacity to deliver services and implement decisions. 

More than material weapons and equipment, Biddle argues, the most important determinants of a nonstate actor’s military capacity are their “perceived stakes in the wars they fight” and increasingly, their political institutions. Policymakers and military leaders should take heed that the internal politics of a nonstate actor are the leading indicator of how they will fight, he concludes.

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