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Seize, defy and discredit: a potent asymmetric strategy - Dr Charles Knight

Discussing the implications of Marawi: Part 1 - Hard Power

The battle for Marawi in the southern Philippines highlights an emerging strategic option for asymmetric coercive action: seize dense urban terrain to hold it and its population hostage; defy the government to regain control, exploiting the acute difficulties of doing so; discredit that government by forcing it to either capitulate or destroy the city to eject you. This approach was first applied by ISIL in the Mesopotamian cities of Mosul and Raqqa and commended within their ‘doctrine’. It was then applied in the Muslim city of Marawi on Mindanao.

In May 2017, a coalition of Jihadist militant groups—taking its name from the local Maute clan, but including the Abu Sayyaf group and infiltrated foreign fighters—seized the city of Marawi to declare an IS Wilayat (province). The core group of several hundred was able to exploit a history of disaffection with the government in Manila and a feuding ‘Pashtunwali’ type culture—with an obligation to fight alongside family and clan—to raise a force of perhaps as many as a thousand fighters. These fighters were armed with weapons and explosives that had been secretly stockpiled in concrete bunkers that the city’s inhabitants had built to survive clan battles. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), imagining they were facing a few dozen fighters, not expecting to be ambushed with RPGs, observed with drones or faced competent snipers, were decisively repulsed. It took five months to regain control and much of the city was destroyed in the process. The AFP acknowledge they learned much about the use of hard power in an urban area.

The outcome could have been far worse. The militants launched their seizure several days early, triggered by an attempt by the AFP to arrest their leaders. The premature action may have contributed to the chaos and destruction that led the population to decide to leave, and it certainly disrupted the militants’ plan to prevent that occurring. The militants expected, that if most of the population of 200,000 remained, they would either represent a human shield, or their slaughter in the inevitable fight would both cause an international outcry and motivate others to join a wider insurgency—exactly the effect that US operations in the Iraqi city of Fallujah had in 2004. Not only did almost all of the population escape, the militants’ attempts to foment rebellion amongst a suffering and displaced population also failed—something that the AFP attributed to the success of their ‘soft power’ influence operations.

From the outset of the crisis, the AFP placed great emphasis on what it called ‘soft power’, recognising that strategic ‘vital ground’ was not the city but rather the attitude of the already alienated Muslim population on Mindanao towards the militants. This priority was reflected in decisions such as tasking engineer units to build temporary accommodation for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), rather than into the battle where they were sorely needed. In similar vein, the AFP rapidly raised, fielded and deployed new military ‘soft power’ units. One provided teams who engaged 24/7 on social media and another, comprised of female hijab- wearing personnel, provided culturally sensitive management of internally displaced women and children. These supplemented more traditional methods such as civil military affairs engagement with the local political leadership or propaganda dissemination by radio, loudspeaker and leaflets. It is not possible to distinguish the impact of the AFP’s influence operations on the population from other effects, such as the decision of local religious leaders to condemn the militants, or the fact that the main Muslim insurgent group took the government’s side. Nevertheless, and importantly from the point of view of assessing the military response, it appears that the inability of the AFP to rapidly respond after initial setbacks provided space for anti-militant narratives to become dominant, such as the stories of civil society rescues of hostages in conjunction with the military. The importance of soft power is further examined in the companion Land Power Forum written by my colleague, Katja Theodorakis, soon to follow this one.

Superficially, it might appear that the battle took so long entirely because of a shortfall in AFP capability for urban operations. Similarly, the seize, defy and discredit strategy might not seem relevant except where there is both a substantial and competent Jihadi force and a potentially supportive, or at least compliant, Muslim population. That would overlook a stark, hard power lesson that became increasingly evident at the final stages of the battle when a substantial and now-capable AFP force still struggled to progress against a small number of fighters. Adversaries who have basic skills, plenty of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), take hostages and who intend to take as many attackers with them to the grave as possible, are an extraordinarily difficult task to clear—even when most of the population has evacuated. 

The elimination of the final fifty militant fighters from an area less than a kilometre square required the equivalent of two brigades, supported by armour, artillery and airstrikes. By this stage in the battle, the AFP had overcome their initial lack of preparedness. Capability had flowed from four months of urban combat experience, advice from Allied Special Forces, enhanced doctrine and training, new strike aircraft, weapons, body armour and equipment, as well as improvisations such as armouring their bulldozers. This was a tough and determined force conducting a systematic series of deliberate attacks, building-by-building, modelled on techniques recently refined in the Middle East by various Allied forces. It still took them a month.  

The key lesson is not that we can expect further seizure attempts by Jihadi groups. Although, we should, not least because their potential is explicit in Jihadi publications.  

Beyond all of these tactics, it appears that one thing has changed forever: the way wars will be fought. Wars will not be fought between conventional armies using conventional tactics, but rather through an ever-adapting sophisticated hybrid of irregular and conventional warfare fought in city centers involving non-state actors.

Ihsan Gunduz (ISIS and its urban warfare tactics)

The key lesson is that any modestly sized force of determined, trained fighters with small arms, IED and drones with time to prepare a defence presents an extraordinary challenge. It will require time, a far larger opposing force and substantial firepower to eject it. The seizing force simply needs to be large and potent enough to be beyond the available capability of rapid response forces to quickly resolve. That number is sensitive, but the figure of sixty fighters that McRaven considers the historical ideal would appear to be sufficient. The enhanced potential of urban seizure operations will have been observed by state actors, noting that such operations in the enemy rear were part of Soviet doctrine during the Cold War.

Hugh White’s recent book on ‘How to Defend Australia’ offers a maritime denial strategy and proposes abandoning high-end protected close combat capability for the Army. Critique by those in the Army seems likely to focus on abandonment of expeditionary potential, rather than the territorial defence dimension. Few will note his restating of the Australian planning assumption from the 1980s that small ‘raiding’ forces on the mainland can be readily eliminated. Marawi and other recent urban battles suggest that this view is mistaken. The indications are that emerging technologies such as intelligent mines, armed drones, and remote weapon stations will shift the urban combat balance further in favour of the defensive. Consequently, urban seizure in Australia might offer strategic attractions to a state adversary especially in a context of changing ‘ways’ of war.

Consider a scenario in which Australia was making a contribution to coalition operations against a state with competent Special Forces or proxy forces.  Suppose that the latter were to insert a modest force to seize buildings in an Australian regional coastal city (landing a force from a fishing or small merchant vessel is not especially challenging). Such a seizure would be likely to provoke huge public alarm, political disruption and potentially divert a significant portion of Army forces—an impact available at modest cost. While ‘raids’ seem unlikely, they have been considered one of the most plausible threats since 1901 and were the basis for ADF planning in the 1980s. Opportunity increases probability.   

Onshore or offshore, urban seizure presents a serious political and military challenge. A responding force will suffer heavy casualties unless it can protect its advancing soldiers. The only significant protective measure currently available is explosive firepower. If firepower is used, there will be casualties among any civilians present. Adversaries therefore present political and military leaders with the brutal dilemma of trading off their own casualties against civilian casualties. The reputational risk for the ADF in responding to a seizure, or indeed future urban fight, is acute, as the Australian public has come to expect a degree of discrimination that’s unlikely to be possible. We need contingency planning and policy debate to address the likelihood that asymmetric adversaries will learn to ‘seize, defy and discredit’. Measures include:

  • Whole-of-government capacity to enable and encourage populations to leave cities during armed conflict.
  • Acquiring capabilities that reduce risks to soldiers and civilians during urban combat operations. These include unmanned ‘robots’, smoke systems and special weapons that breach walls or attack targets inside buildings with reduced collateral damage.
  • Fielding an Australian Army combat engineering entity that is able to conduct unmanned combat search and clear operations in an urban environment in support of our own or friendly nations’ operations.

Such capabilities would mitigate political and military risk while increasing response options in a range of crises. While superficially specialist, most of the systems involved have wider utility. They generally involve well proven technologies that are well within the scope of Australian industry to produce, and at modest cost. This, and the insights that lead to our recommendations, are discussed in more detail in our major report for ASPI here.

About the author: Dr Charles Knight PhD, has served with British Army, RAF and several overseas forces and is a lecturer in Terrorism, Asymmetric Conflict & Urban Operations at Charles Sturt University. He developed UK training in Soviet urban doctrine, subterranean recce capability & urban anti-tank guided weapon procedures. He spent a decade in Special Operations development, commanded 2/17 Royal New South Wales Regiment, served in 1 Commando Regiment and developed Australian Army urban doctrine.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.

Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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