In 1991, Saddam Hussein’s armies were effortlessly swept aside by an American-led coalition, equipped with the latest engines of war and unimpeded by the then-crumbling Soviet Union. Operation Desert Storm displayed not only the potency, but also the pageantry of Western conventional military power.
This great triumph, coupled with later demonstrations of Western military might (such as the Balkan Wars), caused Western audiences to naively buy into a picturesque global Pax-Americana. The West was uncontested. It had won the Cold War and was now free to trumpet its values and foist its interests onto the planet.
Western news outlets ignored the political and ethno-religious conflicts that persisted in many parts of the world. The West, suffering from an acute case of hubris, showed apathy to the loss and bloodshed that lay outside of its own interests—such as during the Rwandan genocide— or, in terms of the media, pronounced these struggles as inexplicable to the Western public.
In the aftermath of 1991, the West rested on its laurels, exercising wilful ignorance, while the very nature of warfare transformed.
Notwithstanding Francis Fukuyama’s prophetic, self-righteous, and erroneous claim in his End of History, that the conclusion of the Cold War would bring about greater security, intrastate conflicts (civil wars) increased dramatically during the 1990s and became the norm. This was a dramatic shift: interstate warfare, which had dominated preceding centuries, was replaced with fraternal strife. While Fukuyama pontificated on the capacity of Western ideals to solve the world’s problems, Western military advantages diminished unnoticed.
The shift from interstate to intrastate conflict rendered the West’s tactics and weapons, which were the basis of its victory in 1991, redundant. Despite military sophistication and heavy spending, Western militaries were ill-prepared to deal with the growth of new, resilient non-state actors, particularly armed insurgencies who dramatically altered the landscape of war.
These new actors capitalized on asymmetrical warfare, combat that could undermine a strong opponent despite a dearth of assets. Employing strategies such as suicide attacks, human shields, and roadside bombs, weaker assailants could inflict serious injury upon stronger adversaries. With the rise of intrastate conflicts, these tactics steadily increased around the world after 1990. These tactics levelled the playing field against the hulking Western (and Soviet) armies that had dominated the international scene since 1945.
Even after the U.S. fiasco in Vietnam and the demise of its ideological adversary in the East, Western militaries remained preoccupied with the possibility of head-on confrontation with the now-defunct Soviet Union— rather than the prospect of facing protean guerrillas. The aging American M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and Los Angeles-class Nuclear Submarine, all of which were designed for a "hot", symmetrical, Cold War conflict, were preserved, remaining in service with U.S., Dutch, Australian, and other Western forces.
Designed as they were, these pieces of advanced military hardware were simply unfit for combating actors, like insurgents, who employed asymmetrical tactics. For example, Canadian forces used pre-1991 Leopard 2 tanks in counterinsurgency against the Afghanistani Taliban. Although Canadian forces eventually prevailed, the "punch" of their armor was severely limited by the hit-and-run tactics of the insurgents. Israel’s campaign in Southern Lebanon in 2006 suffered similarly; their Merkava tank columns found themselves outmanoeuvred by Hezbollah, who used roadside bombs and swarms of anti-tank missiles to bring this armor to a halt.
Western air superiority is also seemingly of little advantage, given the Islamic State’s survival despite months of heavy bombardment. U.S. and other Western aircraft, notwithstanding the use of precision guided munitions, were unable to effectively distinguish friend from foe, killing civilians during the bombardment of insurgent positions. Civilian deaths can also incite local populations, and galvanize them against counterinsurgency operations. The decentralized nature of insurgency groups has hindered the relevance of airpower in intrastate conflict.
Even the latest equipment, designed to counter insurgencies, floundered in the field. The American MRAP, a lumbering troop carrier advertised as impervious to roadside bombs, was unable to reach into Afghanistan’s mountainous hinterland due to its heavy armor. Simultaneously, it gave the local population an impression of American soldiers as hiding behind advanced armor, unwilling to face the heavy burdens of war.
American and Western policymakers have shown willingness to adjust to the new landscape of war. The Pentagon’s attempt to retire the highly effective "Warthog" A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft in favour of the expensive and impractical F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was met with cries of consternation from members of Congress, former military personnel, and even Chuck Norris. Ultimately, sounder minds prevailed and the A-10’s retirement was postponed.
In addition, the West has implemented "new" tactics and effective strategies to counter insurgents. By relying on the age-old infantryman, General David Petraeus, an American expert in counterinsurgency tactics, managed to turn the tide against the various Iraqi insurgencies in 2007. With an additional 30,000 troops and the embedding of forces within neighbourhoods, rather than stationing them in remote mega-bases, Petraeus filled the security vacuum that insurgent groups had exploited with dismounted professional infantrymen who rebalanced the field in favour of the Coalition.
For example, in Afghanistan, British military personnel used some of these techniques to recapture the town of Musa Qala from Taliban insurgents. This was achieved by relinquishing the use of powerful artillery to placate locals’ fear of indiscriminate ordinance, focusing on the insertion of special infantry formations. Furthermore, by employing psychological warfare techniques to dissuade the entrenched insurgents from standing their ground, the town was spared destruction.
M1A1 Abrams Tank in Fallujah, Iraq
The hard lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan illustrated that it was the use of infantrymen, cooperation with the local population, and the implementation of new tactics that allowed Western coalitions to effectively tackle insurgents, rather than the use of expensive pieces of outdated hardware or bullish engagement tactics.
To succeed in the new landscape of war, the West needs to continue overhauling military hardware, deploying specialist infantry, and reformulating its strategy towards asymmetric insurgencies.
Although another 1991 is unlikely to happen anytime soon, the greatest threat facing the West is falling back into Fukuyama’s fallacy. Whether in deterring a rising, belligerent China, or fighting low-intensity intrastate wars, the West must clearly define the nature of the conflicts it wants to fight, and abandon its pretensions of self-righteous ideological superiority.