Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator, known to modernity simply as Fabius, served as a Roman general during the second century BC. He remains relevant today for the indirect, delaying tactic he advocated and utilized successfully against Hannibal’s forces in the Second Punic War. His unorthodox method was considered cowardly at the time and several upstart rivals lost disastrous battles and many lives trying to upstage him by engaging in direct confrontation with the Carthaginians.
The Fabian strategy has been adapted in many iterations of warfare since its success against Rome’s enemies. Wellington is said to have utilized it to defeat Napoleon, as well as Sam Houston against Santa Ana. And George Washington was called the “American Fabius” for using similar tactics to defeat the British during the Revolutionary War.
Now, in the hands of revolutionists like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez, the Fabian strategy is being used offensively as a “soft subversion” tactic with which to undermine enemies without traversing the “threshold of concern”—the point at which their enemies are roused to diplomatic or military action. Chavez and Ahmadinejad have developed their strategic relationship based on mutual support for these soft subversion tactics against their common enemies.
After decades of humiliating military campaigns against Israel, despots throughout the Middle East now utilize this “offensive Fabian strategy” along with highly developed propaganda efforts to weaken enemies while maintaining a posture of plausible deniability. The 2006 summer war between Israel and Hezbollah was a telling example. Like the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the 2006 conflict was a military victory for Israel, although it was a short-term propaganda victory for its enemies.
A Congressional Research Service report stated that although Hezbollah’s military capabilities were substantially reduced and its support from Iran and Syria were temporarily hampered, its “long-term potential as a guerrilla movement appears to remain intact.” The report further noted that “Hezbollah’s leaders have been able to claim a level of ‘victory’ simply by virtue of not having decisively ‘lost’.”
Two years later, Israel adapted its tactics to more readily confront the asymmetric war practiced by Hamas in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead. But this well-planned and decisive victory for Israel, which was noteworthy for its ability to avoid civilian casualties that were pre-planned by Hamas, was met with international condemnation as a “disproportionate response.” Indeed, the term “disproportionate response,” as well as the oft-heard “cycle of violence,” is part of the arsenal of asymmetric warfare propaganda that, ironically, has the effect of propagating more long-term violence.
Regardless of the military or propaganda victories of either side in both of these wars, the real winner has been Iran. The proxy groups, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and others, are either directly controlled or greatly supported by Iran. Both the 2006 and the December 2008 wars allowed Iran to use these proxy forces in a probing action—allowing the regime to discern Israel’s strengths and weaknesses without firing a shot and while avoiding international condemnation.
Iran has exploited this type of asymmetric warfare ever since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Even prior to the decision to remove Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran was perfecting the use of this type of asymmetric warfare by funding and training Shi’ite groups in Iraq. Rather than build up its conventional forces, Iran has concentrated mostly on its navy, to be able to cause problems in the Persian Gulf, while fortifying its proxy forces to undermine its enemies. It does so while maintaining an arms-length distance from the wars that these proxies initiate.
Iran has also used this strategy against Egypt by building up a presence on its southern border with Sudan in order to support terrorist operations there, and it has placed subversive groups in Yemen to threaten Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. In April 2009, Egypt arrested members of a Hezbollah cell that was smuggling arms to Hamas, and later arrested four agents from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that were sent to establish an intelligence network. Amidst this proxy warfare, Egypt also has to contend with an insurgency from the Muslim Brotherhood within its own borders.
A recent Defense Intelligence Agency report stated that Iran was using a multi-faceted approach to subvert democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that it was expanding the number of its Qods Force in Venezuela. The report states, “We assess with high confidence that over the last three decades, Iran has methodically cultivated a network of sponsored terrorist surrogates capable of conducting effective, plausibly deniable attacks against Israel and the United States.”
Regarding Iran in Afghanistan, the report states:
Iran continues to influence events in Afghanistan through a multi-faceted approach involving support for the Karzai government while covertly supporting various insurgent and political opposition groups. Tehran’s support for the Government of Afghanistan is reflected in its diplomatic presence and the numerous Iranian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) active in the country.
Lawfare in Latin America
This use of dummy NGOs as a propaganda tactic has been exploited in Latin America as well. Many non-governmental organizations operating in the region that claim to advocate for human rights actually receive funding from radical leftist groups sympathetic to so-called revolutionary movements in the hemisphere. Many of these groups derive much of their legitimacy from unwitting representatives of the European Union, the United Nations, and even from the U.S. Department of State, who designate them as official liaisons for human rights reporting.
One of the most effective tactics of these NGOs is to subvert justice systems and to immerse the military and security forces in endless lawsuits and false accusations, allowing seasoned soldiers to be pulled from the battlefield without a shot being fired. The military has been the bulwark against communist/terrorist subversion in Latin America, and one of the stated objectives of radicals in the region has been to destroy its popular support.
The results of this campaign are now becoming more profound, with many military officers suddenly finding themselves in jail under a civilian court system that assumes guilt upon incarceration, while unrepentant ex-terrorists fill government posts that oversee their jurisprudence. In Argentina, for example, an ex-Montonero terrorist was tapped by the Kirschner government to redesign the curriculum for the country’s military academies that would stress a more “humanist” approach.
Though these tactics have been effective, they can be exploited and turned into a liability by leaders that take the threat seriously. In Colombia, Operacion Jaque (Operation Checkmate) freed three American and 12 Colombian hostages in a daring and flawlessly executed rescue mission. Outgoing President Alvaro Uribe’s willingness to carry out such a risky operation, coupled with an aggressive pursuit of the terrorists throughout the country, led to numerous desertions of top commanders and foot soldiers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
In 2003, Uribe had drawn international ire for his statement that some supposed human rights organizations in Colombia were fronts for terrorists. Yet the success of Operation Checkmate proved the point, and its success was actually dependent upon Uribe’s claim. The FARC commanders were tricked into handing over their most highly valued hostages because they were told that a helicopter was being loaned to them by an NGO that was sympathetic to their cause. The NGO was completely fictitious, but the ruse was successful because the terrorist group had become accustomed to getting help from similar groups.
Mary Anastasia O’Grady, the Wall Street Journal‘s Americas writer, noted in her weekly column, “It may have taken years for army intelligence to infiltrate the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and it may have been tough to convincingly impersonate rebels. But what seems to have been a walk in the park was getting the FARC to believe that an NGO was providing resources to help it in the dirty work of ferrying captives to a new location.”
The War of Legitimacy
When FARC-friendly Ecuador continued to allow its borders to be used as a FARC redoubt, President Uribe allowed a controversial attack on a FARC hideout about a mile inside Ecuador’s border. The Organization of American States and many in the international community condemned the action, but had been silent about the Colombian government’s complaints about Ecuador’s porous border policy with terrorists.
Moreover, the attack killed the FARC’s international spokesperson, “Raul Reyes,” and captured a prodigious cache of intelligence from laptops and hard drives that revealed suspected ties between the FARC and Hugo Chavez, and to many of the groups that Uribe had earlier accused of collaboration.
Uribe’s predecessor, Andres Pastrana, had granted the FARC a swath of land the size of Switzerland as a demilitarized zone, which allowed the FARC the opportunity to recruit, re-supply, and re-arm. The ancillary effect of Pastrana’s policy was to tacitly grant an aura of legitimacy to the narco-terrorists.
These sequential, and antithetical, counterinsurgency policies of Pastrana and Uribe provided a useful pilot test. What Uribe accomplished, more successfully than any of the Colombian military’s operational tactics, was to change the political perspective from what had been seen as a 40 year conflict between rival political parties to a proper view of a legitimate, elected government versus an illegitimate narco-terrorist group.
Uribe was able to turn the tide against the FARC because of help from the United States, initially through the anti-narcotics funding in Plan Colombia. But the key difference was the strategic transition from the largely fruitless supply control methods of Plan Colombia, to the “population-centric counterinsurgency” (PC-COIN) methods of Plan Patriota. President Uribe, with U.S. help, transitioned from the counterproductive eradication of peasant coca crops to the successful eradication of FARC legitimacy.
‘Be Bold Early’: Subverting the Subversives
Despots and dictators tend to operate under what economists might call a “marginal propensity to oppress”—meaning that as they discern a greater unwillingness by internal and external opponents to check their actions, they will be more likely to commit greater and greater acts of aggression.
There is always a balance to be struck between strategic indifference to a tyrant like Hugo Chavez, which denies him the importance he seeks by provocation, and strategic resistance designed to help those oppressed by his regime. What we give up by ignoring a tyrant’s histrionics is the ability to prevent the incremental destruction of democratic institutions that solidify his power. But that decision must be balanced against bold action, taken early, that could check the progress of a budding dictatorship.
This “preclusionary engagement”—smaller, strategic, preemptive action, executed early—has shown empirical success. Col. John Boyd wrote about this strategy in his report, “Patterns of Conflict,” during the Vietnam War:
Undermine guerilla cause and destroy their cohesion by demonstrating integrity and competence of government to represent and serve needs of the people – rather than exploit and impoverish them for the benefit of a greedy elite.
Boyd’s advice was prescient, not only for Vietnam but for most of the trouble spots in Latin America over the last half century, as successive governments have revolved from rent-seeking elites to revanchist caudillos with the predictability of Kabuki theater.
The greatest part of any strategy going forward will have to be convincing those elites that their long term security rests on relinquishing their patronage, and opening their economies to the competition of the market and its natural meritocracy and wealth-spreading effects. Short of that, we will continue to see the emergence of terror-supporting despots that will spread their wealth for them in a far less cooperative manner.
Jon B. Perdue is the author of the forthcoming book on asymmetric warfare, The War of All the People, due out in October 2010 (Potomac Books).