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Military Response to Fourth Generation Warfare in Afghanistan
Greg Wilcox and Gary I. Wilson ^ | 5 May 2002 | Greg Wilcox and Gary I. Wilson

Posted on 07/11/2002 6:54:12 PM PDT by Bobibutu

At this writing, the American military response to 11 September has been confined to the war in Afghanistan. It may be too early to look at “lessons learned”, but it is not too early for an assessment of whether or not we have been successful fighting Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) as operations unfold in Afghanistan against the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Further, it is not too early to adjust our tactics, techniques, and even the “American Way of War” to combat an illusive, determined, and deadly enemy that operates outside the framework of the nation-state.

While our foes are adapting their ways of war, operating outside the nation-state paradigm, we largely operate as a second generation military trying to fight fourth generation adversaries. We have yet to transition the American military from second generation warfare to third generation warfare – even though both the Army and the Marine Corps dallied with maneuver warfare concepts in the 1980s before relapsing into the more comfortable attrition-style warfare.[1] The immediate challenge we face is reviving our third generation maneuver warfare efforts to accommodate the challenges in combating 4GW.

This essay will re-acquaint readers with the early warnings about 4GW; examine the meaning of 4GW after 11 September; outline successful military tactics and shortcomings in combating 4GW; and provide an early report card on how well we are doing tactically and operationally in Afghanistan. What we will not attempt is to provide “school solutions” or checklist formulae for defeating 4GW opponents … there are none.

It is important here to caveat that we still do not have definitive factual information on what has transpired in Afghanistan. Thus far, we have had to rely on press reports (usually unreliable and very Western in interpretation of what happened), Pentagon briefings (not totally unbiased), and some anecdotal reports from allied warriors. We have very few data points from the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

We know the threat is global. There are many hundreds of terrorist groups and other formidable enemies that have learned by the events of 11 September how to strike at the nation-state framework and its peoples at very little cost. They will attempt to re-apply these lessons in ways not yet imagined against established nations – and not just the United States.[2] The objective of the practitioners of 4GW is to create fear, chaos, and collapse the targeted society from within. The threat exists from the tip of Latin America to the far reaches of Siberia.

Al Qaeda is just one such terrorist group that is practicing 4GW. It is clear that within Al Qaeda, there are worldwide-compartmentalized cells. This massive but loosely connected network contains financial, political, propaganda, sleeper and assault cells as well as nonwestern constructs that we little understand. Al Qaeda has sympathizers throughout the Islamic world. Other terrorist groups may not be so well organized, but using the communist techniques of united fronts, they can create effective networks, such as the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas of Peru linked to the drug cartels of Columbia.

Another example is piracy, which could be called maritime terrorism, even though pirates and terrorists stem from different motives. According to Retired Naval Captain William Carpenter, pirates act out of greed while terrorists are out to make a political point. Today, there is a need today to bring together the problems of reporting, analyzing, and devising methods of response. The old definition of piracy that describes piracy as acts committed on the high seas needs to be broadened to include incidents in territorial waters or in port.[3]

Time is not on our side. Two developments change the equation. The acquisition of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) by such terrorist groups and/or their sponsor states coupled with the introduction of large numbers of young people willing to become suicide bombers are ample demonstration that we are in a new kind of war with little time to dally. Dirty nuclear bombs, chemical weapons, and biological agents are not difficult to make once the critical materials are obtained, and the technology for making such weapons is spreading at the speed of light over the internet. Transportation and deployment of such weapons is easily done. Small dispersed independent action groups of suicide bombers (to include women and children) supported by social groups and sponsored by patrons can and will alter the balance of power, as we know it. Such groups can easily attack soft targets like trade centers, hospitals, day care centers, amusement parks, food courts, transportation systems, communication systems, media events, sports events, concerts, public offices, peaceful street demonstrations, airport passenger lines, etc. We have been on the receiving end of these attacks in the past: The Marine Barracks in Lebanon, the Kohbar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and the USS Cole in Yemen, but it was the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September that alarmed America. Israel has been on the receiving end of these attacks for several years but more frequently in the recent past. The apparent success of 4GW on the United States and Israel has encouraged more volunteer suicide bombers and renewed efforts to acquire WMD.

Pre-emptive strikes against terrorists are among the new realities and one of the operational necessities of the 21st Century. Also apparent is the realization that urban operations, crime, terrorism, and fourth generation warfare are now part of the same operational environment. We see emerging and mutating forms of violence, conflict, and warfare. The blurring of crime, peace, and war, the decline of the nation-state, and increasingly lethal terrorism embody this volatile hurly burly brew.

Fourth generation warfare is manifesting itself in highly compartmentalized, cellular, predatory networks operating outside the framework of nation-states. How do we counter and win against a formless foe? In fact, how do we know when we have won? These and other questions remain unanswered. We simply do not know at this point. The scope of this paper is limited to the military operations and tactics in Afghanistan, but in order to evaluate the performance there, we must understand the larger strategy, which is inseparable from the operations and tactics being employed.

Just what is Fourth Generation Warfare?

Few are familiar with the meaning of 4GW. Some within the military forces are slightly familiar with the term but need clarification. A more defined audience is very familiar with the concept of 4th Generation Warfare. These are the military reformers who have asked the question: “What does the future hold for war in the 21st Century, and how does it affect the American military forces?”

In the 1980s, John Boyd, a retired USAF Colonel, and William S. Lind, a former Senate staffer, introduced a number of rather provocative new ideas into formal military thinking in the United States. Some of Boyd’s ideas are still around in bastardized form such as the “OODA Loop”.[4] Lind’s small pamphlet on maneuver warfare is considered a classic.[5] Some reforms caught on for a limited time, such as the need for maneuver warfare as opposed to attrition warfare. Oddly enough, the Air Force, Boyd’s parent Service, never took a second look at the crusty old airman’s ideas.

The Army used some ideas in the 1982 version of Air Land Battle Doctrine (FM 100-5), but it was the Marine Corps, which subscribed more fully to the concepts and ideas of maneuver doctrine and thinking. Lind had much to do with the education of the Marine Corps, and much of the debate about the future of warfare took place in the Marine Corps Gazette, and in the classrooms of the Marine schoolhouses. By the turn of the century, however, the candlelight flickered and seemed to have gone out, both in the Army and the Marine Corps. The events of 11 September re-ignited that flame with a vengeance.

So what is meant by generational warfare, and what are its characteristics?

Writing in the Marine Corps Gazette in October 1989, Lind, Colonel Keith Nightengale (USA), Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR), addressed: “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation.”[6] In this initial article, the authors posed the question: “What will future war look like?” In order to establish what war might look like in the future, the authors chose to define what the characteristics of war were in the recent past. They looked at significant events in recent military history that impacted on how wars are fought. In a nutshell, they perceived three main generations of warfare and a coming fourth generation.

In order to conserve effort, space, and time, we have chosen to provide a precis as a basis of discussion to the events of 11 September.

First generation warfare was reflective of tactics and technology in the time of the smoothbore musket and Napoleon. The tactics were of line, column, and mass armies. According to the authors, vestiges of the first generation of warfare exist today in the desire for linearity and rigid adherence to drill and ceremonies. The battle lines at Gettysburg are reminiscent of first generation warfare with straight lines and mass charges into the mouths of cannons.

It is significant that those civilizations that did not adhere to this generational change in warfare were quickly subdued, and in many cases colonized. European states took advantage of this newer form of warfare to subdue much larger countries such as India.

Second generation warfare, as defined by the authors and condensed here, was in response to the technological improvements in firepower and communications, particularly the railroad. It was based on fire and movement, but the essence was still attrition warfare, i.e., heavy applications firepower. The authors were of the opinion that second generation warfare is “...still practiced by most American units in the field.” Tactically, World War I, as practiced by the French and British, and Vietnam, as practiced by the Americans, were second generation warfare.

Third generation warfare was also seen as a response to the increasing firepower on the battlefield. The difference, however, was the emphasis on maneuver and non-linear warfare. In other words, in addition to the improved technology, the third generation of warfare was based more on ideas rather than the technology. The German Blitzkrieg and later Russian operations in World War II were seen as breakthrough strategies to defeat the more heavily armed industrialized armies of the world.

From these characterizations, the authors posed the hypothesis of Fourth Generation Warfare. This style of warfare was based on the trends identified in the earlier generational shifts. They believe that future war would be characterized by: very small independent action forces (SIAF) or cells acting on mission-type orders; a decreased dependence on logistics support; more emphasis on maneuver; and psychological goals rather than physical ones. This latter objective of psychological warfare meant that the enemy’s will to fight had to collapse from within.

The authors posed that the “idea-based fourth generation may be visible in terrorism”. They did not propose that terrorism was the fourth generation, but rather, they suggested that terrorism would take advantage of fourth generation warfare. Finally, the authors identified three basic constructs of 4GW: (1) the loss of the nation state’s monopoly on war, (2) a return to a world of cultures and states in conflict, and (3) internal segmentation/division along ethnic, religious, and special interests lines within our own society.

In a set of chilling predictions, the authors suggested that in fourth generation warfare: (1) There will be a shift in focus from the enemy’s front to his rear; (2) The practitioners of 4GW would seek to use the enemy’s strength against him; (3) They would use freedom’s openness against itself; and finally, (4) The 4GW force would not need a lot of money to wage fourth generation warfare.[7]

All of this was posed in their groundbreaking article in 1989. In retrospect, we should have paid a great deal more attention to this article than we did then or since.

There were follow-up articles, principally using the Marine Corps Gazette as a forum such as “The Evolution of War: The Fourth Generation”[8] and “Fourth Generation Warfare: Another Look,[9]”. Both the American profession of arms and the public also largely ignored these articles. Unfortunately, as we have subsequently learned, the predictions of Fourth Generation Warfare were right on the mark.

In a recent article that originally appeared in Defense Week, Harold Gould and Franklin Spinney wrote “Fourth-Generation Warfare Is Here.”[10] The authors pointed out that the terrorists were able to blur the distinction between war and peace and eliminate the distinction between civilian and military. Abbreviating the term Fourth Generation Warfare to “4GW”, they called for a retaliation that was a reasoned and coordinated approach to take away the casus belli as well as eliminating the threat. Gould and Spinney suggested that the United States, and the entire world order, are now in a “new era” of warfare; and this era of 4GW, just like rock’n roll, is here to stay.

Small groups using mission type orders carried out the attacks on 11 September. It is rumored that only a few of the attackers really knew the extent of the mission. There was very little dependence on any support from Al Qaeda other than small sums of money. The FBI estimated that the attacks on 11 September cost approximately $500,000.[11] The emphasis of the attackers was to maneuver against the basic icons of American society: The World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and most likely either the White House or the U.S. Capitol. And as we now know from the lips of Usama Bin Laden, the goal was to collapse American society from within.

The dire predictions that many dismissed over a decade ago as irrelevant have now come to pass. We are at war with a very elusive enemy whose intent is to do cataclysmic harm to Americans and the American way of life. The question is, can we combat 4GW either using the precepts of 4GW itself or earlier generations of warfare augmented by other tools?

The Case of Afghanistan

After 11 September, the United States focused on Afghanistan, which harbored Usama Bin Laden under the Taliban regime. As a consequence of the need for action, and to pre-empt any further attacks against the United States, the American Government decided to war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan almost from the outset. The leadership of the Al Qaeda was headquartered in Afghanistan, and the Taliban supported the Al Qaeda. Other states were known to harbor terrorists groups, but the head of the snake was seen to be in Afghanistan.


Very early, President George W. Bush addressed the issue of the blurring of war conducted by non-state actors. He also addressed the ancillary problem of states that sponsor terrorist groups. Marshalling not only the entire resources of his Cabinet, but also Congress and the vast majority of the American public, this President understood the threat to our society and took the initial steps to deal decisively with the situation over a long term period. A new strategy for dealing with global terrorism was born.

In the past, there was no national, much less international, response to terrorist acts. By our nature, Americans are impatient. We are unaccustomed to hear from our President that anything will take a long time to accomplish. Yet in this case, the message is clear, and it has been heard. Al Qaeda awakened the “sleeping giant”.

In retrospect, the sleeping giant has gone back to sleep as far as the American public is concerned. The difference is mainly concentrated in the Government and in the initiatives of the Government of the United States. While Americans are aware of the War as brought to us nightly on TV, and of being inconvenienced by airport security requirements, there has been no great rush by young people to join the Armed Forces such as there was after Pearl Harbor. The patriotic fervor has declined as the flags have begun to fade.

The Bush Administration recognized that any response to 4GW would have to be global war, not just a military response. Bush also warned us that it would be a long war. Although it is doubtful that anyone in the Administration recognized the term 4GW, they did know and use the term “asymmetric warfare”, a term used in the Army After Next studies to suggest David and Goliath wars – depicting how vulnerable we are to unconventional attacks. The Administration also knew what had to be done to combat the enemy, and they turned on the machinery to do it. The strategy included a major intelligence gathering effort that involved many different nations and sources. The price we paid for ignoring human intelligence (HUMINT) and cultural intelligence in favor of technical intelligence (TECHINT) over the past half-century was finally recognized.

As we learned more about the attackers, some also learned just how much the terrorists conformed to the 4GW prescriptions identified earlier by Lind, et al.[12] There can be no mistake, the Usama Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorists knew what they were doing.[13] Their intent was to severely damage the American economy and instill fear in the public. They made a major dent in the American economy, and that dent may leave a permanent scar on the freedoms of a democratic republic and a capitalist economy. The total damage to our freedoms and to our economy has yet to be fully assessed.

In order to avert the terrorists’ attempts to turn this from singular acts of terrorism into a religious war, the Bush Administration had to carefully isolate the terrorists. This was done by a combination of diplomacy and public policy announcements. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Hammes described this as “netwars” in his 1994 article.

A netwar may focus on public or elite opinion, or both. It may involve public diplomacy measures, propaganda and psychological campaigns, political and cultural subversion, deception or interference with local media, infiltration of computer networks and databases, and efforts to promote dissident or opposition movements across computer networks.[14]

It appears that the Bush Administration borrowed from Hammes concept of netwar, but in reality, they probably never read any of the articles dealing with 4GW. A war of religions was not in the interests of the United States, and the use of diplomacy as well as domestic speeches and policy, successfully countered the attempt to turn the war into a religious war.

Part of the problem was the American public who saw only the faces of Arabs as the perpetrators of the attacks and joyous crowds of Arabs on CNN. The Administration had an education problem on its hands with regard to its own citizenry as well as the Islamic world.

The rhetoric of the Administration was announced in no uncertain terms: “You are either for us or against us!” While the Administration realized that this was irrational, they also reasoned that the message had to be sent around the globe that the most powerful nation in the world would not truck any support of terrorists by any nation-state. In addition, the United States made a powerful argument for going after the terrorists sooner rather than waiting until later when they might be able to get their hands on nuclear weapons.

This was part of an Information Warfare effort that both sides played heavily at the onset. Usama Bin Laden used videotapes, which were sent to the Al Jazeera Television network to spread his message to the Islamic world about the rational for attacking the infidel and the need for a jihad. The tapes stopped after a few months of military action in Afghanistan, virtually giving the Americans a monopoly in the information war.

As intelligence began to pour in it was clear that Al Qaeda was not only militant, they were entrepreneurial. There was a definite terrorist banking system with cut outs and blind alleys. The most sacrosanct policies of international banking institutions regarding privacy had to be opened to inspection and tracing of accounts. This had never before been allowed, and while there was some coercion involved, the results were that at least some of the terrorist-banking network was tracked.[15] We continue to find traces of financial dealings and roadblocks to information, but the technique of “following the money” has had an effect.

The military response was only one part of a much larger strategic response that is still ongoing and requires daily coordination. What is normally seen on CNN and Fox News is military action or Pentagon news releases, but behind the scenes, there is considerable wartime activity that goes unnoticed. Such a coordinated effort has not occurred since World War II.

Liberal use of cash did not hurt either. The domestic economy had a cash surplus of several trillion prior to 11 September. That cash was spent in addition to borrowing against the future to repair the damage both nationally and internationally. Major airlines were shored up with liberal uses of cash. Airport security personnel were nationalized. Foreign countries were promised and given cash to support our efforts. Just how much cash was spent in this way will never be known, but it is very probable that our access to bases in countries like Pakistan and other surrounding countries was secured with cash. Cash gained intelligence and basic information. Military operations in and around Afghanistan required the resources necessary to conduct war. Not only did the Administration provide the cash necessary to get started, Congress allocated the cash necessary to support the continuation of the effort as requested by the Administration.

All said, the coordinated Grand Strategy, play as you go, got off to a good start. It contains all the elements to support successful military operations against a terrorist enemy on any number of fronts. Implementation, however, is proving very difficult with such an enemy. Moreover, implementation may be even more difficult with such friends as the Israelis. The situation in Palestine exacerbates the prosecution of this war against terrorism, and it may prove to be the unraveling of the American grand strategy if the Palestinian question becomes the predominant focus of the Administration. In the case of Palestine, we may be on the receiving end of Boyd’s OODA loop in terms of strategy.


The theater of war is often identified as the operational level of war in current military thinking. While there are several governmental players in a theater, such as Ambassadors and Foreign Service officers, CIA agents, and a host of other agencies, the military commander is normally the warlord of the U.S. commitment. In this case, Central Command (CENTCOM) was the responsible command for Afghanistan. The headquarters of CENTCOM is in Tampa, FL, primarily because it has been impossible to find a host for the headquarters in any Middle Eastern nation.

The third division of doctrine is tactics. The term tactics normally means the conduct of battles – usually at battalion level and below in terms of force structure. Yet this war has seen a blurring of the nice divisions of war that were identified in conventional war structures and before the advent of the age of satellite communications. What the young private or sergeant does on scene can well affect strategy (or even grand strategy) at the highest level. Likewise, the President can now direct the actions of privates and sergeants if he so chooses. The media has transformed what was once the domain of generals into a nightly description of “how goes the war”. The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have to counter potential disinformation by giving nightly briefings to the press – possibly devoting more time to public relations than to decision-making.

So the war has taken on a blurry admixture of strategy, operations, and tactics in fourth generation setting. Not unlike Vietnam, there are some very distinct parallels.

For the rest go here <>

TOPICS: Foreign Affairs
KEYWORDS: military; war; warlist

1 posted on 07/11/2002 6:54:12 PM PDT by Bobibutu
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To: *war_list
2 posted on 07/11/2002 7:16:06 PM PDT by Libertarianize the GOP
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To: Libertarianize the GOP
Bump for later read
3 posted on 07/11/2002 7:23:57 PM PDT by dts32041
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To: Bobibutu
Have you seen pictures of the Afghani people in the streets and the girls attending school? These people are free ...not perfectly safe, nor governed, but so joyful - and free. We can not know what life was like under the Taliban. We took out the Taliban terrorist supporters and freed a people at the same time. Not bad for a few months work.

The Abu Sayef (sp?)- after terrorizing the Philippine islanders for years, butchering, and burning villages- have been confronted and routed, their leader killed by newly (American-) trained Philippino soldiers.

All over the world those who live in fear of these terrorists are finding the courage to fight back. The Palestinian people marched on Arafat demanding food and jobs. Starving N. Koreans are so grateful that after 50 years of mass murdering innocents, someone had the courage to call their brutal country part of the "axis of evil."

The Vietnamese did not casually murder thousands of American civilians on American soil and set as their goal the murder of millions more.

We will track down the terrorists and take 'em out....for decades to come, if necessary.

We have no choice, imho. This is as just a cause as any we're likely to face in this world.

Malcontents on the War Effort, Ollie North.

Life in Wartime,(we, not the terrorists, are winning).

On January 20, 2001, George W. Bush was sworn in as the 43rd president of the United States. Within months of taking office, he ordered a new strategy for combating terrorism that would be more than just "swatting at flies," as he described Clinton's policy. The new plan reached the President's desk on September 10, 2001. It was "too late," as columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote, "But it remains a fact that the new administration had devised in eight months a strategy that Bill Clinton had delayed for eight years."

4 posted on 07/11/2002 7:35:18 PM PDT by Ragtime Cowgirl
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To: Bobibutu
The authors' premise is flawed. The German method of blitzkrieg is qualified as 3G-warfare because it was revolutionary, yet the American effort in Viet Nam, and its emphasis on units delivered by helicopters, remains 2G. Go figure. Then again, why bother.
5 posted on 07/11/2002 7:46:59 PM PDT by 1rudeboy
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To: 1rudeboy
About the authors: LTC Greg Wilcox, USA, Ret., retired in 1984 after
serving in both armored cavalry and infantry units. He is a veteran of
three tours in Vietnam. Col. G. I. Wilson, USMCR, Ret., was one of the
authors of the original paper on 4GW and has remained a prolific writer
on the subject.

Where are your bonifides?
6 posted on 07/11/2002 8:29:18 PM PDT by Bobibutu
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To: Bobibutu
Thanks, that was going to be my first question.
7 posted on 07/11/2002 10:00:38 PM PDT by Valin
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To: Bobibutu
Fourth generation warfare is manifesting itself in highly compartmentalized, cellular, predatory networks operating outside the framework of nation-states.

Question, does it operate outside the nation state. I'm thinking here mainly about Al Qaeda.

8 posted on 07/11/2002 10:13:24 PM PDT by Valin
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To: Stand Watch Listen
4G-Warfare ping
9 posted on 07/12/2002 12:19:26 AM PDT by DTA
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To: Bobibutu
10 posted on 07/12/2002 6:17:40 AM PDT by Valin
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To: Bobibutu
Despite the authors' military experience, they should have had someone with writing experience edit their report. This isn't a pissing contest.
11 posted on 07/12/2002 8:22:28 AM PDT by 1rudeboy
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To: Valin
12 posted on 07/12/2002 6:24:50 PM PDT by Bobibutu
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To: 1rudeboy
This isn't a pissing contest.

What do you find as a "pissing contest"?
13 posted on 07/12/2002 6:28:50 PM PDT by Bobibutu
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To: Ragtime Cowgirl
Have you seen pictures of the Afghani people in the streets and the girls attending school? These people are free

Yes... and the Burkas hemlines up and veils comming down and music.. my heart goes out to them
and I revel in what freedom they have found ... it's a start.
14 posted on 07/12/2002 6:32:27 PM PDT by Bobibutu
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