The past decade, 2001- 2010, was one during which World War IV began. Over the last 100 years, the world has witnessed three major “world wars” and we are now at the beginning of the fourth one. The world was largely oblivious to the cataclysmic changes during the world wars even though the signs were there for all to see. Unfortunately, very little has changed.
Each of these four world wars—of which two are well known—had peculiar characteristics. The First World War began in the summer of 1914 and ended four years later with millions dead, wounded and displaced. Devastation of this scale was possible because of technological advances in weaponry characterized by their automation. Technologies such as machine guns and artillery barrages essentially automated killing to an extent unimaginable until then.
Terror in Mumbai: An Indian soldier takes cover as the Taj Mahal hotel burns during gun battles between the military and militants inside the hotel in Mumbai, in November 2008.Photo by David Guttenfelder/AP
The Second World War (1939-45) was characterized by mobility. Fighter aircraft, long-range bombers, submarines, fleet carriers and blitzkriegs enlarged the theatre of operations. At its peak, World War II saw more than 100 million military personnel mobilized all over the world and every major nation participating in the conflict. With over 50 million fatalities, this war was the deadliest conflict in all history. Automation which was predominant during WW I was refined and provided mobility during WW II. The crescendo of this lethal combination was best demonstrated by the atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where more than 200,000 were killed by a nation attacking them from halfway across the world.
The Third World War or the Cold War began immediately after the victors of WW II divided up the spoils of the war and continued the bifurcation across the globe. East and West Germany, the Koreas, the Soviet Satellites, Vietnam, Cuba, most parts of Africa and many parts of Asia were forced to join this proxy war between the two superpowers and their allies. The essential characteristic of the Cold War was subterfuge. Cloak and dagger operations, murky overthrowing of governments, funding of terrorist movements (who would, of course, be rechristened as freedom fighters if they won), deniable black ops and unsavoury links between causes ranging from ideological to downright criminal were the essence of this war. While the Cold War may not have caused as many casualties in a similar time frame as both the earlier wars, its damage potential has been very high and exacting. Virtually every conflict in the world today can trace its roots in the Cold War and many of those conflicts will continue to take their toll for the foreseeable future.
The Cold War ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in early 1990s, and had the unintended consequence of laying the foundation of World War IV—global radical fundamentalism and terrorism. With the Soviet Union crumbling, the sole remaining super power could project its power unopposed into any part of the world that suited it, and the US did exactly that. Former global powers stood mutely as the US demonstrated that it could attack any nation unilaterally without even the fig-leaf of a UN sanction.
Until, on 11 September 2001, the Al Qaeda struck back and sounded a rallying call of “franchise” terrorism. It is not that terrorism had not been used before this instance. West Asia, Sri Lanka, and, at closer home, Punjab, the North-East and the Kashmir valley had echoed with blasts and terror attacks, but 9/11 was a harbinger of WW IV in many other ways. To begin with, the sheer scale, elaborate planning and audacity of the attacks were without precedence. Secondly, the Al Qaeda had taken the battle into the strategic base of their enemy instead of limiting it to a theatre defined by them, thus out-flanking considerably superior forces. Thirdly, it had used a small body of troops to achieve an objective far beyond its capabilities in conventional terms. These three subtle elements indicated the paradigm shift of the new war that we face now.
Essentially, the terrorists had managed to pull off an operation that combined the guile and planning of Cold War operatives, the cold professional execution capability of Special Forces and demonstrated the strategic ability to mount a “turning move” by opening a new front in the ground of their own choosing.
The punch drunk reaction of the most powerful country in the world wasn’t because of the power of the punch; instead it was testimony to the fact that the US was fighting WW IV with the doctrines and structures of the previous wars. The US carpet bombing of Afghanistan and its vision of WMDs in Iraq were manifestations of not having made the orbital shift between the old and the new wars.
But the US was not alone in this time warp. The Madrid bombing indicated another surprising paradigm shift of the global terror war. Unlike conventional forces, which seek strong command and control channels, the Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups encourage loose affiliations and “cut-outs” in its command and control structures, providing the broad philosophy and resources and leaving the actual operations to local units. The London and Mumbai attacks reinforced this shift when countries with some of the most powerful armies of the world were cumbersome in their response to this new paradigm.
The rapid growth of terrorism as a preferred tool of waging war is testimony to its efficacy and a guarantee of its sustained proliferation. Thus demanding that in-depth intelligence and surgical utility of force be the essential characteristic of WW IV—rather than absolute superiority of force.
There is reasonable certainty that the years to come will see an escalation of strategic terror that will affect the whole world directly and indirectly. And yet, we fight WW IV with the same structures that stood us in good stead during the previous wars. The focus of most nations is still on adapting the conventional structures rather than developing more suitable ones from scratch. Our armies and para-military forces are still organized and trained based on erstwhile “all-out decisive war” doctrines rather than newly developed ones that focus on pre-emptive action rather than overwhelming force. And until we go back to the drawing board and redevelop structures based on intelligence rather than force, we will continue fighting the war on terror with sub-optimal results.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.