Explaining Hybrid Warfare

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hybrid warfare

Amb. Munir Akram l

Let’s explain hybrid warfare. For over 60 years, nuclear weapons have deterred a major conflict between nuclear-armed states, and, because of the global revulsion against the use of nuclear weapons, the nuclear powers have been also unable to realise offensive objectives through nuclear coercion, even against non-nuclear weapon states. Thus, most conflicts are in the form of conventional military interventions against smaller or weaker states, sub-conventional (guerrilla or irregular) conflicts or ‘hybrid warfare’.

Western analysts have termed the comprehensive approach employed by Russia in Ukraine (encompassing narrative control, cyberattacks, use of anonymous militias and irregular forces, clandestine supplies and diplomatic support) as “hybrid warfare”. The Russians refer to it as the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ (after the Russian military chief). This form of warfare is also called: asymmetrical, non-conventional, gray zone conflict, ‘new generation warfare’, ‘whole of government’ approach and so on. It is emerging as the preferred modality in today’s contests between the great powers.

Often, hybrid war may not be a war at all. The objective may not be to secure an adversary’s immediate defeat, but to erode its morale; isolate it; ‘soften’ it up before a conflict; deflect it from pursuing unacceptable military or political objectives; disrupt its communications, command and control and/or important infrastructure; impose economic pain to secure adherence to political demands; delegitimise an adversary’s government; compromise its leaders.

The toolbox of instruments that can be used to wage such ‘hybrid’ warfare is rapidly expanding and becoming more sophisticated: eg autonomous weapons, advanced cyber programmes, social media, data mining, algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI), etc. By 2020, the ‘internet of things’ will reportedly connect 30 billion devices. Power will rest with the people who control these devices.

Technology is progressively blurring the distinction between hybrid and conventional warfare and increasing the incentives, opportunities and compulsions for the preemptive or ‘first-use’ of offensive action by adversaries eg to knock out an enemy’s command and control through a cyber strike. Given the complexities of defence and offence in such complex conflict, it will become increasingly difficult to prevent the escalation of hybrid wars to the conventional and even the nuclear level.

Pakistan was the target of hybrid or indirect ‘war’ in 1971. New Delhi’s hybrid strategy (promotion of Mujib’s six-point plan, the genocide and refugees narrative, training the Mukti Bahini, the Indo-Soviet ‘Friendship Treaty’) all laid the ground for the coup de grâce of Indian military intervention in East Pakistan.

Since then, Pakistan has been the target of multiple ‘hybrid’ campaigns. Exaggerated proliferation concerns and coercive diplomacy were utilised to hold back Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programmes. The legitimacy of the Kashmiri freedom struggle was eroded by its projection as terrorism including through false-flag operations, infiltration of militant Kashmiri groups and concerted propaganda. The onus for America’s colossal military and political failure in Afghanistan was ascribed to alleged Afghan Taliban ‘safe havens’ in Pakistan. The Pakistan Army and the ISI remain a special focus of propaganda and fake news.

Today, the hybrid war against Pakistan is focused on Balochistan, the former Fata region, Gilgit-Baltistan and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Pakistan has developed credible capabilities to deter nuclear and conventional aggression. However, it remains very vulnerable to hybrid warfare. Pakistan’s adversaries enjoy considerable prowess in IT, cyber, media projection and narrative construction, including ‘fake news’, subversion and sabotage, and sponsorship of terrorism, including ‘false-flag’ operations.

The main modality of this ‘indirect war’ against Pakistan is the media, including social media. Very few Indian media personalities enjoy the ‘freedom’ to be critical of their country or their current government. Meanwhile, Pakistan print and electronic media speaks with many voices. There is little space for pro-Pakistani narratives in the Western media. An army of Indian trolls has been recruited to malign Pakistan on the internet.

There are numerous other ‘agents of influence’ who are used to develop and project an anti-Pakistan narrative. Many foreign funded and directed non-governmental organisations have been ubiquitous in developing negative critiques about Pakistan within Pakistan. Some among our local elite are co-opted by these organisations through jobs, travel and other perks. No wonder there has been such a hue and cry about the long overdue diligence conducted recently by the government and the Foreign Office on these organisations.

The hybrid campaign incorporates some ethnic and religious groups. Foreign sponsorship of the Balochistan Liberation Army and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan is well established. Some others need to be subjected to close scrutiny.

Any foreign funding of any Pakistani organisation ought to be declared and officially approved. Receipt of undeclared foreign payments should be a crime. This is an international norm. (Surely, the Financial Action Task Force will approve.)

Pakistan’s agencies must be equipped with the most advanced surveillance and data collection techniques to detect future Jadhevs or Osamas and neutralise any ‘black ops’, ‘false-flag’ or infiltration operations planned by enemy agencies.

Pakistan must possess the cyber capability to defend its crucial command-and-control systems and its industrial and transport infrastructure against enemy attack. But to deter such attack, Pakistan must also have the capability for offensive cyber action.

The technologies for waging a “comprehensive” conflict and “new generation warfare” are being actively developed by every significant State. Pakistan cannot afford to be left behind. To acquire credible capacity to defend against and repel hybrid wars, Pakistan will need to make dedicated efforts, comparable to those deployed to develop its nuclear and missile programmes.

However, there are certain elements of such warfare (cyberattacks, autonomous weapons, false-flag operations) which pose the threat of systemic and global disruption, destabilisation and military escalation. Pakistan and other responsible nations should take an initiative in relevant international forums to secure a global ban or restrictions on such dangerous elements of hybrid warfare.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN. This article was first published in Dawn.com