Wars used to build toward pivotal battles. Now, warfare occurs in a much wider arena, writes Abdel-Moneim Said
With rare exception, the general rule for military commanders in the course of a war is to work toward that critical battle that inflicts a crushing defeat that compels the adversary to surrender. Ancient history brought the expansion of Pharaonic Egypt to Iraq, as well as the counter expansion of Semitic tribes that took the north of Pharaonic Egypt. That epoch also saw the rise and fall of universalist empires, from the Persian to the Hellenic founded by Alexander the Great.
Then followed an epoch in which empires assumed the title of caliphate, whether it took as its capital Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo or Istanbul. Throughout that history and beyond, through the Napoleonic campaigns that took the banner of the French Revolution eastward toward Moscow, the evolution of ages generally relied on a critical battle — or a series of critical battles — that settled matters in the arenas of combat.
Von Clausewitz may have modified the military rule somewhat through his assertion that war was a continuation of politics by other means. However, it was Liddell Hart who conceived of war and conflict as a process much more comprehensive that a crucial battle. He saw war as a series of operations geared at wreaking attrition on the enemy and gnawing away at its psychological and moral capacities. In this framework, the political process is no longer the antithesis of the military one, but rather at the very heart of the military process.
In World War II, the critical military battle still played an important part in the defeat of the Axis powers. However, perhaps for the first time in history, it was not just Germany, Italy and Japan that were defeated but also fascism with its universalist outlook on the nature of the world order, human existence and the ways of life and politics.
Moreover, the defeat this time did not leave off where matters stood following World War I. Rather, it lead to the reshaping of the regional order in Europe and the emergence of a new international order as embodied in the UN and its subsidiary organisations.
Thus, when war broke out again, between the West and the communist bloc, it remained a cold one in which there was no question of a critical battle. Even the entire collapse of the Soviet Union took place without a single shot being fired. There was not a single critical battle in the largest war in history, lending credence to Hart’s “indirect approach” many decades before the emergence of the fourth generation of wars.
The point of the discussion here is not about theory or even about the history of military strategy. Rather, it is to put the conflict in Yemen at present in its proper perspective according to its evident developments. Frankly, there appears to be too great of a hurry to search for that critical battle, too much anxiety regarding hostilities on the ground, and too great a thirst to end the status quo.
The permanently missing factor here is that the war in Yemen is a war in a single theatre of operations, while actual war is unfolding in many theatres of operation from Pakistan in the east to Morocco in the West and from the borders between Syria and Turkey in the north to the Horn of Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and the Sahara in the south.
The Arab parties that are taking part in the war in Yemen are also taking part in the war in Iraq and Syria, in the Egyptian Sinai and in Libya. This war does not only have a geographic dimension, it also has a chronographic one: the war in Syria is now in its fourth year, the war in Libya in its third and the war in Yemen dates back well before Operation Decisive Storm.
Like it or not, the current war began with the rise in this region of “religious fascism”, which centres on religious or sectarian affiliations. Although it has old and deep roots in Arab and Islamic history, just as Western fascism has old and deep roots in Western and Christian history, the Iranian Revolution was the first to embody the idea in a state.
Then followed the Taliban and Al-Qaeda’s victory in Afghanistan, which extended the message to the larger Middle East. However, it was the Arab Spring that flung open the doors to many other countries. Religious fascism pressed home its advantages where it could and there were always some who could see justifications or who advocated accommodation because there could be “moderates”.
But this was not that different from the conventions of history, in accordance with which it takes quite a while before people grasp the gravity of a situation. In Europe between 1933 and 1939 there were various apologies for the fascism that was born in Germany from the ashes of World War I. When Chamberlain signed the “appeasement” treaty with Hitler he effectively signed a document accepting fascism in German borders.
But fascism — whether racist, communist or religious in creed — does not recognise boundaries. It is inherently bent on expansion and subjugating others, starting with those who belong to the same religion or sect even before those who subscribe to other religions, sects or ideologies.
An inventory of the past years of warfare is encouraging, in spite of the heavy toll that has been paid. The monarchies have displayed an amazing steadfastness. Egypt was rescued from Muslim Brotherhood rule. And the major confrontation that has since taken place has begun to ebb, according to a report prepared by researcher Ahmed Al-Boheiri of the Cairo-based Regional Centre for Strategic Studies on violence and terrorism from January through April 2015.
This is not only a success in the battle in Egypt, but also a contribution to the battle against fascism on other fronts (Yemen and Libya). In Syria, the balances of the war are shifting against the Syrian regime and the bloodthirsty Islamic State group. To the west, Nigeria is regaining its strength and the Boko Haram emirate has begun to recede as the borders with Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco have been tightened.
The war is not over yet by any means, or even near an end. It is an ongoing process that includes military operations, the realisation of economic and political fortitude, and a political process that opens doors and closes others, depending on how the enemy moves and who allies with it.
What is important to bear in mind is that the fascist side never remains still. The tougher the pressure on it grows, the greater the likelihood that it will resort to suicide operations, in the strategic sense of the term, which includes potential strikes in economically or politically sensitive areas or an attempt to precipitate protracted bloodshed, as occurred in Najran.
I have no intent to direct operations in the manner of coffeehouse (or TV) generals. Rather, the ideas mentioned above are merely an attempt to put everything in perspective in accordance with historical experience.
The history that we see unfolding today may be new in many respects and require closer analysis and thought, but it is a history that will determine the fates of the Arab peoples for the rest of this century.