The traditional security paradigm in our western-style democracies fails to accommodate a key feature of today’s wars: when our major powers go to war, the enemies they now encounter are irregular combatants. Not troops, organised into armies; but “freedom” fighters, guerrillas, terrorists. Some are as easily grouped by common purpose as they are disbanded. Others engage in wars with no end in sight.
What such irregular combatants tend to share is that they urbanise war. Cities are the space where they have a fighting chance, and where they can leave a mark likely to be picked up by the global media. This is to the disadvantage of cities – but also to the typical military apparatus of today’s major powers.
Irregular combatants are at their most effective in cities. They cannot easily shoot down planes, nor fight tanks in open fields. Instead, they draw the enemy into cities, and undermine the key advantage of today’s major powers, whose mechanised weapons are of little use in dense and narrow urban spaces.
Nor do contemporary urban wars even prioritise direct combat. Rather, they produce forced urbanisation and de-urbanisation. In many cases, such as Kosovo, displaced people swell urban populations. In other cases, such as Baghdad, ethnic cleansing expels people – in that case the “voluntary” departures of Sunnis, Christians and other religious groups, all of whom had long co-existed in Iraq’s large cities.
Indeed, warring forces now often avoid battle. Their main strategy is to gain control over territory, through the expulsion of “the other” – often defined in terms of ethnicity, religion, tribal membership or political affiliation. Their main tactic is the terror of conspicuous atrocities, such as in South Sudan, home to a brutal and bloody war with no end in sight fought between two strongmen (and former collaborators), or the Congo, where irregular armies fighting for control of mining wealth have killed millions.
The western military is learning. The US now has training camps featuring imitation “Arab” urban districts, and has picked up the Israeli practice of entering a dense neighbourhood not via the street, but by crossing through homes – a parallel pathway to the street, running from one interior room to another by carving holes in contiguous walls, and dealing with the inhabitants as they come across them.
Global media certainly have an easier time reporting on major cities than on villages and fields. But even when those “remote” deaths are invoked, the shock and the engagement is not as strong as it is with terrorist attacks in cities. This engagement with the urban goes beyond attacks on people: when a major historic building or work of art is destroyed, it can generate huge responses of horror, pain, sadness, sense of loss – but 6 million killed in Congo? Nothing.
We have gone from wars commanded by hegemonic powers that sought control over sea, air, and land, to wars fought in cities – either inside the war zone, or enacted in cities far away. The space for action can involve “the war”, or simply specific local issues; each attack has its own grievances and aims, seeking global projection or not. Localised actions by local armed groups, mostly acting independently from other such groups, let alone from actors in the war zone – this fragmented isolation has become a new kind of multi-sited war.
In the old wars, there was the option of calling for an armistice. In today’s wars, there are no dominant powers who can decide to end it. Today’s urban wars, above all, are wars with no end in sight.