A ‘unique’ brand of warfare?

Updated 04 Feb 2019

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The writer is the author of Before She Sleeps.
The writer is the author of Before She Sleeps.

HANDS up if you’ve heard the terms ‘fifth-generation warfare’ and ‘hybrid war’ recently on Pakistani media, both print and television, and on social media. According to those who believe that Pakistan is in the middle of a sinister and deadly war, the future of the nation rests on our being able to defeat these nefarious forces conducting an all-out assault on our borders, our institutions, and our very way of life.

But is political and technological, jargon being used to cloud the issues that we face as a nation?

After trying to ignore the noise for a while, I surrendered to curiosity: what is ‘fifth-generation warfare’ beyond the doomsday scenarios and the calls for patriotism and vigilance? Where did it come from? What is the proper definition of a ‘hybrid war’? Or are these just phrases that sound smart and modern but are really only the rebranding of old concepts?

Precision of words and phrases holds the highest importance for me as a writer. One of my most favorite essays is by the English writer George Orwell, Politics and the English Language. As a journalist friend said, this essay is the basis of good journalism. The genius of the essay is Orwell’s ability to outline how by using imprecise language, governments and politicians can get away with literal murder. Reading Orwell on this subject will truly change your perspective on how our leaders use language to manipulate us.

What is ‘fifth-generation warfare’ beyond the doomsday scenarios and the calls for patriotism and vigilance?

In the essay, Orwell wrote, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible …Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” I suspected that trying to find a clear-cut definition of fifth-generation or hybrid war would reveal exactly that kind of vagueness, with the use of important-sounding, pseudo-technological words to impress readers and convince them that this war is being fought at a level the layperson cannot comprehend.

In a thought experiment, I asked people on Twitter to define ‘fifth-generation warfare’, in a way that was logical and convincing enough to prove that such a phenomenon exists. Furthermore, a hybrid war’s definition should be distinct enough from other types of war to merit the reams of newsprint, hours of television time and KBs of data expended on discussing and analysing it ad nauseam. I wanted to see if people had critically analysed what they were being told was an absolute reality.

At first, I was told a few vague phrases: ‘danger to Pakistan’, ‘maligning the state’, and ‘disintegration’. Others pointed me to articles in Pakistani newspapers written by columnists who described first-, second-, third- and fourth-generation warfare in terms of past wars, armies and actors, the development of weaponry, and the participation of insurgents.

A fifth-generation war is one where non-state actors take on the state, where information spreads quickly through the internet, and where military engagement and the protocols of war as they were drawn up after both world wars are now mutating into something more amorphous, less easily defeated. This kind of war is on full tilt in Pakistan; our very existence is threatened by it.

On further investigation I discovered that many of the Pakistani writers had consulted a short article from the American publication WIRED, “How to Win a Fifth Generation War” which outlined fifth-generation warfare in sober, less sensationalist terms: non-state actors, often jihadi-terrorist groups (the very same ones Pakistan has been accused of supporting against our neighbours), fighting conventional military to the point of stalemate.

US Major Shannon Beebe and Marine Lt. Col. Stanton Coerr were quoted in both the original WIRED piece and by the Pakistani op-eds, authors of the latter failing to cite their source. This meant that the Pakistani writers had read the WIRED article and then expounded on the subject, taking it to dizzying heights.

Thanks to them, fifth-generation war and hybrid war are now frighteningly real concepts to many Pakistanis. The actors in this fifth-generation war are enemies of the state paid for by hostile foreign governments. They operate from within, not just as militant terrorists, but as NGO workers, ethnic rights activists, secularists and other agents, using sophisticated online propaganda techniques to create such dissatisfaction with Pakistan and its leaders, with the armed forces, and with Islam, that the state will inevitably implode.

But the Pakistani experts had ignored the most basic message of the WIRED piece: that the way to beat a fifth-generation war is to “focus on economic development, humanitarian assistance and communication, with nary an M-16 or Abrams tank in sight”. Not quite what our media and war experts had envisioned, then, when naming NGOs and other developmental organisations as enemies of the state.

So is there anything new or unique about fifth-generation warfare? Probably not. Propaganda, non-state actors, targeting civilians, and economic and social conditions leading to dissatisfaction and other elements of our so-called hybrid war have been elements of war and revolution for centuries. Check out the Russian Revolution or the French Revolution for recent examples.

What we describe as fifth-generation or hybrid war in Pakistan is really only this: violent challenge by non-state actors to the modern nation state, an observable political phenomenon, married to our singular Pakistani existential fear that our nation will collapse at any moment. The irony is that the term ‘fifth-generation’ as it refers to military conflict originated with weapons companies describing new stealth jet fighters being developed back in 2005. So from marketing slogan to WhatsApp groups and into our minds, shaping our perceptions of reality: aside from the inclusion of new technologies, this so-called fifth-generation warfare is only believable to those who have never studied history.

The writer is the author of Before She Sleeps.

Twitter: @binashah

Published in Dawn, February 4th , 2019