Don't Send a Lion to Catch a Mouse

In Goya's
In Goya's "The Second of May 1808," Spanish insurgents attack French-led Mamelukes in Madrid in the Peninsular War. Large powers are increasingly less likely to win such asymmetrical wars. (Courtesy Museo Del Prado, Madrid)

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By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, March 5, 2007

Two centuries ago, Napoleon Bonaparte sent his armies into Spain to overthrow a monarch who had once been a French ally. Napoleon, who believed he was touched by the hand of destiny, predicted his troops would be welcomed as liberators by ordinary Spaniards. He was wrong. The resulting Peninsular War from 1808 to 1814 seriously undermined French prestige, handed Napoleon a stinging defeat and produced a raft of unanticipated consequences that included the outbreak of deadly civil wars.

Historians would have a field day exploring parallels between Napoleon's Peninsular War and President Bush's war in Iraq, but that is not where we are going today. The Peninsular War interests us because it is one of the earliest examples of an asymmetrical war -- Spanish insurgents faced down the powerful French army by using stealth, deception and the support of civilians. It is the war that gave us the term "guerrilla."

Two political scientists recently examined 250 asymmetrical conflicts, starting with the Peninsular War. Although great powers are vastly more powerful today than in the 19th century, the analysis showed they have become far less likely to win asymmetrical wars. More surprising, the analysis showed that the odds of a powerful nation winning an asymmetrical war decrease as that nation becomes more powerful.

The analysis by Jason Lyall at Princeton University and Lt. Col. Isaiah Wilson III at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point shows that the likelihood of a great power winning an asymmetrical war went from 85 percent during 1800-1850 to 21 percent during 1950-2003.

The same trend was evident when the researchers studied only asymmetrical conflicts involving the United States. The more industrialized a powerful country becomes, the more its military becomes technologically powerful, the less effective it seems to be in an asymmetrical war.

Essentially, what Lyall and Wilson are saying is that if you want to catch a mouse, you need a cat. If you hire a lion to do the job because it is bigger and stronger, the very strength and size of the lion can get in the way of getting the job done.

"A lion is built for different prey," Lyall said. "A lion is built to take down an antelope, and a cat is designed to take down a mouse. Now [in Iraq] we are a lion trying to take down a mouse.

"Mechanized armies are very poor at acquiring the kind of information you need to win against an insurgency. Mechanized armies need long supply trails. Soldiers go into their barracks and play Xbox. They patrol in armored vehicles. In the 19th century, armies lived off the land."

Lyall and Wilson are scheduled to present their findings at a West Point conference in a few weeks. The Pentagon is arranging for them to share the results with senior officials. A preliminary version of the analysis was presented last August at a meeting of the American Political Science Association in Philadelphia.

Wilson worked in Iraq in 2003-04 with Gen. David H. Petraeus, recently appointed commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. The political scientist's research speaks directly to recent changes in U.S. strategy in Iraq -- American troops have begun fanning out from protected enclaves into more exposed positions in the hope that "cop on the beat" patrols will give them a better handle on the insurgency.

Wilson said he saw the advantages of being mobile and lightly armored when he served with the 101st Division in Iraq. "If you are looking through armor at the people you are trying to serve, what does that sound like to the people?"

While the findings are of immediate interest because of the situation in Iraq, the social scientists are really trying to address a systemic issue: America has gotten stuck in the Hollywood notion that a military with ever more powerful armaments is a more effective military.

Reversing that view will be difficult because it calls into question the utility of giant defense projects, Lyall said. Also, the findings lend credence to the politically unpopular notion that successfully prosecuting an asymmetrical war, such as the one in Iraq, requires a large fighting force and, possibly, high casualties as troops asked to blend in with local populations become vulnerable targets for insurgents.

Lyall and Wilson are testing other theories that might explain their empirical finding -- unlike the hammer-is-too-large-for-the-nail theory, the most prominent of these alternate explanations will not give Washington policymakers much to work with: Many of the 250 asymmetrical wars that the scientists studied involved colonial powers trying to subjugate various peoples -- imperial Europe fighting distant wars in Africa, Latin America and Asia. The rise of nationalism over the past two centuries and the revulsion that colonialism now inspires might also explain the declining ability of major powers to subjugate weaker nations.

"One of the best rival explanations is nationalism," Lyall agreed. The French and the Russians, for example, won asymmetrical wars in Algeria and Chechnya in the 19th century, but lost asymmetrical wars in those same places in the 20th century. "In the 19th century, there was not a literacy for nationalism. You look at a lot of these colonial wars. The great powers could play off tribes against each other. By the 1960s, you cannot do that anymore."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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