Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century by Anthony King
James Ward
James Ward • Sep 16

Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century by Anthony King

James Ward

As the last US troops left Afghanistan, the criticism from many corners included phrases like "now that the war is over" or "the Taliban have won". Everything smacked of finality, down to the Defense Department's tweet showing the last American soldier -- the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division -- boarding his transport home. The end of the formal US engagement in Afghanistan surprised many, but nothing shocked quite as much as the "fall" of the capital, Kabul, to the hands of the Taliban. A twenty year interlude of hegemonic authority wiped away and a return to the status quo ante.

To characterise Kabul as "falling" seems to overdramatise the banal reality of a swift, orderly, largely uncontested assumption of complete control by the former overlords of the country. The Taliban's reassertion of power was shocking, in part, because it did not meet what we have come to expect from combat zones: there was no street to street fighting, there were no squadrons of drones whirring over barricaded compounds. Kabul, like an open city of an earlier era, opened its gates.  In this, the situation in Afghanistan truly was remarkable, and an exception to the rule of how warfare is increasingly fought -- in the streets and alleys of cities around the globe.

Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century by Anthony King

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The striking difference of the situation in Kabul comes into even sharper relief after reading Prof. Anthony King's book Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century. King, a professor of War Studies at the University of Warwick, makes the compelling case that warfare in our time has become a contest for cities, fought block to block, building to building. His work confirms what our own experience of decades of perpetual war seemed to suggest -- the big battles of the countryside are largely over. The anticlimactic tank invasion in Iraq in 2003 presaged this reality, and as King explains, it was street fighting in Mosul, Fallujah, and Basra that determined the outcome of the war, and not open field engagements with the Republican Guard.

King sets out in a methodical and detailed way how warfare actually takes place in the 21st century. His access to military records and, more importantly, personnel, ground his account in actual troop experience, and not merely the recitation of statistics. Consequently, King is able both to explain the importance of stacked drone surveillance and artillery fire with the precision of a military historian, but also the insight of an anthropologist of the armed forces. For instance, when discussing the role that information warfare plays, he explains that

[R]umour is no longer just an inevitable element of urban warfare, [it] has become the prime medium and, even, the objective of conflict. . . . If the messages are convincing, numerous, and fast enough, informational dominance and, thus, victory are assured.

King is able both to explain the importance of stacked drone surveillance and artillery fire with the precision of a military historian, but also the insight of an anthropologist of the armed forces. 

More than this, King's work lays bare the utter brutality of urban combat. He methodically discusses well-known historical examples of city combat like Stalingrad or Hue, but he provides insight into more recent battles for Mosul and Aleppo. These ancient cities, systematically demolished, demonstrate that advances in technology have not made wade warfare "surgical" or "precise" in a way that matters in the final analysis: whether your home was destroyed in a carpet bombing air raid or because your neighbourhood is in this week's kill box, your home is still destroyed.

The implicit conclusion is that the future of warfare will become nasty, brutish, and drawn-out:

It is difficult to attack a well-entrenched, well-armed opponent who can generate a huge volume of defensive fire. In turn, attacking forces have relied on increasingly heavy firepower in order to suppres the improved weaponry of their opponents.  A self-reinforcing cycle is evident.  At every level, the urban battle of the twenty-first century has become more intense. More and more firepower is being used in ever contracting areas. 

King also sounds a warning note about the automation of the conduct of future wars. 

King also sounds a warning note about the automation of the conduct of future wars. The number of autonomous vehicles and non-human agents in warfare has never been higher, with major powers and militant groups alike clamoring to deploy drones and robots that will reduce the risk of human casualties (for their side). His conclusion, however, is a modest one: while autonomous agents will occupy a greater role in urban warfare, the threat of a Terminator-like armageddon is overstated. Instead, while military forces operating on the ground will "consist of ever diminishing human combatants . . . the urban battle will still be organized around human protagonists, assisted by technology, rather than determined by autonomous systems".  

This conclusion seems largely centred on anticipated behaviour by Western powers like the US, NATO, or the EU. It is harder to imagine meaningful constraints on autonomous combat tools used by the Taliban or Moscow-supported "militias" in Eastern Ukraine or the Caucuses. Even so, King's point raises the pertinent question: how do we regulate the use of these autonomous systems, and at what point does their use constitute a departure from acceptable behaviour? As of now, it seems that no one has an answer. 

The book will be a valuable contribution to the syllabus at Sandhurst or West Point, certainly, but it also prompts important questions for civilians to ask of political leaders. When American troops went to Iraq, they didn't have enough body armor for street fighting -- are we buying enough now?  Have we spent billions on camouflage that works well in the desert but terribly in cities? How secure are our communications channels, and do they work well enough to allow realtime contact through concrete buildings and basements? If Urban Warfare is right about the nature of combat in our time -- and it makes a very compelling case indeed -- how do we decide when the price of combat is worth paying?

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James Ward
James Ward

James Ward is a lawyer, privacy advocate, and fan of listing things in threes. Nothing he says here should be considered legal advice/don’t get legal advice from social media posts. He promises he’s not as smug as he looks in his profile picture.

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