The concepts of "asymmetrical" and "irregular" wars tend to be blurred and used as if they depicted the same reality. Of course, I do not believe that reality can be encapsulated in mere concepts, and thus I propose both to draw a conceptual line between those two notions and to examine what we can learn from them about contemporary war and warfare.
Let’s begin by the notion of "asymmetrical war". It is often use to depict a conflict in terms of different means. That is, asymmetry here suggests a huge imbalance between belligerents, one being the "strong" and the other the "weak". Much has been written about that notion and its explanatory power in order to predict outcomes in such conflicts. But, in order this notion to be analytically useful, one has to take into account a broader and deeper view of what "asymmetry" means.
- rather than speaking of means, one should instead insist on asymmetrical tactics: in such conflict, one side uses terrorism or guerrilla, instrumentalize the media and information in order to subvert the rules tying the "Strong" and to get around the latter’s "strenght". Furthermore, the "Weak"‘s organization and structure seems better adapted to the battlefield than the "Strong"s ones.
- the asymmetry is much deeper when looking at military objectives. One side may only achieve not to lose while the other has to win in order to complete his goals. That point is highlighted in David Galula’s work: the counter-insurgent must build while the insurgent may only destroy. Of course, in case of civil wars -where both parties seek to gain power- there is much of a zero-sum game, meaning that asymmetry being not the core of the concept’s essence.
- finally, there exists a third level in which asymmetry can be observed: that of the issues at stake, and the subsequent strategies that follow from them. In many instances, the "Weak" is engaged in "total war" (with absolute issues) through an attrition strategy while the "Strong" (especially in the case of foreign interventions) has less important issues at stake (because of the theater’s peripheral characteristic).
That notion seems relatively objective but is difficult to apply to any situation in which there is one "Weak" and one "Strong". The most important insight gains from this analysis relates to what it teaches us about the ontological difference between the two belligerents.
And that’s how it also relates to the concept of "irregularity" in war. Of course, the significance and the meaning of that concept cannot be separated from their historical context. By "irregular" war, I would mean a conflict in which the two following criteria are met:
- one actor uses tactics and technics deemed "non-conventional" with regards to the "Law of Armed Conflict" or the broader customs of warfare.
- one actor is not represented by a legitimate entity (meaning here a State).
Whereas these two criteria appear as objectives at a first glance, in reality they are not. "Irregularity" indeed implies a normative aspect, by which an actor (usually the Western/Modern one) sees the other as "illegitimate". It is thus deeply rooted in the Modern conception of the State as the sole actor who has the legitimacy to use force and the monopoly on its means.
As normative, that category has many implications in the conduct of war. First, because not seeing the adversary as a legitimate actor (as it in the case of the classic Jus Gentium) tends to forget that he pursues political objectives. Rather, the adversary is considered as a criminal which uses political violence but is not waging war.. Remember: we don’t negotiate with terrorists (but what for political organization that seek to achieve their political goals using terrorism as a tactic?)
Second, because if the adversary is seen as a criminal, there’s sufficient reason to use every means at disposal in order to maintain order. In this case, it is even possible not to speak of "war", but rather of "events", "intervention", "stabilization", "peace enforcement" and so on.. If war is a dialectical interaction between two actors seeking to achieve their political goals, then facing an "irregular" opponent is not war.
Third because relying on the use of force while dismissing the opponent’s political goals creates a risk to rise to extremes. Whereas it is important to remember that negotiation and peace is the ultimate step in a war, it would not be the case if the opponent’s legitimacy to resort on coercion is not properly recognized. Furthermore, relying on brute force in order to suppress the irregular enemy means that it is seen as an "Enemy" in a Schmittian sense. This "depoliticization" process put at high risk the society on which that war is waged in that that does not allow to recognize proper goals and motives for the population when it sides with the insurgent. Of course, if the "Enemy" is a criminal against which every means is necessary, that would also lead to a strategy of annihilation.
To sum up, "irregular" seems much more tailored as a sociological framework to study today’s conflict while "asymmetrical" is more about the strategic dynamics between two belligerents. However, it seems to me that those two concepts do not fit well with several case studies, and do not include "civil wars" for instance.
In short, those two concepts are not highly relevant analytic tools. Those are mere ideal-types that tell us more about the way we define what is war in a normative way. Nevertheless, they are inscribed in the power relation that characterizes today’s international relations. Dario Battistella’s "hierarchical wars" concept show us how the distribution of power among actors (and mainly States) functions in a dual dimension: a material dimension (in which the US has a huge comparative advantage) but also a normative dimension (that allows democratic states not only to avoid war with each others but also to legitimate "intervention" against smaller or non-legitimate actors). As such, "irregular" and "asymmetrical" characterize the mainstream way of defining what is a legitimate actor and what is not (while this move is not unchallenged both a the domestic and the international levels) and reveals us the normative dominance of western countries and especially the United States. But, as they have strategic and ethical implications, their analysis should not be dismissed and should lead to a careful examination of our perceptions of both "war" (as a social and political activity) and "enemy" (as a social actor’s will using force to pursue its political goals).