Frictions of Contemporary Warfare: What's In It For Ground Forces?

The wars of the 21st century have for the most part not achieved the desired political outcomes for the U.S. and Coalition partners largely due to various frictions that have increased the complexity of contemporary warfare. Calibrated use of violence to achieve military victory without undermining durable political solutions is predominantly the challenge  of ground forces faced with these many frictions including alienation of occupation forces and their supporters from local populations, expeditionary employment with extended lines of communication, protection of the greater portion of populations, protection against attacks from within populations, the capability of local security partners, constraints created by rules and regulations of modern warfare in the international community, incompatibility of equipment and procedures with local forces, and the omnipresent danger of being tainted with human rights violations. This article argues strategists should be cognizant of these frictions and how they affect the ability of land forces to control ground and influence ideas. Before discussing these frictions, it is useful to insert a brief historical segue, identifying some critical precursors to the characteristics of contemporary warfare.

The Precursors

Overall view of downtown Grbavica, a neighbourhood in Sarajevo, in March 1996. (DoD Photo)

The Balkan crises of the 1990s were precursors to contemporary conflict, especially as it affected ground forces. The blunt force of military formations gave way to the soft power of politics, economics, psychology, and morality. Information operations, careful intelligence, and surgical precision were new to armies’ operating concepts.[1]  Politically dominated, multi-organizational, and multinational peace and stability operations ensued. Political implications of tactical actions became significant due to media gaze. Force protection took on a higher degree of importance than firepower and maneuver for the force commander, who aimed to achieve military victory by way of controlling violence in the conflict zone with minimum damage to own forces. At the same time, maintaining the image of the force employed to protect the population as saviors in the eyes of those people figured as a key ingredient of the policy.[2] This tension between the notions of military and political victory, between short and long term control of territory and population, became perpetual in the protracted wars fought in the wake of 9/11. It is exemplified in the military victory declared by President Bush three months after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 with political victory still remaining far from sight.  

Similarly the strategic calculus in Iraq and Afghanistan brought about significant changes in the way land warfare was prosecuted.  As witnessed in the Iraq invasion 2003, the combined arms maneuver supported by air slipped into the background after the initial defeat of Iraqi conventional forces. Protracted counterinsurgency (COIN) operations interspersed with counterterrorism (CT) actions ensued, and thereafter U.S. military maneuver was heavily dependent on the ability of ground and special operation forces to bring about security in the wider area. In the larger perspective, the metrics of political victory were focused upon improving an invaded country’s security environment, governance, institutional capacity, infrastructure, and economics. Arguably, ground forces received a majority of the blame for the inability of the U.S. to achieve these objectives as they were unable to effectively leverage factors such as local forces, local power brokers, and public perception. Ground forces were locked in a constant competition for strategic advantage not only against a nebulous enemy, but even more so against a diverse range of frictions.

The enemies of U.S.-led military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan were swifter to adapt to asymmetric warfare to offset the disadvantage imposed on them by U.S. power. Air strikes, night raids, drones, and human intelligence advances were countered by suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices, insider attacks, a reframing of the title of “enemy” to cast all government agencies and their supporters as acceptable targets, and the brutality of revenge. The Information Age’s virtues of mass communication, diminishing geography, and power of media became essential strategic tools of power in the hands of the terrorists, at an incredible cost to the state.

Belligerents on both sides undertook structural readjustments in force and strategy to try and achieve their respective ends. Debates ensued about the land forces becoming simultaneously lighter and yet as best as possible better protected, more people-centric, and more agile.[3] They increased their reliance on intelligence and special operations, incorporated civilian counterparts for developmental tasks, outsourced numerous operational tasks to private military contractors, empowered local military and law enforcement forces, and resorted to supporting favorable factions or militias, as when the U.S. supported the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001 and the Anbar Awakening in Iraq in 2006.[4] At the same time the terrorists restructured into networks, forged alliances of convenience with like-minded groups, increased capacity to seize and hold contested territories, exploited sectarian rifts, relied heavily on propaganda through internet, and sought grand strategic ambitions such as exploiting critical geopolitical fault lines between India and Pakistan.[5]

The Frictions

Napoleon Bonaparte: "The moral is to the physical as three to one." 

Professional standing of future ground forces should be a significant consideration meriting strategists’ undivided attention because the ability to control territory and influence people is key to executing the strategies of war. The professional values needed in a first-class ground force, inculcated over time, would be felt wanting in the recruit–equip–train–advise kind of forces hastily constituted in the throes of war as an indigenous solution to an indigenous problem. Napoleon’s advice that “the moral is to the physical as three to one” needs to be kept in view.

Highly dispersed ground forces in irregular warfare, especially if newly constituted, face friction in their functioning due to weak organizational bonding, lop-sided structural demographics, and, at times, insufficient motivation.  The organizational bonding remains weak due to absence of legacy, aggravated by inequitable demographic representation of different population segments in the rank and file, like the reconstituted Afghan National Army facing criticism about being an ethno-tribal army.[6] And the weak resolve displayed by the Afghan National Security Forces and the Iraqi Security Forces in the face of growing adversity reflects a particularly problematic friction faced by land forces struggling to achieve security in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. and coalition partners adopting the strategy of empowering local security and defense through indigenous resource should bear in mind the value of motivation and legacy of the force and the sociopolitical environment in which that motivation and legacy are being sought. Moreover, the professionalism required from the ground forces in contemporary conflict needs to be predicated on moral factors much more than materiel. Those foundations are achievable, after putting right the political order of things from the grass root level up.

Another consideration of significance is the ‘end of geography’ debate, which suggests that technological innovation has overcome the friction of physical terrain and the need for territorial power, hence signaling a decline in usefulness of land power.[7] However, use of sizable ground troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have since proved that while technological improvements in the areas of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance facilitate operations, there remains a perennial need for the power generated by sizeable ground forces to control territory and retain influence. That it could not be achieved successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan does not discount the usefulness of ground forces but offers lessons in the compounded frictions hindering their employment. The friction of geography will continue to restrict employment of ground forces and their sustainment in distant theaters of war, posing much more friction due to the likelihood of conflict protraction and increasing complexity of political solutions as being witnessed in the Middle East. To offset this friction of geography in contemporary conflict scenarios, commitment to and innovation in deployment and sustainment is particularly important. Partnership with regional land forces would be a premium, demanding policies that seek development of those partnering ties over the years with allies, developing shared objectives. Such long-term ties with key partner states located strategically would help to sustain contingency engagements employing ground forces in distant geographies.  

Overcoming the friction of unfavorable social construction of public perception would be a time and resource intensive part of ground forces strategy. Conversely, social media in the hands of savvy terrorists will continue acting as a force-multiplier of terror, a sophisticated propaganda machine, and a clandestine communication source for recruitment and terrorism operations. The friction of sociopolitical culture would more often than not misplace alien ground forces’ understanding of the environment despite their boots on the ground. Dependable regional allies’ support and understanding of the social, political, and economic dynamics of the conflict zone and region, would be useful. The pros and cons of involvement by ‘external forces’ presents a peculiar challenge in socially constructing the legitimacy of intervention.

Next, surmounting the friction of less protected bases, movement, and outposts will be necessary for ground force success, but necessity of the protection of population will demand sallying forth to win their confidence. Success would depend upon local support, intelligence, and sufficiency of force. In order to succeed in securing the people, reclaiming territory lost to terrorists and ensuring its retention, ground forces will always need to be in balance, i.e. retaining sufficient reserves at tactical, operational, and strategic level that are well-oriented in time and space. The tension between force-protection and population-protection will demand skillful calibration of violence, high standard junior leadership, and a strategy of incentivizing local cooperation.

The friction of unintended protraction due to changing conflict dynamics comes next. As political and socioeconomic plans follow or occur simultaneously with kinetic operations, ground forces will remain involved for a substantial time before local administrative machinery builds the courage and capacity to take over their legacy responsibilities. Assessment of troops to task will usually underestimate ground forces due to complex conflict dynamics; force accretion requirements would need to be projected well in time to cater for any surge. The friction of protraction due to a metamorphosis of opposition forces is likely to disturb the time, space, and relative strength matrix of ground forces. The selection of war objectives for the ground forces in such scenarios would need deliberation, constant political review, and synchronization with allied stakeholders. Revisiting objectives, aligning strategies, and remaining competitive at the strategic level would provide conducive environment for the ground forces’ success.

The friction of an organized depopulating of an area of intended operations without alienating the population to gain liberty of action is another land force challenge. In counterinsurgency campaigns large areas may need to be ‘emptied’ of population to enable its reclamation from terrorists by use of force. It has been an effective strategy in past campaigns at different times in history, but its efficiency entails a huge cost in terms of evacuating populations, as well as their registration, sustenance, safety, reconstruction, and rehabilitation; a tall order which would invariably involve ground forces. For example, in Pakistan’s counter terrorism campaign, the evacuation of population from Malakand in 2009 and Miranshah in 2014 allowed the ground forces to conduct operations much more effectively than if they were required to operate against the terrorists hiding amongst the people.[8]

Supreme Court of Pakistan

Lastly, ground forces will confront the friction of legality as many suspected combatants would be killed and captured under ambiguous circumstances despite unambiguous rules of engagement.  Or the evidence preserved and provided by the ground forces, inexperienced in criminal prosecution, would not suffice for the ‘normal’ laws of peacetime.  The decisive requirement of ground forces in future wars, from a socio-legal perspective, will continue to put pressure on the questions of jurisdiction, combatant enemy, and fair trial, which would necessitate frontloading a juridical plan into the land power strategy. The setting up of special military courts in Pakistan in 2015-2016 as part of the National Action Plan against terrorism became a distasteful but inescapable necessity to support the ground forces action in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of the country.[9] The image fallouts of the campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka, as constructed or misconstructed in the social world, merit cognizance by strategists. Friction would be inherent in decisively identifying, confirming, isolating, and destroying combatant enemies by the ground forces, without inciting the local population’s animosity. Overcoming this friction would be a challenge for ground forces capabilities in both force application and public relations. Ground forces commanders can exploit, or be exploited, through effective or abusive use of those capabilities.


This brief analysis of frictions which might impede employment of ground forces in contemporary conflicts is far from being exhaustive. It merely broaches the complexity of the many frictions likely to be faced by the boots on ground. However, an understanding of the nuances of the predictable ones like morale, geography, perception, protection, protraction, depopulation, and legality is likely to be helpful. These frictions are slippery slopes, which can halt the juggernaut of ground forces in its tracks. The strategist looking to employ ground forces to control territory and influence people’s ideas in a conflict needs to develop an innate sense of these frictions for successful outcomes.

Najeeb Ahmad is attending US Army War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as an international fellow from Pakistan. He is also a PhD candidate at the National Defense University, Islamabad. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] Larry K. Wentz. Lessons from Bosnia: The IFOR Experience (Vienna, Virginia: CCRP), 1997.

[2] Robert F. Bauman, George W. Gawrych, and Walter E. Kretchik. Armed Peacekeepers in Bosnia (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute), 2015.

[3] Lawrence J. Korb and Max A Bergman. “Restructuring the Military.” Issues in Science and Technology 25, no. 1 (Fall 2008).

[4] David Isenberg. Private Military Contractors and U.S. Grand Strategy. Report from the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, 2009.

[5] Syed Saleem Shahzad. Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11 (New York, NY: Palmgrave MacMillan), 2011.

[6] Abdullah Sharif. “The Afghan Ethno-Tribal Army.” The World Post, 19 Jun 2015.

[7] Michael Evans. The Continental School of Strategy: The Past, Present and Future of Land Power. (Australia: Land Warfare Studies Center), 2004.

[8] Nadeem Ahmed. “COIN in Peace-building: Case Study of the 2009 Malakand Operation.” Prism 2, no. 4 (Sep 2011).

[9] Nasir Iqbal. “Military courts get Supreme Court nod.” Dawn, 5 Aug 2015.