One thing that props up in almost every discussion on national security these days is hybrid war: we are living in the age of hybrid warfare and we must prepare for it, one is told. However, the answer to what exactly is hybrid warfare is any body’s guess. One is told that it is a new type of warfare. Is it really the case? A thorough scrutiny of the recent literature on it highlights that there is no universally accepted definition of hybrid war. Depending on where you are looking from, Russia’s Ukraine and Crimea offensive, Hizbullah’s successful campaign against Israeli Defence Force and the rise of non-state actors like Daesh or ISIL are key developments that have challenged the traditional conduct of war and that this new face of war is the so-called hybrid war yet the views are divided on what is Hybrid warfare? From NATO’s perspective, hybrid warfare is all about Russia. Currently, NATO is working on strategies that can be utilized to counter the Russian so-called hybrid war capability. Even if it is, how current Russian strategy is different from the concept of Soviet Deep Battle or the Gerasimov Doctrine focusing on multidimensional war? More so, there is little evidence to support that Hybrid war is Kremlin’s invention.

For Frank Hoffman, any adversary simultaneously and adaptively employing “… a fused mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism and criminal activities in the battle space to obtain their political objectives.” is waging a hybrid war. According to Frank Hoffman, conventional weapons, unconventional tactics including the use of terror and criminal behaviour play a significant role. In such a war, population of a country is the primary target of an enemy’s onslaught be it a physical or psychological attack or a combination of both. The most significant aspect of hybrid war is the effective use of different means and modes of warfare to achieve its objective by the party waging such an attack. John McCuen argues that hybrid warfare is fought on both physical and conceptual battlegrounds implying that the actual war is the war to influence the hearts and minds of your adversary. All in all, hybrid warfare is: superior and effective use of conventional capabilities primarily using unconventional tactics and means focusing on political, economic and social attributes of a country or a society. For the proponents of hybrid war, a hybrid adversary could be a state or a non-state actor or a combination of both, using non-standard methods and ways of war. At the same time, it would be highly flexible. The weapons used in this war are not the battlefield tanks and fighter jets alone. The battlefield for such a war would include TV lounges, sitting and common rooms, population centres in the enemy country and the international community.

Granted, the rules of the game are changing and war is no more a simple and a linear concept yet the notion of hybrid warfare has its own limitations and flaws. First of all, it is a vague concept and no one is really sure what exactly it means and how it is different from other similar or identical concepts. Concepts such as Mar Kaldor’s ‘new wars’ that points that in post-Cold War era, wars would be fought by both state and non-state actors; US Marine Corp’s concept of 4GW: fourth generation warfare that focuses on the weakening of the state institutions and how non-state actors would use it to their advantages; Chinese Army’s concept of ‘unrestricted warfare’ focusing on adversary’s economic and social interest by waging a media war against it to name just a few. Military history is rich with such examples where a state used multiple means to hurt its enemy: Iberian leader Virathus expedition against Sertorius in 2nd century BC is among the earliest examples of what is today defined as Hybrid Warfare. Numerous other examples exist in military history such as Rome versus Germania around 9 AD, during the Napoleonic Wars, the American Revolution, Carrera’s resistance against the liberals in Guatemala. Another important and more recent example of using such a tactic in a war is Salami slicing presented by Thomas Schelling in his magnum opus Arms and Influence. Using this, an actor can achieve its objectives one by one denying the adversary the space to respond massively without being accused of escalation.

To sum up, one can infer that hybrid warfare is still a concept that is evolving and even those who believe that it is a distinct and a newer form of warfare have yet to come up with a clear and universally acceptable definition. Even if it happens, the issue of coming up with a definitive definition would remain. Given that history is replete with numerous examples of such military campaigns that can be defined as clear and precise examples of hybrid wars, terming it as a new idea would be challenging, to say the least.

As for Pakistan, one has come across numerous statements that a hybrid war is currently going on against Pakistan. On the face of it, this is an onslaught Pakistan has not faced before and it requires a new and comprehensive strategy to respond. Yet on a close scrutiny one can see that this is not the first time Pakistan is facing such an onslaught. It encountered such attacks when it was considered and projected as an unviable project, when its waters were blocked, when insurgencies were supported and abated by regional countries and especially when it was disintegrated in 1971 yet this time the magnitude of the threat is ginormous. All wars need national unity and the backing of the whole nation to the defenders of the country. Call this whatever you may but to effectively overcome it, the whole nation needs to unite and support the effort. One country, one nation that is the whole point.


A slightly different version of this article was published in Pakistan Politico January 2019.