Fifty Shades of Gray: An Analysis of Modern Conflict


Written by Henry Suckow-Ziemer

Less than a week after Indian PM Narendra Modi promised a “jaw-breaking” response to a terror attack that killed 40 paramilitary police, tensions between India and Pakistan rapidly escalated. While events continue to rapidly unfold, they have underscored a fundamental dynamic of modern conflict, namely, its persistence. While the marked decline in interstate, and particularly major power wars since 1945 has led many to pronounce that the world has grown less violent in recent years. This claim has drawn adherents from corners as diverse as economics, anthropology and international law. Their findings seek to offer some hope in a news cycle which is often dominated by images of escalating global chaos and humanitarian disaster. These authors remind us that, in spite of what may appear on our news feeds, on the whole the world is a safer place, for states especially and perhaps for individuals as well, than it used to be. Unfortunately, to extrapolate out from these arguments and claim war is in an irreversible decline would be to neglect crucial lessons contemporary conflicts can teach us about the nature of political violence today.

Take the example of India and Pakistan over Kashmir. While historically a flashpoint, violence in that state had declined dramatically leading up to the February 14 bombing by Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Muhammad. While India has historically had a policy of tit-for-tat reciprocal strikes in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, the rhetoric surrounding this particular attack seemed to indicate a desire to assume a more proactive stance. This trend, which may have been motivated by Modi’s own electoral concerns, resulted in India pursuing a much more forceful policy, launching airstrikes against supposed terrorist training camps in Pakistan. At this moment, a turning point could be identified, as Pakistan claimed the strikes were abortive and hit no actual targets, a claim which could be used to de-escalate the brewing conflict. India and Pakistan could pursue limited aims, Modi content with a more muscular show of force and Pakistan able to save face and potentially garner international support for its show of restraint in the face of aggression. The recent downing of an Indian jet has torpedoed this possibility for a rapprochement, raising fears of military escalation between two nuclear powers. As the situation continues to evolve, it is likely that this narrative with change drastically, but events to date have revealed two key themes of modern conflict; increasing hybridization and potential for escalation.

Gray zones? Hybrid war? Unpeace?

The first aspect of war in the modern age, growing hybridization, requires some initial clarification on terminology. Debate continues to rage over how to properly categorize the wars of the modern age. This has given rise to terms such as “hybrid war” which gained popularity following the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine. Other classifications include Gray Zone conflicts, battles that occupy the space between war and peace, as well as the more straightforward “unpeace” used by Lucas Kello to describe the deterioration of the international order facilitated by the internet revolution and cyberwar. Just as there exists debate over which term best describes modern conflict, so too do individuals challenge whether new terminology is even necessary in the first place. Traditional descriptions of hybrid war for instance, highlight the use of non-military tactics, economic, diplomatic and cyber, to prosecute a conflict. This has been the case for wars throughout history, as states have frequently employed non-military tools such as embargos, sanctions and propaganda campaigns in wars dating back hundreds of years. Similarly, with Gray Zone conflict, the notion that the dichotomy between war and peace has only recently eroded seems erroneous. By any definition it would be difficult to not view U.S.-Soviet proxy conflicts throughout the Cold War as Gray Zone battles, or even colonial struggles during the 19th century as extensions of this concept. In response to these critiques, proponents of Gray/hybrid/unpeace definitions have argued that recent developments have magnified the effect of these tactics. True, their theories may not represent anything new under the sun, but modern technologies, especially in the digital realm have opened doors previously inaccessible, allowing rogue actors to orchestrate mischief on a far greater scale than before.

This argument is more compelling, but it does not quite strike the heart of how conflict has been transformed by the modern age. Fundamentally, hybridization means the blurring of lines between state and non-state actors. On the one hand, it entails state militaries employing tools and tactics previously reserved for terrorist or criminal groups. On the other, it means insurgencies developing increasingly sophisticated infrastructure to wage more conventional battles. To illustrate this, consider two of the most prominent modern conflicts, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and subsequent intervention in the eastern Oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk proved the catalyst for much of current theorizing about hybrid war. Of particular import in this case was the sophisticated media and cyber campaign surrounding the Russian advance. Both within Ukraine and abroad, falsified news articles, cyberattacks on government infrastructure and electoral interference served to generate confusion over what precisely was happening on the ground. Who were the “little green men” that had suddenly appeared to support the separatists? Was the new Ukrainian government a coalition of west-looking reformers or an ultra-nationalist sect of warmongering fascists? Did the inhabitants Crimea or the majority-Russian eastern regions legitimately want to leave Ukrainian control? These questions amplified the fog of war and gave Russia greater freedom of movement at least initially. Combined with the force structure in the east of mixed local separatist and unmarked Russian troops, Russia gained a distinct tactical advantage. While recently scholars such as Lawrence Freedman have critiqued the strategic logic of Russia’s intervention, the hybrid strategy had distinct military benefits. In essence, Russia gained the ability to largely control the level of violence in Ukraine. When local separatists began to lose ground against the Ukrainian military, Russia could step up its material support to turn the tide, otherwise switching back to low-level insurgency to maintain a “frozen” conflict for little cost. Ukraine has resoundingly demonstrated that interstate conflict and territorial conquest remain very much alive today.

The history of the Islamic State presents what seems to be almost a flipped narrative from the previous case. An offshoot of Al Qaeda initially, this terrorist organization successfully capitalized on favorable environmental factors, including chaos in Syria and Iraqi discontent with the Maliki government, to rapidly expand its capabilities, reaching a pinnacle with its capture of Mosul in 2014. While this group has faced dramatic reversals as of late and today maintains but a sliver of its former holdings, it would be improper to forget how rapidly and successfully the Islamic State seized territory. In the process, it demonstrated another element of conflict hybridization, for not only are states increasingly utilizing tools previously thought the purview of insurgents, but non-state actors have been demonstrating a growing propensity for adapting conventional tactics. The Islamic State at different moments fought like an insurgency, a standing army and a terrorist cell, in many cases blending all these together for maximum effect. Furthermore, even as it has suffered the severe degradation of its conventional fighting force and resources, with the underlying political situation in the region still turbulent, IS has taken increasingly to going underground. This underscores yet another unique aspect of the hybridization of modern conflict, that groups can adjust their propensity for conventional or unconventional, state or non-state tactics according to the exigencies of the moment. Just because the Islamic State styled itself as an empire in the making does not mean that the loss of its territory will necessarily lead to its downfall.

This model of organization is not new, yet non-state combatants which can pursue hybrid strategies have consistently proven their efficacy even against better equipped adversaries. This was the case in 2006 with Israel’s war in Lebanon where the use of more conventional formations and technologies such as night-vision goggles and anti-tank missiles by Hezbollah fighter caught the Israeli Defense Forces by surprise. With hybridization among terrorist organizations appearing to be increasingly the norm, one must wonder where the next hybrid threat may come. At the moment, the danger of a mismanaged U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a country whose military is flush with American hardware, appears particularly foreboding.

Running up the escalation ladder

The second aspect of modern conflict, by virtue of its hybrid nature, is the threat of rapid and unpredictable escalation. While this is common to all conflicts where violent emotions are unleashed and tensions run high, the unique character of hybrid conflict means it has greater potential for miscalculations to trigger a dangerous spiral. The case of India and Pakistan today is a particularly visceral example. While long standing tensions persisted in Kashmir, violence in the region was at a ten-year low when the Jaish-e-Muhammad attack transpired. In roughly two weeks, this bombing resulted in a standoff between two nuclear-capable states. Understanding how this came to be reveals the fraught dynamics at play in a hybrid conflict. Hybrid wars are fundamentally limited wars, yet the wide array of tools employed by combatants risks overextension on an unexpected front.

Take for instance Pakistan’s tacit toleration of terrorist groups such as JEM. So long as these organizations remained directed against India, they provided a valuable tool to maintain pressure against that country without Pakistan having to take the incredibly risky gamble of directly intervening. In this way Pakistan too could selectively escalate and de-escalate purely by jailing and releasing a handful of leading figures. While the degree of cooperation between the Pakistani armed forces and JEM and equivalents is hotly debated, at the bare minimum, it is probable that ISI, the Pakistani intelligence organization is privy to more knowledge of their operations than it lets on. Nevertheless, the danger of utilizing any non-state actor as a proxy for national forces remains that these groups can behave in very unpredictable ways at times. The launch of a major suicide bombing against India at a time when Modi, facing parliamentary elections, confronted criticism over being “soft” on Pakistan, likely would not have been the Pakistani government’s ideal outcome. That it did happen proved the catalyst for a situation which, while not out of either party’s control yet, was likely more than either bargained for to begin with.

In a vastly different context, Russian cyber operations hold a similar threat of escalation. In response to a CIA report which found evidence of Russian tampering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Barack Obama designated voting machines as “critical infrastructure” interference with which would be considered an attack on the United States. While no subsequent attack has been reported, this represents one pathway through which a Russian hybrid campaign could inadvertently lead to escalation. If, in the course of a Russian propaganda effort, say with the aim of distancing Ukraine from its western backers, a hacker were to compromise an aspect of the U.S. voting system, it is unclear what the extent of the American response would, or could, be.

If hybrid conflict is to be seen as a blurring of state and non-state capabilities, it follows that this blurring opens the door to new methods for waging war. Although this grants a military advantage in that it allows hybrid combatants to surprise their opponents by targeting weaknesses they may not have even been aware of, it also increases the risk of crossing an unseen tripwire. This element of modern conflict deserves greater analysis as, if wars are to become increasingly hybridized, a lack of understanding as to what this means risks more and more instances of actors going to the brink over an unforeseen pressure point. Absent a more thorough study, it is reasonable to expect new flare-ups not only in Kashmir, but in Israel, the South China Sea, Latin America and more.

The human dimension

The previous discussion has treated conflict largely at the macroscopic level. However it is vital to realize that wars are deeply personal and individual tragedies no matter how small. To the family fleeing violence in their hometown, the innocent individuals struck dead by an improperly called airstrike and the forcibly conscripted child soldier, the terms used to describe a conflict matter little. Scholars would do well to remind themselves of this when approaching the subject of modern conflict. This is not to say that the nature of a conflict is unimportant, far from it, if hybrid wars appear to be growing in frequency, and if they offer a pathway for actors to fight battles more effectively, then these kinds of wars must be better understood so as to reduce the exposure of innocents to harm.

They myriad forms hybrid wars and gray zone conflicts can assume not only creates macro-level threats of escalation, but also imperils innocents’ livelihoods in new ways. These threats are as diverse as Russian natural gas freezes leaving families without heat in the dead of winter to well-documented episodes of ethnic cleansing by IS to extortion, impressment and violence perpetrated by state-like criminal syndicates in Latin America. Furthermore, just as these types of conflicts blur the line between the state and non-state in terms of tactics employed, so too is the distinction between fighter and civilian similarly cast in grayscale. If one’s objective is to create political chaos in another country for instance, surely terrorising that nation’s citizens can be seen a legitimate military aim. Similarly an often overlooked element of modern hybrid operations is the use of cyber and conventional tools to wreak havoc on a state’s economy, often in order to supplement more kinetic tactics. The damage to citizens’ livelihoods created by this, while not always as dramatic as that produced by hard military attacks, can be profound and widespread. This is to say nothing of the innate risk posed by state-sponsored terrorist groups or disavowed military units who, lacking more direct oversight, can inflict severe human rights violations in the course of their campaigns. Finally, it appears unlikely that these threats will diminish and indeed, as the tools for waging hybrid war increase, so too with the ways in which they may impact the civilians in the middle.

At the front lines, were bullets, propaganda and economics meet, special attention must continue to be paid to those caught in the crosshairs. This is particularly true for more hybrid conflicts as the non-state dimension also frequently entails the discarding of some of the normative frameworks meant to impose restrictions on the horrors of war.