Last August, I announced the start of a new project focused on understanding “Low Intensity Conflict” because that’s what probably best describes the future of the United States. That was a year ago and I surmised that our domestic conflict had already started, although at a very low level. Today I want to address some open ends of that first post and describe what I believe political violence will look like in the future.
One reason why I stopped using the term “civil war” is a) because it’s very vague, and b) because I’m not sure that we’ll actually have an outright civil war. Of course, we might, but I’m less sure of that than I am that we’ll have a domestic conflict marked by political and tribal violence, disestablishment of the rule of law, and maybe regional independence movements. As opposed to a conventional, force-on-force conflict, we’re much more likely to experience irregular, tribal warfare referred to as “Low Intensity Conflict”.
FM 100-20, Military Operations in Low Intensity Conflict (1990, which I believe is no longer valid), provides us an official definition of the term:
Low intensity conflict is a political-military confrontation between… groups below conventional war and above the routine, peaceful competition… It frequently involves protracted struggles of competing principles and ideologies. Low intensity conflict ranges from subversion to the use of armed force. It is waged by a combination of means, employing political, economic, informational, and military instruments. Low intensity conflicts are often localized, generally in the Third World, but contain regional and global security implications.
Earlier this week, an acquaintance told me flat out, “It will never happen”. Well, it’s already happening. “Punch a Nazi” and “Bike lock your local red hat” are maxims of political violence that perfectly describe low intensity conflict (LIC). It’s not outright war; there’s no widespread, daily fighting in the streets to gain territory or expand borders. It’s really more akin to gang or tribal conflict than it is to traditional war. And that’s exactly what LIC is. The organizing being done on the Far Left and Far Right are a precursor to conflict waiting for a flashpoint or catalyst. The militias on the Right and the radicals and revolutionaries on the Left have organized for decades. They’re here, they’re angry, their views of American history and their desired future are inimically opposed, and there could absolutely be a tipping point that, in their eyes, demands violence. This is not an analytical leap because this type of violence is already happening, just at a very low level. The real leap, however, is to view these indicators and their exhibited desire to commit violence on behalf of their ideology, and then say or believe that things are going to get better instead of worse. I’m seriously interested in the case for how and why political, racial, and social wounds are more likely to heal than worsen, and how and why our political divide is more likely to be bridged than widened.
That being said, one popular misconception is that everyone will be involved in a domestic conflict, and that’s just not the case. Scan the history of insurgencies, insurrections, and other small wars, and you’ll find that it’s a small percentage of the population involved in the actual fighting. Depending on the conflict, maybe five, ten, or up to twenty percent (on the high end) are involved in sustained fighting, and everyone else is just trying to survive. Even then, I don’t imagine pitched battles of hundreds or thousands, but sporadic and opportunistic attacks involving small groups of individuals. Let’s look at violence in Iraq and Afghanistan as an example: yes, there were days and weeks long battles, usually as a result of a military operation. Take away the military operations, and we’re left mostly with small group actions, unpredictable small arms fire, bombings, raids, and other short-duration attacks — in other words, activities typically employed by irregular forces in a low intensity conflict. Average citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan were involved, but relatively few dedicated their lives to sustained conflict against U.S. and Coalition Forces. That’s likely to be the case in America, as well.
Another popular misconception is that this will be a nationwide conflict. Some might say, “Well, if one percent of the population takes part in the fighting, that’s 3.2 million fighters”. I can appreciate the mathematics, but this is highly unlikely to be a nationwide conflict. There may be cases of violence that span coast to coast, yet this conflict is much more likely to be local and regional; confined mainly to cities and built-up areas where the political friction of ideology, race/ethnicity, and class turns into violence. For most Americans, this is going to be like watching a wildfire or hurricane consume a region. News casts will interrupt with breaking coverage, but most Americans won’t be directly affected. Indirect effects are an entirely different story.
Low intensity conflict spans well beyond physical fighting to include economic, financial, and informational/cyber disruption, too. Boycotts motivated by politics or ideology are a great example of LIC, and those are routine by both the Left and Right. Chick-fil-A, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Israel/BDS, advertisers on political talk shows, Target, and the NRA are just some of the more recent and notable targets of economic and financial disruption due to political ideology. One thing that either hasn’t happened with any regularity or has not been publicized, however, is cyber disruption motivated by domestic political ideology. American and international Hacktivists (not to mention foreign cyber units) could play a significant role in attacking anything from the websites of companies and political opposition to critical infrastructure during a domestic conflict.
I’ll continue to write about this topic indefinitely because I think there’s a significant chance that our low-level conflict worsens, especially in light of the next recession, the potential for financial and economic instability, political turmoil and the fallout of elections in 2018-2024, and social movements that are really quite toxic for the country. This cumulative approach to understanding potential tipping points is helpful, and I think that those who say that worsening domestic conflict is unlikely or impossible underestimate the great challenges we’ll have in this country, not just in the next two or six years, but over the next decade and beyond.
My conclusion is this:
- There’s a significant likelihood of worsening domestic conflict
- Violence is going to be geographically limited
- Most Americans won’t be targeted or directly affected
- Relatively few Americans will take part in politically-motivated violence
- Good likelihood of increased government authority
- Unlikely to significantly worsen on its own; waiting on a flashpoint or catalyst
- Americans sitting on the sidelines are going to feel the effects indirectly
- Potential for systems disruption
- Potential for foreign exploitation
- Resulting civil unrest likely to pose other threats and challenges
And, by all means, if you disagree, let’s hear it. Leave a comment below.
If you’re interested in the potential for these scenarios, or concerned about where we could be headed as a country, then stay up to date with developing conditions with our threat intelligence reports. Each Friday we publish the National Intelligence Bulletin, which covers issues of national security, domestic systems disruption, risk of failing critical infrastructure, and threats to social, political, and economic stability.
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