Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.


One of the most important parts of being a strategist is understanding the environment.  To have a grasp on the zeitgeist sharpens analysis and focuses the mind on what “is” and what might come. My contribution to this is the assessment that the contemporary warfighting environment is dominated by what I call “Rubik’s Cube” conflicts.  This is an adaptation of Emile Simpson’s reference to Iraq as a “mosaic” conflict (see War from the Ground Up, p. 95). The term “mosaic” is not quite right as it indicates a static environment, whereas I see a more dynamic environment. My definition of a Rubik’s Cube conflict:

Any conflict or war which features at least one belligerent cohort fighting for common military objectives while motivated by multiple and (potentially) shifting social, ethnic, cultural, religious, or political causes.

Some will see this is similar to Frank Hoffman’s (great) work on hybrid warfare, particularly owing to one big commonality: defining a multifaceted enemy.  Hoffman’s definition of a “hybrid threat”:

Any adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs a fused mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the battle space to obtain their political objectives.

These are two separate attempts to define the contemporary warfighting environment. Hoffman defines the ways in which hybrid threats employ force – modes of warfare.  My effort is to define what appears to be a shift in the ends – the disaggregation of battlefield actors motivations for war.  For example, during the Cold War, the vast majority of battlefield actors motivations could be traced directly to either Uncle Sam (the U.S.) or Uncle Joe (the U.S.S.R.).  The catalyst often came from Washington or Moscow.

This is not the case today.  Moreover, this disaggregation has led to a corresponding increase in the number of armed groups.  So instead of fighting the monolithic Soviets, a well-traveled American military officer might recently have faced: Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, international terror organizations (not to mention Al Qaeda affiliates), the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, as well as a Regionally Aligned Forces mission to train African military forces to hunt Joseph Kony.  All these actors have different motivations for fighting; all could be considered a different colored tile (while on the same face) of these Rubik’s Cube conflicts.

Which raises an important question – how well has the U.S. done in this paradigm?

So Far, Not So Good

On the whole, not well.  The U.S. military would much prefer to go back to assuming the Kremlin was behind everything.  One can see this in the acronyms applied on the battlefield.  In Afghanistan, it was “ACM” for Anti-Coalition Militia. In Iraq, it was “AIF,” which stood for Anti-Iraq Forces. With respect to Iraq, this is a gross oversimplification when one considers the different loyalties inherent in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society like Iraq.  Though there’s nothing wrong with a bit of simplification, this wholesale rolling up of enemy actors into one category is contrary to one of the oldest rules on the books – Sun Tzu’s counsel to “know your enemy.”  The negative effects have been well documented on all levels: tactical (see Ricks, Fiasco, Ch. 12, “The Descent into Abuse”), operational (see Aylwin-Foster), and strategic (see Yingling).

The Rubik’s Cube in Action Today

So how and where else can we see Rubik’s Cube conflicts in action today?  To start at the most granular level, one can see this at play with identity.  People are complex beings that have multiple and shifting concepts of themselves.  Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, addressed this idea while speaking at the London School of Economics about his book The Thistle and the Drone,

When a leader of the ethnic Pashtun group [in Pakistan] was asked about his ethnicity, he said: “First I’m a Pashtun, second I am a Muslim, third I am a Pakistani.”

The world has recently watched separate identities played against one another in Crimea (i.e. Russian or Ukrainian?). For example, a recent article on Crimea documented a Ukrainian military officer that was married to a Russian woman and decided to stay in Crimea as it changed flags. In this case, family loyalty trumped ethnic background.

The multifaceted and changing reasons for fighting can also be seen at the local and environmental level. U.S. Army Brigadier General James Linder, Commander of U.S. Special Operations in Africa, was recently profiled by the New York Times Magazine. In the article he spoke repeatedly about how interconnected conflict is there – “Instability in Libya is causing a lot of the instability in West Africa” and “foreign fighters coming out of Syria are a serious problem” in Africa. The reporter also wrote of Linder’s thinking:

The militants try to gain a perch in communities suffering from a host of complex stressors, one of which is a startling birthrate. Niger has the highest in the world: On average, a woman gives birth to seven children. Another is desertification. Diffa [a city in Niger] sits near the receding banks of Lake Chad, which supplies water to 30 million people. As the lake has dried up, so, too, has the ability of people to support themselves…The chaos wrought by dislocation and some of the world’s worst social indicators renders these communities vulnerable to extremism.

Anne-Marie Slaughter and Tom Friedman have found the same conclusion; the climate can serve as a “scary hidden stressor.”  The real scary thing with these catalysts is that they are often hidden – one might not ever address the root causes – only symptoms.

Then there’s the multifaceted and shifting nature of conflict at the political and diplomatic level.  Consider the contradictions in the most recent fighting in Iraq and Syria:

  • Iran & the United States: enemies since 1979 but common interests in Baghdad
  • Gulf States & the United States: long allies but on opposite sides with respect to ISIS
  • Turkey & the Kurds: longstanding animosity over Kurdish state but currently solid economic ties
  • The Kurds & Maliki’s Gov’t: at odds over oil and sectarian difference but share desire to stop ISIS
  • Gulf States & ISIS: common enemies in Assad/Maliki Governments

Military action in an environment such as this must be nuanced and tailored to counter both the way the threat presents as well as the catalyst for the violence. In blue collar terms, this warfighting environment calls for threading a needle – not butchering a hog.


All military officers must develop a sense of strategic understanding to operate in this environment. Absent blind luck, tactical solutions designed and implemented without regard for the enemy’s strategic motivations will fail. Officers must be prepared to identify, describe, and diagnose any conflict they are a part of – and today, those conflicts are likely to be multifaceted and shifting Rubik’s Cubes.  If we do not prepare accordingly, then we will be perpetually handing back failed solution attempts – jumbled patterns of random colors.

Image courtesy of Daily Mail. Image courtesy of Daily Mail.

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