'We are all warriors in the hybrid war'

Hybrid warfare is a term that has gained currency in recent times and is a matter of growing global concern. It may not be a new phenomenon, but with technological advancement, sophisticated communication systems and global interconnectivity, it has gained unprecedented significance. What is hybrid war? How does it affect us? How do we prepare against it? How do we combat the effects of hybrid war? These are just a few questions deliberated upon at a recent roundtable on the issue. Organised jointly by the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) and Dhaka Tribune as part of the monthly series of discussions on contemporary issues, the roundtable took place on Sunday morning at The Westin in the capital.

Hybrid war operates below the threshold of conventional warfare, said Maj Gen ANM Muniruzzaman (retd), moderator of the roundtable and president of BIPSS. It is direct or indirect confrontation, sometimes impossible to apprehend. It incorporates different modes of warfare including terrorist tactics, coercion, criminal activities, use of proxies, diplomatic pressure, legal action and more. It is complex warfare and has been deliberated upon on the past even by the renowned military strategists Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and Michael Hoffman. When Sun Tzu writes 'subdue the enemy without fighting', that is an explicit example of the nature of hybrid war.

In pointing to other examples in recent times, Maj Gen Muniruzzaman (retd) said that the Israel-Lebanon war with Hizbollah as the non-state actor is a case in point. It is a fine combination of politics and military power, he further elaborated, where fighting is becoming too sophisticated and complex. It is non-kinetic warfare and is no longer in the hands of the military alone.

"It is a multi-domain war that hits at the hearts and minds of the population," he said, "Awareness needs to be built because we are all warriors in the hybrid war."

Lt Gen ATM Zahirul Alam (retd), former commandant National Defence College, said hybrid warfare is a form of warfare that entails a fusion of conventional and unconventional means of power. It blurs the lines between war and peace.

Conventional means are inadequate to counter hybrid warfare, Lt Gen Zahirul Alam (retd) continued, pointing to the ongoing Syrian conflict and the Russia-Ukraine war as examples. "There are no signs of any solution to the problems in Palestine," Syria, Libra, Ukraine, he said adding "In fact, we have not given much thought to how to get out of hybrid warfare. The United Nations has proven to be ineffective in combatting hybrid war. This is a weakness in the global community. UN is helpless when the big powers are involved. The big powers are either creating hybrid warfare or can be blamed for fanning the flames in their own interests."

"Hybrid warfare is marked by vagueness and the country attacked is unable to attribute it to the perpetrator," stated Shafqat Munir, head of BCTR and senior research fellow, BIPSS, adding that disinformation was also a tool of hybrid warfare. When hybrid warfare takes on political shades it can lend support to underground subversive groups, use various schisms, influence electoral processes and so on, he said.

In the economic domain, he continued, there are media campaigns, social media campaigns, loans to make a country vulnerable where economic coercion can be a tool. Misinformation and disinformation are also powerful tools of hybrid warfare. An alternative reality is presented to the public and the public start believing fake news as real. So there is a glaring need to be aware of fake news.

In deliberating further about augmented reality, Shafqat Munir said hybrid threats included protracted insurgencies, cyber warfare and other manifestations. "We are just as vulnerable as any other country in the world when it comes to cyber warfare," he said, pointing to the Metro Rail was an example on dependence on hi-tech cyber systems. "Our defences have to be strong against cyber-attacks, he emphasised, adding, "Unless we are able to bolster our resilience, ensure cohesion as a society, we will be more susceptible to cyber-attacks."

Group Captain Zahidul Islam Khan (retd), former dean, faculty of science, social science and liberal arts, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Aviation and Aerospace University, spoke of how irrational and non-rational forces had dominated over rational forces in the past too, but there were changes in the 20th century. For example, there were states that wanted to operate below the threshold of conventional warfare. There was an increase in civil wars. Cyber and non-kinetic warfare had emerged. And then there were cognitive efforts to change the minds of the people.

As to how to fight hybrid war, Group Captain Zahidul Islam (retd) said this required the integration of all forces of national power. Hybrid war tended to be long term and the starting point of building the fight against it was to have a doctrine. India has such a doctrine in place. "We need to develop our own doctrine to tackle hybrid war, we must have a systemic and well integrated strategy too counter hybrid warfare," he said, pointing out that not much had been done to that end as yet.

Concluding the roundtable discussion, Zafar Sobhan, editor of Dhaka Tribune, said, "Hybrid war has always been with us at some level. Using the mind is the locus of war, something practiced since ancient times. But because of the clandestine nature of hybrid war, we may not even be aware of it. And today in the 21st century, the dangers of hybrid war are far greater than have been in the past. Cyber warfare and technological advancements make hybrid warfare much more devastating than ever before."

He said, the vital questions to be asked are, what does this mean for Bangladesh? What preparations have we taken? Are we focusing sufficiently to combat hybrid war? "Regrettably," he concluded, "we have a long way to go. Bangladesh needs to be alive to the vulnerabilities. As we move to a more cyber connected world, the vulnerabilities are just going to grow. It is not just technology, but a lack of unity within the society, the deep schisms that also make us vulnerable. We need to come up with a mindset that focuses on what keeps us together, united to the extent we can overcome the threats we face."

A lively interactive session followed with the participation of retired civil, military and diplomatic officials, senior foreign diplomats, academics, media persons, students and others.