The other complexities of the urban fight (Part VII of a series)

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This is the seventh and final article of a series on the Twelve Urban Challenges. You can access the series here

Previous articles have introduced the 12 challenges of urban warfare, explaining the issues of attitude, complications imposed by physical structures and the first of the complexities introduced by the presence of people. This, the concluding article in the series, looks at the three other challenges generated by the presence of people and the political consequences.

These are the impact of media, the obligation of military forces to look after the welfare of non-combatant populations, civilian pushback and the functional overload on commanders that flows from the people and politics that are inseparable from urban war. The first of these is intuitive.

Challenge nine – Global Media Display describes the vulnerability caused by the conjunction of increasing military importance of public opinion locally, domestically and internationally with an increased presence of and vantage points for, conventional and new media and their recording and transmitting devices. 

Technology now enables unprecedented communication of the brutal nature of urban war, especially civilian suffering, with uncensored footage being a potent ‘information operations’ weapon in contests for legitimacy. The profound social, cultural and political change wrought by social media includes an appetite for confronting material, a global opinion-shaping theatre to present it and algorithms to selectively deliver messaging to receptive audiences. 

During violent conflict, for example the 2017 seizure of the Islamic city of Marawi, political actors increasingly use the virtual environment to wage a parallel battle of narratives about the fight that may have greater strategic significance than the kinetic contest itself.  The Maute-IS militants who seized the city had no prospect of ultimately prevailing against the protracted military response of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Yet, the eventual Government victory would have been strategically irrelevant had the militant’s information operations, narrative and ‘spin’ during the battle succeeded in inspiring a wider Islamist insurgency on Mindanao. 

Traditional print and television war reporting by ‘approved’ journalists is self-censored to community norms and their critique usually constrained within the range of domestic political commentary – a process which Noam Chomsky’s argues manufactures consent. Even the horrors of civilian casualties in urban war rarely become ‘Event-driven’ news – stories that are so novel and emotionally potent they overcome cautious press paradigms.

In recent years the satellite phone has empowered independent and ‘non-aligned’ reporters – for example an Al Jazeera reporter’s on-the-ground account of the US Marines attack on Fallujah in 2004 reached and outraged the Arab world in real time – resulting in the order to halt. The internet connected smartphone has democratised reporting – which is likely to further transform ‘war reporting’.   Accuracy and context are already disappearing from commercial media as reporters become generalists – specialists are redundant in the new environment.

Anyone can ‘play’, curating content to set agendas and frame issues, using image-based formats for maximum emotive resonance.

Western governments and militaries are playing ‘catch up’ with authoritarian states as the former struggle to develop capability and concepts for conducting political or information warfare – while necessarily constrained by fundamental philosophical precepts of liberal democracy. On the contemporary urban battlefield, adversaries, bystanders and reporters can and do capture and transmit imagery of operations in real time. Legal prohibitions are likely to be ineffective, so armies need capabilities and procedures to not only limit the operational security threat from ubiquitous new media, but to defeat an adversary’s narrative that exploits it.  This raises uncomfortable issues that while not limited to urban conflict are most acute there.  Can and should militaries:

  • jam or disrupt civil communications and recording technologies?
  • take offensive action in the virtual world? 
  • create alternative social media capabilities or channels that can compete in a contest for the most compelling narrative – in an environment where violent content dominates.

Challenge 10 – Noncombatant Welfare is the legal and humanitarian obligation to provide security and logistic support to populations.

The IHL obligation to minimise harm to non-combatants in war extends well beyond care when targeting: all feasible precautions must be taken.  This includes, ‘whenever possible’, giving a warning to the population in urban areas before attacks and evacuating populations from areas it is intended to deploy military forces. 

While the subjectivity of ‘feasibility and possibility’ offer scope to evade legal responsibility, geo-political considerations remain.  That casualties amongst civilians remaining in a city under attack can cause outrage with potent political consequences is clear from the earlier example of Fallujah in 2004. In contrast, the decision of the population of Marawi to self-evacuate, with the active assistance of the Philippine authorities, after Maute-IS militants seized the city in 2017, avoided a similar political disaster.

Armed Forces in occupying or in control of an area also have a legal and humanitarian obligation to provide security, public health, maintain hospitals and ensure the supply of water, food and medical supplies. Under IHL, a belligerent occupier assumes such obligations immediately once they exercise effective control of an area, although the requirements are less clear when forces are deployed with the consent of the sovereign state. 

As cities have grown, Armies have shrunk, leaving most of them without the personnel to assert security nor spare logistic capacity to provide relief.  While the 2003 US policy not to adequately plan or provide for post-combat operations in Iraq demonstrated that this legal obligation can be ignored with impunity, there were strategic consequences.

The disorder in cities after the invasion contributed to the conditions for insurgency.  New capabilities to warn and enable the evacuation of civilians, including arranging or providing secure routes and shelter may be fundamental to achieving the political objectives of military operations.

Challenge eleven – Civilian Hinderance and Resistance describes the operational challenges imposed by the difficulty of moving undetected across populated terrain, the limits on manoeuvre imposed by civilian presence and the acute problem of active but unarmed resistance.

While troops may find excellent concealment in an urban area, it is difficult to deploy undetected. Stealthy manoeuvres have a high risk of compromise, even where the troops have popular support. Hostile communities may actively and openly warn adversaries, for example the 1970’s practice in Northern Irish Republican communities of women banging dustbin lids to warn of the presence and location of British Army patrols.

This increased risk of compromise places a premium on speedy movement to achieve tactical surprise, but dismounted troops who move hastily may be vulnerable and vehicle movement inhibited by the presence of civilian personnel and traffic.

At a greater level of hostility, crowds may actively disrupt or obstruct military deployment, especially if they have learned that troops are constrained from retaliation.  In 1992 in Somalia, massive unarmed-but-violent crowds poured onto the streets of Mogadishu to support Aideed’s militia in resisting US troops – as depicted in the book and movie ‘Blackhawk Down’.  After two US helicopters were downed, crowds of angry locals intermingled with the insurgents to attack the trapped crews and troops who were attempting to rescue them.   

Challenge twelve – Overload and Interference is the potential for induced error where the military command, control and communication system is temporarily overwhelmed by the tempo, density and diversity of urban events, compounded by political interference and the psychological difficulty of switching between combat and benign tasks.

The nature of operations conducted amongst the physical densities of urban terrain, with trips concentrated in small areas, confined by structures and with their communications equipment degraded will often create command and control difficulties, even in a deserted city.

However, compounded by the diversity of tactical tasks that troops may have to concurrently conduct. US Marine General Krulak expressed this with the concept of the ‘three block war’, when he predicted that troops might on the one hand be conducting relief operations, on another imposing security and in 1/3 conducting intense combat operations all at the same time and within a couple of blocks of each other.

The additional command and control requirements for the three-block war include, dealing with the media, civilian welfare, and managing populations – especially those that are uncooperative or hostile.  The general psychological strain of combat is likely to be intensified by the brutal and close nature of its urban form and the presence of a persistent pervasive threat, which is further compounded by the need to switch between intense lethal operations and benign engagement with the civilian population. 

A final load is often imposed in the form of political interference. The record shows that in recent decades it has been common for political leaders to directly involve themselves in tactical decisions in urban war in a way that they would not do so elsewhere – largely because of the presence of civilians and media. The phenomenon of externally imposed ceasefires during contemporary urban conflict is surprisingly common, yet features little if at all in doctrine. Overall, these factors can place far greater load on the command and control capacities of military units.


The three complexities explored in this final article conclude this series on the 12 challenges of urban war. The Twelve Challenges framework distinguishes between three types of challenge, in three layers, with the truly complex factors last, as follows:

Attitude:  A Confounding Puzzle  

  • Increasing stakes and risks
  • Dissonant beliefs

Physical Terrain: Five Enduring Complications

  • Hands-off Attack
  • Concealment and Ambiguity
  • Aggravated Exposure
  • Diluted Combat Power
  • Degraded Technology

Population and Influence: Five Layers of Complexity

  • Unstable Rules of Engagement
  • Global media Display
  • Welfare Obligation
  • Civilian Hinderance and Resistance
  • Overload and Interference

Each of the challenges above is a potential vulnerability, and those related to civilians are of particular concern.  Urban battles over recent decades have seen dramatically increased civilian harm because armies had no capability alternatives to overhead bombardment. 

This destructive tactic presents both political and reputational risk – the higher the standing of the army concerned and the more their domestic constituency expect reticence, the greater that risk. Furthermore, few armies have historically prepared for urban warfare, and the consequence has often seen unnecessary military casualties and failure or delays in the outcomes political leaders seek. To attack the problems we need understanding.

It is hoped that this series has not only demonstrated the challenges of the urban fight, but explained them in a clear and accessible way that readers can remember and use. The 12 challenges framework is simply a tool – a kind of aide memoire for discussions, debate, writing and teaching.

Tools can be improved: critique and suggestions of all kinds are welcome. If you have a new idea to add, or a better way of expressing an existing idea please contribute. Remember this is only one option for ‘slicing the problem cake’. Clear concepts allow clear thinking. Clear thinking enables good decisions. Good decisions will inform effective doctrine, drive good training and lead to developing the right capabilities for the future operating environment.

The urban fight after all, is here to stay.

About the author: Dr Charles Knight researches capability for operations amongst populations and structures at UNSW and CSU.  An example of his field-based research is this Marawi report for ASPI. He has a practitioner and unconventional warfare background having served in the UK military and other armed forces. He also wrote the Australian urban doctrine and as a reservist is the SO1 Urban Operations at the Australian Army Research Centre. Views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter @ChasAHKnight