Foreign Policy has an article asking that question (This Week at War: A Conflict Without a Name) and tying it into the larger problem of how to understand the nature of conflicts that operate outside of the 20th century model.
Here are some excerpts:
On Feb. 15, gunmen on a highway in central Mexico stopped a vehicle with U.S. diplomatic license plates and shot the two men inside. Killed in the attack was Jaime Zapata, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent. A second ICE agent was wounded. In response to the attack, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) declared that "this tragic event is a game changer" that "should be a long overdue wake-up call for the Obama administration that there is a war on our nation's doorstep."
Should what's happening in Mexico be described as a war? On Feb. 7, U.S. Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal described Mexico's troubles as a "form of insurgency," an assertion that immediately provoked a strong rebuke from Mexico's Foreign Ministry. U.S. policymakers need to fashion a strategy in response to a dire security situation across the border that does not seem to be improving. But as Clausewitz advised two centuries ago, before doing so, they would be well advised to first understand what kind of conflict they face.
In a piece for Small Wars Journal, Robert Bunker, a researcher at the University of Southern California, discussed five conflict models by which analysts might classify the troubles in Mexico, encouraging experts on each of the models to cooperate with each other in order to achieve a deeper understanding of the situation in Mexico.
In Bunker's taxonomy, gang studies, the specialty of some criminologists and law enforcement practitioners, is one way to analyze events in Mexico. Students of gang operations analyze how gangs capture control of neighborhoods, prison populations, and local drug markets. Next is organized crime studies, also the purview of criminologists and law enforcement practitioners, but a level of criminal activity that would imply more organizational sophistication and broader territoriality than that implied by gang studies. A third classification is terrorism studies, a focus of academics and government officials at the national and international levels. Under a terrorism model, cartels in Mexico would use terror to compel compliance from rival gangs, government officials, and non-combatants. Insurgency studies are the fourth paradigm, currently an interest of academics and military planners. Under this model, cartels could ultimately form shadow governments either in parallel or inside the legitimate government. Finally, there are future warfare studies, a province of academics which hypothesizes the creation of new transnational organizational structures that could both combine and supplant governments, security forces, criminal organizations, and corporate interests.
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The Mexican government currently believes it has a straightforward organized crime problem, and as the Westphal incident illustrates, has little patience for alternate points of view. Should analysts and the policymakers on the U.S. side come to a different conclusion, it could make cooperation with their Mexican counterparts difficult.
Bunker arues that signs of all five models are present in Mexico. He also seems to have a lingering fear that the fifth paradigm and the worst-case scenario -- some new form of sophisticated, transnational, criminal-military organization -- may yet predominate. It is this scenario that neither the Mexican nor U.S. governments seem prepared to contemplate. Bunker's call for cooperation among the analysts sounds like timely advice.
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Nation-states still prepare for traditional conventional conflict, if only to deter the recurrence of 20th century, industrial-scale bloodletting and preserve the geopolitical status quo. But those preparations have not stopped alternate forms of warfare from breaking out. At least one party in every ongoing conflict in the world today is composed of non-state groups: spontaneously organized militias, part-time insurgents, full-time terrorists, amateur cyberwarriors, professional mercenaries, or some other type of irregular combatant. Uniformed soldiers of nation-states still go to war, but almost never against uniformed soldiers from another nation-state.
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Irregular combatants have recently learned to further improve their odds by remaining as anonymous as possible. Anonymous cyberwarriors avoid cyberretaliation; insurgents in decentralized cells avoid intelligence officers who are experts at disrupting organizations. And with nation-states now having strong political incentives to avoid having their soldiers overtly engaged in warfare, their leaders may increasingly hire irregulars and anonymous proxies as their combatants. An odd result of these layers of deception will be confusion over when a war has begun, when it has ended, or whether some security problems are really wars at all.
How perfect is it that our Undersecretary of the Army is named "Westphal," as in Westphalia and the Treaty of? The treaty that provided the basis for our whole present system of national sovereignty and nation-states, from which flows international law and the principles of self-determination of states and non-intervention by one state in the internal affairs of another? The system that still defines our government's concept of war, and upon which our military is organized? The same system that has such trouble dealing with non-Westphalian entities like, for example, the Taliban and Mexican drug cartels?
So, is Mexico's drug violence an insurgency or a totally new kind of war? My two cents is that it's neither one; it's the old kind of warfare, the kind that was understood perfectly by pre-modern strategists going back to Julius Caesar and the Gallic Wars.