May 242017

A very interesting article was just published by the Middle East Studies program at Marine Corps University, entitled “The Jihadist Maritime Strategy: Waging a Guerrilla War at Sea.” In it, Dr. Norman Cigar reviews the often neglected maritime component of terrorism, with particular attention to al Qaeda and related organizations.

You can find a copy of the article at the MES website.


Mar 272017

In counterinsurgency operations, tactical successes can often lead to strategic failure. Thus the oft-repeated admonishment to consider second and third order effects. And one of the reasons for this paradox is the prolonged time-horizons inherent in counterinsurgency, as is aptly demonstrated in an article published by West Point’s Modern War Institute:

The concrete barriers emplaced during the “surge” dramatically slowed sectarian violence—for a time—but also cemented the sectarian and ethnic divisions that empowered Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s power grab, contributed to government corruption, and set the conditions for the rise of ISIS. These same divisions will threaten Iraq long after ISIS is defeated if a political solution that incorporates and adequately represents all sects and ethnicities is not further developed.

Population-centric counterinsurgency primarily emphasizes securing the population instead of targeting the enemy and seeks to reinforce the legitimacy of the government while reducing insurgent influence. While US COIN efforts produced an array of tactical successes, the overall result cannot be construed as a total success. This is not a reflection of US service members, their efforts, or their sacrifices, but rather a function of the ambiguity typical of a COIN mission, time constraints, and poor quantitative metrics with which to assess mission progress. While policy debates take place at the strategic level, stop-gap measures and temporary solutions are constantly tried and tested in a process of tactical innovation that attempts to compensate for strategic challenges. However, what appear to be militarily successful tactical innovations can inadvertently compound strategic failures and erode progress toward a political objective. The widespread employment of concrete on the streets of Baghdad offers an illustrative example.

Read more here.

Mar 262017

A recent article by Nathaniel Moir in the Small Wars Journal is well worth the read. In it, he argues that “the legacy of the United States’ Counterinsurgency doctrine includes a contentious foundation” and that the work of Bernard Fall “provided a more circumspect corpus of work from which the United States’ Counterinsurgency doctrine may potentially still benefit.”

FM 3-24, written at the height of the Iraq war, was drawn largely from the work of advocates of the French doctrine on “la guerre révolutionnaire.” These included Charles Lacheroy, Roger Trinquier, and David Galula, who fought in Southeast Asia prior to 1954, but as Moir argues, “they failed to integrate understanding of cultural and historical nuances of the Vietnamese Revolution – particularly in terms of what such history meant for Vietnamese – into their operational doctrines.” Instead of understanding the complex origins of the Indochinese War, they developed theories that could be turned to operational use in other contexts, primarily Algeria. T

Conversely, “Bernard Fall integrated sustained scholarship of historical developments and dynamic cultural transformations occurring in Indochina prior to, and during its revolution.”

Read more here: Bernard Fall and Vietnamese Revolutionary Warfare: A Missed Opportunity for Counterinsurgency Doctrine?

Mar 082016

The most iconic form of irregular warfare is that of insurgency (not to be confused with guerilla warfare), and its necessary counterpart, counterinsurgency. COIN, as it is often referred to, is even more iconic of IW than many imagine, since counterinsurgency campaigns often take on the superficial guise of counterterrorism for political purposes. However, in many of these cases, any terrorism involved is simply a tactical sub-activity of insurgency.

But before diving head first into this subject, it is worthwhile to take a moment to discuss our basic approach to the topic at hand. Most of the US doctrine related to counterinsurgency is heavily focused on foreign internal defense (FID), since it does not foresee the need to conduct COIN at home. Thus, most US doctrine (understandably, and perhaps wisely) approaches COIN as a prelude to FID. However, our study of COIN will adopt a more theoretical and universal point of view, and questions such as transition to host nation (HN) control will be left to our FID inquiry. In addition, since counterinsurgency is by definition a response to insurgency, we must begin our discussion there.


Perhaps the best definition of insurgency to date is that proposed by the U.S. Special Operations Command, which identified an insurgency as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of an established government or societal structure, or the expulsion of a foreign military presence, through the use of subversion and armed conflict.” If this definition is accepted, then insurgency is clearly nothing new. Political leaders and systems have been overthrown through violent means since the beginning of human history.

However, even this definition does not fully satisfy, since it would appear to encompass armed coups and assassination conspiracies. The common use of the term “insurgency” (and its etymological roots) is that of an “uprising.” This suggests that there must be a significant portion of the population that is either actively or passively supportive of the insurgency. If the purported insurgents cannot attract the support of at least a sizable minority of the population, then they cannot truly be called insurgents. And, as will later become clear, a counterinsurgency approach is probably not the most effective government response.

Additionally, this formulation implies a level of coordination that, while probably beneficial to the ends the insurgents seek, is becoming less and less of a requirement as communications technology allows ever-greater disaggregated and decentralized forms social interaction. As the Arab Spring shows, those who seek to overthrow a government through popular uprising (whether violent or peaceful) can on occasion do so with little or no formal organization. While it is difficult to predict where technology will take us in the future, it is not yet appropriate to categorize such minimally organized uprisings as insurgencies.


Counterinsurgency, as its name suggests, is the effort to reduce or defeat an insurgency. This is ordinarily undertaken by the government of the state in which the insurgency exists, but on occasion is undertaken by an occupying force or other outside power. However, this should not be confused with foreign internal defense, in which a foreign power assists a host nation with its efforts to secure itself from internal threats (including insurgency). We will turn our attention to foreign internal defense more fully in the next post.

Notably, JP 3-24, Counterinsurgency Operations defines counterinsurgency as “comprehensive civilian and military efforts taken to defeat an insurgency and to address any core grievances.” While this definition does bring up important concerns for a counterinsurgency effort, it is clearly aspirational. In practice, many COIN efforts are piecemeal and often fail to even consider, much less address, core grievances. In fact, US leadership has recently stated that as of 2015, we still do not have a clear understanding of the Taliban’s political objectives and fundamental interests.

From a purely theoretical point of view, addressing core grievances is not required to defeat an insurgency. History is replete with examples of dictatorships very effectively suppressing major insurgencies through the use of force. The United States itself, in the first 150 years of its existence, defeated multiple insurgencies at home almost exclusively relying on force.

However, most theorists agree (with data to back them up) that the most effective way to combat an insurgent movement is through an approach that balances military and socio-economic methods. In part, this is due to the current communications environment, which allows for too much transparency for states to violently suppress an uprising without drawing a great deal of attention both at home and internationally. For example, Gaddafi had violently repressed his people for decades, and would likely have been able to do so again with little difficulty if the international community did not have immediate visibility into his actions. In addition to transparency, the ubiquity of communications creates an opportunity for the people themselves to communicate about the government’s actions, sometimes with immediate effect. As noted above, leaderless organization is now possible, which allows protesters and rioters to avoid areas of police activity, thereby undermining the effectiveness of relying on security forces alone to carry out COIN.

But if the use of overwhelming violence to suppress an insurgency is out of the question, then much more subtle methodologies are required. There is much written on these “indirect approaches,” including very astute work from David Kilcullen and David Patraeus. What these thought leaders, and those in the US defense community who have followed in their footsteps, have taught us is that a tiered but comprehensive approach is required, in which the population is secured from violence and crime, empowered to carry out their day-to-day lives, and provided sustained progress toward a resolution of their core grievances, all while simultaneously isolating the insurgency (physically, politically and logistically). This latter part of the strategy may involve military force, but from a theoretical point of view does not need to. In theory, purely political activity could work to isolate the insurgents from the support they require, leading the people themselves to deny safe haven to the insurgents through anonymous tips, while the police forces make appropriate arrests of the insurgency’s leadership to be tried in a court of law, further undermining the insurgents’ legitimacy. However, in practice and in most cases, military forces will likely be required to assist in securing the population, isolating the insurgent forces, and capturing its leadership.

Nonetheless, civilian agencies will have a major role in the counterinsurgency effort. At the end of the day, it is civilian action that will most likely be the determining factor between success and failure, since insurgencies rarely arise purely out of public discontent with security issues. Instead, insurgent groups often emerge in response of the government’s failure to provide legitimate leadership or essential public services that leads to the discontent that fuels an insurgency. These are issues outside the purview of the military, and which must be solved by civilian agencies. In a later post, we will discuss in more detail the particular capabilities that these agencies can bring. We will also discuss the issues particular to conducting counterinsurgency as a foreign actor.

Jan 092016

Stability operations, which “involve establishing or re-establishing order in a fragile state or territory,” [DoDD 3000.07 (2014)] are perhaps the best starting point for a discussion of the core activities of irregular warfare. This is because, of all the activities undertaken by military forces, stability operations 1) generally place the military in the most direct, prolonged contact with civilian populations and 2) generally involve the intentional restructuring or resetting of the civilian population’s relationship with their government. In this respect, stability operations get quickly to the heart of irregular warfare: the pursuit of legitimacy in the eyes of the population. This is especially true when there are spoilers attempting to undermine the government, whether for political purposes or for personal gain. However, in many cases, stability operations may not involve a clear opposition, but be undertaken as, for example, a prophylactic measure following a natural disaster, or in the face of rampant but unorganized crime.

Whether opposed or not, the basic goal of stability operations is to maintain or reestablish public order and safety of the civilian population, and if necessary return the state to its legitimate government. As the US military has learned over the last decade and a half, this requires in the short term, the establishment of a safe and secure environment, provision of essential government services, and the responsible delivery of aid. Each of these closely intertwined activities is enormously complex, and while we briefly take each in turn, doing any of them complete justice will necessarily be beyond the scope of this blog. In the longer term, stabilization of a post conflict state also requires transfer of these responsibilities to a host nation government that is legitimate, effective, and has the capacity to manage the activities transitioned to it. These longer-term issues are vital to consider in planning any phase of stability operations, but due to their complexity, will primarily be dealt with in later posts on transition and the interagency role in stabilization and stability operations.

It is important to be clear that this view of stability operations is specific to the point of view of a state conducting stability operations abroad. The view is substantially different for those attempting to stabilize their own state. According to the strategic framework developed by USIP and PKSOI, from the point of view of the host nation population there are five “end states” that must be sought, whom they rightly describe as the “final arbiters of whether peace has been achieved.” These end states are a safe and secure environment, rule of law, stable governance, a sustainable economy, and social well-being.

Guiding Principles for Stabilization and Reconstruction

End States:

• Safe and Secure Environment: Ability of the people to conduct their daily lives without fear of systematic or large-scale violence.

• Rule of Law: Ability of the people to have equal access to just laws and a trusted system of justice that holds all persons accountable, protects their human rights and ensures their safety and security.

• Stable Governance: Ability of the people to share, access or compete for power through nonviolent political processes and to enjoy the collective bene ts and services of the state.

• Sustainable Economy: Ability of the people to pursue opportunities for livelihoods within a system of economic governance bound by law.

• Social Well-Being: Ability of the people to be free from want of basic needs and to coexist peacefully in communities with opportunities for advancement.

However, from the perspective of an irregular warfare force provider, these end states are developed primarily through securing the environment, assisting with essential governmental services, and provision of aid. In the short run, these activities may have to be led by the supporting state, but in all cases the host nation government must as soon as feasible step up to bear the full weight of achieving each of the five end states identified in the Guiding Principles.

Safe and secure environment

It is not difficult to see that lawlessness and armed violence impede economic growth, destroy human and physical capital, and redirect resources from productive use. More perniciously, they also create an environment in which existing intercommunal conflicts can be deepened or activated. This can have the effect of crystallizing conflict within the culture, so that even if active conflict is eventually quelled, cultural cleavages can be reopened by spoilers, bad actors, and misguided nationalists generations later. Thus, delay in securing the environment, or lapses in attention that allow lawlessness or violence to return, can have compounding effects that continue to reverberate through the cultural landscape.

In addition, as the US has found in its recent efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the creation of a reasonably safe and secure environment, even if artificial at the start, is a necessary precondition to making gains in governance and the economy. It should not be terribly surprising that citizens from developing countries (which account for more than half of all armed conflict) have ranked safety, security and justice as primary concerns.  According to USAID, “escalating crime in these already fragile states further impedes their emergence from poverty and instability. At the same time, poverty creates fertile conditions for crime, terrorism, and trafficking.” Conversely, “security-sector reform and the post-conflict reintegration of ex-combatants help create conditions that will enable these states to chart a positive path towards peace so that recovery and development can begin.”

However, while most military planners have focused on the immediate concern of reducing the manifestation of violence and lapses in public order, too often this comes at the expense of planning for the long term, including such systemic issues as police and judicial corruption, alignment with cultural norms and expectations, sustainability of security force assistance, and security sector governance. Again, according to USAID, “promoting effective and responsible governance of the security sector in all its manifestations is a critical element of any program designed to help societies evolve in more secure, democratic and prosperous ways.”

Essential government services

Provision of essential government services, such as water, sanitation, and dispute resolution, is required to generate stability once the environment is secure enough to conduct those services. This is because, in the short run, a population that does not have access to government-provided services will necessarily turn to any source that can provide them. The population will always have a preference for some providers over others, so lack of government services will not necessarily lead to reliance on insurgent groups, but does in most cases weaken the bonds between the government and the people, which will have long-term deleterious effects on security and stability.

The precise services that are required will vary from one country to another, and possibly from one province to another, based on the expectations of the people. These expectations are informed by the history and culture of that state, from minimalist (almost anarchist), in which little more than basic police and hospital services are expected, to maximalist, in which the people expect government involvement in nearly every aspect of their lives. In any case, there are some fundamental services that every government must provide to ensure a stable environment, without which basic human needs will be unmet and this deprivation will quickly induce instability. These include such essentials as water, food, shelter, health services, education, and sanitation. Again, not all societies expect the government to be the primary provider of these services, but all generally expect the government to act as the final guarantor.

Responsible delivery of aid

In cases where the government is not fully capable of securing its population and providing essential services, the international community will likely have to step in to fill the gap. Donor states will likely also be required to assist the government to develop the capability and capacity to provide security and essential services. In the short run, this will in most cases involve the provision of humanitarian relief and emergency infrastructure reconstruction (such as rebuilding of dams and hospitals). In the longer run, aid for stability operations runs the gamut from provision of food, medicine or other supplies; to training government officials and civil society leaders; to foreign military sales; to directly subsidizing the host nation’s budget.

However, not all help is helpful. There are many pitfalls that can beset a country attempting to stabilize a partner nation through foreign aid. While most of these issues are beyond the scope of this blog, a few warrant mention here.

First and foremost is the issue of sustainability. Aid that is not of a type and scale that can be adequately maintained by the host nation after transition (or at least by its permanent donor states) should be recognized as surge effort. In these cases, the transition planning must account for a declining level of effort following the drawdown of aid. If this decline is not manageable, then a more sustainable aid package should be considered, along with a reassessment of the strategic goals for stabilization.

Related to sustainability, but on a shorter timeline, is the issue of absorptive capacity. A state emerging from instability will likely not be able to take on all of the responsibilities of maintaining stability in part because it does not have the resources or the technical and bureaucratic capability to fully absorb the aid that is provided to it. Much like teaching a child mathematical concepts, a graduated approach may be necessary to build the capacity for different skills and responsibilities. In many cases, advanced functions may not be feasible in a reasonable time horizon.

In addition, some attempts at aid may even prove counterproductive to stability. For example, sudden and sustained influx of aid can cause economic shocks and inflation, which may exacerbate resource competition and provide additional impetus to corruption and criminality. As bad as these effects may be, the subsequent and inevitable withdrawal of aid will likely generate the mirror image shocks of stagnation and deflation may be worse.

Ironically, the worst scenario may be the one in which the aid is most effective. Aid which is effective and targeted to the neediest populations may actually exacerbate the very same tensions that lead to the instability in the first place, further cementing ethnic, regional, or other rivalries. Thus, aid to states that may exhibit such cleavages should be intentionally designed to provide something of clear value to all parties, even if the particular type of aid is not identical. For example, job training and medical aid may be given to a village composed primarily of a repressed majority ethnic group, while civic engagement training is given to a formerly empowered minority stronghold nearby.
While the characterization of stability operations outlined above does not map precisely to the doctrinal model used by the US military, this is in part intentional. More than merely an attempt to improve upon the model used in JP 3-07, Stability Operations, the foregoing is offered (as with much of the material in this blog) as a counterpoint to improve understanding of the issues that each model attempts to address. These alternate frameworks need not be seen as competitors for primary, but as approaching the same subject from two different angles. Each angle bringing with it a different perspective and possibly resulting, therefore, in different analytic outcomes. However, neither is the ultimate truth, as that is something none of us will ever know.

Dec 122015

During a regular review held in 2014 of DoDD 3000.07, the directive guiding IW development, concern was expressed by at least one party that the proposed definition of IW unduly characterized Stability Operations as an IW activity, vice a traditional military activity.The following attempts to identify and address the concerns with the inclusion of “stability operations” as one of the examples within DoDD 3000.07 (2014) of DoD activities and operations that comprise an IW campaign.

The offending text was proposed to read: “IW can include any relevant DoD activity and operation such as counterterrorism; unconventional warfare; foreign internal defense; counterinsurgency; and stability operations that, in the context of IW, involve establishing or re-establishing order in a fragile state or territory. While these activities may occur across the full range of military operations, the balance or primary focus of operations gives a campaign its predominant character.”

While the specific issues with the text were not explicitly stated, except that the text made stability operations seem to be too closely aligned with irregular, vice traditional warfare. We were able to identify several possible areas of contention, most prominently including whether Stability operations is a core activity of IW and whether stability operations is categorized as an exclusively IW activity. However, neither of these contentions stand up under close scrutiny.

Taking first the possible issue with stability operations as a core activity of irregular warfare, current stability operations and IW doctrine are in accord with the proposed text’s characterization of IW activities as those “establishing or re-establishing order in a fragile state or territory.” According to the IW JOC 2.0, stability operations are one of the five core activities or operations “undertaken in sequence, in parallel, or in blended form” to “prevent, deter, disrupt and defeat irregular threats.” These five activities are focused upon because IW’s “contest for legitimacy and influence over a population will be won primarily through persistent effort to enable a legitimate and capable local partner to address the conflict’s causes and provide security, good governance, and economic development.” These core activates meet that requirement “because they are typically sustained activities that focus on the population and are conducted with other partners.” 

Stability Operations is one of IW JOC 2.0’s five core activities due to the need to “establish or re-establish order in a fragile state” and the role of the military in providing “a safe and secure environment to support other government agency programs to build host nations capacity” or in which the military will conduct such activities itself. 

Stability operations doctrine aligns with that of IW in that both seek to “neutralize and isolate irregular actors by winning the contests in both the physical domains and the information environment of the operational area.” (JP 3-07 pg. II-26) Concordant with the IW concept, JP 3-07, Stability Operations, notes that “The HN government must provide a more attractive, credible vision of the future than the adversary. Without security, the development of adequate governance, sustainable local economies, and delivery of essential services is significantly impeded and unlikely to succeed.” 

The second likely concern is also unwarranted. The DoDD 3000.07 proposed language does not unduly characterize stability operations as “an IW activity,” since it also states that “IW can include any relevant DoD activity and operation,” of which stability operations is one example. This is appropriate, since in current doctrine, stability operations is not characterized as an activity in support of either traditional or irregular warfare. In fact, none of five doctrinal core irregular warfare activities are perfectly unique to irregular warfare. IW JOC 2.0 “recognizes that [the] five IW activities may also be applied outside the arena of irregular threats.” This includes as much to stability operations As any of the other core activities, if not moreso. Moreover, JP 3-07 also envisions stability operations being conducted in support of an IW campaign, in addition to traditional warfare (see JP 3-07, pg. I-4).

There are two likely reasons for this either-or confusion regarding stability operations. The first is a belief evident within the military community that irregular and traditional warfare are in some way mutually exclusive, despite multiple pronouncements throughout US military doctrine to the contrary. Joint military doctrine and policy is very clear that irregular and traditional warfare are not mutually exclusive, but coexist in nearly every conflict in some proportion. 

The precise reason for this insistence on bifurcation of irregular and traditional is unclear, but very likely is rooted in the fear of change and preference for simplicity that is inherent in human logic. Military officers and defense professionals, as with any type of professional, are easily enamored with evolutionary changes in their craft which make their current job easier, but reflexively reject changes which challenge their assumptions about the nature of their work or require entirely new modes of operation. 

Another likely reason for the confusion over stability operations as either traditional or irregular is introduced by a sloppy classification system used within joint doctrine itself. Under this system, warfare is described as “offensive,” “defensive,” or “stability” operations, or some blend thereof (e.g. “Traditional warfare is characterized by a series of offensive, defensive, and stability operations.” JP 1 pg. I-5; see also JP 3-07 pg. I-4). While not explicitly stated, this appears to be an entirely separate classification system from that which defines types of operations. Notably, while stability operations is clearly defined in the joint lexicon and has a joint publication devoted to it, “offensive” and “defensive” operations do not appear to be defined in JP 1-02, the joint military dictionary, or other relevant documents. 

However, the definition of stability operations is provided in JP 1-02 and JP 3-07, and according to this definition, stability operations is capable of being classified as a core activity of IW (see the above discussion), which is not included in the offensive/defensive/stability classification. Therefore, 

In addition, stability operations may be confused with operations during the “stabilize” phase of a conflict (see, e.g., JP 3-0 pg. V-8). However, DoDD 3000.07 and several joint pubs make clear that stability operations are carried out throughout all phases. (See, e.g., JP 3-0 pg. V-36). The stabilize phase is merely the notional point of the conflict in which stability operations are the predominant military concern. Stability operations is neither the exclusive activity during this phase, nor is it relegated to this phase. In fact, in the vast majority of modern conflicts, the stabilize phase is purely notional in that it begins before major combat operations are actually over, and even once they are over, they will likely be employed again at several points in an attempt to crush strongholds of insurgent activity, as in Fallujah, Korengal and a multitude of other examples. 

In the end, as students of military theory, it is important to be able to be clear about the types of operations we are discussing, and to ensure that the classification systems we use are internally coherent. Moreover, it is vital that we not allow biases to dictate our understanding of the issues involved in our craft. Unfortunately, these problems abound in the study of irregular warfare. Through this blog, we hope to elucidate some of these problems, but caution the reader that vigilance is required at all times when reading any analysis related to irregular warfare topics.

Dec 052015

The nature of warfare in the 21st century remains as it has been since ancient times – ‘a violent clash of interests between or among organized groups characterized by the use of military force.’ These organized groups are no longer limited to states with easily identifiable regular armed forces, nor do they all operate by internationally accepted conventions and standards.
IW JOC 1.0, quoting 7 MCDP 1, Warfighting (Washington, DC, United States Marine Corps, June 1997).

This blog was started not just out of a personal passion for the subject matter, but a firmly held belief that the United States will increasingly be confronted by irregular challenges, and that it has a troublesome tendency to bury its head in the sand about such threats when planning its military and diplomatic forces.

While the most catastrophic conflicts in which the US might engage would undoubtedly be those involving open warfare with major powers, such as China or Russia, these states also understand this fact, and know that they would very likely have no chance of success in such a conflict. Therefore, like the smaller “rogue” states and non-state dissident groups we more frequently confront, they will avoid direct conflict with the US, and rely instead on irregular and hybrid modes of conflict. Using these more indirect means, they can avoid provoking the immense conventional power of the US military while still affecting the international environment in ways that are unacceptably contrary to our interests, in much the same way that the Soviet Union attempted to achieve dominance through its “salami slice” approach to the Cold War.

Faced with the conventional warfighting capacity of the United States, our adversaries will likely choose to fight using a hybrid of irregular, disruptive, catastrophic, and traditional capabilities as a way to achieve their strategic objectives. The strategy of our adversaries will be to subvert, attrite, and exhaust us rather than defeat us militarily. They will seek to undermine and erode the national power, influence, and will of the United States and its strategic partners.

IW JOC 1.0.

This truth has been stated over and over again, but to little avail. In 2005, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Dr. John Hillen, told the Joint Worldwide Planning Conference that “We imagine the brewing threats of ‘Perfect Storms’ of failed governments, ethnic stratification, religious violence, humanitarian disasters, catalytic regional crises, and the proliferation of dangerous weapons. We see lagging economies, unintegrated and disenfranchised populations, transnational crime, illicit sub-national power structures, and destabilizing bulges of uneducated and unemployed youth.” By 2008, it was becoming clear that this threat emanated not only from failed states and non-state actors, but state powers as well. Recognizing this, the first Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept stated that “Our adversaries will pursue IW strategies, employing a hybrid of irregular, disruptive, traditional, and catastrophic capabilities to undermine and erode the influence and will of the United States and our strategic partners.” Moreover, it predicted that “our adversaries will continue to wage IW against us until we demonstrate the same competency in IW that we demonstrate in conventional warfighting.”

But this is not merely prognostication. Recent conflicts with powers small and large are characterized largely by the employment of irregular means and methods. Al Qaeda has survived its trials in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere and has developed a more subtle, long-term strategy to build a network of allied dissident groups, while its former branch in Iraq has morphed into a semi-regular force that controls a massive amount of territory and has developed one of the most sophisticated information operations campaigns the world has ever seen. Meanwhile, Russia has adroitly applied its conventional and special forces to bolster and lead irregular forces in Eastern Ukraine, challenging the future of NATO and the European balance of power. Furthermore, China has been engaging in a coordinated campaign of lawfare and harassment in the South and East China Seas, using forces and methods that allow it to work toward its strategic goals while remaining below the threshold at which conventional conflict is likely to result.

While this may seem like a new and troubling trend, the most troubling aspect is that this trend is hardly new. While many in the defense and national security field lament what appears to be the breakdown of the system of state monopoly on violence as a political tool, it seems more likely that we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the “Westphalian moment,” as described by Sean McFate, author of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. This period was likely created by the window of opportunity for organization, in which the available modes of communication were sufficient to disseminate information and guidance, allowing top-down political organization, but not sufficient to allow more horizontal alternative networks to arise. Modern communications greatly reduce the divide between the ability for individuals to communicate and that of the state communications apparatus. This allows individuals to organize across distance without resorting to the state or other superstructures (e.g., the church, guild, union, etc.), subsequently creating too many voices for the state to adequately respond.

In fact, as mentioned elsewhere in this blog, since the time of Napoleon, approximately 80% of conflict has been irregular in nature. Obvious examples in U.S. history abound: guerrilla warfare in the Philippines during World War II, the counterinsurgency and foreign internal defense waged in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, unconventional warfare in Afghanistan in the 1980s, stability operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, and arguably the (abortive) unconventional warfare in Iraq in 1991, just to name a few. This is not to mention the more recent extensive efforts following the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Although this is not a blog on military or political history, it is essential to understand important lessons from the past for how our military and diplomatic corps will need to operate in the future, and how they must prepare themselves to do so. The rich history of irregular warfare also lends its compelling voice to the call for improved capabilities to confront modern-day irregular challenges. Throughout this blog, we will draw on the lessons of history and current events to guide and inform our analysis of the threats we face, and the most effective means of confronting them.

Nov 082015

As discussed briefly in the previous post, current US military doctrine describes irregular warfare as having five core activities: counterterrorism (CT), unconventional warfare (UW), foreign internal defense (FID), counterinsurgency (COIN), and stability operations (SO). Rather than being viewed as a list of discrete options, these activities (sometimes called the five “pillars” of irregular warfare), according to IW JOC 2.0, may be undertaken in sequence, in parallel, or in blended form as part of a campaign to address irregular threats. It is interesting to note that of these five activities, only one–unconventional warfare–is “offensive” in a strategic sense (counterterrorism is often offensive at the operational and tactical levels, but is reactive and defensive at the strategic level). Nonetheless, there is a significant convergence between several of these activities. For example, it will often be difficult to determine if an activity in a complex operation is in support of a foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency, or stability operations line of effort. In fact, the activity may support all of these simultaneously.

Each of the core activities of irregular warfare has at least one natural partner: unconventional warfare is combatted through counterinsurgency and foreign internal defense, while counterterrorism is naturally paired with terrorism. But terrorism is not on the list according to US joint doctrine… And what about insurgency itself? The key to understanding this is realizing that the US only identified the core activities of irregular warfare according to a purely US-centric point of view. Based on the conclusion that the US does not participate in terrorism, counterterrorism is a sufficient activity to cover this domain of warfare, and the fact that insurgencies will be conducted only by proxy allow the US to focus only on unconventional warfare.

This blog takes a slightly different view of the number and organization of the core activities of irregular warfare.

First, the use of the term “pillars” is misleading as to the nature of these activities within irregular warfare doctrine. Pillars support a structure and (assuming that they are not merely cosmetic) are necessary to the integrity of that structure. However, the activities listed above are not in the abstract necessary to an irregular warfare campaign. For example, a state conducting an internal counterinsurgency may or may not require a foreign internal defense effort, while a counterterrorism campaign may find that the terrorists have no popular support, obviating the need for counterinsurgency. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, stability operations may be required to quell rioting and limit looting, but there may be no effective organization to the unrest, limiting the role of counterinsurgency to measures that are essentially prophylactic. Additionally, as the only offensive activity among those listed, unconventional warfare will in many cases be conducted in the absence any of the others.

The term “core activities” is therefore preferable to “pillars,” since it makes clear the importance of these activities in irregular warfare writ large, but does not imply that each of the activities will be necessary in every irregular warfare campaign. It also carries the implication that these activities will be the primary effort in a campaign, supported by other activities like strategic communications, psychological operations, and civil-military operations.

Beyond simple terminology preferences, there is also the more important issue of precisely what activities are core to irregular warfare. Since this blog is not specifically focused on development of US military forces (as the Joint Operating Concepts on Irregular Warfare are), this blog takes the position that there are several sets of core activities: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency; Unconventional Warfare and Foreign Internal Defense; Stability Operations; and Terrorism and Counterterrorism. In addition to regrouping the activities, it should be noted that two new activities are added: insurgency and terrorism. This is not merely an academic choice, however, since including all fundamental operational activities is essential to the study of the enemy’s strategic, operational, and tactical considerations. While it is unlikely that US forces will conduct these activities itself, it must still understand them in order to confront them (through COIN, FID and CT) and, in the case of insurgency, to support it when required through unconventional warfare. Thus, as part of a coherent classification system of irregular warfare, they must be included along with their “counter” activities.

And as has been clear from the time of Sun Tzu, understanding your adversaries’ options and strategies is a foundational requirement to confronting that adversary. This is true in any confrontational pursuit, whether it be politics, the courtroom, business, or the battlefield. In an irregular struggle, whether against a state or non-state adversary, understanding that adversary’s strategic goals, options and constraints will allow a strategist to formulate a plan to take advantage of his weakest points and properly prepare for attacks against his own. In a counterinsurgency campaign, for example, the counterinsurgent must do more that simply track down and kill the insurgent leadership, or infiltrate and destroy their sanctuary. They must also confront the political ideology driving the insurgents and their supporters in order to isolate them and transform their support structures from assets into liabilities. In order to do this, the counterinsurgent must have a keen understanding of the purposes and functions of insurgent movements and their organizational structures.


These activities are grouped into the pairs above to highlight the offensive and defensive forms of each activity. Unfortunately, as the above graphic makes clear, there is more than one obvious way that activities related to insurgency may be grouped: along offensive versus defensive lines, train and equip versus direct conduct lines, or simply as a foursome. There is no right answer, and in different discussions, it may be more useful to use one grouping rather than another. However, for most of the discussions we will pursue in this blog, the offensive versus defensive lines will be most useful, since it will help to clarify the most vital aspects of each. However, we may from time to time use alternate groupings to discuss various aspects of these activities. And the same will be true to a lesser extent for the terrorism and stability activities, as we discuss the various overlaps and blended responses inherent in confronting to irregular threats.

While each of these fundamental areas of irregular warfare are inextricably linked to one another, this blog will take on each pairing separately in a series of posts for the sake of clarity, and outline the interlinkages in the course of discussion. In addition, we will discuss other operational activity sets related to irregular warfare, such as intelligence and counterintelligence, organized crime and law enforcement, and security sector reform and assistance.

Oct 042015

“IW is a complex,’messy,’ and ambiguous social phenomenon that does not lend itself to clean, neat, concise, or precise definition.”

Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept, 2008

The above quote reflects the discomfort that the US military had (and continues to have) in coming to terms with an aspect of warfare that was becoming increasingly apparent in the wake of its struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan. While many were concerned that the military was gearing up to take on political objectives and employ political methods, there was a growing understanding that the “traditional” way of doing business was not working as well as might be hoped, and a growing number of voices arguing that these problems were not going to go away any time soon. So the Pentagon set out to try to come to grips with the problem, formulating a new doctrine of irregular warfare to encompass the many interrelated issues that it was confronting.

Irregular Warfare is defined in US joint doctrine as “A violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.” As such, it encompasses much of what has until recently been considered to be traditional warfare, since militaries have long understood that they must take public perception into account in their planning. However, it also includes areas of military operations that are not as well-known, and in fact seek to maintain that low profile. Such “special” operations are understood to be politically sensitive and thus often function best when their existence goes undetected. Complicating things further, according to this definition, irregular warfare also includes activities that are usually not considered to be the purview of the military, such as strategic communications, diplomatic activities, and other forms of political or cultural engagement.

Being a “violent struggle,” irregular warfare does not seek to address the political maneuverings of those who do not and are not expected to employ force to achieve their goals. However, it does seek to address the employment of political methodologies of violent organizations. It is interesting to note the relationship of irregular warfare in this regard to traditional warfare, which seeks to address the violent methodologies of (formal) political organizations. This mirror image dichotomy exposes one of the key aspects of irregular warfare that should be understood by all military theorists and practitioners: traditional and irregular warfare view the same basic problem from different perspectives: political violence. The following graphic, from the first Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept may help to illuminate this duality:

Gov/Pop/Mil graphicAs opposite sides of the same coin, while each may be independently useful in a given situation, they are usually best used in some blended form based upon the scenario at hand. For example, irregular warfare tends to be of most use in dealing with non-state actors, when deniability is required, or when the instability to be addressed has its roots in popular unrest.

Because of this, current US military doctrine describes the five core activities of irregular warfare as counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense, stability operations and unconventional warfare. These activities are highlighted not to limit the scope of irregular warfare, but because each necessarily involves the attempt to either bolster or undermine the legitimacy of a foreign government in the eyes of its own population, or some portion thereof. In fact, this could be considered a second definition of irregular warfare, albeit a more circumscribed one.

In future posts, we will return to these considerations again and again as we explore the many facets of irregular warfare.

Oct 032015

Welcome to the Irregular Warrior. This is a blog about irregular warfare in all of its various manifestations. We will take a methodical approach, discussing each facet of irregular warfare and its component parts independently. There will therefore be a great deal of overlap between sections, so we will necessarily revisit different topics again and again. Additionally, this blog will cover many topics not normally associated with defense, and explore the associated connections required between the military and civilian organizations.

Irregular warfare, while usually considered a specialty skill set, is actually one of the most often required, if not the most employed. As will be discussed more in a later post, irregular warfare is essentially the use of military capabilities to affect the relationship between a people and their governing authority. As such, irregular warfare plays a central role in insurgencies, terrorism, and stability operations. With approximately 80% of all conflicts since the Napoleonic era involving non-state actors as major combatants, it is becoming increasingly clear that irregular warfare is not an area of warfare that can be brushed aside by our military leadership. In fact, looking at just US military history, it is arguable that nearly all wars, large and small, have included a sizable irregular warfare component. Begining with the American Revolution, which was a classic case of insurgency, American warfighters have either employed or confronted irregular methods. (Additional historical examples will be discussed in a later post.)

Because of it ubiquity, it is vital that military and foreign policy decisionmakers have a firm grasp of irregular warfare and their role in it. However, there has been significant resistance in US defense and foreign policy institutions to assuming responsibility for irregular warfare. In 2012, the Defense Planning Guidance while lauding the lessons learned over a decade of war, stated that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to condecut large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” While some in the military, and especially in the Army, have taken up the banner of irregular warfare, the Army and the military at large still prioritize conventional forces when cuts are required. Similarly, while some in the State Department and USAID understand the vitality of irregular warfare, they are do not resourced sufficiently to meaningfully participate in the the effort.

This deprioritization of such a central requirement of US foreign and national security policy is like due to several factors, many of which will be explored in subsequent posts over the course of our investigation or irregular warfare. However, two of these reasons warant mention from the start, those being the fact that no agency bears clear and individual responsibility for irregular warfare and the fact that it is by its very nature a messy and complicated affair, when American decisionmakers and the American public both prefer simple solutions even if those solutions don’t reflect reality.

If the foregoing seems glum and foreboding of a future of relearning all the lessons of history through trial and error, then I appologize. In truth, the future does in fact look brighter by far than the past. Taking the broadest perspective, despite our perceptions, the world is steadily becoming a safer place. Over time the number of deaths due to conflict have dropped dramatically. For example, battle deaths have dropped exponentially as the world has become more intereconnected, from 500 per 100,000 people before the advent of the modern state to 60 per 100,000 during the period of the two World Wars, to 0.3 per 100,000 today. 

In the narrower, irregular warfare perspective, there are bastions of retained lessons learned and centers of study that continue to advance the study of irregular warfate The United Nations, by eshewing offensive operations in favor of peacemaking, peacebuilding, and peacekeeping, provides a modicum of continuity from one irregular warfare campaign to the next. Additionally, the US Army, while it has downsized its irregular warfare capabilities to protect its conventional forces from budget cuts, has made a clear effort to retain the lessons learned from the last decade and a half of irregular warfare. Simultaneously,the Joint Staff in the US Department of Defense maintains an active interest in protecting the irregular warfare capabilities built during those difficult years. In fact, it is largely from that wealth of knowledge that this blog will draw its inspiration.

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