An Irregular Reading List

Welcome to our irregular warfare reading list. As anyone who reads this blog understands, continual study is necessary both to confront the dangers posed by the modern security environment and to understand irregular conflicts of the past. A deliberate course of reading is an essential component of that continual study. However busy our personal or professional lives may be, finding time to read and think is vital to our professional development.

To that end, the following books may help readers to improve their understanding of past irregular conflicts and the body of knowledge developed by past theorists, as well as insight into the future of irregular warfare. No particular view point is endorsed by the selection of these book–except that understanding received wisdom is vital to all, whether to apply that wisdom or to challenge it.

In no particular order:

Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency by Roger Trinquier

French officers who served in Indochina, like the author, Roger Trinquier, fought fierce rear-guard actions against ideologically motivated insurgents in the 1940s and 1950s to a far greater extent than their American counterparts later faced in Vietnam. The lack of coherent strategic direction from Paris in the chaotic years of the Fourth Republic left the military with the task of making political decisions in the field.

Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice by David Galula

Indispensable to any irregular warfare reading list, this book examines the strategy and means to defeat insurgent or guerrilla movements based on the author’s first-hand experience in China, Greece, Indochina, and Algeria. Galula defines the laws of insurgency and outlines the strategy and tactics to combat such threats. Drawn from the observations of a French officer who witnessed guerrilla warfare on three continents, the book remains relevant today as American policymakers, military analysts, and members of the public look to the counterinsurgency era of the 1960s for lessons to apply to the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present by Max Boot

Invisible Armies presents an entirely original narrative of warfare, which demonstrates that, far from the exception, loosely organized partisan or guerrilla warfare has been the dominant form of military conflict throughout history. New York Times best-selling author and military historian Max Boot traces guerrilla warfare and terrorism from antiquity to the present, narrating nearly thirty centuries of unconventional military conflicts.

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam by John A. Nagl

Invariably, armies are accused of preparing to fight the previous war. In Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl—a veteran of both Operation Desert Storm and the current conflict in Iraq—considers the now-crucial question of how armies adapt to changing circumstances during the course of conflicts for which they are initially unprepared. Through the use of archival sources and interviews with participants in both engagements, Nagl compares the development of counterinsurgency doctrine and practice in the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960 with what developed in the Vietnam War from 1950 to 1975. 

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Mark Mazzetti argues that the most momentous change in American warfare in recent years has taken place not on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the corners of the world where large armies can’t go. The Way of the Knife is the untold story of that shadow war: a campaign that has blurred the lines between soldiers and spies and lowered the bar for waging war across the globe.

On Guerrilla Warfare by Mao Zedong

Another clear must have to any irregular warfare reading list is the seminal work of Mao Tse-tung. On Guerrilla Warfare is widely considered to be one of the greatest books of all time amongst revolutionaries. On Guerrilla Warfare is required reading for various courses and curricula. And for others who simply enjoy reading literature on warfare, terrorism, revolutions, and the like, this book by Mao Tse-tung is highly recommended. On Guerrilla Warfare should be considered for inclusion into everyone’s personal library.

The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One by David Kilcullen

David Kilcullen is one of the world’s most influential experts on counterinsurgency and modern warfare who influenced America’s decision to rethink its military strategy in Iraq and implement “the Surge.” In The Accidental Guerrilla, Kilcullen provides a remarkably fresh perspective on the War on Terror. Kilcullen takes us “on the ground” to uncover the face of modern warfare, illuminating both the big global war (the “War on Terrorism”) and its relation to the associated “small wars” across the globe: Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Thailand, the Pakistani tribal zones, East Timor and the horn of Africa. Kilcullen sees today’s conflicts as a complex interweaving of contrasting trends–local insurgencies seeking autonomy caught up in a broader pan-Islamic campaign–small wars in the midst of a big one. He warns that America’s actions in the war on terrorism have tended to conflate these trends, blurring the distinction between local and global struggles. He claims that the US had done a poor job of applying different tactics to these very different situations, continually misidentifying insurgents with limited aims and legitimate grievances–whom he calls “accidental guerrillas”–as part of a coordinated worldwide terror network. This book is a must read for everyone concerned about the war on terror.

Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla  by David Kilcullen

When Americans think of modern warfare, what comes to mind is the US army skirmishing with terrorists and insurgents in the mountains of Afghanistan. But the face of global conflict is ever changing. In Out of the Mountains, David Kilcullen offers a look at what may happen after today’s wars end given the challenges and opportunities that four powerful megatrends–population, urbanization, coastal settlement, and connectedness–are creating across the planet.
Kilcullen argues that conflict is increasingly likely to occur in sprawling coastal cities; in peripheral urban slum settlements developing in many regions of the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia; and in highly connected, electronically networked settings. He suggests that cities, rather than countries, are the critical unit of analysis for future conflict and that resiliency, not stability, will be the key objective.  This deeply researched and compellingly argued book provides an invaluable roadmap to a future that will increasingly be crowded, urban, coastal, connected and dangerous.

Counterinsurgency  by David Kilcullen

Counterinsurgency brings together the most salient of David Kilcullen’s early writings on this vitally important topic. Here is a picture of modern warfare by someone who has had his boots on the ground in some of today’s worst trouble spots-including Iraq and Afghanistan-and who has been studying counterinsurgency since 1985. Filled with down-to-earth, common-sense insights, this book is one of the definitive accounts of counterinsurgency, indispensable for all those interested in making sense of our world in an age of terror.

Going Big by Getting Small: The Application of Operational Art by Special Operations in Phase Zero by Brian S. Petit

Going Big by Getting Small examines how the United States Army Special Forces apply operational art, the link between tactics and strategy, in the non-wartime, steady-state environments called “Phase Zero,” and how those Special Forces offer scalable and differentiated strategic options for US foreign policy goals. This book analyzes light footprint special operations approaches in Yemen, Indonesia, Thailand, and Colombia. When a large military presence may be inappropriate or counterproductive, Colonel Brian Petit makes the case for fresh thinking on Phase Zero operational art as applied by small, highly skilled, joint-force teams coupled with interagency partners. This book fills a gap in the literature of how to adapt the means, method, and logic of US military foreign engagements in a diplomacy-centric world with rapidly shifting power paradigms. Going Big by Getting Small is not a yarn on daring special operations raids nor a call for perpetual war. It is the polar opposite: this book contemplates the use of discreet engagements to sustain an advantageous peace, mitigate conflict, and prevent crises.

Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War by Lindsay A. O’Rourke

In Covert Regime Change, Lindsey A. O’Rourke shows us how states really act when trying to overthrow another state. Using an original dataset of all American regime change operations during the Cold War, O’Rourke argues that the conventional focus on overt cases misses the basic causes of regime change, as this accounts for a mere ten percent of regime change efforts. O’Rourke provides substantive evidence of types of security interests that drive states to intervene, including offensive operations aiming to overthrow a current rival, preventive operations seeking to stop a state from taking specific actions, hegemonic operations try to maintain a hierarchical relationship between the intervening state and the target government. Her dataset allows O’Rourke to address three foundational questions: What motivates states to attempt foreign regime change? Why do states prefer to conduct these operations covertly rather than overtly? How successful are such missions in achieving their foreign policy goals?

If you know of a book that simply must be included on any irregular warfare reading list, please send us a note here, and tell us why you think your book should be included. We’ll update this list regularly, including new submissions as they come in.

New Addition: Irregular Warfare Reference Library

The Irregular Warrior is creating a reference library of public domain studies and doctrine related to irregular warfare. Our first additions to this library are from the Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies (ARIS) project.

ARIS consists of research conducted for the US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) by the National Security Analysis Department of The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. It produces academically rigorous and operationally relevant research to develop and illustrate a common understanding of insurgency and revolution. The project is intended to form a foundation of knowledge for USASOC personnel, as well as to enable the development of future doctrine, professional education, and training.

The ARIS project is modeled on the research conducted by the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) of American University in the 1950s and 1960s. ARIS continues the work of SORO by adding new research to that body of work, republishing original SORO studies, and releasing updated editions of selected SORO studies.

We’ll be adding additional resources soon, so keep checking in, and let us know if there are any resources you think we should add.

Should we ditch unconventional warfare? A Special Forces officer would, and instead focus on support to Political Warfare

US Army Special Forces officer Doug Livermore recently published a critique of the term “unconventional warfare” over at War on the Rocks. The gist of his argument is that misunderstandings about the nature of unconventional warfare and what it can be expected to accomplish are hindering the effective use of this core mission of US special operations forces. Replacing the term with the more readily understood “support to indigenous resistance” and reconnecting it to the concept of political warfare would solve this problem, he argues.

While unconventional warfare served the United States well throughout the Cold War, the understanding of the term has become so distorted by policymakers that it is now essentially a “catch all” for many political warfare components that fall outside the purview of the Department of Defense.

This blog has made similar criticisms of the understanding of unconventional warfare in previous articles, in particular about the popular understanding of unconventional warfare. As Doug describes,

[W]hen the average American thinks of unconventional warfare (assuming they ever do), they likely imagine testosterone-fueled scenes of commando derring-do from movies like Rambo, Black Hawk Down, Inglourious Basterds, and Zero Dark Thirty. These fanciful interpretations of special operations capabilities and missions leave audiences with the inaccurate impression that unconventional warfare is mostly kinetic, often hurriedly planned and executed in an ad hoc fashion, and always requiring direct U.S. military involvement.

And he rightly points out that the lack of understanding is not limited to the layperson, but can readily be found in our defense leadership:

Many policymakers and senior military leaders misunderstand unconventional warfare to such an extent that the term is almost meaningless outside of the small Special Operations community that truly understands the real limitations of this doctrine.

Those few U.S. policymakers who actually understand unconventional warfare … also recognize it is a narrowly-focused Department of Defense mission. However, Pentagon leadership largely marginalizes unconventional warfare as a tool of little use in the sort of peer-on-peer conventional conflicts on which the department prefers to focus its attention.

This view of unconventional warfare as “a tool of little use in the sort of peer-on-peer conventional conflicts” may be changing, with the increased attention on non-traditional interstate conflict now known as the “gray zone.” But there remains significant misunderstanding of the capability, compounded by an institutional reluctance to stray too far from the traditional roles and responsibilities of the military.

Political Warfare

Doug’s point that unconventional warfare is inherently a part of whole of government political warfare is worth discussing in detail. But before we get to understanding the appropriate role of special operations in political warfare, we must first understand the outlines of political warfare.

The concept of political warfare originated in 1948, when George Kennan, former ambassador to the Soviet Union and largely credited with conceptualizing the Soviet “containment” policy, coined the term in a memorandum. He defined it as:

The employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives … They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures, and ‘white’ propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, ‘black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.

This policy was designed to employ the full breadth of US national power to bear in confronting Soviet aims at expansion, but to do so without risking the catastrophic damage of a shooting war between two great powers. Unconventional warfare was only one aspect of this broader political warfare strategy, and arguably the one most sparingly employed (note the “and even” attached to “encouragement of underground resistance”). As the “hottest” of the forms of confrontation Kennan discussed, and clearly the most lethal, this reluctance is warranted to avoid the unintended breakout of direct warfare.

Unconventional Warfare in Support of Political Warfare

Originally conceived as infiltration “deep into enemy-occupied territory and organize the resistance/guerrilla potential to conduct Special Forces operations, with emphasis on guerrilla warfare,” this core mission of US Army Special Forces has not changed much in the intervening 65 years. It is currently defined in US military doctrine as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.”

As Doug points out, these definitions do not cover the full scope of political warfare, but only the support to resistance movements. It must be paired with other elements of Kennan’s political warfare approach to effectively cause an adversary to change course, much less to cause a standing regime to collapse.

Without a well-planned, synchronized, and executed strategy that incorporates the other components of national power, it is impossible for the U.S. to advance its interests and address its most dire security concerns.

Is it Time for a New Paradigm?

Doug makes a great case that, shackled with the “misunderstood unconventional warfare mission, the U.S. government has largely abdicated its responsibility to design and execute coherent interagency strategies to address security challenges posed by adversaries’ political warfare.” While there are other, institutional reasons for this abdication, repairing the political leadership’s understanding of unconventional warfare as part of the broader context of political warfare would be a step in the right direction.

Developing an effective strategy to counter the political warfare waged by our adversaries requires a comprehensive, whole of government approach. As Doug argues, such an approach would likely include:

more intense diplomatic efforts to isolate perpetrators, integrated and expanded economic and financial sanctions designed to directly influence key decision makers in countries currently waging political warfare against the United States, increased international and national legal efforts to raise both the monetary and reputational cost of such disruptive activities, and an aggressive propaganda campaign intended to counteract competitors’ false narratives and weaken the corrupt underpinnings of their regimes.

In Doug’s view the misunderstanding and misapplication of the term “unconventional warfare” has created a situation in which the U.S. government has come to “over-rely on the Department of Defense, thereby avoiding development of more comprehensive approaches to countering competitors’ political warfare.” This is where the other, institutional reasons for the abdication of comprehensive strategy-making come into play. US Government agencies outside the Department of Defense tend to perceive their role in conflict as quite limited, if any. They are also generally biased against offensive application of their institutional capabilities. Even when they do decide to get involved in planning for political warfare, other institutional impediments arise, including bureaucratic walls between agencies, protection of “rice bowls,” and even simple differences in fundamental terminology (note the use of the term “assessment” in DoD versus State and USAID). By relying on the DoD to develop strategic approaches to complex international conflicts, these other issues can be blissfully avoided.

Doug argues that this predilection for reliance on the DoD can be overcome by replacing the term “unconventional warfare” with the more descriptive term “support to indigenous resistance,” which would in turn be a subset of the larger “support to political warfare” paradigm, as developed by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. This change in how we talk about unconventional warfare “would reinforce for senior policymakers the need to develop overarching interagency political warfare strategies that military initiatives would then support.” This, in turn, would allow the DoD, and its Special Operations Command in particular, to refocus on the capabilities required to conduct military operations in support of interagency political warfare strategies.

Armed with a better understanding of how U.S. adversaries wage political warfare, it is evident that unconventional warfare alone is incapable of protecting America’s interests. Rejecting the term will reset the discussion and force policymakers to approach this thorny dilemma with unbiased perspectives.

Realigning Political Warfare Strategy Development

If successful, this shift in responsibility for strategy-making would face considerable resistance within the DoD, as Doug admits, as it would curb the dominant strategy-making position within the U.S. government which it has come to enjoy, not to mention the increased funding priority which accompanies this responsibility. But the proper place for deciding national security and foreign policy matters is not at the DoD, which lacks the expertise and authority to employ the full range of national capabilities, but rather the National Security Council. The National Security Council’s charter makes clear that it is the principal advisory body to the president on all national security matters, as well as a clearinghouse for interagency coordination on national security concerns.

In Doug’s view, the “improper application of the unconventional warfare term to encompass a wide range of non-military elements of national power has allowed the Department of Defense to greatly expand its own influence within the interagency community.” While other factors, mentioned above, significantly contribute to this accumulation of power in the DoD, better defining the boundaries of the military contribution to political warfare would go a long way toward rectifying this lopsided development of strategy.

Using the Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework to Create a Stable Security Environment in Iraq

Using ICAF to create sustainable stability in Iraq

An article over at Small Wars Journal, Preventing OIF III: Using the Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework to Achieve a Sustainable Iraqi Security Force, tackles the tough issue of the long game in Iraq: preventing continued civil war after the fall of ISIS. Authors Christina Bembenek, Darrel Choat, Randy Hughes and Thomas Petersen argue that the answer can be found using the Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework (ICAF) to analyze the conflict dynamics affecting Iraq, and to develop solutions to address those key fundamental issues.

Using the ICAF methodology, the team identifies underlying factors such as sectarianism, corruption, weak judicial institutions, unemployment, poor education, which prevent the development of a professional and trusted national force.

The authors point our that the  current strategy focuses on rebuilding the ISF, rather than addressing the “political, judicial, demographic, economic, and social challenges within the security forces that must be resolved to build a truly capable force.” It’s scope is almost exclusively focused on the military aspects of training, advising, and assisting Iraqi forces.

According to the authors,

To create a more successful ISF, the Department of Defense (DOD) should use the Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework (ICAF) – an effective tool that creates a shared understanding of complex problems and leads to collaborative and coordinated responses to conflict. Using the ICAF to develop a strategy for rebuilding the ISF would enable an effective whole-of-nation approach and create a more capable and sustainable ISF.

ICAF Fundamentals

As described in the SWJ article,  ICAF is an instrument for joint analysis of conflicts and instability based on conflict theory which claims conflict occurs when key actors, with the appropriate means and motivation, mobilize social groups around their core grievances during a specific window of opportunity.

Conflict theory as applied to Iraq: conflict occurs when key actors, with the appropriate means and motivation, mobilize social groups around their core grievances during a specific window of opportunity.
Conflict Dynamics in the Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework

Developed in 2008 by an interagency working group, and revised in 2014, the purpose of ICAF is to enable a whole-of-government approach by providing”rigorous shared analysis of a society’s key conflict dynamics that will inform U.S. policy, plans, and action.” [ICAF, 2014] This shared understanding helps produce a more coordinated and effective response.

The basic principles of the ICAF – priority-focused, locally-grounded, joint, agile, accessible, and structured — ensure a practical, flexible, whole of nation approach to resolving conflict across multiple scenarios.

By focusing on key policy questions related to the conflict dynamics, and prioritizing the most challenging and promising of these dynamics, ICAF produces “concise analysis and recommendations useful to decision-makers in policy, planning, and action.” As its name implies, ICAF also ensures that multiple perspectives are involved, including US government agencies, international organizations and non-governmental organizations, local parties, and partner nations.



The SWJ article provides a great example of how to apply ICAF to the situation in Iraq, with its unique conflict dynamics. It steps through the process in a succinct, informed analysis of the conflict and the politics affecting it, concluding,

The ICAF is a powerful and comprehensive tool for developing a whole of nation strategy for building a sustainable ISF. By analyzing and truly understanding the multiple conflict dynamics affecting the ISF and involving key stakeholders in their resolution, we will build a much more resilient, respected, and professional force. The current military-focused strategy is insufficient — the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen currently advising the ISF have done a magnificent job, but their efforts alone cannot overcome the powerful dynamics ready to tear the proud Iraqi force apart. Through the rigorous application of the ICAF, we can leverage the United States’ and our coalition partners’ vast capabilities and experience to create lasting stability in Iraq through a respected and professional Iraqi Security Force.


Iran’s Unconventional Warfare in Yemen

An article by our editor on Iranian unconventional warfare in Yemen  appeared this morning on Small Wars Journal. Written from the Iranian point of view, the article analyzes the Iranian conduct of unconventional warfare in Yemen, and addresses the feasibility of the operation, suitability to the strategic position of Iran, and acceptability of likely costs. As the article points out,

This conflict represents a complex proxy war between Iran and the U.S./Saudi coalition. Iran provides support directly to the Houthis, but also via its proxy Hezbollah (both deny providing any support), while the U.S. provides support to Saudi Arabia in its operations in Yemen, which include both direct military action and foreign internal defense in support of the Yemeni government.

But as complicated as a this is as a two-sided proxy war, this is not simply a conflict between these two camps:

Complicating the analysis is the fact that rival armed groups, including local affiliates of Al Qaida and Daesh, are also fighting against the Yemeni government and sometimes each other, and that other states are providing support to the government. This creates a highly unstable security environment, which the Houthis could benefit from, but it makes planning more difficult and increases the number of possible adversaries. However, instability in Yemen is itself a valuable objective for the Iranian sponsor, since this creates friction for Saudi Arabia, other Sunni states, and the U.S., all of which represent a bloc against which Iran is seeking to balance.

The article steps through some of the operational considerations affecting the feasibility of Iranian support to the Houthis as well as some of the political considerations that must be taken into account by Iranian decision-makers, concluding that:

Taking into account the factors affecting the feasibility, acceptability, and suitability of an Iranian unconventional warfare campaign in Yemen, and the strategic interests of Iran in the Arabian Peninsula, the balance of factors suggests that Iranian sponsorship of the Houthi rebels is a viable option with a strong chance of success at an acceptable level risk. [italics added]

In other words, it should be little surprise that Iran is supporting the Houthi rebellion, and we can expect only more of the same for the foreseeable future.

Read the article here.

Understanding Worley’s “United States Political Warfare Policy”

In January 2015, strategic advisor and military force structure analyst Dr. D. Robert Worley released a draft think piece that delves into how the United States should engage in political warfare in order to successfully ensure stability of countries experiencing subversion. The piece can generally be described as a blueprint for problem solving, providing background information and current examples of different approaches to political warfare, as well as outlining what the United States’ political warfare policy and strategy should entail.

Factors that contribute to political warfare include a transitional point in a state’s history, such as post-colonial and post-Soviet states or states experiencing societal changes resulting from modernization and industrialization. External power centers can influence conflicting ideological groups vying for political strength, taking advantage of a state’s transitional point in order to further amass power. Examples of current instances of political warfare consist of China’s territorial claims in the Pacific, Russia’s acquisition of Crimea, and the rise of Islamist forces in the Middle East; all of the powerful nations involved in these conflicts utilize a different approach to waging political warfare. China’s approach involves psychological warfare that hinders its adversary’s ability to make decisions, legal warfare that enacts laws in favor of the People’s Liberation Army and Navy, and media warfare that manipulates information in order to allow psychological and legal warfare to occur. Russia’s approach consists of asymmetric warfare that combines diplomatic, intelligence, military, and economic (DIME) elements into broader tasks such as no fly zones, blockades, electronic warfare, and propaganda. Iran, a nation supporting various Islamist groups in the Middle East such as Hezbollah, prefers a lighter footprint through means such as covert operations and formation of non-sectarian coalitions. The United States’ approach is more tactical and limited, focusing on special operations forces and an ultimate transition to a new legitimate government.

When outlining the United States’ ideal political warfare policy, Worley includes a clear purpose as well as an outline of US interests and the role that the United States should play. By waging political warfare, the United States would be able to maintain an advantageous position by changing the conditions of a regime to bend to US interests without involvement in an offensive or defensive war. The United States has interests that encompass multiple areas, such as political interest in ensuring that developing states cooperate internationally, military interest in preventing vulnerable states from falling under hostile control, economic interest in continuous resource availability, and humanitarian interest in the well-being of a nation’s population; these interests shape the United States’ role in the conflict. While the United States will be competing against an opponent over contested territory in every political warfare situation, there are two different roles that could be taken. Should the United States take the role of a status quo power, US forces will be opposing an adversary competing for control over contested territory; in this case, the aggressor would be waging unconventional warfare and the United States would be waging counter-unconventional warfare using tactics such as direct military intervention, counterinsurgency, and foreign internal defense. Conversely, should the United States assume the role of a revisionist power, then it would be the United States waging unconventional warfare while other external powers wage counter-unconventional warfare. Regardless of the United States’ role in a conflict, all instruments of power will be utilized in a mix of overt, clandestine, and covert actions.

In  his piece, Worley breaks down political warfare strategy into two different sections; one outlines what the United States’ strategy would entail, and the other details how this strategy would be applied. The first aspect of this strategy would be selective involvement that would depend on the vulnerability of the state, which US interests would be at stake, and cost-benefit analysis. Another aspect would be multilateral involvement consisting of actions taken through international organizations such as the United Nations or NATO, encouragement of other foreign states to provide support for the mission, and effective border security measures taken by countries next to the conflict. The third facet to US strategy would be a proper understanding of the operational environment; the prevailing political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure (PMESII) conditions of the state actors involved in the conflict as well as the funding, recruitment, information, and support systems of the involved non-state actors. Proper understanding of the parties involved will not only enable US forces to precisely defeat adversaries, but also garner support from the local population and improve the host nation’s current situation as a whole. The last aspect of political warfare strategy would be taking action in the operational environment that would move the prevailing conditions towards US interests and away from the interests of adversaries. For instance, opponents can be isolated internationally through sanctions, media shaming, or interdiction by air or sea, as well as domestically by dividing and uniting certain elements of society using media to discredit leaders or organizations, or by buying off opportunists. Additionally, action in the operational environment would also consist of tipping the scales using advanced intelligence, various military coalitions, providing or restricting of funds for proxies, and highly trained personnel. Worley’s outline of the United States’ ideal strategy is more than just a plan for domination by US forces; it incorporates numerous aspects of the conflict and engages the international community for optimal action.

Worley’s application of US strategy outlines the specifics of how the conditions outlined in the previous section will manifest as a successful mission. He describes how a concept of operations will allow United States forces to understand the opponent’s strategy in its entirety. This will be beneficial because it will shift the focus from particular tactics used, such as terrorism, to a much broader scope. Worley outlines the three stages of political warfare, which are general conditions that apply in any conflict situation, whether the United States is waging unconventional or counter-unconventional warfare. The first stage occurs prior to any uncontrolled subversive activity or major outbreak of violence, despite the political and economic grievances of the local population and their manipulation by those in power. Stage I would require the United States to use diplomatic and informational means to force political accommodation and isolation of opponents, as well as increase human intelligence. The second stage occurs when a stalemate is achieved via guerilla warfare and other violence organized by a subversive group; the third stage entailed a more overt, conventional confrontation between the established authority and the opposition, where commitment of US forces may be advised.

Throughout each of these stages, it is important that the United States not only continue to gather intelligence, but also amass influence in order for the political warfare operation to be a success. Garnering influence would take several different forms, such as strengthening local support in favor of US interests, providing training and assistance for psychological operations of indigenous forces, and developing a flow of information across various media in favor of US interests and countering anti-American propaganda.

Political warfare would be a joint effort of multiple different departments, approximating in Washington the process of the Country Team. Guidance for strategy will be facilitated by the National Security Council along with the intra-departmental coordination between various agencies, which would meet under the chairmanship of the State Department and potentially form a task force if needed. The Board for Low-Intensity Conflict will determine adequate training, equipment, and doctrine based on threats from subversion, and the NSC deputies committee will be responsible for quality assurance of interagency cooperation. In the country of involvement, or in a neighboring state if diplomatic ties with the primary country have been severed, a Chief of Mission will be appointed to direct the team of the host country, coordinate US programs, and formulate a political warfare plan. Rather than a limited plan of action that focuses on particular tactics used by the adversary, Worley outlines a broader approach that would encompass all aspects of the conflict.

In addition to a concept of operations, Worley’s application of US strategy also provides roles and responsibilities for a variety of institutions, during both war and peacetime in order to prevent unpreparedness. The Department of State will provide overall policy guidance as well as coordination of programs in order to ensure that actions taken remain in line with US objectives; this involves supervising political warfare through intelligence, program development, and information dissemination, in addition to encouraging other countries to demonstrate support for the United States. Supporting military capability in the host country would fall under the purview of the Department of Defense (DoD), with either overt or covert support during stages I and II and operational support from US forces during stage III. The DoD’s military assistance program will provide weapons and training to the forces of the host country, as well as encourage them to engage in public works and improvement of infrastructure. The Department of the Treasury will have a role in opposing adversaries by utilizing its Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to monitor and interdict flows of money that support non-state actors who oppose US interests. The role of advising, funding, equipping, and training proxy forces would unsurprisingly go to the CIA (in coordination with the DoD), as well as conducting false flag operations and intervening in foreign political processes when necessary in order to diminish the adversary’s power. Finally, the role of the Agency for International Development (AID) is to address the conditions that lead to subversion, mainly by creating programs that promote long-term stability and development. This can involve programs that utilize resources for self-help measures, setting up means for the host government to share information with its people, or promoting judicial procedure by supporting law enforcement and police paramilitary forces. Ensuring stability is the ultimate long-term goal, which depends on development in order to address the economic and political grievances that lead to unrest. The roles and missions of the various institutions that Worley outlines in his piece address different aspects of the conflict that require support in order for the political warfare operation to be a success.

By Marissa Soltoff

Marissa Soltoff is a junior at George Washington University, double majoring in International Affairs and Political Science, and is a non-resident researcher for the Taylor Group.

The Jihadist Maritime Strategy: Waging a Guerrilla War at Sea.

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.

Introduction – irregular warfare in all of its manifestations


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 in the modern military. 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. Beginning 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 conduct 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 likely due to several factors, many of which will be explored in subsequent posts over the course of our investigation of irregular warfare. However, two of these reasons warrant 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 apologize. 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 interconnected, 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 warfare The United Nations, by eschewing 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.