Small Wars Journal

Adapting for the “Other” War

Fri, 10/18/2013 - 3:37pm

Adapting for the “Other” War

Rob Newson

Endless speculation, discussion, and reporting focus on the “drone war”[1], direct action kinetic strikes against high value Al Qaida targets. The other war – the indirect and long-term line of attack against the Al Qaida Associated Movement (AQAM) – receives relatively minor consideration. This other war merits much more attention, effort, and organizational adaptation. This long-term persistent fight is central to achieving anything more than fleeting success; however, the United States government in general and the Department of Defense specifically are not optimized for this other fight. What follows are personal lessons learned from twenty-two months as a commander of a Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) Forward (SOC FWD) element in the Middle East.

No matter how successful leadership strikes against AQAM may be[2], the drone war is a delaying, disruptive action; these strikes buy space and time.  In time, this operational space is filled with one of two actions:

            (1) The enemy network will regenerate with ever increasing resiliency, improved operational security, and innovative adaptation. (or)

            (2) Ideally, local security forces and government services – our partners – will fill the operational space and displace the enemy network.

The Enemy – Our Partners – A Networked Response

The Enemy. We face local franchises of the Al Qaida Associated Movement that are agile and networked across the broader movement. They are committed, resilient, and adaptive. They are truly GLOCAL:

  • Thinking globally and acting locally
  • Creating and utilizing a global network of subject matter expertise, logistic, and financial support
  • Pursuing international attack planning and opportunities while building a local base of support and conducting local operations
  • Exploiting local grievances and government shortfalls
  • Frequently debating and revisiting the degree of focus and effort and the balance between their global and local objectives

However, the AQAM franchise is also significantly flawed. They are inefficient, forced to trade organizational efficiency and effectiveness for increased security, lower visibility, and they hope, survivability[3]. They are often incompetent – repeatedly failing to maintain operational security and/or botching the execution phase of international attacks, for example the shoe and underwear bombers trained and sponsored by AQAP in Yemen. Their funding is sporadic and unreliable and they are dependent on criminal enterprises for subsidy. They are prone to overreach, frequently alienating the local populace with a heavy, indiscriminant hand. We need to do more to assist our partners in highlighting and exploiting these inherent weaknesses in the AQAM franchise. This requires advise and assist efforts in information operations where AQAM propaganda and distortion operates without challenge; we and our partners have abandoned the information domain to the enemy.

Our Partners.  Alone most partner nations are unable to fill the space created by direct action strikes.  At best, the majority of our partners can be characterized as willing but unable; adding to the difficulty, our partner’s will is regularly cyclic with fleeting windows of reasonably aggressive effort and corresponding opportunity. Our partners have significant political, financial, logistics, and social challenges. They face competing priorities and work in dysfunctional, fractured, and often-corrupted organizations. However, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the only thing worse than working/fighting in a partnership is fighting without partners; we shouldn’t want to, nor can we be in the fight alone.  Partner advise and assist efforts, slower flash-to-bang investments, require the time and space provided by kinetic strikes; direct satisfactory[4] solutions – is essential.

A Networked Response.  SOCCENT Distributed Command and Control (DC2) nodes – SOC FWDs – are placed in complex, volatile, and frustrating national priority countries. The role of SOC FWDs is to lead the execution of Central Command (CENTCOM) and SOCCENT campaigns in countries where Department of State is the lead agency and the Ambassador’s concurrence on all DOD operations, activities, and actions is mandatory. SOC FWDs must be and are integrated into the U.S. Country Team and a whole of government, interagency approach. Our operations are routinely reviewed and discussed by the National Security Staff and often require U.S. Presidential approval.

In these battlegrounds of the other war, maintaining minimal force structure is a major constraint for two very legitimate reasons. First, DOD numbers can easily overwhelm the country team capacity to sustain, and the interagency ability to engage, DOD elements. This can lead to concerns over militarization of foreign policy and derail interagency coordination and synergy. Second, a large U.S. presence feeds into the AQAM narrative of a U.S. war on Islam and invasion of Muslim lands. AQAM affiliates attempt to exploit even small numbers of U.S. advisors; while AQAM propaganda efforts, so far, appear to lack local resonance related to our small advising efforts, there is likely a tipping point where large numbers of U.S. personnel would amplify the AQAP echo that relentlessly follows our efforts.

MINFORCE efforts, however, should not be confused with an economy of force approach; designed as a holding action while the majority of available forces remain engaged in another, higher priority fight. This economy of force construct may have been the case as the wars raged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today and in to the future, these small, distributed engagements with our partner nations should now be seen as the main effort[5]. This is a new mental model, where size doesn’t equate to priority, where distributed and remote nodes of our friendly network require innovative and agile staffing, logistics, fiscal, and intelligence support disproportionate to the numbers of personnel on the ground; where getting power to the edge of our network is fundamental to success against a distributed, adaptive, and resilient enemy network.

MINFORCE DC2 requires a robust and integrated distributed staff effort. SOC FWDs, subordinate commands of SOCCENT, act as extensions of the commander and staff, rather than the traditional independent commands (e.g., Joint Special Operations Task Force or Joint Task Force). Significant staffing, of necessity, occurs in the rear. However, this networked approach to command and control and staffing is not yet optimized – battle rhythm, staffing processes, and stakeholder involvement continue to evolve. 

Centers of excellence exist across DOD and the interagency with deep expertise and continuous focus on these key national priority countries. However, instead of contributing to a greater whole, they’re stove-piped; latent potential for a better fight sits fallow. These uncoordinated elements of expertise and insight should be networked into a community of action. Action officers and decision makers at the policy[6] and execution levels[7] and levels in between[8] should be integrated with shared web portals, information exchanges, and routine coordination events (e.g., an established cross-boundary battle rhythm). This community of action will make those who prefer hierarchical control of information and tight organizational boundaries uncomfortable. Nonetheless, we should not fail to leverage islands of expertise and effort across the entire enterprise; you cannot fight a network with a bureaucracy. 

Advise and Assist – Security Assistance – Partnered Intelligence

Advise and Assist. Our advise and assist efforts must be layered and extend beyond partner Counter Terrorism and Special Operations Forces. Routinely, we start at the tactical level with specialized units – CT Forces. However, a major lesson in all theaters of conflict is that proficient tactical operators are not enough. Competent and enabled partner nation command and control is fundamental to proper utilization of CT forces. Development of logistics, intelligence, and staffing capacity is also necessary. This translates to MINFORCE – advisors/trainers – at the tactical (platoon and company), operational (brigade and division), and strategic levels (major headquarters and ministries). This layered approach is necessary to align decision makers throughout the partner chain of command and overcome the negative inertia inherent in most partner nation organizations. Our fight against AQAM cannot be waged alone by U.S. SOF advisors and partner CT elements[9]. Conventional units and commanders require some level of engagement and assistance; this doesn’t equate to large security assistance of battle tanks, fighter jets, and flotillas of ships but it does require communications, intelligence, logistics, and fires capacity. Development of partner nation information operations (as discussed above) and civil military operations (CMO) capacity are also needed. Partner nation forces need the ability to counter AQAM information distortion and engage the local populace in a positive way; as our partners succeed in the fight against AQAM they must be able to immediately address the humanitarian and civil issues exacerbated by the fight.

Security Assistance.  The U.S. security assistance process is not optimized for facilitating indirect action. While Congress has legislated improved responsiveness through appropriate and critical counter terrorism authorities[10], the security assistance execution process remains inflexible. It’s been said that money is a weapons system. If so, security assistance has been a fire and forget, unguided weapon. Once identified, supplies for urgent and emergent requirements are procured with relative speed. However, this assistance is then delivered on the time table of the manufacturer and the shipping agent; it comes when it comes. As discussed above, our partners have the potential for distraction, when faced with competing priorities and waning will. When security assistance arrives at the peak of a partner’s distraction or the nadir of their will, it can reinforce negative behavior and undermine advisor’s efforts to refocus our partners on shared priorities and necessary action. Additionally, while the assistance requirements remain urgent to the local fight, the ability of a partner force to absorb new capabilities is affected by inherent organizational and societal friction and negative inertia. Security assistance must be metered based on a partner nation’s ability to absorb the assistance and their current and ongoing contribution to the fight. Security assistance must be transactional, a give to get proposition that can positively influence our partner’s will and effort. Just-In-Time (JIT) delivery must be provided to hit fleeting windows of opportunity and avoid the inevitable troughs in our partnership; this JIT responsiveness incurs an increased cost of storage (ideally in theater) and delivery but significantly increases the effectiveness of the security assistance and empowers our advisors.

Partnered Intelligence.  Improved partner intelligence offers the largest opportunity to contribute to the fight yet partnered intelligence is minimal within DOD’s indirect effort; the anemic and lethargic organizational response to this pressing requirement cannot be overstated. This is not a factor of individual effort or senior leader’s support; it is an ingrained, systemic organizational routine – protect not partner is the default habit. Our partners, to a very large degree, are devoid of ability to safeguard classified information. There is no clearance process, no security system, and no concept of need-to-know. Enemy penetration to some degree is almost guaranteed. Intelligence exchanges with partners who cannot protect and secure information are easily and understandably rejected. However, we must find a middle ground of enabling our partners while protecting the most sensitive information. Sharing of Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and sources and methods is largely unneeded and not recommended in this leak-prone environment. What is required is the ability to increase and inform our partner’s grasp of the operational picture – locations of friendly and enemy forces, operational trends and enemy tendencies, and rudimentary Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace (IPB). IMINT and production of releasable products would answer the mail, yet this appears exponentially more difficult than it should be. The establishment of dedicated, cross-boundary teams from throughout the intelligence community should be established with the charter of conducting IPB and producing releasable products for the high priority countries where we engage, less than a dozen globally. Without dedicated teams empowered to and refocused on overcoming institutional barriers, we will not cross the chasm and foster partnered intelligence.

MG (now LTG) Flynn’s recommendations on “fixing intel”[11] remain relevant; developing the capacity to answer fundamental questions about the environment – our partners, the local populace, economy, criminal enterprises, etc. – is essential to the fight. Working with our partners is the best way to develop this insight, yet this requires a partnership that we have not fostered. Intelligence focused advise and assist efforts are critically needed. Our partner forces lack awareness about and capacity to develop an intelligence picture, conduct analysis, develop a target package, or conduct ISR and intelligence operations. Without this capacity, combating violent extremist networks and internal defense threats is reduced, for our partners, to spot reports and isolated tactical actions with minimal hope of long-term effect. Intelligence advise and assist across the spectrum of intelligence operations and activities is foundational to our partner’s success. This includes the provision of U.S. tactical ISR capability (tactical UAS, SIGINT precision geo-location (PGL), data device exploitation, and networking targeting methodology (F3EAD[12])) as well as advising/training for partner capacity development. U.S. special operations forces developed world class capability in these areas and this enabled our impressive tactical operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we must refocus some of this capacity to the indirect fight through development of Intelligence advise and assist expertise and processes. To protect advanced capabilities in the U.S. arsenal, intelligence related security assistance should be drawn from foreign manufactures, rather than U.S. This eliminates an unresponsive and sluggish foreign technology release process and provides “good enough” equipment to our partners.

Organizational Adaptation and Flexibility

The long slog in Iraq and Afghanistan created organizational fatigue and fostered COIN-related allergies. Our collective DOD focus is likely turning away from irregular warfare and shifting back to traditional conventional constructs. While not entirely inappropriate, we are at risk of shortchanging the long-term indirect fight before it has begun in earnest. This other fight requires the development of country-specific expertise and long-term focus. This is exemplified by Naval Special Warfare’s[13] establishment of anchor teams. Small teams focused on a specific country and resourcing extended and repeated deployments to the same location. Anchor team members are assigned for up to four years and become subject matter experts and institutional memory for these national priority countries. This “Lawrence of Arabia” program is similar in concept to “Afghan hands” and faces the same institutional issues of out-of-track assignments, career competiveness, recognition, and viability.

SOC FWDs are led by O-6 SOF operators, often command/CSL screened. The complexity and difficulty of both the interagency and partner nation environment demands this level of command, despite the small numbers assigned to SOC FWDs. However, there is no process to select, prepare, or deploy these leaders and their forward staff personnel. This requires significant organizational attention and/or adaptation to ensure quality control and adequate preparation. Furthermore, advise and assist support missions are not restricted to SOF personnel and units. Conventional Forces, in small and tailored numbers, have a requirement to build logistics, maintenance, intelligence, and staff capacity. Furthermore, additional requirements consist of mobile training teams and advisors for rotary wing support, fixed wing fire support, naval and ground fire support, explosive ordnance disposal, and medical support. This general purpose force advise and assist requirement rubs against the coming shift away from irregular warfare and will prove difficult to manage without focus and organizational effort. Financial support for base operating support at isolated forward operating bases, expeditionary air (STOL) and logistics support, and increased and tailored intelligence support are all areas where conventional components (ARCENT, NAVCENT, AFCENT, MARCENT) and services are needed to support.

Why Bother - What if We Didn’t?

“Why bother?”; a valid question. Working with less than committed partners is frustrating and produces slow and halting progress. SOC FWDs and CT security assistance are multi-million dollar investments and the return on indirect action is measured in years and decades, not weeks and months. Working with the interagency context is a challenge within itself; some within the interagency, including some DOD elements within the Embassy, are reluctant and/or doubtful partners, especially regarding DOD information operations, civil military support (CMO), and intelligence activities. What if we didn’t make the investment in time, treasure, and talent?

To cede the fight in these difficult locations offers the enemy extended freedom of maneuver and the ability to establish safe haven that will only increase their lethality and destructiveness. This will inevitably lead to increased threat to local, regional, and global stability. It will also increase the threat to the U.S. homeland. Every day committed, resilient and hard-core zealots wake up and begin anew with plans and operations to kill, to extort and rob, and to disrupt local and global economies. More than mere criminals, they are networked to like-minded franchise organizations across the globe and are waging a war of attrition and disruption. The less pressure, the more successfully they are.

The drone war alone, without a corresponding indirect approach, will, over the long term, force AQAM to get better, harder, more creative, and more resistant to direct attacks. Similar to over-use of antibiotics that create “superbug” germs, the drone war - without a corresponding effort to enable our partners to fill the operational space created by direct action – will create more clandestine, more resilient, and more innovative enemy networks. Al Qaida, AQAM, and Islamic extremists are fatally flawed and will never achieve their objectives; the only question is how much destruction and death will they cause before they collapse under the weight of their bankrupt ideology. If we don’t fight the other war, if we don’t enable a local alternative to security and development, then we should expect that AQAM will exist longer and cause more damage than if we take the indirect approach to their defeat.

[1] For example See­lethal-drones-policy/ for a good bibliography on the topic.

[3] This is currently forced upon them by kinetic strikes, in the long-term local security forces, primarily police and internal security elements, would apply this pressure as they should for all criminals.

[4] Abandon notions of nation building or major societal progress and pursue/accept satisficing (ref))-good enough

solutions to challenge, disrupt, and displace AQAM at the local level and improve legitimate governance.

[5] With DC2 nodes eventually in Iraq and Afghanistan aiding our partners with a MINFORCE approach.

[6] i.e., National Counter Terrorism Center, DOS, CIA, OSD, and Joint Staff

[7] i.e., CENTCOM, SOCCENT, and Country Team MILGROUP

[8] i.e., DIA, JIEDDO, and Defense Security Cooperation Agency

[9] Referred to as "boutique" forces by one U.S. Embassy front office because of their limited utility without integration into the broader partner nation organizational and operational construct.

[10] Refer to Title 10 section 1206, 1207(n), and 1208. 1208, executed by U.S. Special Operations Command, does not suffer from the inflexibility issues discussed above and may be a model of flexible execution.

[11] See

[12] Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, Disseminate

[13] The Navy SEAL community


About the Author(s)

CAPT Rob Newson currently serves as the Assistant Chief of Staff for Plans, Assessments, and Strategy (N5) at the Naval Special Warfare Command.  He was commissioned through the University of Kansas Naval Reserve Officer Training Program in 1989. Upon graduation from Basic Underwater Demolition / SEAL training he was assigned to SEAL Team Five, deploying twice to South East Asia.  Other operational assignments include: Operations Officer and Executive Officer Special Boat Unit TWELVE; Operations Officer Naval Special Warfare Task Group – Desert Thunder; Executive Officer SEAL Team SEVEN; Deputy Commanding Officer Joint Special Operations Task Force – Sarajevo; JTF HOA SOCCE Nairobi, Kenya; Commanding Officer NSW Support Activity ONE; Director Joint Interagency Source Operations Center (JIASOC - Iraq); Director Joint Interagency Task Force – Counter Terrorism (JIATF-CT - Afghanistan) and Commanding Officer Special Operations Command Forward Yemen.

He has served as Naval Special Warfare Strategist at three separate assignments:  Special Boat Squadron ONE, Counter Terrorism Campaign Support Group (CT-CSG), and U.S. Special Operations Command, as well as Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations at Naval Special Warfare Command.  Graduating with Distinction from the Naval Postgraduate School he holds an MS in Defense Analysis (Special Operations / Low Intensity Conflict) and an MA in National Security Affairs (Strategic Studies). He is a PhD candidate at the University of San Diego School of Leadership and Educational Sciences.


Robert C. Jones

Sun, 10/20/2013 - 1:47pm

Some thoughts on "AQAM" that I believe are worth considering:
1. These guys aren't "AQ" at all, but are nationalist/regional revolutionary insurgents that are the energy source AQ's larger UW campaign plan relies upon.
2. The US only makes the problem of terrorism against the US and US interests worse when we target other government's insurgent populaces on their behalf, or out of a misguided belief that anyone who accepts help from AQ or decides to call themselves AQ, actually are AQ.
3. Building partner capacity to simply go out and suppress the action arms of the populations these groups emerge from may suppress the problem (to that government) for some period of time, but most likely makes the actual problems behind the existence of such movements worse.
4. This isn't "the other war" or really "war" at all. This is simply the application of superior technology and firepower to sustain a status quo of governance unwanted by the people it affects the most.
5. We need to step back and reframe the problem, and then reassess what our mission might really be to best attain our truly vital national interests. It may be to simply do nothing militarily and to rely upon our diplomats to urge these governments to listen to their people and to adopt reasonable reforms that make governance more inclusive across the entire population.
6. We may need to consider the gaps and limitations of our own doctrine. If AQ is conducting UW at the operational level, and Terrorism only at the tactical level, then perhaps it is time that we relegated our own CT to the tactical level as well and adopted a more accurate and comprehensive Counter UW approach at the operational level?? In that context CT targeting is limited to actual UW operatives and the foreign fighters they bring with them. Our own UW efforts would move higher in the buffer, as we acted to out-compete AQ for influence with these disaffected populations, urging them to adopt non-violent means to place pressure on their governments. This may well give our diplomats the bargaining chip our current approach of helping these governments stay in power without listening to their own people lack.

Bottom line is that we have been slapping the AQ label on far too many aspects of a much more holistic problem that is not caused by AQ and their ideology, but is merely leveraged and directed by those things. AQ is a parasite with a big political agenda. Take away their energy source and they become a mere fart in the wind. When we attack their energy source, we make AQ stronger, more resilient, and more influential. The facts of the past 12 years demonstrate this in spades.


Wed, 06/25/2014 - 4:10pm

In reply to by Rob H

Rob H.,

I agree, and would like to present an additional issue for general consideration. (or maybe two points).

The first is along the same line of thought as your own question, but goes one step further. Are we over 'weeding' AQ factions to the extent that we end up replacing largely ineffective leaders until some individual or group pops up with a capability and skill to not only avoid our (fairly predicable) attacks, but also is able to extend or expand the effectiveness of their portion of the AQ network to the point of achieving an offensive capacity that would represent a persistent and legitimate threat? In sum, are we creating a 'Peter Principle' in reverse?

The second point is, I think, somewhat hazy for most who consider the use of Drone strikes. To what extent is the intelligence we rely on for our targeting/target selection a double edged sword? Too often the assumption is: "oh, the clicks and whistles bunch got an intercept…", or "a reliable source assures us that target X will be around location Y around time Z…" and an insufficient degree of caution or cynicism is applied regarding the intelligence trade offs that are inherent in these types of sources. I suppose this issue is more in line with a debate regarding how best to deal with non-primary intelligence, but it's worth evoking just to keep the question of 'liability' associated with a given intelligence 'asset' on readers minds.


A. Scott Crawford

Rob H

Sat, 10/19/2013 - 10:37am

In reply to by Bill M.

This is actually a point worth significant study. If militant Islamism is critically flawed why conduct operations believed to help build their negative entropy when drone strikes are achieving their intended purpose. Perhaps all that is needed is additional engagement against critical vulnerabilities within the strategic CoG; ideology. Drone strikes appear to effectively target critical vulnerabilities within the operational CoG; the militant organizations themselves.


Sat, 10/19/2013 - 5:32am

In reply to by Morgan

I tend towards Morgan's take. Just find the right O6. The rank helps fend off the wolves.


Sat, 10/19/2013 - 5:16am

In reply to by Bill M.

I'm thinking that throwing an O6 into the command slot isn't so much about managing the SOF but to deal with the non-SOF, conventional side.

Agree strongly with the majority of this article with the exception of throwing an O-6 command select officer at the problem instead of assigning the right person. Our obsessive focus on rank is very conventional and not appropriate for SOF. Furthermore, this excessive focus on rank and additional C2 counters what we are attempting to do by creating a culture that embraces mission command.

Just to play the devil's advocate, if these groups are going to self destruct on their own why do we need to do this? No supporting logic was provided on why drone strikes wouldn't continue to be successful in disrupting attacks, while there is some evidence our presence on the ground siimply puts energy into the terrorist system and makes the situation worse.

Brilliant work. CAPT Newson, have you had the opportunity to review Troy S. Thomas and William D. Casebeer 2004 work, "Violent Systems: Defeating Terrorists, Insurgents, and Other Non-State Adversaries?" Seems to have some affinity with the suggestions you've made in this article, at least in your visualization of the capabilities of AQAM and their interaction with the OE.

I'd suspect that the reason our grand CT strategy focuses on tactical engagement (drone strikes) is because of policy maker refusal to engage AQAM's strategic CoG: Militant Islamist Ideology. Instead we engage them operationally and tactically. As you stated yourself, we've vacated the fight within the cognitive and informational domain. Probably because this fight is viewed as too messy.

Have you also had a chance to review the lessons learned from OEF-TS and the perceived failure of CT efforts in Mali? One of the bigger lessons was a failure to move beyond tactical engagement in our advise and assist mission and instead focus on engagement with ministerial organizations.

Again, brilliant and insightful article. This is a clearly defined strategy for effectively combating AQAM and other Militant Islamist both operationally and strategically.