Small Wars Journal

Is the War on Terrorism Over? Long Live Unconventional Warfare

Tue, 05/21/2013 - 3:30am

The debate is in full force: Is Al Qaeda no longer a threat? Is the War on Terrorism over? Should we no longer talk about global terrorism to satisfy partisan political desires? Should we relegate countering terrorism to law enforcement and intelligence agencies?

There seem to be two competing worldviews in the US today. On the one hand there are those who think that terrorism has declined, is not a threat, and is only a problem because of American foreign policies that are disliked by a vocal and violent minority of Islamic extremists around the world. On the other hand there are those that view terrorism as an existential threat to the US as evidenced by the attacks on September 11 and they believe we should invoke the so-called one percent doctrine to prevent any attacks by violent Islamic extremists in the future: e.g., if there is a one percent chance that a terrorist attack may occur we must treat it as a certainty that it will occur and plan accordingly by expending all necessary efforts to prevent it.  These are of course the two extremes.  The truth certainly resides somewhere in between.

I would take this stand in the debate and offer a third view: Focusing solely on terrorism is wrong. What we really need to understand is that major threats to the United States and our friends, partners, and allies are not focused solely on conducting terrorism but instead are executing a very sophisticated and so far effective unconventional warfare strategy.  While the debate rages over whether the threat is best described by violent Islamic extremism or whether we should tie it or not tie it to a religion, perhaps if we focus on the functional application by the threat’s employment of an unconventional warfare strategy we can develop an effective counter unconventional warfare strategy that will achieve our strategic objectives and protect our vital interests. It is not necessary to prove whether Islamic extremists call for unconventional warfare in their writings and doctrine.  It is not necessary to prove that they are knowingly executing an unconventional warfare strategy.  However, by examining their strategy through a lens of unconventional warfare their functional strategy may be revealed and it may not be necessary to focus on the religious controversies surround this conflict.

To understand why this is we must begin with the definition of unconventional warfare and describe its major objectives so that we can end the myopic focus on the tactics of terrorism and defend against and counter the most difficult threat we face today and will likely face in the foreseeable future.

Simply put unconventional warfare consists of “activities to enable a resistance or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power through and with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.” While many will argue that this is an American centric view, in reality it applies to any nation or non- state actor seeking to achieve strategic objectives outside the realm of what most would call more traditional forms of warfare (although one could also make the case that unconventional warfare is not new and has a long tradition and certainly has been conducted more than world wars – just ask the French in Spain, the Germans in Africa or the Turks in Arabia or the British in the American colonies).

A major element of unconventional warfare is subversion and it is described in this way: “an activity designed to undermine the military, economic, psychological, or political strength or morale of a regime or nation. All elements of the resistance organization contribute to the subversive effort, but the clandestine nature of subversion dictates that the underground elements perform the bulk of the activity.”

Traditional strategic unconventional warfare objectives may include the following:

- Undermining the domestic and international legitimacy of the target authority.

- Neutralizing the target authority’s power and shifting that power to the resistance organization.

- Destroying the confidence and will of the target authority’s leadership.

- Isolating the target authority from international diplomatic and material support while obtaining such support for the resistance organization.

- Obtaining the support or neutrality of the various segments of the society.

Even the most cursory analysis reveals that Al Qaeda has all the hallmarks of an organization conducting unconventional warfare through enabling various resistance organizations (such as Al Qaeda affiliates but also “lone wolf” operatives) to at least coerce and disrupt the US and in some cases by clearly trying to overthrow friends, partners, and allies of the US.  Most importantly it is conducting a concerted campaign that includes subversion to achieve each of the strategic objectives outlined above. It of course executes this campaign through an underground that is the traditional subversive arm of any resistance organization. An underground is nothing more than a network that has been popularized in today’s counterterrorism terminology with such phrases as it “takes a network to defeat a network.” In actuality it takes a deep understanding of unconventional warfare by intelligence agencies, law enforcement and specific elements of the military to defeat an underground conducting subversion against the United States or its allies.

One of the most important aspects of unconventional warfare is that by nature it is both political and psychological. It can be summarized this way: “The intent of UW operations is to exploit a hostile power’s political, military, economic, and psychological vulnerabilities by advising, assisting, and sustaining resistance forces.” It is designed to achieve political effects and one of the ways it does so is through extensive psychological warfare efforts. One of the most concrete examples of this is Al Qaeda’s focus on radicalization throughout its target areas on virtually every continent of the world to include North America. In the case of the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing whether they were indirectly self radicalized and acted on their own or were radicalized directly through contact with Al Qaeda or affiliates matters little because either situation shows the effects of Al Qaeda’s psychological warfare campaign.

While I strongly believe that Al Qaeda and our enemies are conducting unconventional warfare; I am not asserting that they are not conducting terrorist operations. They certainly are and will very likely continue to do so. Terrorism is an integral part of the political and psychological component of unconventional warfare and no one has described this better than Bruce Hoffman in his seminal work, Inside Terrorism with parts excerpted here:

“...define terrorism as the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change. All terrorist acts involve violence or the threat of violence. Terrorism is specifically designed to have far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victim(s) or object of the terrorist attack. It is meant to instill fear within, and thereby intimidate, a wider `target audience' that might include a rival ethnic or religious group, an entire country, a national government or political party, or public opinion in general. Terrorism is designed to create power where there is none or to consolidate power where there is very little. Through the publicity generated by their violence, terrorists seek to obtain the leverage, influence and power they otherwise lack to effect political change on either a local or an international scale.”

In sum we face a threat that is executing unconventional warfare against the US and its friends, partners and allies and because it is inherently political and psychological a major tactic employed includes terrorism.

Some will ask, so what? How does this help to defend the US and its interests? First a deep understanding of the threat and its methods allows a strategy to be developed to counter the enemy’s overall strategy and not solely on his use of terrorism to achieve his subversive political and psychological goals. As important as capturing and killing high value terrorist targets is, it is more important to be able to attack the enemy’s strategy because doing so not only can contribute to preventing terrorist acts but also will contribute to defending vulnerable people from radicalization as well as the general public from becoming disillusioned with the government and its agencies who are working hard to defeat the threats.

Second, by understanding the enemy’s strategy a counter-unconventional warfare strategy can be devised that will allow US law enforcement and homeland security agencies with intelligence support to locate and defeat the underground elements attempting to infiltrate, radicalize, and execute operations on US soil. Without an underground, effective terrorist operations cannot be conducted. Overseas, intelligence and military forces (with law enforcement support) who possess deep knowledge and understanding of unconventional warfare can advise and assist friends, partners and allies, to disrupt and defeat underground networks and deny sanctuary, resources, mobility, and popular support for the threat organizations.

For those who argue over whether the war on terrorism has been successful or not or whether we should or should not be waging a war against terrorism, I would say that we are having the wrong debate. We need to recognize that the threat, mostly in the form of Al Qaeda and its affiliates, exists and continues to operate. But more importantly we must understand that it is waging unconventional warfare and only using terrorism as one of the means of its strategy. In so doing we can then commence on developing a counter-unconventional warfare strategy and with that strategy employ the right means and ways to achieve our ends which must be the defeat of specified threats that are waging unconventional war.

About the Author(s)

David S. Maxwell is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Previously he was the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.  He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College.  He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.


Bill C.

Wed, 06/26/2013 - 11:16am

A recent thought and question:

If we are to understand unconventional warfare as, for example, "a resistance movement,"

Then should we not -- before proceeding further re: our counter-unconventional warfare strategy and campaign(s) -- determine and define what it is that our "enemy" is resisting?

For example: Let us say that the enemy is, we believe, resisting attempts made by international business interests and their supporting governments (indigenous and foreign) to transform his (the enemy's) states and societies along more market-friendly lines (to wit: along modern western political, economic and social lines). [The attack(s) on the World Trade Center/9-11 -- and our nation-building COIN response -- both seeming to be a "good fit" for this specific explanation?]

Might an explanation such as this, re: what the enemy is resisting, also help us to understand such things as why our enemy might propose -- as an integral part of his unconventional warfare strategy and campaign -- an alternative "closer-to-home" political, economic and social ordering model; such as, one based on Sharia law, a califate, etc.?

And if not my explanation above as to what and why the enemy is resisting, then -- first and foremost -- should we not define and articulate a/the more correct and accurate such reason?

This effort -- to determine and define what the enemy is resisting -- being essential to "understanding the operations that the enemy is conducting, the strategy that the enemy is employing and the objective that the enemy (via his resistance movement) is hoping to achieve." (Items in parenthesis are mine.) (See: Breaking Down the Definition.)

Bill C.

Thu, 05/30/2013 - 6:22pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Yes Sir.

And thank you.

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 05/30/2013 - 4:04pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C:

Well, we all have our biases (where you stand depends on where you sit). it is just that some of us are willing to recognize them more than others. But that is why Small Wars Journal is so important because it allows us to exchange ideas and recognize our biases (because we so easily recognize everyone else's!!). Thanks for the good exchange.

Bill C.

Thu, 05/30/2013 - 3:02pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell


I believe that we no longer have the funds, national will, etc., to try to reconfigure "different" states and societies via large scale experiments such as in Afghanistan.

I do not believe, however, that this means that we have abandoned our goal of altering and transforming problem states and societies to our advantage and as per our national security wants, needs and desires. We will simply try to do this, now it would appear, via cheaper means, for example: (1) by, with and through others, (2) via special rather than regular troops and (3) over a longer, rather than a shorter, period of time.

We will also (as the so-called "pivot to the east" seems to suggest) choose to better prioritize, limit and focus our such efforts -- again due primarily to resource constraints (fiscal limitations, a "spent" force and national/home-front fatigue) -- but also due to our success re: AQ et. al.

This is what the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance seems to say to me.

And, although I did only a cursory review of the DSG document, I did not find anything that would seem to suggest that our emphasis -- and our primary focus going forward -- had shifted from (a) outlier state and societal transformation (Admiral McRaven's rule of law, good jobs, stability and good governance) to (b) its seeming opposite, to wit: protecting and promoting, above all else, sovereignty and self-determination. But it is very possible that I am just too blinded and biased -- re: my own view of things -- to see the handwriting on the wall.

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 05/30/2013 - 9:57am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C:

I think we have different interpretations of our national security strategy. Although I cannot speak for ADM McRaven I do not think he advocates circumventing sovereignty expect in in-extremis cases. I also do not think that our national security is based on global intervention to re-configure "different" states and societies. I think we have probably learned our lesson in Afghanistan about trying to reconfigure states and as I read the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance I think we are seeking to avoid such large scale experiments (I think we still have to continue to work on the American experiment at home rather than try our experiment out on others).

Bill C.

Thu, 05/30/2013 - 9:42am

In reply to by Bill C.


As to sovereignty and self-determination.

It would seem that nations generally, and the United States specifically, do not let issues such sovereignty and self-determination get in the way of more important matters such as national security (just ask, for example, the American Indians, the American Southerners and the 19th Century people of Japan and China.)

Today, as in 19th Century, sovereignty and self-determination (and the related political, economic and social make-up of various "different" states and societies) are seen as barriers to the necessary expansion of international market and trade activity and, thus -- much as communism in the 20th Century -- are seen as a threat to our national security (which is said to be significantly based on the viability and continuing expansion of international commercial activity).

The value of a "War on Terrorism" (and R2P should it be adopted) would seem to be that it allows us to (1) circumvent sovereignty and self-determination and, as Admiral McRaven seems so indicate above, (2) intervene globally so as to re-configure "different" states and societies along more market-friendly lines (this, after all, is what "the rule of law, good jobs, stability and good governance," etc., would seem to be all about).

Thus, if I may be so bold (or so reckless) as to say, for your concept of a counter-unconventional warfare strategy and campaign to adopted, it must be shown to "fit" somewhere within and complement our current national security thinking and strategy (which I have attempted to outline above).

Either that or, as you appear to suggest in your most recent comment, we must adopt entirely new and different thinking re: national security and how we are to achieve it.

Bill C.

Wed, 05/29/2013 - 11:15pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Thanks Sir.

My effort above was to learn whether you, and others, thought that your concepts were generally compatible with and would fit somewhere within our current thinking and strategy and, therefore, would be able to help us achieve our present desired ends, which appear to be:

a. To be able to act globally, so as

b. To be able to alter and transform -- to our advantage and as we deem necessary -- the way of life and way of governance of certain other states and societies (those without the rule of law, good jobs, stability and good governance; AKA, those we feel are most susceptible to "violent extremism").

The current "War on Terrorism" would appear to allow us to do all these things, as Admiral McRaven seems to point out in the linked interview. Thus, it (the "War on Terrorism") would seem to provide us with (1) justification for, (2) extensive and expansive freedom of action to and (3) a means/method for pursuing our current goals and objectives.

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 05/29/2013 - 1:27pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C:

Four quick points to your comments:

1. I am not interested in naming a new war; I am recommending that we try to understand the character of the conflict and most importantly providing a framework with which to analyze the strategy the threat may be employing (whether or not he calls it unconventional warfare or not is irrelevant - the framework of unconventional warfare in my opinion provides a better way to understand his strategy than strictly through the lens of terrorism.)

2. I am not interested seeking any kind of "license" to go around the world capturing and killing anyone we deem a threat. I am interested in helping friends partners and allies to develop their ability to deny the enemy sanctuary, mobility, and access to resources, countering their subversive activities and defending against attacks and employing their capabilities (the full range of their security apparatus) to capture or kill those that need to be captured and killed in their sovereign territory.

3. I am not at all interested in transforming any societies anywhere. I am for respecting and protecting sovereignty as well as supporting the right of a people to self determination and in as much as those two (sovereignty and the right to self determination) are seemingly incommensurable I am for trying to develop a foreign policy that will align our interests and values and apply such policies through execution of strategy for each unique situation that must be addressed with the understanding that there is no template, model, cookie cutter, one size fits all solution. Therefore giving any policy or strategy a "global" name may be counter-productive.

4. Finally, I think the most important thing that we can do is first understand our enemy's strategy and then work to counter it. One of the ways to counter a strategy is to expose it. I think the enemy is executing a form of an unconventional warfare strategy and therefore we must expose and counter it.

Bill C.

Wed, 05/29/2013 - 12:11pm

A few quotes and comments and then a couple of questions.

First, the quotes:

From Admiral McRaven:

" ... there is no such thing as a local problem anymore ... everything in the world is connected ... "

" ... to minimize the rise of violent extremism you have to create conditions on the ground where people have good jobs, where there is the rule of law, where there is stability [and] where there is good governance ... "

" ... it is an entirely new paradigm for the people of Afghanistan, but I am convinced we are on the right path ... " (See the last few paragraphs of this interview.)

Per Admiral McRaven's comments above, and under the "War on Terrorism" concept (a war to minimize violent extremism?), one would appear to be able to claim for oneself the "license," so-to-speak, to intervene in the affairs of others:

a. On a global basis so as,

b. To create conditions on the ground in which people have good jobs, the rule of law, stability and good governance.

Thus, the authority to intervene to create an "entirely new paradigm" re: the way of life and way of governance of -- not only the people of Afghanistan -- but people everywhere (globally).

Now, the questions:

Would a counter-unconventional warfare strategy and campaign, likewise, provide us with such a seemingly expansive and lucrative license, to wit:

a. A license to intervene on a global basis so as to

b. Alter and transform -- to our advantage -- the way of life and way of governance of others?

Or would such a move (to a "War on Unconventional Warfare") tend to (when compared to the "War on Terrorism") limit (or expand) our freedom of action and, thus, lessen (or enhance) our ability to achieve these desired ends?


Thu, 05/23/2013 - 3:30pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

2008 hard to believe it has been that long, but it is still bascialy the way to win. of course you have to modify it a little bit with some SBW but that can be arranged. Need more Girl Green Berets to!

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 05/23/2013 - 7:12am

If one stands alone in the corner and bangs the right drum long enough, others will ultimately march to that beat as well.

I concur completely with Dave's position here, as I have not backed off from the very similar position of my own platform of understanding that I offered to the swj community back in 2008 when Slap, Bill Moore, Ken White, WILF, Tom Odom, JMM, and several other SWJ stalwarts quizzed me on the thinking behind the first paper I published here in this thread:

Slap labled that thread "How to Win":

The quoted section below is my response to a question in post #69:

"When a populace conspires against its own governance it is insurgency.
When that governance acts to prevent or put down such an uprising it is COIN.
When an external government (or now, non-state actor like AQ) seeks to support an insurgency it is Unconventional Warfare.
When an external government seeks to assist a government the prevention or putting down of an insurgency it is Foreign Internal Defense.

Now, to step beyond doctrine a bit, when one seeks to defeat or neutralize another entity that is waging UW (again, like AQ), you are probably more acurately waging "CounterUnconventional Warfare" than you are CT. CT is so one-dimensional that it tends to degenerate to capture kill operations. CUW would be a much more holistic family of engagement that includes CT as a major LOO.

(And while what I have given you is what most of us SF guys see as the definitions, other than the CUW part that I am seeking to add to our jargon, the joint definitions and those of the civilian agencies vary tremendously)"

The sooner we can all step away from the "CT" "COIN" and "SFA/BPC" mantras of the past decade, the better. Our doctrine is hot mess right now, and so are our operations.




Sun, 05/26/2013 - 5:52am

In reply to by Bill C.

I've never understood the flap over that "mission accomplished" comment. A mission had in fact been accomplished. Some people just forgot that war generally involves more than one mission.

I'm not sure that resistance to invasion or occupation can necessarily or automatically be construed as resistance to change. Even people who are deeply dissatisfied with their lot and who deeply desire change will resist invasion: homo sapiens are by nature a territorial lot.

"Colonial times" saw two distinctly different kinds of wars. Initial resistance to invasion and occupation was generally fairly brief and ineffective (with exceptions of course). Later insurgencies against colonial regimes and the eventual wars of national liberation were all about disrupting the status quo and seeking change.

Bill C.

Sat, 05/25/2013 - 11:39am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Using a modern-day event as an example, I do not think that one can claim that a new order -- and/or a new status quo -- has been established when, for example, a great nation's military commander-in-chief declares "Mission Accomplished."

Thus, the fighting that occurs before and after such an event is most likely to be characterized as "resistance" or "continued resistance" to the changes (most often of political, economic and/or social nature) that the foreign nation(s) is/are seeking to impose.

Same-same in colonial times.

(See my comment at 10:18 am today [below] -- in response to RCJ and Bill M. -- re: the "fundamental nature of the underlying conflict.")


Sat, 05/25/2013 - 8:31am

In reply to by Bill C.

Whoa, what? Colonial-era insurgents didn't fight to retain a status quo, they fought to remove the colonial status quo and achieve a new order, independence. I see no supportable reason to argue that insurgency is typically about resisting change. Far more often it's about seeking change and the disruption of the status quo. There's a reason why we always call them "radicals", not "reactionaries".

Bill C.

Sat, 05/25/2013 - 11:18am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Kilcullen seems to see the fundamental nature of the underlying conflict today in much the same way that Callwell saw it back in his day:

"The great nation that seeks expansion in remote quarters of the globe must accept the consequences. Small wars dog the footsteps of the pioneers of civilization in regions afar off. The trader heralds, almost as a matter of course, the coming of the soldier ..."

Thus, it appears that, as seen by these two gentlemen (Kilcullen and Callwell), the nature of the underlying conflict -- yesterday and today:

a. Has less to do with any nationalist or regionalist movement (as would be the case in "revolutionary warfare," such as that seen in the "wars of national liberation" during the Cold War?) but, instead,

b. Has more to do with the locals fighting (on a global basis) to preclude the loss of their time-honored and/or preferred way of life and way of governance (as would be the case in "resistance warfare," such as that seen in the colonial era and again today?).

This, so as to counter efforts made by "great nations" -- then as now -- to install in "regions afar off" political, economic and social systems that are more compatible with their (the great nation's) wants, needs and desires.

Thus, today's small wars to best be seen within the context of our enduring and exceptionally well-publicized "engagement and enlargement" foreign policy and initiatives; much as the small wars of the colonial period were seen within the context of "great nation" ambition and expansion during this era. (In both instances being a matter of soldiers having to follow traders -- or having to clear a path for them -- which, as Callwell notes, occurs "almost as a matter of course.")

As to "proxy wars:" Given that our objective now is to achieve our desired ends "by, with and through" others, would this term not better explain our foreign policy, strategy and tactics today, rather than that of our enemies?

Now, with this foundation properly laid, time to craft an appropriate counter-unconventional warfare (or other) strategy and campaign? Herein, and for the reasons outlined above, should we look to Kilcullen and to Callwell et. al for guidance, rather than to the practitioners and theorists of the seemingly much less-relevant Cold War?

(For the United States and its allies, the Cold War is a holding action. It was not, for the United States and its allies, a great nation expansionist activity -- such as the great nations pursued in the colonial era -- and the United States and its allies pursue today.)

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 05/24/2013 - 8:20am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill, Spot on.

Key also is that just because some outsider hijacks or intrudes into a nationalist (or regionalist if no real or single nation applies, as in Mali area today) movement to wage proxy war, it in no way changes the fundamental nature of the underlying conflict.

Kilcullen may be too fixated on how these conflicts looked and were leveraged by outsiders. That is a dangerous, but all too common perspective to take.


Bill M.

Fri, 05/24/2013 - 4:00am

In reply to by Bill C.

I assume Kilcullen was making reference to our occupation missions in Afghanistan and Iraq where we attempted nation building (modernization) before transitioning to inept local governments, but those battles don't represent Al-Qaeda's UW strategy, they represent our attempt to counter it with a conventional strategy instead of a counter-UW strategy. We created opportunities for AQ that didn't exist previously and we understood UW from the start we may not have walked into a self-imposed ambush that was very supportive to AQ's strategy. In a way we trapped ourselves by trying to control physical terrain that we incorrectly identified as the center of gravity in the war on terror. How often have you heard we have to win in Afghanistan to defeat AQ? AQ was able to exploit this mistake by leveraging it for propaganda, fund raising, radicalization, and increasing the heat enough to convince us to surge, thus hurting our economy and slowly eating away at our will to continue the major combat effort. Our excessive focus on the physical terrain and winning the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan gave AQ greater freedom of movement globally. They sure has heck were not defeated when we killed UBL. We put ourselves in a position where we needed to win the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq to maintain our legitimacy, while it doesn't matter to AQ in the end whether we win there or not (victories must be maintained, if you take the long view they have the time), what matters in the proxy wars to AQ is that we exhaust ourselves. Proxy wars work, and I think an argument can be made that AQ is waging a series of proxy wars to drain the West's ability to support the nations they're targeting. Vietnam was a proxy war for the USSR and they successfully provided enough support to defeat our will to continue(using a subversive UW campaign they used our far left to gain control of the narrative on the home front which undermined our will to continue on the battle front. Afghanistan in the 1980s was a proxy war for us, we provided enough support to the Muj to defeat the USSR's will to continue.

If Kilcullen suggested the Cold War doesn't offer lessons then I think he is wrong. Furthermore, the anti-colonial wars after WWII were conducted during the Cold War and were more often than not proxy wars for the U.S. and the USSR (e.g. our support for the French in Vietnam).

Ultimately the issue isn't about your pet peeve modernization, but about strategy (ways, ends, and means), and AQ is employing a UW strategy. We need a strategy that counters their strategy.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 05/24/2013 - 8:22am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.

Kilcullen's arguments are usually "well-made," with a result being they have carried tremendous influence. But that is not the same as being "well-founded." Sometimes they fall a bit short in that regard.


Bill C.

Thu, 05/23/2013 - 11:10pm

In reply to by Bill C.


If Kilcullen's argument is well-made, then should we not formulate and carry out our counter-unconventional warfare strategy and campaigns from the perspective that he provides and offers?

(Should one still doubt that we are in the business of achieving "revolutionary change" in the way of life and way of governance of others, consider the last few paragraphs of this interview with Admiral McRaven and, especially, the last sentence/statement made by him in this article.)

Bill C.

Thu, 05/23/2013 - 9:30pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Kilcullen suggests (in his "Counterinsurgency Redux") that we must go back before the Cold War and its "wars of national liberation" (1944 to about 1982) and before the theorists from this period that we see so prominently listed in our current counterinsurgency manual (David Galula, Robert Thompson, Frank Kitson, Bernard Fall, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Vo Nguyen Giap).


Because Kilcullen suggests that the insurgents that we are fighting against today do not fight -- as those in the Cold War did -- to achieve "revolutionary change."

Rather, he suggests, today's insurgents -- like those in colonial days -- fight to retain the status quo and to RESIST "revolutionary change" (the radical alteration of their political, economic and social life that the foreign powers hope to bring about).

Given this fundamental similarity -- re: our mission today and that of the earlier colonizers (to wit: to bring about radical and revolutionary change to the way of life and way of governance of others) -- Kilcullen seems to suggest that we may be better served by looking to the colonial period for guidance and to theorists from this period such as C. E. Callwell and Louis Lyautey.

Is Kilcullen's point well made?


Thu, 05/23/2013 - 3:24pm

In reply to by Bill M.

"We need to go back to the future once again and dust off our Cold War manuals as a starting point, not the lessons learned from the anti-colonial wars. However, we can't cling to the past, cyber, social media, 24 media cycle, and the proliferation of technology has changed the rules of game to an extent I don't think we fully grasp yet." by Bill Moore

Yes, we don't need to be worrying about FID,SID,COIN,UW or no W or whatever. It is ALL UW, the only question is whether it is offensive or defensive. But the real questions we need to be asking are the ones Bill points out about the social technologies that are definitely changing things.

I was listening to a NASCAR interview of Richard Petty on how things have changed since he raced in the 50's,60's,70',80's. You might not think it has anything to do with UW but it was really interesting how he contrasted his generation with the current generation and their extensive use of social media as it relates to NASCAR and the World in general. It is truly changing communication patterns and THOUGHT patterns and we better pay attention to this....hopefully the right people already are.

Quote "For those who argue over whether the war on terrorism has been successful or not or whether we should or should not be waging a war against terrorism, I would say that we are having the wrong debate." Unquote

Bravo! I believe terrorism will be an enduring tactic, so waging a war against a tactic at best will may achieve a minimal effect for a limited duration. Counterterrorism at one time was considered a mission, not a strategy. Perhaps we need to reconsider that? We see the same thing with our C-IED efforts. To clarify, I'm not advocating we quit aggressively targeting tactical targets, we have theoretically saved thousands of lives doing so, but we fool ourselves if we think this approach alone will bring any closer to something we can call an acceptable condition we can live with. Tactics don't capitulate and lose their will to fight, people do. They will only do so if they believe their strategy has no chance of succeeded. If I was Al Qaeda I wouldn't yet be convinced my strategy is failing.

While continuing tactical disruption operations, we need to simultaneously have our senior military and civilian leaders step back from the tactical fight and gain an appreciation of our adversary's UW campaign strategy. Looking at through that lens will provide insights on what type of counter-UW strategy we need to implement. Dave captured it well when he wrote,

Quote, "Second, by understanding the enemy’s strategy a counter-unconventional warfare strategy can be devised that will allow US law enforcement and homeland security agencies with intelligence support to locate and defeat the underground elements attempting to infiltrate, radicalize, and execute operations on US soil. Without an underground, effective terrorist operations cannot be conducted. Overseas, intelligence and military forces (with law enforcement support) who possess deep knowledge and understanding of unconventional warfare can advise and assist friends, partners and allies, to disrupt and defeat underground networks and deny sanctuary, resources, mobility, and popular support for the threat organizations." Unquote

I don't agree with all stated, for one AQ doesn't require popular support, it requires enough support. However, the overall concept in my opinion is sound.

AQ and others are pursuing the same UW strategy the Soviets used in the their global campaign (Mao never had a global campaign, his focus was tactical guerrilla operations) to dominate the world. They competed with us in the information domain and fought us irregular in a number of proxy wars, and of course we did the same. During the not so cold Cold War we seemed to have a better appreciation for unconventional warfare as a strategy and how subversion, sabotage, terrorism, and guerrilla warfare were leveraged to pursue their ends. That approach to war is still alive and well and Al-Qaeda and others practice it today. Targeting so called HVIs, and/or training others to do the same is not a strategy to an end, it is simply a force multiplier for the current tactical approach. We need to go back to the future once again and dust off our Cold War manuals as a starting point, not the lessons learned from the anti-colonial wars. However, we can't cling to the past, cyber, social media, 24 media cycle, and the proliferation of technology has changed the rules of game to an extent I don't think we fully grasp yet.

COL. Maxwell, nice work.

I will try to make two points. 1) UW as a human endeavour requiring an attack on social, moral and psychological components. 2) The UW in the current paradigm doesn't see geography as limiting their actions.

1) UW as a human endeavour:

I think it was John Boyd who said "machines don't fight wars, people do."

In that context, policy makers must understand that those who use terrorism as a tool in their war against who they perceive to be the enemy, by their very nature evolve. They tend to be far more resourceful than governments. It appears elements within government are still fixed on a one-dimensional mindset and just see "terrorism". Perhaps this is because they have always felt uncomfortable about the nature of what is required to destroy, deter or deflect our UW opponents. Instead countering the UW by any groups against our interests requires an asymmetric mindset to exploit weaknesses in the moral, social, cultural, economic, religious and psychological drivers. These concepts can be difficult for some people to accept. Our defence of human rights, politically correct notions of engaging with other cultures is seen by our IUW opponents as a weakness - see how easily we were exploited in Wardak with allegations of abuse by SOF teams. Merely allegations and we withdrew.

We are afraid to break cultural and social barriers while our opponents exploit our own systems; this completely contradicts their own beliefs – see Millennium Plot bunch of guys. Need to address the moral aspect – Boyd described this as the most powerful aspect of warfare.

Requires unconventional, social and cultural manoeuvrability to exploit, divert, dismantle or defeat the human desires behind the drive to commit terrorist acts. This leads to my second point:

2) The UW in the current paradigm doesn't see geography as limiting their actions.

In 2008 Evan Kohlmann provided an excellent synopsis of how al-Qaeda changed tact. At a 2002 UK conference organised by the radical Al-Muhajiroun faction Abu Hamza al-Masri told followers: “We need to resist, we need to fight, even alone. And you can’t go now to learn in Afghanistan or Eritrea as before. A lot of skills you need for the frontline, you can learn from here...Where are you? What can you do in your area?”

Not only is this an example of asymmetrical tactics in warfare, it illustrates the intangible vision for a global jihad meant to inspire all followers to be their own al Qaeda. Is this a good example of UW through pushing beyond confined geographical boundaries. So yes, drones might have killed a tonne of bad guys in Yemen and so the progressive lawyers in the US believe the "war is being won." Before he was killed in mid-2003, Al-Alyiri, one of the most trusted key al-Qaeda operatives, became a key communicator to radicalised Muslims around the world Kohlman (2008). In 2003 al-Alyiri said, “the war is based on a strategy to widen the battlefield. The entire world has become a battlefield. This is an infinite fight beyond time and geography. In Patterns of Conflict Boyd set out his three components of war:

1. Moral Warfare: the destruction of the enemy's will to win, disruption of alliances (or potential allies) and induction of internal fragmentation. Ideally resulting in the "dissolution of the moral bonds that permit an organic whole [organization] to exist.

2. Mental Warfare: the distortion of the enemy's perception of reality through disinformation, ambiguous posturing, and/or severing of the communication/information infrastructure.

3. Physical Warfare: the abilities of physical resources such as weapons, people, and logistical assets.

Don't let those who influence government policy to weaken our strategic frameworks just because we have tactical successes. Get them to think about how to strengthen our ability to evolve, construct policy, train intelligence, law enforcement and military operators and just as importantly inform the public. Address the strategic objectives of our UW opponents, regardless of their use of terrorism.

Bill C.

Tue, 05/21/2013 - 10:29am

What is the context within which these events unfold?

Kilcullen I believe, in his "Counterinsurgency Redux," accurately describes the situation:

"Politically, in many cases today, the counterinsurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo ... or to repel an occupier ... The enemy includes Al Qaida (AQ) linked extremists and Taliban, but also includes local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture ... The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernization ... echoes colonial campaigns ..."

Thus, the ends which the United States and its friends, partners and allies seek to achieve is, as Kilcullen points out, "revolutionary change," to wit: the modernization of various outlier states and societies.

While those who are less interested, or not interested at all, in modernization and revolutionary change (to wit: "the enemy") seek -- by various means and ways -- to preserve the status quo and/or their traditional culture.

Thus, is it within this context that the enemy conducts (as COL Maxwell notes above) an unconventional warfare campaign consisting of "activities to enable a resistance or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power through and with an underground, auxillary and guerrilla force ..."

Herein, as they say, lies the rub:

a. What strategy, employing what ways and means, will allow us to best achieve our ends, to wit: the modernization of outlier states and societies?

b. Should a counter-unconventional warfare strategy and campaign -- against those opposed to modernization and/or other radical and "revolutionary change" (as required by the United States et. al) -- be an integral part of such a strategy?


Wed, 05/22/2013 - 2:56pm

In reply to by OpsIntel

OpsIntel. Man did you ever say a mouthful. Fancier Tanks,Planes,and Ships will not save us and the enemy knows that but it seems we(USA) have yet to figure that out.


Tue, 05/21/2013 - 7:43am

Dave, it is encouraging to see someone talking about correct, core questions. UW has been, and continues to be, difficult-to-counter since it requires personalities and government entities (bureaucracies and institutions) to identify their flaws and weaknesses; embrace innovative or non-traditional solutions that don't account for vested interests; and operate outside the opinion and news driven cycles that reflect a desire/need for quick or clean resolutions. Please continue to challenge defective thought patterns, as well as the ineffective ways and means, preventing effective engagement of the threats we face.