Small Wars Journal

The Strategic Realities of Twenty-First Century “Small Wars”— An Opinion Essay

Sat, 05/22/2021 - 2:36pm

The Strategic Realities of Twenty-First Century “Small Wars"— An Opinion Essay

Max G. Manwaring

“You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,” said the American colonel.  The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment.  “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”[1]

Introduction and Problem

The traditional distinctions between crime, terrorism, subversion, and insurgency are blurred.  This new dynamic involves the migration of the monopoly of political power (i.e., the authoritative allocation of the values in a society) from the traditional nation-state to unconventional actors such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), transnational criminal organizations, Leninist-Maoist insurgents, tribal militias, mafia organizations, private armies, cartel enforcers, third generation gangs (3GEN Gangs),[2] and other modern mercenaries and entrepreneurs. These actors conduct some form or level of war against various state and non-state adversaries and promulgate their own rule of law—within alternatively governed spaces—within the societies they control.  That activity creates an ambiguous bazaar of violence where criminal entrepreneurs fuel the convergence of crime and war.[3] That kind of activity must inevitably result in an epochal transition from traditional Western nation-state systems and their liberal democratic values to something else dependent of the values—good, bad, or non-existent—of any given winner.[4]

All this represents a quintuple threat to the authority, legitimacy, and stability of targeted governments. Generally, these threats include the following:  1) undermining the ability of a government to perform its legitimizing functions; 2) significantly changing a government’s foreign, defense, and other policies; 3) isolating religious or racial communities from the rest of a host nation’s society, and replacing traditional state authority with alternative governance; 4) transforming socially isolated human terrain into “virtual states” within the host state, without a centralized bureaucracy, or any easily identified legitimate military or police forces; and  5) conducting low-cost actions calculated to maximize damage, minimize response, and display carefully staged media events that lead to the erosion of the legitimacy and stability of a targeted state’s political-economic-social system. The intent of this destabilization effort is to move the state into the state failure process and exploit the situation for one’s own purposes. State failure, however, is not the ultimate threat.[5]

Somewhere near the end of the destabilization process, the state will be able to control less and less of its national territory and fewer and fewer people in it.  Nevertheless, just because the state fails to perform its legitimizing functions does not mean that it will go away.  The diminution of responsible governance and personal security generates greater poverty, violence, and instability—and a downward spiral in terms of development and well-being.  It is a zero-sum game in which non-state or individual actors (e.g., insurgents, transnational criminal organizations, and corrupt public officials) are the winners and the rest of a given society are the losers.  Ultimately, failing or failed states become dysfunctional states, dependencies, tribal states, rogue states, criminal states, narco-states, new “peoples’ republics,” draconian states (e.g., military dictatorships), neo-populist states (civilian dictatorships), or just melt into the geopolitical landscape.  Again, state failure is not the ultimate threat.  The ultimate threat is the coerced transition of extant values of a given society to the values of an antagonist.  This is the cruel human reality of where it is that the bad guys lead.[6] 

Lessons that should have been learned by governments and military and security organizations involved in various destabilizing and bloody small wars demonstrate that a given response to a given conflict often ends—or continues on-and-on—in greater misery and violence than was ever anticipated. Too often this is because too much time, treasure, and blood are dedicated to ineffective tactical and operational level military/police efforts as opposed to defining and implementing a strategic geopolitical end-game.  

One Example of the Problem

When Marshall Josip Broz Tito died in 1980, the Yugoslavia that he created at the end of World War II had a real existence.  The various peoples of the country were reasonably united, and the six republics and two autonomous regions that made up the state were relatively prosperous.  This was the result of Tito’s strong authoritarian hand and his personal charisma.  By 1989, however, this fragmented country began to experience a succession of five small wars that lasted through the spring of 1999.  Between 1991 and 1999, hundreds of thousands of Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, and Albanians were killed, raped, and/or tortured by one or another opposing faction.  Millions were forced out of their homes and into internal and external exile.  “Ethnic cleansing”—a new term for a very old practice—was utilized by all parties to the overall conflict.  This was the general state of affairs in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s when the international community finally decided to try to do something—for something’s sake.[7] 

The American general officer who was given command of the US and NATO forces in Bosnia in the mid-1990s was Lieutenant General William G. Carter III.  General Sir Rupert Smith was the British general officer who commanded the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia in 1995.  Like General Smith, he was quite candid and told a similar story.  Instead of recounting much of General Smith’s narrative, however, let us consider the guidance General Carter received from the US Secretary of Defense prior to taking his assignment in the Balkans.   He states:

“I went to dinner with (the Secretary of Defense).  I was commander of the 1st Armored Division at the time, but I had been told in 1993 that I was going to take command in Sarajevo.  I asked the Secretary what was it that he wanted me to do.  I was kind of surprised in a way and not surprised in another way that he had no answer to that.  He had really not thought through what was the end-state or whatever.  So, I said, OK, here is what I can offer you.  If you will give me some degree of latitude as to just how ruthless I can be, I can go in and do a good replication of Marshall Tito.  I can go in and I can clamp down that country and I can stop the bloodshed.  I can stop the fighting.  I can disarm the factions.   I said that the downside of this is that I am going to have to stay forever, because just like Marshall Tito, when I leave, all the latent hatred will still be there, and it will go back to some kind of conflict.  So, I can stabilize, if that is what you want me to do.  So, what is it that you want me to do?  Then (the Secretary) said, ‘What we want you to do,’ and he was being very pragmatic, ‘is get it the hell off CNN.’”[8]

With that guidance, it should come as no surprise that US military coordination during the assessment, plan development, and execution phases of the operations in the former Yugoslavia did not involve key US governmental organizations, international organizations, coalition partners, or non-governmental organizations.  Consequently, ad hoc planning and implementing procedures broke down in the face of competing interests and institutional agendas.  Moreover, in the absence of a single overarching geopolitical-military campaign plan, ad hoc reaction to changing conditions and “mission creep” became the norm.  And, as a final result, there was no strategic clarity (i.e., unity of effort) and only limited effectiveness.[9]

Challenge and Tasks

At this point in time, we find that it is not the military or law enforcement, but the political-economic-psychological-technical-cyber dimensions of contemporary small wars, where crisis prevention has failed. As a consequence, it might be a good idea to consider the fact that no coach in the National Football League (NFL) or the National Basketball Association (NBA) would go into a season without a “philosophy” for his team.  Given that national and global security and well-being “is a matter of vital importance…the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin…”[10] It follows that—like any good NFL coach—the United States would do well to develop a “unified field theory” (i.e., a strategic concept; a paradigm; a blueprint for action; a theory of engagement; “a philosophy”) that would govern organization, policy, strategy and power asset management.

Incredibly, however, the last time this sort of thing was accomplished in the United States was 1947 when Ambassador George Kennan initiated his theory of engagement that governed the long-term geo-strategic planning and implementation process required for the containment of the Soviet Union.[11]  In that connection, the United States would also do well to develop a supporting high-level operational socio-economic development assistance plan to deal with—among other things—the international refugee problem. The last time this sort of thing was done was at the end of World War II with the Marshall Plan.  And, lastly, we find that the Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 (i.e., the Goldwater-Nichols Act) is no longer adequate to the challenge and task of providing the implementing organizational mechanism designed to create a national/international end-state planning and execution process focused on the reality of contemporary unrestricted asymmetric conflict.[12]   Many political, military, law-enforcement, and opinion leaders have been struggling with these “new” aspects of the narco-insurgent-gang-terror phenomenon for years. They have been slow to understand that militarily defeating the bulk of an insurgency, annihilating major terrorist groups, and locking up gang members and crime bosses is not sufficient to the task at hand.         

In sum, first, at the geo-political level we advocate a multi-dimensional whole-of-government organizational structure that can initiate the process of considering and administering a timely and appropriate response to a given international security crisis.  That is, the organization and authority at the highest levels designed to achieve a complete unity of multi-lateral civil and military effort to carry out a commonly agreed geo-political end-state.  Once a lawful and competent decision has been reached to engage US purpose and power in a given internal or external conflict, the sage advice of B.H. Liddell-Hart reminds us that “The object of war is to obtain a better peace”—not just win the battles.  Hence, it is essential to conduct war with constant regard to the peace you desire.”[13] That would be the primary basis from which to articulate and pursue a realistic geo-political end-state. 

Second, at the high-operational level, the task is to provide the appropriate “ways and means” through which to achieve the commonly agreed “ends” of the sustainable geo-political peace desired.  That would entail: 1) developing personal and collective security under the rule of law, 2) isolating or neutralizing belligerents; 3) developing a viable economy; 4) organizing culturally acceptable intelligence and civil-military operations as necessary offensive and defensive components in fostering the transition from an insurgent, or criminal society to a legitimate society; and 4) developing responsible civil governance.[14]

Third, at the tactical level, objectives would center on attaining the widest freedom of movement and action to maximize the possibilities for achieving operational and strategic objectives.  Again, simply defeating militarily the bulk of an insurgency, annihilating major terrorist groups, and locking up gang members and crime bosses is not sufficient to the task at hand.  What is required here is a well thought-out multi-lateral whole-of-government game plan that will attack the root causes responsible for the destabilization problems that created the instability and violence in the first place.[15]

Finally, enabling legislation would have the “end-state” of a durable peace, achieved by “way” of deliberately taking one operational level step and one geographical/human space at a time, by “means” of generating responsible and legitimate multi-lateral whole-of-government capabilities.  Clearly, all this cannot be achieved all at once in one fell-swoop easily, quickly, or cheaply.  But, better that than the proven murderous and very-very costly alternatives.

Toward the Future

All this does not mean that the United States has to be involved in everything all around the world all the time. It does mean, however, that the United States must rethink and renew its concept of security.  Strong empirical evidence informs us that the most effective type of global role for the country should be that of strategic “facilitator” for the development of legitimate civil societies, rather than that of a so-called “policeman,” “social worker, or “Santa Claus.”  The cognitive key to success is to carefully pick clients as well as fights—and be extremely careful in going about it.  The follow-through idea would be for the United States and its international allies to act more like a stern international “uncle.” That facilitator would help clients to develop a coherent geopolitical strategy that would provide basic protective security for its citizens.  That facilitator would also address the deeper problems behind the violence and insecurity perpetrated by individuals and organizations that would take advantage of root causes for their own personal and/or organizational motives.  In these terms, the United States would no longer play the aging Santa Claus rapidly running out of toys for resentful teenagers.[156

The central unifying theme of these empirical lessons is decisive.  If a country such as the United States desires efficiency and effectiveness in a matter as crucial as contemporary asymmetric conflict, the civil-military leadership must concern itself with two critical issues:  1) the Defense Reorganization/Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 must be reorganized and reoriented; and 2)  those actions must be preceded by a clear, holistic, and logical multi-lateral philosophy/paradigm that will ensure the achievement of the political ends established in that policy.  The consequences of failing to take these basic realities of contemporary unrestricted small wars seriously are clear.  Unless thinking, actions, and organization are reoriented to deal with these basic strategic issues, the problems of global, regional, and sub-regional stability and security will resolve themselves.  There won’t be any.

These challenges and tasks are really nothing new, and they are not even close to radical. They are only the logical extensions of basic security and strategy, and national and international asset management.  By accepting these challenges and tasks, the United States and the West, and perhaps others in the global community, can help “replace conflict with cooperation, harvest the hope, and fulfill the promise” that a new multi-dimensional security paradigm offers.[17]  Declaring victory and going home is not an option.


[1] Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy. New York:  Random House, 1982: p. 1.

[2] See John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, Eds. Strategic Notes on Third Generation Gangs. (A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology.) Bloomington: Xlibris, 2020.

[3] See David Easton, The Political System:  An Inquiry into the State of Political Science. Alfred A. Knopf New York, 1953: pp. 99, 128-129.  Also see, John P. Sullivan, “Maras Morphing: Revisiting Third Generation Gangs.” Global Crime. Vol. 7, no. 3-4. August-November 2008: pp. 487-504.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Max G. Manwaring, The Complexity of Modern Asymmetric Warfare, Norman, OK:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2012: pp. 136-153.   Also see, Max G. Manwaring and John T. Fishel, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency:  Toward a New Analytical Approach.” Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 3, no. 2.Winter 1992: pp. 272-305; Stephen D. Krasner, “An Orienting Principle for Foreign Policy.” Policy Review. No. 163. Palo Alto, CA:  Hoover Institution. 1 October 2010 and Amatai Etzioni, “Responsibility as Sovereignty.” Orbis. Vol. 50, no. 1. Winter 2006: pp. 71-85.

[6] Ibid.    

[7] Max G. Manwaring, Bosnia-Herzegovina After-Action Review (BHAAR I), Conference Report. Carlisle Barracks, PA:  US Army Peacekeeping Institute, 19-23 May 1996; and Max G. Manwaring, BHAAR II, 13-17 April 1997. Also note, Author Interviews with Lt. General William G. Carter (USA, Ret.), 30 November 1998 and 2 March 1999, Washington, DC. 

[8] Ibid. Also see, General Rupert Smith (UK, Ret.), The Utility of Force. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Samuel B. Griffith. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1963: p. 63.

[11] “X” (George F. Kennan), “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Foreign Affairs. Vol. 24, no. 4. July 1947: pp. 566-582.

[12] Qiao Wang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare. Beijing:  PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, 1999: pp. 77-78,109, 144-145.

[13] B.H. Liddell-Hart, Strategy. New York: Signet, 1967: p. 353.

[14] See: Max G. Manwaring, Confronting the Evolving Global Security Landscape:  Lessons from the Past and Present, Praeger: Santa Barbara, CA, 2019: pp. 1-16. 

[15] David C. Miller, “Back to the Future,” Chapter Two in Max G. Manwaring and William J. Olson Eds., Managing Contemporary Conflict: Pillars of Success. Boulder, CO:  Westview Press, 1996. 

[16] Joseph W.  McBride, “America Coping with Chaos at the Strategic Level:  Facilitator For Democratic Stability in the Post-counter-insurgency Era” in Max G. Manwaring and Anthony James Joes, Eds., Beyond Declaring Victory and Coming Home, Westport, Conn:  Praeger, 2001, pp. 214-215.  Also see, Amatai Etzione, “Changing the Rules,” Foreign Affairs, November/December, 2001: p. 173

[17] The wise words of Albert Camus, The Rebel. New York:  Vintage, 1956: p. 302.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Max G. Manwaring is a retired Professor of Military Strategy at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, and is a retired US Army colonel. He has has held the General Douglas MacArthur Chair of Research at the USAWC, and over the past 40+ years, hehas served in various military and civilian positions. They include the US Southern Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Dickinson College, and Memphis University. Manwaring is the author and co-author of several articles, chapters, and books dealing with international security affairs, political-military affairs, insurgency, counter-insurgency, and gangs. His most recent book, Confronting the Evolving Global Security Landscape, Lessons from the Past and Present, was published by Praeger Security International, 2019. His most recent chapter is entitled “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC): A Transnational Criminal-Insurgent-Terror Phenomenon.” It may be found in Kimberly L. Thachuk and Rollie Lal, Eds., Terrorist Criminal Enterprises: Financing Terrorism through Organized Crime, Praeger, 2018.  Dr. Manwaring is a graduate of the US Army War College and holds an M.A. and PhD in Political Science from the University of Illinois. He is also a Small Wars Journal-El Centro Fellow. He remains semi-active in the national security community, and may be contacted at



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