Chasing Ghosts: Unconventional Warfare in American History

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In the first Mark Mazzetti writes about a classified CIA report that alleges that the US has rarely been successful in training and equipping rebel forces and because of this report the US Administration was reluctant to arm and train Syrian rebels. It is neither an abject failure in every case nor is it a war winner in almost any case but it is a viable strategic option if used in the right conditions at the right time by the right organizations. Again to restate the problem there is little intellectual foundation for unconventional warfare.

We have a number of contemporary examples about UW that are worth examining to illustrate both our lack of understanding as well as the continuing importance of UW. But we do not understand the complexity, the difficulties and the depth of operations and activities necessary for the conduct of effective UW and we expect to simply apply building partner capacity and train and equip to problems that may require an understanding of UW to support a strategy.

This is most prominently illustrated by the public statements of our political leadership and pundits who only focus on training and equipping rebel forces as if this action is enough to succeed and achieve our interests. The second example we have comes from competitors and opposition.

Modern Unconventional Warfare: How Ready are Nation-States and Their Standing Militaries?

Such operations are both overt and covert. Kennan describes the realm of revolution, resistance, and insurgency that can contribute to coercing, disrupting or overthrowing a government or occupying power. These are truly strategic actions and objectives but the question remains: do we understand what it requires to implement strategies with campaigns that either support or counter-revolutions resistance, or insurgency. To graphically illustrate our lack of understanding of unconventional warfare we can turn to two charts from the Assessing Revolution and Insurgency Strategy ARIS project.

Yet it is the underground that provides the key to understanding the motivation, objectives, interests, methods, and strategy of the leadership of a revolution, resistance, or insurgency RRI.

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We really need to assess all the organizations of an RRI and not solely the armed component, which seems to always be the focus of our strategy and activities. Another chart illustrates the scope of activities in an RRI environment and in particular the underground. Again, the focus on the armed component as the main effort shows that we lack the depth of knowledge required to not only understand UW but to devise strategies that include UW as an option and most importantly to support UW operations. However, the work of SORO has not been lost and in fact has been not only captured but updated.


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While we lament the lack of national policy and DOD and joint doctrine on UW, we should look to the ARIS project for the intellectual foundation for UW based on history but well adapted to the present and for the future. Even some within the Special Operations community dismiss any study of historical examples of UW as anachronistic and not worth the effort necessary to develop a deep understanding of the phenomena.


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However, within the ARIS project are not only case studies of revolution, resistance, and insurgency from the 20th Century through , there is detailed analysis of current UW practices, methods and strategies being employed in the contemporary operating environment. Although I strongly recommend that the entire project be studied I commend two of the works so that those who wish to being to understand contemporary UW can begin to build the foundation necessary to understand and appreciate the need to have strategies that employ UW along with the ability to counter UW as part of the national security tool kit.

In Underground, Insurgent, Revolutionary, and Resistance Warfare 2d Edition, 25 January a reader can glean important insights into recruiting to include radicalization as we understand it today, financing of UW operations e. In Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies 2d Edition, 25 January one can understand how the Internet and media are exploited by resistance and insurgent organizations, the use of propaganda, group dynamics and more on radicalization, the employment of terrorism as well as nonviolent resistance. We find everything from the political action to subversion, to violence in the ARIS Project, with the all-important emphasis on human factors.

It provides the most relevant and current information on how various resistance organizations are conducting UW around the world. The techniques, methodologies and strategies discussed throughout the myriad publications in the entire project provide us with the knowledge for our own employment of UW as well as our strategies for countering UW.

However, I have heard from friends in the national security community that there is great reluctance to describe the actions threat organizations as unconventional warfare or to advocate that the US should employ unconventional warfare. There seems to be no stomach for the complex, violent, messy, and difficult to control nature of unconventional warfare. And of course assessing the resistance from a UW perspective might also reveal that support to the resistance is infeasible.

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But if our strategy in Syria and Iraq fails, a contributing factor could very well be our distain for UW. To which I respond, read, study and internalize the ARIS project and you will be enlightened and if not you will remain in the dark about UW.

Big Picture: The Third Challenge: Unconventional Warfare

UW is not some passing phenomena. It is also something not to be romanticized in ways such as been done with the re-emergence of counterinsurgency. To borrow a time worn dictum we have to deal with the world as it really is and not as we would wish it to be. There is much more to discuss on UW and countering UW. We need to determine effective concepts of employment and especially campaign plans in support of strategy and we need to develop policy makers and strategists who understand the complex nature of UW and recognize how it is being employed around the world. We need to figure out how to train not only military forces in UW but the intelligence community and other government agency personnel as well.

Guerrilla Warfare: A Historical, Biographical, and Bibliographical Sourcebook

We should also determine if we need a new SORO-like organization. Let me close with two thoughts. First, if you are going to enter the discussion or criticize UW as anachronistic and no longer of value because terrorism and insurgency are the dominant threats then I would urge you to first read the ARIS project especially the two books on human factors and undergrounds.

Second, I would offer the following as something to think about as we look to the future of UW. I argue that one of the important missions for both the intelligence and the SOF communities is the continuous assessment the resistance potential of current, nascent and potential future revolutionary, resistance, and insurgent organizations.

By understanding the resistance that exists around the world we will be in a better position to develop strategic options and avoid many of the pitfalls we have experienced in the past decades and that the CIA report referenced in the NY Times will likely show.


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  7. Of course Afghanistan might be considered an exception by some but the reality is that the success of OEF from October to January rested on the foundation of relationships built prior to that allowed for at least sufficient understanding of the resistance potential. The same is true for countering UW. America can only be effective in UW and Counter UW if it invests in developing the intellectual foundation necessary to develop strategies and campaign plans.

    UW comes from the past, is here in our present, and will be around in our future. Mentioned in? References in periodicals archive? To support the unconventional warfare environment in Afghanistan, support personnel must be well-trained and multifunctional. Doing more with less: Special Forces logistics in Afghanistan.

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    Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare. Equating unconventional warfare with irregular, guerrilla, partisan, low-intensity, "people's" and revolutionary wars, Tierney internal relations, Institute of World Politics examines conflicts that involved Americans as prime combatants before the current war in Iraq. Chasing ghosts; unconventional warfare in American history. One of the main aspects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is the use of unconventional warfare. However, despite the claim from U.

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    It is also conducted as unconventional warfare although a civil war can start as conventional war, or progress to that level. Chapter 1 Revolutionary warfare and related concepts: a conceptual framework. The scholar-soldiers. Indeed, the Army turned its back on unconventional warfare almost entirely, which nearly meant the end of the Green Berets.