American Power and the Culmination of Unconventional Warfare

November 11, 2014

America soon will be conducting unconventional warfare (UW) again, if it is not already. Despite the numerous times it has conducted such operations in the past, the perils remain the same. The internal tensions among U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), CIA, State Department and other government agencies still exist. These tensions ultimately come to a head when the culminating event of unconventional warfare occurs: The overthrow of the current regime and transition to power of those we have aided.

Unconventional warfare includes “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow an occupying power or government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.” The United States conducted UW not only recently in Iraq and Afghanistan but also during the Cold War in Tibet, Angola, Nicaragua and Indonesia. Despite multiple experiments in UW, the United States has difficulty coalescing SOCOM-led military preparations, CIA-led cover intelligence activity and State Department guidance into stable and lasting governance for partner nations.

Operation Enduring Freedom offers many examples, but the most prominent occurred when Army Special Forces (SF) conducted operations alongside Hamid Karzai. Jason Amerine, an SF team leader, was tasked with conducting the initial link-up with Karzai. This was a classic mission for Army SF and one that Amerine received because he had specifically planned a full-scale UW campaign around Karzai. Amerine was unaware that the CIA had pre-empted his efforts. As Eric Blehm writes,

The leader of the CIA’s only Pakistan-based Jawbreaker team with the intent to operate in Southern Afghanistan [said] ‘We’re here to facilitate your work with Karzai. We’ve scheduled for you to meet him and his men tomorrow morning at ten.’ Facilitate? thought Amerine. What the hell does that mean?

The CIA’s lack of communication (which may have been intentional) immediately sowed seeds of distrust with the SF team.

This kind of cross-over between CIA covert activities and SOCOM-shaping operations has been typical in the years since 9/11, but it is uniquely problematic in a UW setting. For example, in operations where the goal is to find, fix and finish a target, the CIA and SOCOM (via Joint Special Operations Command) have typically been on the same page. This blurring of Title 10 (laws exclusive to the U.S. Armed Forces) and Title 50 (which relates to war and espionage and has traditionally governed CIA action) takes on a different dynamic when these entities must utilize the same set of assets to accomplish concurrent missions, as in UW.

In some rare cases, this dynamic is symbiotic, with interagency partners using SF shaping operations to further their intelligence gathering goals. Unfortunately, it is too often the case in America’s vast (and recent) experience that the dynamic becomes one of competition and outright hostility. In UW, it is quite possible that the strongest guerrilla commander in a partner country will also be the most likely to hold political power and keep it. It is logical that while SOCOM works to build military capacity, the CIA builds intelligence capability and attempts to uncover vulnerabilities in advance of a planned coup.

This idea of building capacity within a partner force extends beyond military and intelligence activities. In one of its many case studies of UW, U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) notes that, in addition to a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, many insurgencies seeking to become viable ruling forces set up shadow governments. These governments “often adopt other attributes of states, including national identity and legitimacy, revenue generation and provision of social services.” Since these basic structures contribute to the populace accepting the rule of an American partner force after the culminating event, it would make sense that America would send its governance and development experts from the State Department and USAID to shape these operations.

The leap from these parallel missions to the next phase of stable governance is where American UW falls flat. Before the culminating event, coordination has often been lackluster due to both institutional bias and overly protective compartmentalization policies. After the culminating event occurs and the dust settles, there has too often been a collective shrugging of the shoulders about who is ultimately responsible. No one knows who is in charge, and those who ought to be in charge (State, USAID) don’t really know how to interact with CIA and SOCOM, let alone their new foreign allies.

It would make sense for SOCOM and CIA to come together, share as much information as possible and present a unified view to the State Department after the culminating event occurs and the partner force has assumed political control. Critically, SOCOM and CIA would stay on in their respective roles developing the military and intelligence infrastructure of the new government, while State would necessarily become the primary governmental adviser to the new ruler.

In order to make this process viable, all actors need to come together in a well-planned training event that establishes the interagency team far in advance of the culmination of UW. This event needs to accomplish two things: It needs to provide every agency with an appreciation for UW; and it needs to breed familiarity and trust.

Both USASOC and Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) run exercises that fit this bill. Exercise Robin Sage and Exercise Derna Bridge are multiple-week UW exercises meant to test the judgment and capabilities of potential special operators when training indigenous forces. These exercises highlight requirements of successful UW, from training in basic tactics to reporting human rights violations. An appreciation for the shaping operations required for UW will provide a substantive basis for interagency cooperation, and the best way to effect that appreciation is through joint training.

One potential solution is to integrate CIA, State and USAID into Robin Sage and Derna Bridge. In so doing, special operations students will gain exposure to their counterparts and their capabilities. Importantly, they will also begin to understand the mindset and approach of their State, CIA and USAID colleagues. Robin Sage and Derna Bridge are immersive experiences that should strip away any pretense or ulterior motives in the participants as well as provide a glimpse into the real-world working conditions expected of those shaping U.S. spheres of influence around the globe.

This is particularly pertinent for State Department and USAID employees. It is important for those who will facilitate governance to see the shaping operations that will take place prior to their arrival. This provides context when working with a new government and ensures that promises made by SOF and CIA can receive reasonable follow-through from State and USAID. Additionally, it builds appreciation for the need to embrace non-Western styles of governance and work through the host nation’s systems. Trying to overlay Western-style democracy always and everywhere is a sure recipe for disaster.

The inculcation of familiarity and trust is equally important at the outcome of this training. The intent of placing all interagency actors into the same high-stress scenario is to foster dialogue and come to a common understanding of the mission’s end-state while acknowledging that each agency will take a different approach to mission accomplishment. An added benefit is that, should the United States conduct real-world UW, some of these participants would see each other again, building on previous relationships rather than starting fresh under the most difficult of circumstances.

Unconventional warfare has been an effective instrument of American foreign policy for many years, but the inability to conduct a successful transition from UW to legitimate governance has typically created more problems than it has solved. Through modification of well-established, rigorous training programs, it is possible to bring the expertise of American special operators, intelligence agents and governance specialists to bear in a manner that benefits both the United States and her partners.


Steve Thomas served as an Armor officer in the 101st Airborne Division, including a tour as a Scout Platoon Leader in Khost Province, Afghanistan. He currently serves as a private-sector consultant to the Marine Corps. He enjoys classical political philosophy and Maker’s Mark with two ice cubes.