Unconventional Warfare is Not the Answer to Your Problem


A group of disenchanted humanitarians recently launched a spin-off of the infamous game Cards Against Humanity entitled JadedAid. Included among the deck’s many satirical (and subtly true) combinations is the game’s tagline: “Coming to terms with the fact that your intervention is the problem.” The expression applies equally well to the interventionist foreign policy the U.S. has broadly followed since the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Although the Obama administration has dialed back large-scale counterinsurgency and stabilization operations, it has also sought to intervene through a new mechanism: unconventional warfare.

At first glance, unconventional warfare appears to provide the ideal solution to many of the problems the administration faced with prolonged occupation and counterinsurgency campaigns. President Obama attempted to strike this balance in his initial strategy against ISISL, vowing  to “increase [U.S.] support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground” while preventing American ground troops from becoming involved in a combat mission.  Unconventional warfare, per the U.S. military’s Joint Publication 3-05, “consists of operations and activities that are conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an auxiliary, underground, and guerrilla force in a denied territory.” This doctrine holds that the United States can exert its influence through limited involvement to achieve its policy objectives, sidestepping the publicly unpalatable notion of large and prolonged military commitments. Yet the perception that unconventional warfare requires only limited involvement is a dangerous illusion. Not only does training and equipping proxy forces still exact a heavy financial cost, but the operational success of proxy forces often does not lead to the desired political outcome. Serious problems arise when ways and means are not connected to ends. Without organic political solutions to accompany unconventional warfare campaigns, the United States will at best waste vast amounts of defense spending; at worst, it will find itself entangled in the same costly, long-term operations it has endured in Iraq and Afghanistan with little to show for its efforts.

Success in all warfare requires reaching a desired political end state. Military victory that does not set conditions for this endstate will be either irrelevant or detrimental to the interests of a nation. As in counterinsurgency operations, the incumbent power does not necessarily need to secure a military victory; it merely needs to survive long enough to take advantage of a weakened state against which it can reassert itself. Al-Qaeda’s withdrawal from the Yemeni city of Mukalla in late April 2016 illustrates this principle well. Although the terrorist organization yielded the city to advancing coalition forces, the insolvency of the local Yemeni government has rallied support for the group and allowed the Islamic State in Yemen to make inroads among the population.

The challenge of selecting a suitable proxy force also presents a serious problem, as recent struggles to back “moderate” Syrian opposition groups indicate. While resistance forces may offer expedient short-term allies, their ideological aims often fail to align with long-term U.S. policy objectives. Covert American support to Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet occupation is perhaps the best-known example of “policy blowback” in which short-term solutions cause greater long-term problems.

Countering potential blowback requires long-term commitment on the part of the U.S. government, typically in the form of hefty financial and military aid to the political leaders it supports.. Externally- supported rebel groups show decreased accountability to the population they fight for, as well as less restraint in employing violence against them The logical corollary that follows from this argument extends to governments (and shadow governments) as well. The U.S. policy of artificially subsidizing non-functional or sub-functional governments creates dependency and de-incentivizes the correction of corrupt practices. This simply delays, rather than solves, the problem of blowback.

The historical record provides few instances in which the United States successfully conducted unconventional warfare to bring about a desired political endstate. Proponents generally herald as a paradigm for success World War II’s Operation Jedburgh, in which small teams infiltrated Nazi-occupied France to conduct sabotage operations and rally resistance forces. This analogy overlooks several critical distinctions between Vichy France and modern-day campaigns. Unlike present efforts, the political objective for Operation Jedburgh centered on reinstating an existing French government rather than instituting a completely different regime or system of government. Operational planners were therefore spared the difficulty of identifying suitable leaders that could maintain the support of the population or training them in the art of governance. Once they achieved an operational victory, the political solution was ready-made. Current planners in Syria will not have the equivalent luxury once combat operations cease. Comparisons between the current use of unconventional warfare and Operation Jedburgh also overlook the campaign’s historical context. Operation Jedburgh was intended as a shaping operation to prepare the battlefield for follow-on conventional forces. It did not serve as the sole means of liberating France or instituting a new government.

The numerous difficulties associated with unconventional warfare listed above are not meant to imply that the United States should never consider unconventional warfare as a potential option. Instead, they are intended to caution policymakers against the belief that unconventional warfare provides an easy, limited-engagement option with no strings attached. If and when the United States does choose unconventional warfare, its political endstate, rather than military victory, must be foremost in determining how to execute its operations. Simply expecting a functional government to emerge from the ashes of a previous regime is a dangerous and costly misapprehension; as the old military aphorism states, “hope is not a course of action.” Fifteen years of stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan prove that intervention without a preconceived and organic political endstate is indeed the problem.


Andrea Filozof is a captain in the U.S. Army. She has served three deployments to the Middle East. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views or policies of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Derek Kuhn