Elusive Victories: How Counterterrorism Campaigns Can Link Back Up with Strategy


Historians will remember the Obama administration’s 2009 deliberation over what to do in Afghanistan as one of the fiercest debates over military strategy during this president’s tenure. Although this debate was surely more nuanced than what was reported publicly, accounts paint the administration as divided into two camps. One camp, led by Vice President Joe Biden, favored a light military footprint focused primarily on counter-terrorism. This would keep the U.S. military out of an expensive, prolonged, and uncertain nation-building project. The second camp’s chief advocates were Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and – eventually – Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. They pushed for a fully resourced, “whole of government”  counterinsurgency campaign with a large footprint aimed at delivering decisive blows against the Taliban insurgency while training and expanding the Afghan National Security Forces.

As we all know, President Obama largely came down in support of the second camp, but with a limited timeline for success. As the costs of a large counterinsurgency campaign unfolded – in terms of blood, treasure, and prestige – the idea of these prolonged operations fell out of favor in the White House. As a result, the United States approaches these “internal wars” in failing or failed states very differently.

In the end, it is Biden’s prescription that has won out due in large part to the perceived failures of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States adapted by placing a greater emphasis on special operations forces to execute lethal, surgical attacks and train and advise partnered and proxy forces. To an extent unprecedented in U.S. military history, special operations forces, with tremendous support from the U.S. Air Force, are the preferred tool of American hard power around the globe. In various hot spots, special operations forces focus relentlessly on killing the enemy and training forces to do the same.

The victories of efforts such as these are many. On May 23rd, U.S. special operations forces killed Mullah Mansour, then the leader of the Afghan Taliban. The United States has methodically eliminated most of al-Qaeda’s senior leaders, including its founder, Osama bin Laden. In Syria, the U.S. military recently killed the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) chief of external operations, as well as its information minister. Yet, in Afghanistan, the Taliban is arguably stronger than it has been since shortly before the president surged troops into Afghanistan to beat them back. Al-Qaeda is still an effective, if weakened, organization despite 15 years of sustained American pressure. In Syria, territory under the Islamic State’s control is shrinking steadily, but progress has been slow and the group has launched a global terrorism campaign.

In other words, all of these wars drag on despite industrial strength targeted killing processes the United States reportedly operates in all of these theaters. Yes, the U.S. military has become proficient at targeting threat networks. But these tactical successes have not translated into enduring strategic gains. Absent something else, this threat-focused approach to counterterrorism used by U.S. special operations forces may be nothing more than “mowing the lawn.” How can we do better?

If the leaders of the United States are going to continue to rely heavily on special operations forces as the hard power tool of choice, military leaders should seek to place greater focus on understanding and influencing the civil domain. This could enhance and complement threat-centric lethal targeting campaigns in such a way that can serve to bring these conflicts to an end.

The Challenge of Conducting Counterterrorism in Ungoverned Spaces

Given the pressure brought to bear on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the group’s future growth is likely to take place in other theaters, such as North Africa, the Gulf, and South Asia. How can the United States defeat ISIL in an ungoverned space without massing ground troops and replace the group’s harsh governance with something more sustainable? Should it even try?

Ungoverned spaces are inherently attractive to organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIL, which makes them areas of interest for U.S. special operations forces. The direct action missions immortalized in books and popular imagination remain a small part of the global campaign to reduce such breeding grounds in which malign actors metastasize. Because of their training and adaptability, special operations forces are ideally suited to working across cultures. This mission is generally conducted in support of a weak state, in which case it is considered foreign internal defense. But in certain countries, such as Libya and Syria, it is more complicated. The state may not exist or the de facto state apparatus may be under the control of a malign actor or adversary. To allow U.S. forces to transcend an endless game of terrorist whack-a-mole, the ungoverned spaces require some modicum of state power projection, whether domestic or external.

Special operations forces involved in these limited counterterrorism campaigns will rarely enjoy the luxury of U.S. or coalition “battlespace owners” — conventional forces engaged in the kinds of counterinsurgency and capacity-building familiar from Iraq and Afghanistan. The challenge of creating a lasting peace is especially thorny in states whose governments are weak or capricious. With only a small special operations contingent tasked to find, fix, and finish high-value targets or train small numbers of locals, it is unreasonable to expect the United States to bring about peace or societal change. And yet it is equally unreasonable to have the small, sharp edge of American military power constantly deployed across the world “mowing the grass.”

Only a Few Make Policy, But We Can All See It

To address this challenge, the American counterterrorism approach currently eschews troop-intensive counterinsurgency in favor of leaner missions. For example, Operation Inherent Resolve’s train-and-advise mission is predicated on working by, with, and through local partners to defeat ISIL. U.S. forces operate in small teams and are only rarely directly involved in combat. Working with local partners, though not purely a task for special operations forces, does align with two of their core tasks: unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense. Both approaches focus on supporting elements of a host nation, though unconventional warfare generally supports guerrillas, while foreign internal defense supports a government.

U.S. and coalition partners in Syria and Iraq can be simultaneously engaged in both mission sets. The special operations forces personnel engaged in assistance to local partners notwithstanding, we have not yet achieved major success in Syria, where even reducing the ISIL pocket in Manbij on the Turkish border was a slow, grinding battle. And if the caliphate’s capital of Raqqah does fall, there is still the matter of Russia and Assad bombing hospitals in support of a far different aim. In short, eliminating ISIL’s strongholds will result in the group returning to more terror-based tactics, and the United States will have to focus on the challenges presented by Assad, Russia, Turkey, and the organization formerly known as Jabhat-al Nusra.

As the slow-moving offensive to retake Fallujah illustrated, operating through proxies is an imperfect science. In the nebulous counterterrorism campaigns likely to command the attention of special operations forces in the future, U.S. forces will struggle to identify viable local partners to train, advise, and assist, much less accompany. The constant struggles to do so in Iraq and Syria show the limits of this approach. Effective foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare both rely upon effective local partners who share U.S. goals — not an easy task in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and other conflict zones. To make matters more complicated, some partners are sometimes at odds with others.

Further, we would all do well to keep in mind that counterterrorism is a response to a tactic, not a strategy in and of itself. States that require assistance to combat a transnational terrorist threat are weak by definition. Groups that fester in ungoverned spaces are symptoms of wider collapse. Forces proficient in counterterrorism are expensive to train, equip, and deploy. And one of the dirty truths of special operations forces is that most of their operations require conventional support, which often comes from the Air Force applying precision fires against larger enemy forces. Special operations forces are adaptable, but they cannot fix entire countries. Given all these constraints, U.S. special operations task forces can better combat terrorist threats such as al-Qaeda and ISIL by influencing the civil domain.

Civil or Human Domain: A Rose By Any Other Name…

In my view, the “civil domain” is essentially interchangeable with the “human domain,” newly popular in U.S. military doctrine. The U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command describes special operations forces as masters of the human domain. Similarly, the Joint Staff is working on a joint concept for “human aspects of military operations.” Whatever term we use, this is an important distinction to make from simply doing bad things to bad people.

U.S. Army doctrine refers to operational variables that define the operational environment: political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical environment, and time. Identifying these aspects of an area of operations leads to examining the mission variables, of which the civil considerations are: areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people, and events. Focusing on these variables does not require a radically new approach. Good staffs already do this. But what it will do for a staff of a unit of special operations forces is help identify other ways and means to move their campaign forward toward its strategic ends. The Army’s Civil Affairs branch could provide staffs with more of this type of information and analysis.

The Army’s Civil Affairs Regiment is the sole element of the special operations community with an explicit focus on the civil domain. Unfortunately, none of their core tasks directly relate to applying their civil domain expertise to the counterterrorism mission. They are not task-organized or trained for it. But today’s operating environments demand this kind of expertise, especially in areas without a robust State Department presence and in areas where — especially in a post-Benghazi world — State Department officials cannot go. Civil affairs units are designed to operate across the conflict continuum, from special warfare to surgical strike. Although they saw wide employment in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of their job in surgical strike special operations was consequence management after a strike went poorly — reactive instead of proactive. Recent commentary on the deactivation of the 85th Civil Affairs brigade misses the point. The change in force structure will actually allow civil affairs to refocus on special operations. When assigned to conventional Army forces — who had little incentive to use civil affairs skills — the 85th failed to make an appreciable impact, certainly not enough to survive the current fiscal climate.

Widening the Aperture

The increased focus on the civil domain will result in a consistently greater understanding of the relationship between threat networks, other armed groups, and noncombatants or governmental institutions. U.S. forces can use this analysis to conduct what the military terms “inform and influence activities.” Combating ISIL’s information operations is a necessity that should be apparent at the local and regional level, not just internationally. Building the right framework through studying the operational and mission variables can guide efforts to properly inform and influence relevant actors. Influencing the key groups, based on a sound understanding of the operating environment, will increase support for more traditional counterterrorism operations, defeat a targeted group’s narrative, and emphasize battlefield success both locally and globally.

In Iraq, the coming assault on Mosul provides an opportunity to execute this approach and demonstrate how the special operations community has applied the hard lessons of our recent history.  A few thousand ISIL fighters using hundreds of thousands of civilians as human shields could negate much of the coalition’s advantage in precision firepower. Moreover, the coalition against ISIL is internally divided, which will require a delicate balancing act among Turkey, Kurdish forces, the Iraq Security Forces, and various militias. A focus on the civil domain could complement the battle plan by keeping the long game in mind to both minimize civilian casualties and sustain as much infrastructure as possible. Tribal and sectarian rivalries will offer challenges and opportunities alike. They can underpin inform and influence activities to both increase reporting on ISIL from within Mosul and peel away disgruntled enemy fighters. Keeping local partners from battling over control of the spoils of war is another challenge that can’t be solved by precision strikes or direct action, but instead requires mastery of the cultural and political realities. Finally, planning must include steps to prevent retaliation against the Sunni Arab population. None of these suggestions is revolutionary, but to apportion sufficient emphasis to them — in addition to the more immediate focus on seizing territory and killing ISIL fighters — is the challenge that effective civil affairs planners will meet. All of this will help set improved conditions to provide effective humanitarian assistance and civil reconstruction following the city’s liberation.

How can the level of understanding necessary for these operations be reached? Conflict zones are rife with nongovernmental organizations, relief agencies, journalists, and other actors, who often have an understanding of local dynamics, conflicts, and developments that complements what a special operations staff knows. Paying increased attention to their reporting would paint a more complete picture than military intelligence alone can provide and would also benefit the organizations in question. U.S. forces can more effectively avoid Kunduz-style disasters given better information available to special operations advisors about the no-strike lists kept by their headquarters. As an example, the United Nations maintains the reliefweb site as a means to provide “reliable and timely humanitarian information.” Better analysis of how the enemy and the civil component relate will improve military planning and help to mitigate risk.

This more holistic view of an area of operations will also provide more inputs for effective targeting of both lethal (strikes and raids) and nonlethal (inform and influence) operations. Building an understanding of the social dynamics in a given area will identify those groups best placed to work with U.S. forces. This brings the added benefit of better wargaming during planning: understanding how our interventions may affect the overall campaign before executing them.


American military and intelligence efforts have been remarkably effective in preventing another high-profile attack on the homeland. The current chaos that afflicts large parts of the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Africa is unlikely to subside soon. Terrorist groups will continue to spread to where states are weak and unable to provide people with opportunities. U.S. special operations forces should seek to avoid the fate of Israel’s counterterrorism efforts: tactically brilliant, but unable to achieve an acceptable peace. Of course, even the best soldiers cannot achieve policy or strategic objectives if the objectives are unsound (or missing), but special operations forces can lead the way in understanding this problem set. Focusing on the civil domain will present valuable opportunities to special operations planners faced with limited authorities, troop levels, and intelligence networks. In the face of current constraints, it only makes sense to place a consistent emphasis on the civil domain during counterterrorism operations. This will supplement traditional U.S. strengths in technical collection and intelligence gathering.

The terrorist groups metastasizing throughout the world are a symptom of deeper social and political malaise. Targeting the symptom alone, even with a decapitation approach, is unlikely to bring peace. As stated in the Army’s document outlining the future of special operations through 2022, “Army SOF have been specifically designed to work in this human domain.” Owning this domain will lead to more effective campaigns that can eventually be part of the global effort to defeat radical groups as an organized threat to local and international governments and people.


Capt. Walter Haynes is the civil affairs officer in the Army’s 2d Ranger Battalion. Prior to joining civil affairs in 2013, he was an infantry officer. His views are his own and do not represent those of the 2d Ranger Battalion, the Ranger Regiment, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Steven Hitchcock