Small Wars Journal

Unconventional Counterinsurgency

Unconventional Counterinsurgency: Leveraging Traditional Social Networks and Irregular Forces in Remote and Ungoverned Areas by Major John D. Litchfield. U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) monograph, AY 2010.

The Sunni tribal uprising against Al Qaeda in Iraq, known as the Anbar Awakening, was the decisive event in the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. To capitalize on discontent between the Sunni population and Al Qaeda, U.S. commanders on the ground in Anbar Province applied more creativity and opportunism than deliberate application of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, which at that time did not fully grasp the importance of traditional social networks and irregular forces. The U.S. military is now attempting to capture the lessons of the tribal uprising in Iraq and incorporate those lessons into theory, doctrine and practice. More immediately, the U.S. must determine the applicability of those lessons to ongoing counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts across the region.

The paper argues that traditional social networks and irregular security forces represent a critical source of intelligence, political support and security for governments attempting to increase state control and legitimacy during an insurgency. Moreover, U.S. Army Special Forces are uniquely qualified to leverage traditional social networks and irregular security forces due to their unique training regiment, organization and experience in their capstone mission of Unconventional Warfare (UW). Ultimately these two claims provide the background for a central argument: the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) should refocus the counterinsurgency role of Army Special Forces on leveraging traditional social networks and employing irregular security forces to expand host nation control and security in contested, ungoverned or insurgent controlled spaces.

This monograph explains that tribes and traditional social networks continue to provide a degree of social order in some of the world's least governed and most volatile areas. Capitalizing on that underlying social order is critical to stabilizing remote areas and undermining insurgencies, especially when the government lacks favorable force ratios for counterinsurgency. The United States historically employed tribes and irregulars successfully in support of comprehensive counterinsurgency operations in the Philippines and Vietnam, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Army Special Forces have demonstrated a unique ability to organize tribal networks for self-defense and lead irregular forces to secure remote areas and isolate insurgents. The U.S. must capitalize on this core competency that exists within the special operations community to effectively deal with the ungoverned spaces that abound in current areas of conflict and prevent them from becoming safe-havens for insurgents and violent extremists.

Read the entire monograph.


As someone deployed to AFG for most of the last 2+ years, and dealing with SF on at least a weekly basis, I cannnt agree more strongly with the comments that SF has both lost their way, and is struggling to come back. The kinetic DA focus, aka Super Ranger, has dominated while JSOC envy and influence has grown over the past 15 years, and certainly since 9/11. While CFSOCC-A and C-JSOTF are trying to fix this--they are radically under-resourced.

If AFG is essentially a giant UW battlefield (whether you call it VSO/ALP, or any of the older terms), in the only hot war we've got--and SF is the by design UW force: why are so few teams in country? Why aren't a third or more of all SF learning Dari or Pashto? Why do we pretend we need to maintain a rigorous schedule of MTTs and JCETs to the Caribbean and Africa and Europe? Shouldn't at least 25% of all ODAs be in AFG at all times--it's the only damn war we've got, and we desperately need to add more, and better, VSO/ALP sites?

Brett Patron

Tue, 07/13/2010 - 12:30pm

<i>What is the Karzai government afraid of--maybe a strong rural area countering a large city elite ruling concept that might in fact force a true form of government in order to balance both elements.</i>

The Karzai government is not the only ones afraid of this. :)


Tue, 07/13/2010 - 12:09pm

anon... Paul Campbell is mentioned in the monograph and I served with him in Bad Toelz; the "Green Beret" vs Special Forces distinguishes the experienced mature graduates from JFKSWC who are authorized wear it and have a specific MOS in UW from those who are the door kickers; the SFA choice to emphasize "Green Beret" vs Special Forces is acknowledgement of the discussion about the utilization of Special Ops/ DA vs Special Forces, the Green Berets, in the SF (not special ops) community.

DA as a primary mission is somewhat disdained SF soldiers.

Det A was different, as you know.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 07/12/2010 - 6:09pm


Many speak about the UW/IW abilities of the 10th SFGA up to about the period 1973---for a history of true SF UW/IW training and deployments one should look at the unit referred to as simply "Det. A" which was Detachment A, Berlin Bde until 1984 and then reorged/renamed until the end of the cold war.

Check language abilities, training, equipment/documents carried and types of field deployments and one will see that SF did have a deep traditional UW role.

They are the only organization that can carry it off-the question is whether they really want to do it as it is definitely not a "glorious" day to day job that looks great on the resume---DA impresses people the day to day grind of being an advisor does not.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 07/12/2010 - 1:45pm

Is it not interesting that the Bonn decisions killed the SF Afghan irregular program in 2005 and now Karzai is resisting again the reintroduction of something similar.

What is the Karzai government afraid of--maybe a strong rural area countering a large city elite ruling concept that might in fact force a true form of government in order to balance both elements.


Thu, 03/15/2012 - 11:28pm

In reply to by Enabler (not verified)

as a sitting GPF Commander- fundamentally agree with your assessment. GPF units can do most of the tasks inherent in the mission- but only if properly resourced, educated,trained and committed. almost every decision taken by the senior uniformed and civilian leadership has worked against those things necessary for a conventional BCT to succeed. while possible, it is improbable the leadership can ever discipline itself to set the conditions for a BCT to prepare and execute the AAB mission effectively. For that reason- and the fact that the senior leaders have repeatedly demonstrated their inability to get this right over the last 40 years - BCTs should be taken off the table as AAB/UW assets - we are simply just too stupid now as a nation to do what our grandfathers probably could have sorted out in a month or two in the 40s. I was stunned many years ago to watch SF walk away from their one distinct and critical mission in search of DA glory back in the early 90s. I'm glad to see them walking back, but it is probably too late- the popular wisdom is "you can't win one of these", and will be hard to overcome- get ready for the budget axe!.

Enabler (not verified)

Mon, 07/12/2010 - 9:28am


We (Task Force DAGGER) were quite effective conducting UW OPS in the months following 9/11. Unfortunately, many of those early wins were lost soon after the Bonn Conference and the seating of the Interim Government of Afghanistan. Soon after, ODA attention turned to DA and many leaders lost suddenly interest in Afghanistan all together as our concentration shifted to Iraq in early 2003.

With multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, I have observed a pattern within SF that is troubling. Far too many SF soldiers and leaders have become enamored with DA and have lost sight of the core mission of the branch. We now have BCTs (present day AABs) conducting Advisory and Assistance missions, while SF ODAs continue to conduct DA. We need to reverse that trend. The BCT is a lethal entity which is more than capable of conducting the type of missions ODAs are currently doing, and the ODAs pride themselves on being able to accomplish the mission the AABs have taken on the primary role of conducting.

I would like to see ODAs get out of the DA mission and back into advising. Let the BCTs handle the DA tasks, they are more than capable of handling that task.

A few of the old intelligence analysts and UW specialists are still around, serving as reservists or civilians, and still keen on their trade. Wasn't much call for it after 1972/73.

Special Forces Association has decided to begin to emphasize the "Green Beret" as a type of soldier instead of the long held "The green beret is a hat, I'm a Special Forces soldier" I hope we learn again soon enough.

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Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 07/11/2010 - 11:06pm

And what does the SF newsletter and Paul Campbell have to so with this paper, the discussion and the price of tea in China?


Sun, 07/11/2010 - 10:53pm

Kudos to Paul Campbell. He now runs an SF newsletter as SFBacsi. Knew him in Bad Tolz, the original SF OCONUS populated by the Lodge Act DPs.


Sun, 07/11/2010 - 10:29pm

A camps, B teams, C Teams, Mike Force, CCN, CCC, CCS, SOG... all known but forgotten. What I see in the current SF, NG to McCrystal, is a door kicker mentality, not the "Quiet Professionals". That probably put us behind the curve. Special Forces Association has decided to begin to emphasize the "Green Beret" as a type of soldier instead of the long held "The green beret is a hat, I'm a Special Forces soldier" I hope we learn again soon enough.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 07/11/2010 - 1:58pm

Does this not now make the Kilcullen thesis of "ecosystem" research and analysis even more compelling?

Can in fact any of the currently used link analysis and social network analysis tools even come close to providing the fine line of info needed for UW/IW in Afghanistan?

Do we even have intelligence analysts and or BCT Cmdrs that even understand "ecosystems of insurgencies"?

Outlaw 7 (not verified)

Sun, 07/11/2010 - 1:04pm

Interesting--are we "rediscovering" the original central core of SF?

It was even in the 60s and early 70s all about UW built on a core of SF members (out of the 50s) who had participated and trained others on UW.

Currently SF is having an internal battle over DA vs UW as DA has more glory---but maybe at some point they will realize that UW if done correctly carries far more "glory". The main problem they are having in this internal dispute is there is no "institutional wisdom for UW" as that group of UW experienced personnel exited SF in the early 80s as DA became the survival mode concept.

The key question is can big Army back away from what it now feels is their mission vs their old mission of tank on tank.


Sun, 07/11/2010 - 11:45am

Thanks for this, you may very well be right: it's the tribes.