Small Wars Journal

Governance as a Weapon: Advising the Shadow Government in Unconventional Warfare

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Governance as a Weapon: Advising the Shadow Government in Unconventional Warfare

Michael J. Dawdy

“No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” --Terry Pratchett[i]

From the Shadows

The term shadow government, also referred to as cryptocracy describes what is sometimes called "the secret government" or "the invisible government," the actual power that often does not reside with a legitimate regime or occupying power but with individuals or groups who remain hidden, underground, exercising power behind the scenes. While the term is currently in vogue by conspiracy theorists to describe the Illuminati, Bilderberg Group, Masons or other secret organizations, it is normally used in popular context to mean a secret government within the government itself. The concept of the shadow government was used extensively in the 1960s to describe the communist tactic of political cadre development parallel to the armed campaign. It was first codified in Molnar’s Undergrounds in Insurgent, Revolutionary, and Resistance Warfare[ii] where he dedicated a page to describing both the External Shadow Government (what we now refer to as the Government-In-Exile) and the Internal Shadow Government, which is the basis for the concept we now use.

The current ARSOF doctrinal definition (ATP 3-05.1, 2013) now succinctly explains that Shadow Government is: “governmental elements and activities performed by the irregular organization that will eventually take the place of the existing government. Members of the shadow government can be in any element of the irregular organization (underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force).”[iii]

Additionally, the Shadow Government is distinguished by having been formed in occupied territory and performs typical government functions such as basic services and rule of law but ideally in a clandestine or low visibility manner for the populace in opposition to the ruling power, though this changes over time as its legitimacy grows, a campaign evolves, and the shadow government moves into the light.[iv]

The Shadow Government can be closely synchronized with other elements of the resistance and with the Government-In-Exile, which is defined as the “government that has been displaced from its country, but remains recognized as the legitimate sovereign authority.”  While Governments-In-Exile are not necessarily present in all resistance movements, if they do exist linkage and coordination with the Shadow Government is important, especially to post-conflict stability and legitimating the resistance.  What these two entities share most readily in common is their required endorsement by, and usage of, the “Mass Base” or the “larger indigenous population from which the irregular forces are drawn.”  It is essential that the resistance wins degrees of both passive and active support from the Mass Base in order to leverage the resources of society against the targeted regime and solidify legitimacy.  These activities may be witting or unwitting by the population involved, and they may be coerced, but in one form or another, the population must prefer one movement’s potential over the existing societal covenant with the regime that the resistance seeks to coerce, disrupt or overthrow.[v]

Expanding on Doctrine

While some mention of these two important components exist in current doctrine the USASOC ARIS (Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies) Studies have expanded the concepts of shadow governance and articulated additional nuances to guide application of the official doctrine. In these studies, Shadow Government is described as “[t]he tactical use of governance activities to influence civilian behavior or fulfill operational objectives by undergrounds.”  The activities may be formal or informal and often occur in tandem with or in competition with the state government by mimicking the attributes and functions of the regime and forming a counter-state in order to pursue the legitimization of the armed wing of an insurgency, the popular support of the people, and the undermining of the targeted regime’s activities and institutions.[vi]

As stated in ARIS’s Undergrounds, "[g]overnance activities are dynamic."  Many factors contribute to the capability and capacity of a Shadow Government to function effectively and challenge the government including scarce resources, shifting political and military contexts, national identity, revenue generation and taxation, and external factors such as sanctions and third-party support.  Overtly, “shadow governments provide needed social services—‘charitable acts, public services, and infrastructure development’—to the civilian population.”  These activities provide tangible, demonstrable benefits for the population and serve to secure their support, or at least their compliance, by providing proof that they can be effective benefactors of the Mass Base.[vii]

Undergrounds goes on to explain how government and governance are not synonymous, that governance can exist without a government and governments can exist without truly performing governance, as we see in weak states or under-governed spaces. They do share certain traits, however, such as “purposive behavior, goal-oriented activities, and systems of rule."  While a sitting government regime may act to preserve its existence, a Shadow Government seeks to someday be in that defensive position, and in order to do so derive ends, ways and means to reach that goal.  Sometimes these tactics are not benevolent to the people.  Undergrounds points out three basic roles of activities, “Killing, Stealing, or Serving.”  The Shadow Government may not wish to rule over a rival or felled population and therefore may not act in that group’s interests, or it may serve merely as a revenue collection mechanism via taxation, coercion, and extortion.  In any case, the ultimate motivations of the Shadow Government are not often idealistic, despite their rhetoric, and conversely they are rooted in a desire for political power and can be expected to operate under the practical philosophy that the ends justify the means.[viii]

Within Unconventional Warfare doctrine, the functions of contacting, integrating with, forming, advising, supporting, resourcing, and employing the Shadow Government until such time as it becomes the internationally recognized sovereign state is critical to the campaign’s success and must begin as soon as a UW campaign is initiated, and preferably before that in phase zero steady state operations. There are a variety of ways for the US as a sponsor to advise and enable the efforts of the Shadow Government including, but not limited to, preparing and shaping the environment by executing civil initiatives to “gain and maintain access to denied areas,”[ix] assessing the efficacy of governance activities in areas that the Resistance can reach, empowering the Shadow Government to target its activities in such a way that it can deliver a higher standard of living to the civilian populace than the targeted regime can, and advisors can act as the connective tissue of the network of governance cadres and therefore serve as a conduit of information and influence.

Cumulatively, the concerted and synchronized actions of the Shadow Government, Government-In-Exile and the sponsor combine to manifest precisely the US Army doctrinal concept of Military Governance.  Military Governance is defined as “[t]he supreme authority the military exercises by force or agreement over the lands, property, and indigenous populations and institutions of domestic, allied, or enemy territory therefore substituting sovereign authority under rule of law for the previously established government.”[x] In the UW context the aforementioned supreme authority derives from the linkage of the Shadow Government organization with its Guerilla counterparts, thereby exercising, through violence or through a classic social covenant with the people, a monopoly on the use of force within any territory the Resistance as a whole can wrestle from control of the targeted Regime. 

There is of course no cookie cutter answer or pre-approved template to what good governance looks like on the ground or how to bring it to life, though there are many assessment frameworks among academics, interagency partners, and our own ARSOF techniques.[xi]  While shadow governance’s complexity, dynamism and variety or forms can be daunting, this does not relieve our responsibility to train and educate ARSOF in concerted ways to produce expertise and shape its future direction.  

The Shadow Governor to the Shadow Government

Advising the Shadow Government or its sub-components in the UW environment requires the advisor, regardless of rank, to maturate his thinking about his role on the battlefield.  Particularly in the early phases of a UW campaign, the operational environment requires that the sponsor form redundant layers of misattribution behind the activities of the Shadow Government.  External sponsorship and support to shadow governance activities should strive to remain unseen by as many eyes as possible, for a variety of reasons.  One could characterize the advisors role in organizing and building up the governance capabilities of the Resistance as a shadow governor to The Shadow Governor.  This concept is in opposition to the traditional civil military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other ongoing steady state operations where the US military’s Advise and Assist activities to the government and its aid to the population was intended to be attributable and to sway support in order to hasten an effective transition to indigenous partners.  In a UW environment the hidden presence of a civil advisor inside an area controlled by a Shadow Government or by Guerillas is important, not only for reasons of operational security, but for long term efficacy and legitimacy of the Shadow Government itself. 

For such a civil advisor, it is important to keep in mind that his or her job is not to dictate or demand conditions and expectations but to cursorily absorb and adopt the resistance movement’s goals, provide suggestions and assistance, manipulate and guide decision making processes, and facilitate efficient mechanisms for governance, development, and state-building.  He should act as an invisible hand among the indigenous populations and institutions so that the credit and blame for the Shadow Government’s actions rests solely on their own shoulders, not the United States’.  It has been a common adage within ARSOF to stress that U.S. personnel should always seek to not take credit and to always emphasize the Host Nation’s efforts so as to give them credit.  The conflicts of the last twelve years have made that difficult if not impossible as uniformed combatants advising an U.S.-installed government.  In UW, it is crucial to preserve the organic and independent nature of a revolution so that the transition government, or the coercion or disruption end state, is palatable to the Mass Base and the population feels as though they liberated themselves vice the notion of the revolution being synthetic or imposed.

When implementing governance in the shadow of a targeted regime, the ability of the sponsor to assess human dynamics, personality traits, vet contacts, and engage indigenous personnel in savvy ways are more important than in any other environment.  In recent U.S. conflicts, and in our ongoing steady state activities, the key leaders who we interact with, negotiate with, advise, and assist are chosen or appointed by the Host Nation governments.  In UW, the on-the-ground advisor is potentially in a position to be picking the United States’ horses for the long race of the UW campaign. Or, at the very least assessing and recommending who that horse should be based on his interaction with him and the kind of tactical clarity that only the ARSOF personnel at that intimate level can provide to stakeholders.  Therefore, it is far more important for ARSOF to select and educate the right individuals to be trained and educated to understand the functions, roles, pitfalls and potential of tactical and operational governance activities as well as more traditional technical and kinetic skills at use in a UW campaign.

Weaponizing Governance Against the Regime

The process of counter-state competition to the regime in the delivery of basic services, raising revenue, and administering the rule of law, among others, by the shadow government is informed from the process of civil vulnerability analysis, a core competency within civil military operations.[xii]  As opposed to traditional civil vulnerability analysis which is used as a tool to assess a partner nation’s vulnerabilities to help mitigate or defeat them, civil vulnerability analysis and non-lethal targeting become bifurcated in UW.  In addition to analyzing civil vulnerabilities with the goal of mitigating them to strengthen the shadow government, the advisor needs also to identify, analyze and employ tactics and techniques against the civil strengths and weaknesses of the Regime and then contrast them with the civil strengths and weaknesses of the Resistance Movement.  This process derives simultaneous plans that disrupt and degrade Regime strengths, highlight their weaknesses, and then enhance the civil strengths of the Resistance.  We can picture this process as one that removes the leg of a stool holding up a regime’s legitimacy by replacing it with one constructed by the Resistance.

This process potentially informs all three components of the Resistance (Underground, Auxiliary, and Guerillas)[xiii] as to how they may plan actions to disrupt or degrade those governance efforts of the regime physically, virtually, or in narrative.  A holistic and synchronized operational plan by the Resistance can employ and utilize all the components to target the regime in a variety of ways including sabotage, interdiction, civil disobedience, and propaganda that all serve to turn the Regime’s strengths into weaknesses that the shadow government can then swiftly exploit and capitalize on through civic action projects and programs.  This active degradation and removal of governance capabilities in the Regime and its subsequent replacement by the shadow government can posture the Resistance as a whole to be viewed as a savior or capable benefactor of the people, creating a cycle of reciprocity between the shadow government and its constituents that potentially grows in concert with the escalation of armed actions.  Additionally, out-governing the Regime can serve to bleed its resources as it attempts to maintain a veneer of legitimacy while that legitimacy is actually being gradually eroded.

This strategy should be deliberate and well planned to ensure that, just like the guerillas perform confidence targets and gradually increase their force size and territorial control, so too should the shadow government be enabled to increase its capacity for delivery of basic services, local security, justice mechanisms, and targeted development so that the hard fought victories of the guerillas are secured. It is also in the shadow government’s strategic interest to maintain populace and resource control[xiv] by sometimes withholding or disrupting services and thereby maintaining a conducive level of discontent and agitation among the populace that continuously supports the narratives of the movement and inspires the appropriate levels of civil disobedience and violence.  A capable and well-advised shadow government can act as the fulcrum which tips the scales of violence and maintains the various action arms’ forcing functions below the threshold at which point the regime would overreact and crush the movement. This concept aligns well with long-held U.S. ideals of civilian oversight of the military.[xv] Just as with the typically lethal or kinetic activities of guerillas, it is critical to control the disobedience, unrest, demonstrations and violence of the Mass Base via shadow government authority so that it does not become unmanageable or unsupportable by the international community.

The human and physical infrastructure of the shadow government should be flexible and dynamic in order to respond to the demands of the populace while maintaining the appropriate levels of secrecy.  Additionally, the supported governance cadres should be capable of coopting and mobilizing the narrative and principles of the Mass Base’s social movement.  This adaptation may be important because of leftover distrust and negative connotations the Mass Base may have with government control of civil society that are residual from the targeted regime, presenting a challenge to their own authority and governance efforts.  So as our ARSOF civil advisor should be flexible and dynamic in how he engages and advises the Shadow Government, so too should that government be flexible and dynamic in how it engages, mobilizes, governs, and controls the population within its reach.  It is incumbent upon the practitioner to ensure this happens on the ground via close interaction and proximity.

There exist today a number of emerging academic concepts that are particularly applicable to UW broadly and Shadow Government specifically, of which one is Social Network Analysis.[xvi]  Applying Social Network Analysis to governance structures can be an effective driver of the tactics used to ensure linkage in breadth and depth within them, as well as creating or strengthening bonds between the Shadow Government, Government-In-Exile, Interagency partners, and the international community.  Our civil advisors can make themselves well-postured to act as strong nodes within this vast network and to position themselves so that they are able to strategically elevate their own centrality and brokerage ability in the network and thereby leverage influence, access information and control resources.  The advisor’s goal should be shaping that network so that a gradual and controlled transfer of influence occurs between him and the appropriate governance cadres so that they are postured to implement policy conducive to and aligned with US National Security Strategy.  This network-centric approach can apply at any operational level and aid in the synchronization of activities across time and space.  ARSOF has become adept at network-centric targeting in Counterterrorism operations through our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan to disrupt, degrade and destroy enemy networks.  Using those lessons learned by applying them to the converse goal of designing, building, and strengthening resilient governance and other auxiliary networks that ARSOF advises may be very important in protecting our sponsored resistance elements in UW.

Way Ahead

As the U.S. peers over the horizon at the future of irregular conflict, we can recognize historical trends indicating the likely prevalence of Unconventional Warfare in the coming decades as a policy tool of choice.  The focus of the recent UW renaissance within ARSOF has focused primarily on concepts such as operational design, education of the Force, modernization of equipment, and means of lethality.  I argue that an investment in ARSOF civil advisor capabilities and the requisite training to the appropriate personnel should be a vital and challenging congruent goal to enable the Force as a whole to administer shadow governance. Looking to our partners in the interagency for best practices is a good place to start as these will be important relationships to nurture in any UW campaign and a whole-of-government approach to UW is where we find the most success historically. Fortunately, with recent plans to bolster interagency cooperation and partnerships within academia, ARSOF is primed to enhance and focus its education, training, and expertise on shadow governance and its related fields.  However, there still remains a gap in the articulation and codification of specific functions, responsibilities, options, methods and means by which the advisors execute shadow governance and civil administration activities on the ground. There is also a gap in the investment ARSOF has made in identifying and training this niche capability in expectation of our future operational environments. Given the expected nature of future UW conflicts, the window of opportunity to prepare the Force for these pending endeavors is now.

Works Cited

[1] Pratchett, Terry. Reaper man. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1991.

2 Molnar, Andrew R., William A. Lybrand, Lorna Hahn, James L. Kirkman, and Peter B. Riddleberger. Undergrounds in insurgent, revolutionary, and resistance warfare. AMERICAN UNIV WASHINGTON DC, 1963.

3 U.S. Army Training Publication 3-05.1: Unconventional warfare, September 6, 2013.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Tompkins, Paul J. Undergrounds in insurgent, revolutionary and resistance warfare. 02 ed. S.l.: Military Bookshop, 2013.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 U.S. Army Training Publication 3-05.1: Unconventional warfare, September 6, 2013.

10 Joint Publication 3-57: Civil-Military Operations, September 11, 2013

11 Agoglia, John F.. Measuring progress in conflict environments (MPICE): a metrics framework. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2010.

12 U.S. Army Training Publication 3-57.80: Civil Military Engagement, October, 2013.

13 U.S. Army Training Publication 3-05.1: Unconventional warfare, September 6, 2013.

14 U.S. Army Training Publication 3-57.10: Civil Affairs Support to Populace and Resources Control, August, 2013.

15 Huntington, Samuel P. - Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. Belknap Press, 1981 edition.

16 Wu, Michael. Social Network Analysis 101, 2010.

End Notes

[i] Pratchett, Terry. Reaper man. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1991.

[ii] Molnar, Andrew R., William A. Lybrand, Lorna Hahn, James L. Kirkman, and Peter B. Riddleberger. Undergrounds in insurgent, revolutionary, and resistance warfare. AMERICAN UNIV WASHINGTON DC, 1963.

[iii] U.S. Army Training Publication 3-05.1: Unconventional warfare, September 6, 2013.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Tompkins, Paul J. Undergrounds in insurgent, revolutionary and resistance warfare. 02 ed. S.l.: Military Bookshop, 2013.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] U.S. Army Training Publication 3-05.1: Unconventional warfare, September 6, 2013.

[x] Joint Publication 3-57: Civil-Military Operations, September 11, 2013

[xi] Agoglia, John F.. Measuring progress in conflict environments (MPICE): a metrics framework. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2010.

[xii] U.S. Army Training Publication 3-57.80: Civil Military Engagement, October, 2013.

[xiii] U.S. Army Training Publication 3-05.1: Unconventional warfare, September 6, 2013.

[xiv] U.S. Army Training Publication 3-57.10: Civil Affairs Support to Populace and Resources Control, August, 2013.

[xv] Huntington, Samuel P. - Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. Belknap Press, 1981 edition.

[xvi] Wu, Michael. Social Network Analysis 101, 2010.


About the Author(s)

Sergeant First Class Michael J. Dawdy is a Civil Affairs Specialist currently serving as an instructor at the USAJFKSWCS  Special Warfare Network Development Course.



Thu, 07/21/2016 - 4:03pm

Note that the US faced shadow governments in Iraq. I particularly faced several during my time in Wasit Province. After competition, the Persian backed Islamist/Mahdi faction gained the upper hand. My Intell and Ops sections, working with Civil Affairs support and our reestablished provincial judicial and law enforcement forces addressed the threat as American police forces address gang activity (I commanded a Reserve Infantry Battalion and had a number of policemen, deputies, and troopers with such experience on hand). With direct confrontation (not necessarily violent) and systematic interruption of territory, we showed them to be paper tigers among the populace. Loss of 'face' degraded their worth in the eyes of the people and allowed our fledgling government/governance to plant roots.

Great article. However, Conflict has entered a new paradigm as result of Russian way of war which will require more than just a SOF perspective. WE are seeing the intentional sequencing/combinations of irregular (Terrorism, instability, insurgency, unconventional) with conventional, disruptive (info/cyber) and catastrophic (WMD) AND criminal methods to achieve political objectives. Some call this hybrid. I have seen minimal efforts at US forces, special or otherwise think much about how to confront such an adversary.