Small Wars Journal

Thoughts on the Future of Special Operations

Thu, 10/31/2013 - 3:44pm

Thoughts on the Future of Special Operations: A Return to the Roots - Adapted for the Future

David S. Maxwell

As the post 9-11 era of the War on Terrorism winds down, the Services are rightly looking to the future.  With the severe fiscal constraints, drawdown of personnel, and an uncertain future of threats there is a debate on whether the military should focus solely on traditional war fighting and deterrence or sustain and further develop the capabilities to deal with the unconventional warfare threats posed by state and non-state actors from the Iran Action Network to North Korea’s Department 39 to Al Qaeda.  The Special Operations community is having this debate as well and it has resulted in controversial visions for the future including establishing a Global SOF Network (GSN). 

The purpose of this paper is to briefly argue that the future of Special Operations rests in a thorough understanding of its fundamental and traditional missions and then adapting sound, tried and true, and still relevant historical doctrine, mission sets, and tactics, techniques, and procedures for the uncertain future operating environment.

In summary this paper will briefly highlight six specific points.

  1. The U.S. faces national security threats in three fundamental forms of warfare: nuclear warfare, conventional warfare, and unconventional warfare.
  2. The future is characterized by the need to conduct unconventional warfare (UW) and to be able to counter unconventional warfare.
  3. The U.S. has the greatest surgical strike capability in the world but it needs to prioritize and resource equally our special warfare capabilities. 
  4. The U.S. needs Strategists and Policy makers who have a deep understanding of and value the strategic options of UW and Counter-UW.
  5. Effective Special Warfare is counter-intuitively characterized by slow and deliberate employment – long duration actions and activities, relationship establishment, development, and sustainment.
  6. SOF will always have a role in hybrid conflict and conventional warfare. 

Unconventional Warfare

Unconventional Warfare is defined as “activities to enable a resistance or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power through or with an underground, auxiliary and [or] guerrilla force in a denied area.”  This is not an exclusively U.S. centric definition but in fact describes the activities from Al Qaeda to the Iran Action Network.  There are myriad resistance movements around the world including but not limited to the Free Syrian Army to the Uighurs in China to the FARC in Colombia, Boko Haram in Africa and both Moro Islamic organizations and the New Peoples Army in the Philippines just to name a few.  It may be in the U.S. strategic interests to either support some of these movements through unconventional warfare or counter the unconventional warfare efforts of others.

The current doctrinal definition above does not describe the full range of unconventional warfare conducted by the U.S.  There is controversy over the definition and many do not agree with it even in the Special Operations Community.  One seemingly slight controversy is that the definition reads “underground, auxiliary, AND guerilla forces” implying that to conduct UW all three elements are required.  Some, as I do, argue that “and” should be replaced with “or” because a guerrilla force is not always necessary and in fact most people seem to get think the unconventional warfare equals guerrilla warfare.  In the 21st century effective unconventional warfare does not require a guerrilla force and certainly not one in the “traditional” sense as in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam.  Undergrounds and auxiliaries can be much more sophisticated elements of a resistance movement and employ terrorist tactics to achieve their political aims.  Rather than focus on the terrorism conducted, we should really consider how such organizations are actually conduct a form of unconventional warfare to achieve their strategic aims.

Therefore, it is important to look deeper into the meaning of unconventional warfare particularly since here is no agreed upon theory of unconventional warfare and certainly nothing to balance with theory of special operations put forth in Admiral McRaven's seminal work on special operations raids and direct action with his important principles of how small special operations forces can defeat larger ones.  The no longer published 1997 Joint Doctrine Encyclopedia is that last time that UW was fully described in non-SOF military publication.  This excerpt provides a foundation for the concept of UW that remains relevant today:

UW is the military and paramilitary aspect of an insurgency or other armed resistance movement and may often become a protracted politico-military activity. From the U.S. perspective, UW may be the conduct of indirect or proxy warfare against a hostile power for the purpose of achieving U.S. national interests in peacetime; UW may be employed when conventional military involvement is impractical or undesirable; or UW may be a complement to conventional operations in war. The focus of UW is primarily on existing or potential insurgent, secessionist, or other resistance movements. Special operations forces (SOF) provide advice, training, and assistance to existing indigenous resistance organizations. The intent of UW operations is to exploit a hostile power’s political, military, economic, and psychological vulnerabilities by advising, assisting, and sustaining resistance forces to accomplish U.S. strategic or operational objectives.

When UW is conducted independently during military operations other than war or war, its primary focus is on political and psychological objectives. A successful effort to organize and mobilize a segment of the civil population may culminate in military action. Strategic UW objectives may include the following:

• Undermining the domestic and international legitimacy of the target authority.

• Neutralizing the target authority’s power and shifting that power to the resistance organization.

• Destroying the confidence and will of the target authority’s leadership.

• Isolating the target authority from international diplomatic and material support while obtaining such support for the resistance organization.

• Obtaining the support or neutrality of the various segments of the society.

Although this is from 1996 it offers a description of the kind of activities that SOF can conduct “to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power” in support of U.S. strategic objectives and is as relevant at the time of President Kennedy as it is at the time of President Obama.  It also can describe what organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Iran Action Network are doing today.

Since 9-11 we have reinvented numerous terms and concepts from counterinsurgency to irregular warfare to describe what many thought were new phenomena. John F. Kennedy and Barak Obama each articulated the enduring threats that we faced in the 1960’s and that we still face in the 21st century with these two quotes:

President Kennedy 1962 West Point Graduation:

 “This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origins - war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of combat; by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him. It requires - in those situations where we must encounter it - a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore, a new and wholly different kind of military training.” 

President Obama 2009 Annapolis Graduation:

“History teaches us that nations that grow comfortable with the old ways and complacent in the face of new threats, those nations do not long endure.  And in the 21st century, we do not have the luxury of deciding which challenges to prepare for and which to ignore.  We must overcome the full spectrum of threats – the conventional and unconventional; the nation-state and the terrorists network; the spread of deadly technologies ad the spread of hateful ideologies; 18th century-style piracy and 21st century cyber threats.”

Both Presidents describe similar threats for their times and each includes elements of unconventional warfare.  This is a timeless activity that evolves over time.  As one simple example today undergrounds and auxiliaries (these exist in some form even if the resistance organizations do not use this terminology) make extensive use of modern communications for recruitment, political mobilization and activities, psychological warfare, and for planning and coordinating operations.  Although some call UW an anachronism because their view is limited to World War II style resistance operations, a thorough study will reveal that UW is widely practiced in various forms today and has adapted to modern conditions, and thus the U.S. must be prepared to both practice it and counter it in accordance with its strategic interests.  It is imperative that the U.S. military and strategists and policy makers have a deep understanding of unconventional warfare and the requirement to counter it in the coming years.

Surgical Strike and Special Warfare

Although Title 10 of the U.S. Code in Section 167 lists the ten special operations activities in so far as they pertain to the conduct of special operations, all Special Operations can be described in two broad categories, Surgical Strike and Special Warfare.  These two categories should be useful to policy makers and strategists because these terms can broadly characterize “the yin and yang” of special operations which has variously been described has direct and indirect approaches or hard and soft power.  As yin and yang imply, SOF is most effective when there is the proper balance among its capabilities but that balance constantly shifts as conditions change.   Most importantly, the capabilities are not mutually exclusive but instead are mutually supporting and reinforcing when they are integrated to support national policies, an integrated strategy and comprehensive campaign plans.

Surgical strike as defined in ADRP 3-05, Army Special Operations is “the execution of activities in a precise manner that employ special operations in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover or damage designated targets, or influence adversaries and threats.”  The Title 10 missions that fall within this category are counter terrorism, direct action, special reconnaissance (including all the advanced surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities developed to support SOF since 9-11). Although not designated in Title 10, counter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction would require support from the surgical capabilities resident in SOF.  The U.S. has developed a surgical strike capability that is the envy of the world.  It has a capability to find, fix, finish, exploit and analyze (F3EA) that has captured and killed numerous high value targets as well as disrupted and destroyed networks and cells conducting or threatening to conduct operations against U.S. interests.

Special warfare as defined in ADRP 3-05 3-05 Army Special Operations is “the execution of activities that involve a combination of lethal and nonlethal actions taken by a specially trained and educated force that has a deep understanding of cultures and foreign language, proficiency in small-unit tactics, and the ability to build and fight alongside indigenous combat formations in a permissive, uncertain, or hostile environment.” 

The Title 10 activities that fall under special warfare include unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, civil affairs and military information support operations (formerly psychological operations).  There are three other activities listed in Title and these include humanitarian assistance, theater search and rescue, and such other special activities designated by the President or Secretary of Defense.

Special Warfare has been the traditional mission of the majority of U.S. SOF.  It can be seen in the traditional names of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Special Warfare magazine that dates from the 1960’s and the Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Command.  In the 1962 edition of the Special Warfare Magazine special warfare consisted of three distinct and overarching missions: Unconventional Warfare, Psychological Warfare, and Counterinsurgency.  A similar construct is useful today with the recognition that surgical strike is a mission of co-equal importance to special warfare.

Some today argue that the use of “warfare” in the name is counter-productive due to perceived (and I would suggest unwarranted) sensitivities with other U.S. government agencies.  Some offer judgments that Ambassadors do not want military personnel coming to their country team announcing that they are there to conduct special warfare.  We should keep in mind that the credibility of SOF lies first and foremost with its combat prowess across the joint SOF force and the ability of every SOF operator to fight and win across the spectrum of conflict.  There should never be an apology for the fact that SOF operators are fighters first who possess special skills and training that allow them to conduct the myriad missions of special warfare and surgical strike.  SOF should never run from its reputation and failing to recognize both its roots and its capabilities by jettisoning special warfare would compound the mistake that was made by eliminating psychological operations for military information support operations.

Strategists and Policy Makers well versed in UW

As I have written previously I do not believe UW belongs exclusively to Special Forces despite the fact that Special Forces remains the only force in DOD that is organized, trained, educated, equipped and optimized to work through and with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area.  Yes, the tactical mission belongs to Special Forces and is shared with its interagency partners but the U.S. campaign belongs to Theater Special Operations Commands serving the Geographic Combatant Commands. The strategic mission of UW belongs to policy makers and strategists at the national level.  As is true with all our military forces, SOF possess outstanding tactical capabilities but we need to continue to develop our campaign capabilities at the theater level and our policymaking and strategy development expertise for UW at the national level.  There are three modest actions that should be considered to improve UW campaign plan and strategy development.

The first step is to re-establish the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) that operated in the 1960’s and was located within American University.  SORO was the intellectual center of special operations providing scholarly works to help understand revolutions and insurgencies, the legal aspects of unconventional warfare and the human factors in undergrounds.  Expertise in the so-called “human terrain” resided in SORO and the organization not only provided academic support to special operations but also to the rest of the military in the form of area and cultural studies. 

SORO published a casebook of 23 revolutions and insurgencies that laid the foundation for the study and practice of unconventional warfare.  Recently the U.S. Army Special Operations Command commissioned Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory to update the original studies and add 23 new case studies from the modern era.  Rather than establishing National Capital Region headquarters which has generated much controversy within Congress, the U.S. Special Operations Command should consider re-establishing SORO to provide national level policy makers and strategists the intellectual support necessary to develop and implement UW and counter-UW strategies.

The second and third steps are even more modest.  The graduate schools that policy makers attend should incorporate courses on UW and counter-UW to ensure the development of future strategists and policy makers who can understand the value of UW and counter-UW and are able to be as proficient in this area as they are with the other instruments of national power. 

Finally, professional military education (PME) must educate non-SOF personnel in UW and counter-UW as a matter of routine and not a one-off.  To do this SOF and non-SOF personnel should be fully integrated in PME institutions.

Special Warfare is Long Duration

While surgical strike can be characterized by rapid progression from alert to planning and movement to actions on the objective and then exploit analyze and move to the next target, truly successful operations can be best built on a foundation of effective special warfare.  This requires special operations and intelligence personnel in potential conflicts areas developing relationships and situational understanding in order to facilitate both peacetime conventional and special operations, support to war plans and other special operations that may include surgical strike.  While the discussions of the Global SOF Network has generated much push back within congress and at the Geographic Combatant Commands, there may be other ways and means to conduct persistent engagement with the illusive light footprint. 

There are five historical SOF organizations that may be more acceptable that the GSN.  There organizations existed in the 1960’s through the 1980’s and one continues to exist today.

The 8th Special Action Force (SAF)) in Panama and the Special Action Force Asia (SAFASIA) in Okinawa were both organized based on the 1963 U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Forces with a Special Forces Group as the centerpiece.  However, they were actually excellent examples of what the 2012 U.S. Army Capstone Concept describes as conventional and special operations forces interdependence.  These historical organizations integrated the unique capabilities resident in conventional and special operations forces to provide a force that was easily task organized for specific long duration small footprint operations, that included rotary wing aviation, medical, engineer, intelligence, civil affairs, psychological operations and logistics companies and an infantry building all assigned to a special forces group.  This doctrine could provide a possible framework for a theater organization that would be able to support the GCCs with special warfare capabilities to support theater campaign plans.

The 46th Special Forces Company in Thailand was a small permanently deployed organization that could conduct a range of training and advisory operations in support of UW or counter-UW missions.  It also provided an operational base to support operations by rotating forces that could exploit the expertise and long-term relationships of the permanently assigned personnel.

DET-A in Berlin was one of the premier unconventional warfare and intelligence organizations with the mission to prepare for operations behind the lines in Warsaw Pact countries during the Cold War.  This very small organization possessed capabilities and expertise that allowed it to accomplish missions that could be conducted by no other force in DOD.

Finally, Special Forces Detachment Korea (SFD-K and now known as SF DET 39) was established in 1958 and remains assigned to the Korean theater today.  This small detachment consisting of less than 20 senior Special Forces non-commissioned officers and one officer is charged with advising and assisting Korean Special Forces brigades and ensuring interoperability between U.S. and Korean forces.  While the main effort is focused on supporting the Korean theater war plan, this unit has also been responsible for assisting Korean Special Forces prepare for operations in East Timor, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  It also assisted in training the Korean navy SEALs in preparation for the very successful counter-piracy operations conducted in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa.

There is one more non-SOF historical organization that should be considered for revival.  That is the Joint U.S. Military Advisory and Assistant Group (JUSMAAG).  Today there are numerous security cooperation organizations working for the Chief of Mission on the country teams.  These are focused on supporting Title 22 security cooperation activities.  However, transitioning existing organizations to a JUSMAAG structure would provide the Chiefs of Mission with an operational headquarters that would be able to plan, conduct, and command advisory assistance operations and provide a command and control headquarters for the various SOF organizations outlined above as well as other military organizations deploying to the host nation to conduct theater missions.

There is also a training organization that should be considered for conventional and special operation forces. The Joint Staff’s Decade of War Report recommended the Military Assistance and Training Advisor course originally taught by Special Forces at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare and School (formerly the Institute for Military Assistance) during the Vietnam War be re-established in order to train both conventional and special operations NCOs and Officers and increase the interoperability during operations requiring these critical advisory and assistance skills. 

The common characteristic of all these organizations is that no two are identical.  Each was developed based on a thorough understanding of the local conditions as well as a determination of the best way to support achieving strategic objectives in a fiscally constrained environment.  The other common trait of these organizations is the critical importance of non-commissioned officers. NCOs were executing operations that for whatever reason must now must be executed by officers.  As an example, Each Korean SF Brigade commander has a senior US special forces NCO as an advisor.  Most other situations would require an officer based on today’s military culture. . 

Rather than establish a GSN with temporary rotating forces, USSOCOM should consider re-establishing modern examples of the above historical organizations to achieve today’s strategic objectives.  These types of organizations could overcome many of the personnel management friction and allow for long-term continuous presence of the right people so they can build relationships and develop the local knowledge to facilitate operations in support of the Chief of Mission, the theater commander or national authorities as required.

SOF in Hybrid Conflict and Conventional Warfare

While the 21st Century has been characterized by unconventional warfare with terrorism as the critical and visible tactic, there is still the possibility of large-scale state on state conflict.  SOF will play an important supporting role in these years of conflict supporting both unconventional warfare before and during major combat operations as well as countering UW during the stability operations phase.  SOF is particularly well suited to conduct operations against hybrid threats.  While a war with either Iran or North Korea will be focused on major combat operations and conventional warfare or even nuclear warfare, defeated enemy forces will rapidly transition to asymmetrical or hybrid threats for which U.S. SOF must be prepared to address.


The future of U.S. SOF should rest on its historical foundation while adapting traditional missions for the conditions and character of conflict of the 21st Century.  Unconventional warfare could very well be the dominant form of warfare.  While the U.S. may not choose to conduct UW often, it is imperative that the U.S. has the capability to counter it.  U.S. SOF by virtue of its training, organization and experience is well suited to make a major contribution to the U.S. efforts to counter UW.

However, to be effective U.S. SOF must achieve the proper balance between its surgical strike and special warfare missions and ensure they are mutually supporting and reinforcing.  U.S. SOF must consider establishing new organizations based on historical examples rather than create new concepts that may not gain acceptance.   Such structure and organizations permanently assigned to critical overseas locations in conjunction with a revived JMAAG concept would provide the small footprint long duration presence that would enable the full range of special warfare activities while always being in place to support surgical strike as required.  Lastly, the only way that U.S. SOF will be able to adapt for the future is to have policy makers and strategists with the knowledge of and appreciation for UW and counter UW operations.  A revived SORO would assist in developing such expertise among policy makers as well as support PME to educate conventional military leaders as well.

Like the military as a whole, U.S. SOF must determine its way ahead and how best to support achievement of U.S. strategic objectives.  To find the way ahead USSOCOM should look to its successful past and consider reviving organizations and concepts properly adapted for the 21st Century operating environment.

About the Author(s)


Bill M.

Sat, 11/02/2013 - 8:15pm

In reply to by former_0302

I looked at the book on Amazon and read the reviews, especially Robert Steele's review. As he notes the problems with the CIA are mostly structural, and I think a similar argument can be that the problems SOF has are also structural for the most part. We have a different set problems than the CIA, and while many are self imposed, I think the CIA and SOF (and DOD at large) find Congress to be their most significant challenge to transforming and adapting for current and future efforts. I'm not opposed to civilian control of the military or the CIA, but we need to understand that Congress, especially this one, more often than not doesn't appreciate that the strategic impact of their reluctance to support initiatives from the intelligence agencies or military (or worse doesn't care). They do understand pork, and unfortunately that has a profound impact on our ability to intelligently reduce our spending. For Congress the human aspect of the military will always come last far behind the pork producer known as the military industrial complex. Lessons learned over the past decade point the need to change our organizations, doctrine, training and education, but the military more often than not doesn't get a vote in reducing funding on pork programs, and is forced to cut the human dynamic that is critical to have an effective force.

I have seen it written that the military reflects the society it comes from, which is probably true for our intelligence agencies also. If we continue to elect self-serving politicians then America gets the military and CIA it deserves.


Sat, 11/02/2013 - 6:13pm

In reply to by slapout9

Have you read the book "Beyond Repair" by Charles Faddis? I don't know the author and cannot vouch for the veracity of anything in the book, but if what he writes is true, it may behoove us to keep as much of SOF in the military as possible.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 11/05/2013 - 9:15am

In reply to by Jason.T

Jason---as promised this is the previous response by Robert that hits the nail on the head and answers I think what you are mulling over in your comment---it is a well thought through concept--especially the comment that we must sometimes protect the insurgent from his own government which might offend a few readers---but we were not actually defending the various Sunni insurgent groups in the Awakening from both AQI and the Iraqi government especially in the ethnic cleansing period as practiced by the Shia starting in 2005---in return for them basically standing down?

One can have insurgency without UW, but one cannot have UW without insurgency. AQ did not exist in Iraq until we created an insurgency among the Sunni population through our invasion. The Shia, on the other hand already had powerful conditions of insurgency against Saddam's governance, but were well suppressed; waiting for an opportunity to rise rapidly to a natural state of revolution once the opportunity finally arrived. Iran was there conducting UW with them. Again, we brought that opportunity with our invasion. Finally the Shia could act upon their long suppressed grievance. Likewise with the Kurds.

From chaos, opportunity. From great chaos, great opportunity. We certainly brought great chaos - and what followed was both natural and predictable.

But once one sets so many complex pieces in motion, how does one sort out the parties and then in turn focus Intel properly and design operations that apply a sophisticated mix of approaches tailored for each unique part of the problem? Easier to get simplistic, and that is what we did with Big COIN and Big CT and the surge. Simplistic can suppress, but simplistic cannot resolve such a dynamic and diverse brew of conflict.

A counter UW framework provides a much more effective starting point than either CT or COIN (The first is focused on a user of a tactic; the second is truly best thought of as domestic program and inappropriate for foreign application). Under a counter UW framework I appreciate that first them must be insurgents, and that they will be a mixed bag. I need to sort that bag out. Which are revolutionary? Which are resistance? Which are Separatist? Under each of those headings, continue to break it down by region, population, culture, history, geography, etc., until the picture begins to clarify. I must understand primary purpose for action, as well as the relationships between the parties before I can begin to devise programs with any hope of facilitating a durable stability.

Next, where insurgencies exist, those outside parties who seek to exploit such energy for their own interests will come. Like a field of nightmares, we built it, and they came.

The beauty of distinguishing who the UW operatives are and who the foreign fighters are they often bring with them, is that one can actually target these nodes fairly violently with little risk of rising too much higher order ire among the population. This is why CT was so effective in Iraq, and much less so in Afghanistan. In Iraq it focused primarily on this group. In Afghanistan we lumped the Taliban into the group, and the results were again, both natural and predictable. There is no long-term good that can come from killing some subordinate or "partner" or "ally" insurgent population for on their behalf. Likewise when we set out to "build partner capacity" to simply kill their own insurgent populations we do ourselves few favors either. We need to learn this.

General P says the number one goal is to "protect the populace." Fair enough, but never forget, the insurgents are part of the populace too. A good FID program designed to operate under an overarching Counter UW strategic framework must remember that our goal is not just to protect populations supportive of the government from insurgent fighters, but also must seek to protect populations those insurgent fighters emerge from from the government. We don't help much when we simply pick a side and dedicate ourselves to preserving some broken system of governance as is. "As is" and our presence to either create or protect "as is" are often the primary causal sources of insurgent energy to begin with! We too often dedicate ourselves to protecting and feeding the energy source with one hand, while attacking the symptoms of those efforts with the other hand.

We get to clearer understanding and more effective operations when we can set our doctrinal, institutional and relationship-based bias aside and look at these things with clear eyes. Counter UW help provide a framework to do such analysis in a much clearer way than CT or COIN.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 11/05/2013 - 9:02am

In reply to by Jason.T

Jason---I am not so sure your analysis is correct---refer to a previous comment by Robert on this topic. Your comments are great but seem to reflect pre Iraq definitions of UW---not though reflecting the current forms of UW that exist worldwide currently.

The Shia were an insurgency waiting to happen especially after we motivated them to revolt in 1991 and then abandoned them to Sadddam.

There also has never been a thorough understanding of the Shia insurgency attacks against the US Army ie Badr and MaS groups---ie were they in fact the UW response by Iran towards the US and were they using UW to extend and defend the Khomeini thesis of the green crescent containment wall tied to the old Silk Road that stretched from AFG to Lebanon? OR were they the anger of the Shia being directed against the US as a form of revenge because of the really massive Shia loses after we abandoned them in 1991? We will never be sure as we never analyzed the reasons.

I will maintain forever based on a handwritten journal by the leader of the Islamic Army in Iraq that in fact there was an ongoing Salafi insurgency underway just after the Shia revolt that was being fought brutally by Saddam's ISI THAT we knew nothing about. How else was it possible for a organization to structure up and start killing US personnel in weeks instead of years. I like many of the readings on guerrilla warfare by Mao and if one reads his writings it took him roughly 15 years to reach a phase two guerrilla war level---the IAI reached that level by January 2004---how long after we arrived in Baghdad?

My question has always ---just how was that possible?

My second question is how many really understand the difference between a Salafist and a Takfari movement--AQI and for that matter even AQ has been a Takfari driven organization.

Lastly in fact AQ being a non state actor has the ability to maneuver in the world much as a state proxy does and in some cases being a non state actor makes things easier---and harder for the US to respond to as one does not know exactly where to place pressure.

As to deniability ---a UW based insurgency and for that matter a non UW based insurgency sometimes wants to be known depending on the results they are trying to achieve for their aggrieved group---especially if they are trying to get a rise out of the country where the activity is occurring.

CUW is not an analytical tool---the analytical piece as again mentioned previously by Robert comes from the analysis of the UW event itself---if one does their homework correctly then one can begin to understand and via CUW activities counter the UW event by ratcheting up or down depending on what one wants to achieve.

Will go back an cut out Roberts response as it both makes sense and 2) is easy to understand.


Tue, 11/05/2013 - 8:08am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

It's the last part that I take issue with -- UW is practiced by states against other states, leveraging irregulars, and normally conducted in a denied area in a way that is plausibly deniable. Normally the irregulars are viewed as proxies for state ends -- meaning that they reflect the authority of their patron. It's a stretch to apply this to the AQ-AQI relationship. AQ is not a state (therefore, our methods in dealing with AQ are not what we can bring to bear against a state backer of UW, like sanctions against Iran or a various mix of pressures Pakistan). AQ is not acting in a way that is deniable and, at least through 2006, AQI was not simply AQ's proxy in Iraq.

CUW might provide a useful analytical lens, but by reducing AQI to a proxy relationship, you miss domestic and germane drivers of insurgency that would be relevant to our strategy.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 11/04/2013 - 5:28pm

In reply to by RantCorp

RC---yes it was a lonely 16 months---you would not like to hear how many times I had to fight with Report Officers and a Division G2 Sp4 to get a report out via initiative reporting---it was almost like BCTs/Divisions had never heard of initiative reporting under the DIAM.

Example---had a solid report on a complex attack that included bios on three dead insurgents and where they were buried---Division kicked it back with the comments we do not report on dead insurgents---kicked back by a Sp4 intel analyst at Division --threatened to go the G2X at MNF-I and then he let it go through.

National came back in five days saying thanks as we had been tracking one of them as still alive and in Baghdad--great report---no comments out of Division as it was rare to get National comments back.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 11/04/2013 - 4:16pm

In reply to by RantCorp

RC---interesting comments as I found that the really religious fighters were those from Ansar al Sunnah up to late 2005 as they were Sunni Kurds---later after a number of large losses they started recruiting Sunni Arabs and the religion took second place much as you indicate.

I could never understand just why the military never assumed that AQI or the Islamic Army in Iraq did not drive on a strategy---AQ have published their strategy often over a number of years.

Both AQI and IAI would announced their campaigns and goals via the internet but everyone just wrote it off as propaganda.

Three days after we arrived in Baghdad IAI activated 40 "companies" their term for cells and the intelligence community never saw it coming.

The IAI constructed and issued their first RC IEDs to their cells in January 2014.

Just how did a supposed stumbling bumbling insurgency shift gears so fast (within three months after we arrived in Baghdad)and were by Jan 2004 a fully effective phase two guerrilla organization.

It was as the author mentioned --we were fighting a force that both understood UW and drive on an UW strategy that we could not see.


Mon, 11/04/2013 - 2:52pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw 09,

The trick with lines from the Koran can be used to draw out a great deal that folks wish to remain hidden.

When I was in the midst of my “..first know the kind of war... “ transitional period I would attempt to cross swords with the oft-encountered firebrand who typically seized upon every opportunity to eulogize Koranic knowledge and was feted upon by the fighters as a result.

When you managed to catch them out on their faulty understanding of a particular verse they‘d usually react embarrassed, crestfallen, enraged , every sentiment in between, complete opposites and sometimes all at the same time. The fighters always found it hilarious especially if the 'impostor' was Wahhabi (which never helped the situation) but what was most revealing was the failure (by everyone) to appreciate that only the Angel Gabrielle could be expected to get the particular answer right.

This kind of exchange worked every time and it formed the picture in my mind that there was an almost complete lack of genuine connection between the spiritual complexity of the written word, the doctrine of Jihad, those who are responsible for maintaining/enforcing it verbally and the attitude to the fight . It was if there was this unspoken rule that it was a charade – an elaborate charade for sure – but there was ‘no beef’ and they all knew it.

Interestingly those few leaders who did possess the privileged background, intellect, opportunity, inclination etc to understand Jihad, the importance of the spiritual dimension and the obligations it demanded were completely political in their approach to the fighting. As far as they were concerned the notion that UW could be successfully executed thru a religious context/framework was something only an illiterate peasant opportunist or a Western infidel would entertain.

It struck me that only a few individuals bought a genuine Jihadi game to the fight and it was purely personnel and they would not be so misguided as to attempt to impose it upon their subordinates/comrades.

From your comments I gather you boarded the Counter UW train pretty soon upon your arrival in Iraq. I hazard to guess it was a pretty lonely journey as most folks had long departed on the gleaming Shock and Awe, GWOT, COIN,CT, & WMD express trains heading in the opposite direction and off an Operational and Strategic cliff.

I have always wondered to what extent the whole ‘Allah Akbar’ facade was a deliberate Operational ploy to mask the UW campaign rather than an unhappy coincidence.

Regardless of which you need to stick to your guns as I believe the only way we are going to avoid a looming catastrophe regarding Iran, Pakistan and the West is a significant number of senior military leaders must be made to stand up and declare that the reason we are in the grip of this strategic choke-hold is they swallowed the Jihad ruse, hook line and sinker and it needs immediate emergency surgery to remove it.



Outlaw 09

Mon, 11/04/2013 - 2:39am

In reply to by RantCorp

Rant Corp---used another technique which was extremely telling---a simple glass of tea.

When I was working with a jihadi I would ask them if they would like a glass of Iraqi tea from the very beginning---usually it was an adamant no---as a true jihadi would never drink tea together with a infidel.

I would keep the offers going and at some point he would accept and then I knew we were making progress on the rapport front. A key to the rapport building was the establishing of letting him know that respect was being extended in the sessions.

Just because he would accept the tea did not though mean he had changed his beliefs---it just meant he was open to the rapport that was being established---amazing sometimes where the discussions would go then.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 11/03/2013 - 4:44pm

In reply to by RantCorp

RantCorp---interesting comment---reference the cell or group members I found religion to be a also secondly concept---the prayers and moshe visits had a binding effect within the groups---a form of cell/membership ritual and a way to keep their morale up and it gave them an identity.

The Emirs or religious teachers were far deeper into religion than say their foot soldiers---they used the Koranic verses and quotes to hold sway over the cell or group and it was a method of communication between leaders of the various Sunni insurgent groupings---they would speak often in Koranic parabels.

The Emirs would also fight along with their units and that earned them a level of high respect from the foot soldiers---many times it felt like I was listening to how a ODA trained, fought, and sustained each other during long combat sessions than members from a particular Sunni insurgent group.

There was a myth among regular Army types that the cells and groups did not communicate among each other and or between different groups as a form of op sec---I found that to be a myth first class and the members of one insurgent grouping often had friends/relatives in other groupings and there were constant cell calls going back and forth between each other over a multitude of topics---if on religion it was usually about what was preached during Friday prayers or who went with whom to what mosche.

And a heavy flow of calls to relatives and wives if married--and they knew we were listening but it did not seem to bother them

Why they fought had a number of reasons---the religious backing of a particular mullah or iman, the leanings of their particular tribe, the religious leaning of the Emir---the dislike of the US Army, dislike of the Iranians/Shia---or they wanted the money that was flowing like water especially in 2005 through 2009--- a virtual whose who of reasons---but no one definitive reason unless you were AQI. Found that there were usually a number of individual reasons that caused a particular fighter to join a group---usually recruited though through friends/relatives and friends of friends.

Reference you last sentence---I was fortunate to have initially in Abu G a
CAT 3 Sudanese/American female interpreter whose father was a leading Sudanese warlord ---she had worked in a number of the ME countries and was able to ease me into the Islamic mindset---she gave me a copy of the Koran and suggested a number of paras from the Koran which I would read and would ask her questions about---once I understood just how religion played a role in the average Iraqi and how it shaped their daily lives I started using the Koran as a questioning tool.

I got really good in using the Koran as a form of lie detector-had then for a long time a really good second interpreter who was a Christian when I down to the BCT level and he got really good at understanding both the Koran and how I was using it--we always got great results---it allowed me to eliminate a lot of detainees who simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time from the insurgent types.

And sometimes it would in fact draw a hard core one out of his deception shell who had been lying and who was trying to ride just being a poor sheep herder who was in the wrong place.


Sun, 11/03/2013 - 3:36pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw 9 wrote;

‘I actually agreed with you on the comment when I first arrived in Iraq---but after a lot of interrogations the following was seen within the Iraqi insurgencies.’

This made me smile. I had a similar ‘road to Damascus’ revelation wherein a strongly held opinion (in my case at least) proved to be profoundly wrong. I had spent the best part of two years up to my neck in ‘Jihadis’ when I came to realize religious belief play virtually no part in why these people fight and die. On a scale of one to ten it was about an eight – behind keeping their mustache trimmed and cleaning their AK but ahead of obtaining the services of a good dhobi wallah.

I am curious as to whether your experience as to religious motivation was similar or completely different. In my case at least as soon as someone began mentioning jihad, paradise, shaheed (whether native or infidel) I immediately avoided further discussion/contact with said individual.



Outlaw 09

Sat, 11/02/2013 - 4:18pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill--your following comment is actually a trigger for the following thought;

"Personally I think the example Outlaw pointed out below in Iraq may not be an example of UW, but rather insurgency doctrine. UW involves foreign sponsorship, so Iran's efforts to disrupt our efforts in Iraq were UW. AQI's efforts as part of a larger AQ global movement were UW. Insurgents opposed to our occupation that were not empowered by foreign sponsors were not part of larger UW effort (at least directly, but indirectly I'm sure that was a desirable effect"

I actually agreed with you on the comment when I first arrived in Iraq---but after a lot of interrogations the following was seen within the Iraqi insurgencies.

1. there were in fact nationalists who did shoot at us out of the defense of their country but this group was slowly degraded by the Army and by 2005 the few remaining activists were slowly merged into 1929 Brigades and fought until late 2009 as foot soldiers for hire for either the Sunni groups or AQI---no real strategy outside of just shooting for money at anything that was US

2. AQI and few related Sunni groups who clustered around AQI due to money and weapons drove on a UW strategy---AQI is in fact Takfari not Salafist

3. then we had the Islamic Army in Iraq---which in it's core was Salafist, had strong Baathist support and definitely had ISI intel types as cell or group leaders and was well distributed throughout the Sunni triangle

As part of the Salafists I would place Ansar al Sunnah---initially Sunni/Kurds and later mainly Sunni Arabs after heavy losses.

Traditionally I would agree that in theory the IAI was local thus had no specific UW strategy---BUT what if the depth of their support in fact came from outside the country, what if in fact they had been at war with Saddam since Desert Storm, what if they are in fact a part of a far wider Salafist movement that is in fact global---parallel to AQ and sharing where necessary funding, weapons and expertise to the benefit of both.

Would argue that what one sees now in the latest attacks in Iraq is the work of the IAI under another name with AQI funding and providing the suiciders when needed and the IAI is allowing AQI to take credit. The attacks have a complexity not seen since 2009 and bear a striking similarity to attacks carried out by IAI 2005 to 2009.

The IAI had started in late 2008 to form itself into a military structure, their weapons had increased in numbers and quality and the training took on a military style and tone---when we pulled out they released their final video titled "mission final" and quietly returned to their sanctuaries---allowing AQI to take the verbal credit.

BUT even more intriguing is the fact that the AQI/IAI was crossing over after the surge --2009 onwards and dealing often with the Shia insurgent groups in a form of division of labor---especially since the IAI had been producing sheer amounts of HME---they sold it to the Shia in exchange for EFPs etc. From 2009 onward we saw a division of labor in the IED fight RC for Sunni's EFPs for the Shia so would this insurgency cooperation in fact be a common sharing of a UW strategy that benefited both parties?

But again---can a global Salafist movement independent of AQ have a UW strategy---I would argue yes and it fact it has had one since late 2003 as it pertained to the US in Iraq.

Bill M.

Sat, 11/02/2013 - 2:44pm

In reply to by slapout9


The agency never quit doing what we're calling special and unconventional warfare, and they need to continue to do it, at least until DOD and USSCOM gain the authorities to do it, and move past the SOF intertribal warfare about who does it (we all do). I suspect it is easier for the CIA to conduct SW/UW in some respects because I doubt they have to deal with the debate between SOF tribes on what UW is and who does it, they just figure out best unconventional approach for that particular objective and pursue it. On the other hand we would struggle to apply a pre-set doctrinal solution and then push to get as much command and control (multiple layers of large staffs and commanders) as possible involved it, which historically and will in the future continue to interfere to the point of failure with the SOF elements on point conducting the operation. Mission command (decentralized execution) is essential for UW, and if we can't embrace that then leave special warfare/UW to the CIA until we can. We're just bringing a bull into the china shop until we execute with agility and flexibility.

Big Army currently isn't a threat to a Army Special Forces like it was when I first entered the SF ranks, but I suspect we'll see senior Army leaders in the future who want to once again conventionalize SF. Army SOF and big Army are pushing and practicing interdependence, which is a good thing as long as Army leadership continues to recognize the value of Army SOF is special warfare and that looks and smells different from what the rest the Army practices. If we get back to the point where they want us to fit the conventional army mold then we'll lose the gains we made over the past decade.

The biggest threat to continued progress in the special warfare area currently is within the joint SOF community due to intertribal conflicts that shouldn't exist. We all know UW is much bigger than guerrilla warfare which SF is uniquely trained and organized to support. If we take a step back and review our history, to include recent history, we also know that almost all SOF organizations can and do play a role in UW. Once the legacy doctrine thinkers that influence their commands can open their minds to that reality we can move past the intertribal warfare and find ways to better operationalize our joint SOF capabilities for SW/UW. All SOF units for the most part have a role in FID, UW, DA, SR, CT, etc., but some units are better trained, organized, etc. for a specific mission, but that doesn't mean they're limited to that mission. For example, it doesn't mean that those who specialize in DA, CT, etc. don't bring valuable capabilities to the UW effort and vice versa. UW is a strategic approach that is joint and ideally a whole of government approach. In a perfect world, based on training, SF leadership should be the most capable of leading the military effort and fusing effectively with the interagency. Effective leaders will have to understand the strategic theory of UW and Special Warfare and can't afford to be overly bias towards a particular organization.

In my opinion we're still overly focused on studying the Maoist theory of insurgency (different from UW, but an insurgency may or may not be part of larger UW strategy), and miss the larger strategic effort which is why I agree with Dave's recommendation of incorporating counter-UW into our strategic and operational level policy/doctrine. Personally I think the example Outlaw pointed out below in Iraq may not be an example of UW, but rather insurgency doctrine. UW involves foreign sponsorship, so Iran's efforts to disrupt our efforts in Iraq were UW. AQI's efforts as part of a larger AQ global movement were UW. Insurgents opposed to our occupation that were not empowered by foreign sponsors were not part of larger UW effort (at least directly, but indirectly I'm sure that was a desirable effect), but I do agree that one well trained in UW would recognize their modus operandi and focus on countering their strategy instead of focusing on tactical engagements. I saw little interest from our side in understanding their strategy (I didn't see it as Maoist strategy personally), so I definitely agree with Outlaw on that point.

In the end, it doesn't do us much good if SF is the only organization that understands UW. The problems pointed out by Outlaw will continue if the joint world and interagency don't understand and appreciate it. I suspect SF will find itself more empowered to do what it is well trained to do if they quit attempting to jealously guard UW as their turf that no one else can touch. If the joint leadership doesn't understand UW then they won't consider it as a serious option and integrate it into their plans, and we'll continue to wonder why it wasn't considered and accuse the military leadership of being too conventional. We can't afford to sit back and wait for others to change, we need to change ourselves and then help others embrace the concepts of SW/UW.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 11/02/2013 - 4:42am

In reply to by slapout9

slapout9---back to the comments of the author and Roberts comments--it is all about UW--up to the brutal reduction of SF by big Army UW was, is and will always be the core to understanding insurgencies regardless of where they occur and what they look like.

From the concepts of UW both the military as well as the strategic decision makers have tools that allow them to craft a counter strategy and in using UW tactics and techniques ratchet their response to that particular insurgency.

The big problem is that everyone from the top of the NCA chain to the DOD just get so hung up on the definition of UW---it is a turf thing specially when funding is involved.

Everyone has forgotten the tools that UW provides for responses.

Secondly, currently big Army cannot see what is going on in Iraq and or AFG simply because the term COIN does not allow them to "see" the actual AQ UW strategy being implemented and carried out---abeit modified for each country where they are engaged.

Just how many officers, BCT commanders, and Gen P/Kilcullen could tell you which phase of a particular named campaign AQI now ISIS was in say 2005 or 2009--once that strategy was announced AQI held to it and what we saw on the ground in Iraq were the tactics and techniques being applied by AQI to drive that strategy.

When will Gen P/Kilcullen and others fully understand that BCTs were being whiplashed around Iraq as the AQI/Sunni insurgent field units followed that strategy?

By the way AQI never hid the strategy---it was always there to be seen--via the internet and CDs we simply did not know what to look for as big Army never trained it's personnel on UW.


Tue, 11/05/2013 - 10:50am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

"--have to give the Soviets credit they understood anti SOF operations as they were extremely good at UW taken straight out of their WW2 and AFG experiences."

Can you elaborate on this, or at least point me in the right direction to explore this?

Outlaw 09

Sat, 11/02/2013 - 1:42pm

In reply to by slapout9

slapout9----answer continued---from Bad Tolez it was back to Berlin where I finished my BA/MA/PhD work and was recruited as a civilian interrogator handling all refugees/border crossers, and EG political prisoners arriving in Berlin (JAROC-B---a truly joint and allied interrogation operation) and after a long ten years of 40 hrs a week of interrogation shifted to offensive CI operations with the 766th MI Detachment.

And along the way --was direct commissioned as a WO in MI and after Berlin it was on to Hannover Germany as an US Land Liaison Officer and then back onto active duty with the 10th CBTI 10 SFGA at Ft. Devens---left the 10th after the last Reforger Exercise held in Germany in 1989.

The then 10th SFGA commander was a COL Jesse Johnson (who was later the Commander of Delta)---who I believe now resides in Kuwait and has his own security company --let me no actually pushed me to use the Soviet anti UW doctrine against all SOF teams in my AO during that Reforger---had a regular Infantry Company as support---not a single target was hit for four weeks against 11 different US/NATO SOF teams using the exact Soviet doctrine---have to give the Soviets credit they understood anti SOF operations as they were extremely good at UW taken straight out of their WW2 and AFG experiences.

Had a small tour working TI during Desert Storm and then it was out to California to train reserve interrogators at the Presidio San Fran CA.

Left the service again in 1993---was working nicely as a US Business Director with a US software company and residing/enjoying France until a call from a former friend in VN asking if I was up to interrogating in Iraq and then I was back on the military support/training treadmill until finally leaving federal service in late July.

Had a long four years at the NTC training over 41 deploying BCTs-there were times the NTC felt like Iraq both in the weather/dersert and how we had rebuilt the deployment training scenario and the 90M USDs in construction replicating Iraqi villages/towns in the desert to reflect Diyala province helped as well.

Have never regretted leaving in July---

Outlaw 09

Sat, 11/02/2013 - 12:39pm

In reply to by slapout9

slapout9 Yes--- in the 5th from Dec 1968 through to Jun 1970 then I had a choice via an inter theater transfer back to Det A Berlin, but took Company A Bad Toelz instead as I was tired of 24X7 alert status and wanted to travel some in Germany--from Berlin it was tough to travel.

Walked in the door there and their first question was can you swim my answer was yes---found myself then on a nuclear combat swim team and then I travelled hard and heavy until I got out in late 1971.


Sat, 11/02/2013 - 11:13am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw 09. I hear you Limma Charley. I come from the eraly 70's era and was there first hand when the SF community was being routed for lack of a better term and it was nothing but a disgrace IMO. I think I may know you. Ever work with the 5th Special Forces?

Outlaw 09

Sat, 11/02/2013 - 4:20am

In reply to by slapout9

slapout9---SF was at the very beginning personnel in the Army addressing Army needs and provided teams for the CIA with the height of that support occurring in VN.

In VN I took a three line classified message one night indicating that due to Congressional budget issues we had our choice of one type of mortar round which type did we want and by the way we got it. I spent 18 months in VN scourging for food for myself and my team because the Army refused to provide support and supplies to ODAs---I got by the way exactly 17.80 USDs for rations in 1969--try to feed yourself in a warzone on 17.80 USD.

In 1968-1970 the infighting between SF and Big Army reached a peak with the SF killing of a triple agent under CIA orders terminate with extreme prejudice and they focused on the then Commander of the 5 SFGA-who just recently passed away at 81.

We provided over 80% of all actual hard intelligence collected in Indochina to big Army--big Army simply did not like a group of individuals who had special abilities doing things outside of big Army control. AND on multiple times SF led indigenous combat units in the relief of regular Army units.

In 1973 and onwards big Army took the opportunity to get even and brutally RIF'd SF from a height of 15K personnel to under 3K--SF survived in the interim years by focusing on DA and strat recon something that even the Ranger units do not do well.

I would argue that even today with all the praise from big Army the same drives and motivation of big Army still exists as it did after VN---going native, wearing beards, SF under their own combatant commander-their own selection and training and big Army units thinking they are now SF and carry out SF activities---the dislike of SF is still there regardless of what big Army says or does.


Sat, 11/02/2013 - 12:32am

Here is my 2 cents. The Whole concept of Special Warfare along with all it's assets should be moved back to the CIA (Originally OSS) from which it came. Big Army just doesn't get it as Special Warfare in general is just to much of a threat to a Mega Buck Defense industry.


Fri, 11/01/2013 - 3:06pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09


Interesting and disappointing. Perhaps the follow-up to this article ought to be one titled, "Thoughts on the Future of Military Competence and the Need to Look Beyond the Next OER".

Outlaw 09

Fri, 11/01/2013 - 5:04pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Dave---a second example came in early 2006 with the truly accidental capture of a up and coming commander of a totally new Sunni group that we had never heard of in Diyala---he was out of Barsa over Baghdad. A Sunni who had converted to Shia and was back on the Sunni side.

His story tied into later the hand written journal of mid 2006 and opened up an interesting point that even Gen. P/Kilcullen have never spoken of.

Did we inadvently stumble our way into an already ongoing Saddam vs Salafist underground war that was deep into it before we arrived?

His insurgent recruiter prior to our arrival in Iraq had been seeing him in Barsa and praying with him in the local Shia mosche for several years--the individual came out of Baghdad and in their ensuing prayer meetings if one understood CI training conducted by the East German State Security (MfS)in the 70/80s one would recognize the signature of a recruitment going on. They spoke mostly of the local goings on in Barsa, the mosche, and prayers together.

The East Germans had done a lot of intel training for Sadaam's intelligence service.

Once we arrived in Baghdad their prayer meetings in Barsa turned to jahdi discussions and by 2006 he was into the fight---he indicated that yes the individual was a MAJ in the Iraqi Intel Service and he had during Saddams day been targeted to watch Salafist activities which were ongoing between Barsa and Baghdad several years before we arrived.

There was alot simply being ignored by the regular Army as it did not fit the mold of what they assumed they were seeing---again because they were never trained in UW.

Dave Maxwell

Fri, 11/01/2013 - 2:59pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw 09: Thanks for your insights. You confirm the beliefs that Bob and I hold (I think I can speak for Bob on this one) with a concrete example. I think it is imperative that we study, know and understand UW. Your training, education and experience allowed you to recognize the strategy. Recognition and understanding is step one. How to get policy makers and strategists to address the UW strategy with a counter-UW strategy is the challenge. Thanks again.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 11/01/2013 - 2:29pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert---you bring up an interesting comment concerning AQI/ISISs' UW strategy.

Having been so deeply trained in SF UW in the 60/70s I recognized it immediately when I was interrogating a complete Baqubah Ansar al Sunnah group (71 total) that we first got a lead on-then stung and rolled the entire group complete with the Emir.

I spent eight weeks of intensive interrogation with all 71 members but the Emir was the most interesting (26,spoke fluent English, spoke a beautiful Arabic, was a Vet. who had graduated from the University of Baghdad and had fought personally along side his group as well).

The group was made up of an IDF group, an attack group, and IED group and a propaganda/training group.

I felt like I was back into my 1967 UW team when they spoke of tactics and training and how they structured, communicated, fought, and supported each other.

But it was the long sessions on strategy discussions with the Emir that really opened my eyes to the Sunni/AQI insurgency.

That was the total miss that even General P today still does not understand ---this includes Kilcullen as well.

After over 100 reports from the group later--not a single eval back from National and or from anyone out of Theater---there was absolutely no interest from anyone on the sheer volume of information that came out of this ---all the Army wanted was detainee numbers as a sign of success and understanding AQI UW strategy was never on their agenda.

The BCT spent an entire year reacting to AQI tactics and techniques---they never asked the single most important question that I learned to ask every insurgent I spoke to-----Why

The lack of interest by both Theater and National concerning AQIs UW strategy was reinforced in mid 2006 when we picked up a handwritten 400 journal personally written by the leader of the Islamic Army in Iraq---started two days after we entered Iraq up to early 2006.

It was literally a UW manual how to run an insurgency---organizational structure, who's who of the Sunni insurgency, communication techniques, financials, and RC bomb circuit designs in Dec 2003.

It was the proof that we were in a phase two guerrilla war even using Mao's definition and no one cared enough to even do a translation outside of myself and my interpreter.

My biggest disappointment was that we had the person who wrote the journal in detention--he knew I knew but I could not get a single agency to assist in the forensics necessary for charges-no one seemed to care--he walked out of Abu G three months later and was never seen again.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 11/01/2013 - 6:59am

Dave - A timely and worthy addition to this important conversation.

Pulling UW out of the shadows and out of the vice-like grips of the doctrine Nazis is one essential step in elevating this vital twin line of operations, countering the UW strategy of organizations such as AQ, rather than countering their terrorism tactics; and emphasizing the "coerce/disrupt" forms of UW.

In the current and emerging strategic environment, creating de facto illegitimate governments must be avoided to the degree possible. Punitive Expeditions and narrowly tailored UW offer low-cost ways to influence, rather than control the behavior of others necessary to advance or secure our nation's interests.



Dave Maxwell

Fri, 11/01/2013 - 12:15pm

In reply to by Bill M.


Thanks, Some very good points. I have a lot more to come on this over time. Regarding the UW definition: I am not sure I know anyone who is truly wedded to the definition or who really likes it. It is a compromise definition that was only truly satisfactory to the former CDR and SEA of USSOCOM. In fact they did not take many of the recommendations of the working group and it was somewhat problematic since the SEA was part of the working group. So this is a compromise definition. We have to use what we have and it is adequate and I would rather put the energy into thinking ahead rather than tilting at windmills to try to find the "perfect" definition (we will never get everyone to agree what is perfect and we should keep in mind that perfect is the enemy of good enough). But I have always believed in LTG Cushman's advice about doctrine (especially the last paragraph below).

“A 1950 definition called doctrine ‘the compilation of principles and theories applicable to a subject, which have been developed through experience or by theory, that represent the best available thought and indicate and guide but do not bind in practice.’”

“Doctrine is basically a truth, a fact, or a theory that can be defended by reason.”

“Doctrine cannot replace clear thinking…under the circumstances prevailing.” LTG John Cushman ( LTG (RET) John H. Cushman, “Thoughts for Joint Commanders,” (1993 Copyright John H. Cushman)


You tackled a lot in this article, much I agree with and some points I'll challenge. I know the doctrine writers are enamored with their new definition of UW which does fit a spectrum of UW; however, when we consider our adversary's use of UW that we need to counter, I think the older definition of UW comes closer (still doesn't scratch the itch completely): "broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted through, with, or by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source. It includes, but is not limited to, guerrilla warfare, subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, and unconventional assisted recovery."

There does seem to a lack of strategic level thinking on Countering adversary UW strategy, or even a recognition of it. I recommend we start at the top, and push the idea at the National Security Staff level, since C-UW must be a whole of government effort. It is not a SOF unique mission, but SOF can play a critical role once the requirement is identified at the national level. I think we have many of the skills we need already, but they need to be applied to achieve strategic vice tactical effect, and that requires a strategic appreciation of the challenge first. The first step is recognizing that some nations (such as Iran since 1979) and non-actors such Al-Qaeda since (1996) have been waging a largely global UW campaign against the U.S. and other Western nations for decades, yet we tend to view their activities as isolated events that need to be countered at the tactical level with selective strikes and security assistance, which in itself is fine as long as recognize their larger strategy, and focus on countering the strategy, instead of reacting to every location where the black flag of Al-Qaeda pops up. Perhaps over time our war of attrition will ultimately prevail, but we also risk breaking our piggy bank and accomplishing little, which if we take a step back and view it from our adversary's strategic intent that may very well be their goal. We're so fixated on relatively quick decisive action against so called centers of gravity, we're often blind to adversary strategies that are intended to take years to achieve their desired ends. We made some mistakes during the Cold War, but overall I think we understood counter UW from the strategic perspective much better than we do now. In fact I think we now fail to recognize our adversaries are using a UW strategy.

I take issue with your description of the Global SOF network, it is more complicated than simply rotating forces, but rotating forces is appropriately part of the mix. On the other hand the historical examples you cited are still appropriate models we should consider, and ones that would be welcomed in many partner nations. Staffs won't embrace anything that doesn't fit their one size fits all mold, but if leaders direct this we can start moving forward fairly quickly in some locations and start having outsized effects in a relatively short order.

Final comment tonight, in your list of six points your first point was that the U.S. faces three fundamental forms of warfare: nuclear warfare, conventional warfare, and unconventional warfare. This seems reasonable, but I think we miss something when don't our situation from a security perspective. Warfare is one threat to our security, but not the only threat, other threats short of warfare include transnational crime, proliferation of weapons, disease, etc. A commonality in many of these of threats is they are networked or network like (pandemic disease), and SOF is very apt at facilitating network operations that include conventional forces, interagency partners, and foreign partners. That being said, I recommend we consider that SOF at the strategic level focus on countering illicit networks, UW, and C-UW. Our operational approach would consist of special warfare or special operations (when not at war) and surgical strike. That would drive our doctrine, how we organize, and what capabilities we need to contribute in meaningful way promoting our national security.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 11/01/2013 - 5:35am

Comment---while Det A formally disbanded and left Berlin in 1984 do not assume the capabilities left the City and there is far more to the story especially tied to the Iranian hostage period.

Yes the CIA declassified the story around Argo and yes we know of the failure of Desert One in detail---but there is still another success story that has never been spoken about and if a movie it would pale the movie Argo.

The powers to be should rethink and declassify it so that the public has a total understanding of that event.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 11/01/2013 - 5:09am

For those that want a little background on Det A here is the current link that we use to stay in touch.

I started my SF career in 1967 with Det A in Berlin and when I recently left federal service I returned to Berlin as a 67 year old ---not many from my 1967 team are still around---but we still manage to make the reunions when possible.

Have never regretted coming back to this dynamic City---maybe it was the pull of this dynamic City that has a number of us from the 60/70s retiring here.

The author would be wise to write something on the recruiting efforts of SF in the 60/70s vs today---when I worked around JSOC in Iraq I was amazed at the difference in them and us----just what was the recruiter in the 60s looking for that is so different than that of SF today?

Seriously I was approached as were to two others in 1966 out of a basic training group totaling 1300 basic trainees at Ft. Polk and asked if I was interested in joining SF---here is the big difference SF asked me ---not like today where anyone can apply.

That was the core success to UW---really worth the research into what was SF in the 60s looking for in the individuals they approached.

Bill M.

Fri, 11/01/2013 - 5:38am

In reply to by Morgan


Your points are well taken, but we need to move past the MOS, grade, SOF, conventional, etc., and do a better job of finding the right person or people for a specific advisory mission based on their skills, personality, experience, and ideally language. We're all products of our past, and unfortunately as our Army (including SOF) becomes increasingly advanced technically we become correspondingly less capable to advise and assist partners in developing nations because we tend to attempt to create units in our image. It my controversial view that Western countries with smaller militaries and considerably less funding (therefore they don't try to solve problems by throwing money at it) such as the Britain, Australia, France, etc. tend to do a much better job at advising and assisting partners in developing nations because their ambitions are less grand and more realistic. They are generally tailored to that nation's realistic capability and more sustainable over time. I am familiar with a few cases where the countries said they prefer the Australian model for a particular military capability than the U.S. because it is more appropriate for their military. I think USSOF excels at two advisory roles, one developing low end small unit tactical skills to include tactical planning (includes training civilian defense forces) and of course training higher end special operations forces. The dirty little secret on why we're so successful at the later is we generally can run a selection course and only keep the best the partner country has to offer (much like our SOF). The real challenge for advisors and trainers is developing a functional infantry unit when working with a country's category 4 equivalent troops who are not fit, illiterate, and not motivated. Turning those groups of misfits into a fighting force requires the highest level of skill and patience. Yet it has been done throughout history.

I respond as a non-SOF, recently retired, conventional bubba with minimal experience doing SFA in three different countries, and my apologies if my comments upset SF/ SOF types…..not my intent. I agree with COL Maxwell that SF/ SOF must refocus on UW as defined in his article. My experience with SF/ SOF has shown me that they are quite good at this.

What I have not been impressed with is SF/ SOF capability to advise, assist, train, and develop host-nation elements that are fairly conventional in nature and design. I am currently working in Afghanistan with an ANSF organization that is organized in conventional fashion. Working with this organization are SOF elements as well as contractors, many with SF backgrounds. While US SF/ SOF may be great at UW and working with irregular forces, they don’t seem as adept at working with conventional forces because, in many cases, they lack the experiences necessary to advise and develop conventional skills.

An 18B knows everything about weapons, but is he the right guy to advise a BN CDR on the day-to-day duties involved in commanding? Is an E7 18F the right guy to advise a brigade chief of staff on how to be a chief of staff given that an E7 18F has never served in that, or commensurate, position? Based on what I have observed during the last few months, no.

But since US SF/ SOF will continue to be the force selected to apply towards these conventionally organized host-nation elements, I strongly recommend that our SF members become re-familiarized with the functioning of conventional forces, preferably by serving in positions within conventional battalion, brigade, and divisional units. The specialized & specific expertise resident in each SF member is difficult to match by any conventional type. But if the SF element is working to develop a battalion or brigade staff, knowing the details of an AK-47 or how to construct HME isn’t that helpful. Understanding C2, prioritization, organization skills, basic staff functions, etc…are what is called for. Rotating SF members through those duty positions as well as schools like Battle-Staff will help.

If US SF/ SOF is going to refocus exclusively on UW and irregular forces then my recommendations may be completely meaningless. But if our SF bubbas are going to continue to advise and develop conventionally organized host-nation forces, even if they are labeled “special operations” or “commando” or whatever, they will need skills beyond their specific, tactically oriented expertise.

If I might focus, just for a moment, on resistance movements, which seem to lie at the heart of unconventional warfare.

Populations today -- and throughout the world -- appear to believe that they cannot defend their way of life except (1) via unconventional means and (2) by way of local, regional and global alliances made outside of law and government.

Why is this?

Because populations today see that their governments, their national leaders, international organizations (such as the UN), and even international and local law itself have been co-opted so as to provide for -- not their individual, varied and often diverse wants, needs and desires -- but, instead, the singular requirements of "Davos Man."* (Herein, all states and societies being forced to abandon some or much of their identity and "transform" so as to meet Davos Man's needs.)

Should we keep this critical matter in mind as we adapt SOF for the conditions and character of conflict of the 21st Century (to wit: within the context of globalization)?

And from the perspective of the demands made by globalization, understand why unconventional warfare could very well be the dominant form of warfare for today and the future?

* (DAVOS MAN: Samual P. Huntington is credited with coining the phrase Davos Man, referring to global elites who "have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite's global operations". The phrase refers to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where leaders of the global economy meet.)


Fri, 11/01/2013 - 10:17am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Thank you.


Thu, 10/31/2013 - 9:20pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

I would like to read up on Son Tay. What do you recommend? Thanks.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/31/2013 - 6:39pm

In reply to by Steve Blair

What is striking is that it was a true joint effort before we called things joint.

Secondly, it was truly downtown into the heart of the enemy air defenses that OBL did not have and next to a heavy guard detachment that did fight back.

Thirdly, while no prisoners were freed---it did in fact improve their treatment immediately. AND it sent a message.

Fourthly, we deliberately crashed a helicopter and were successful in doing it and we had only one twisted ankle injury for the entire operation even in the face of a really heavy fire fight.

AND we did not have the new night vision technology or SOF personal equipment and weapons.

Skill, elan, and personal determination---and smartly done.

We were simply SF and proud of it.

AND we did not run off to sign movie/book deals---it was just another mission.

Steve Blair

Thu, 10/31/2013 - 6:01pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

And the number of similarities between Son Tay and OBL are stunning as well.

I think one reason it's not studied as much as it should comes down to who pulled off the raid. Simmons was always seen as a wild card, and considering that the raid didn't recover any POWs it was easy (too easy) to write it off as a failure. I've always been amazed at how little ink has actually been spilled regarding Son Tay.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/31/2013 - 5:39pm

As a side comment---I would argue that the success of the SOF Son Tay raid has been overlooked a number of times over the last 40 or so years. OBL raid overshadows everything but the impact of that single SF raid improved the lives of US prisoners in North Vietnam prior to their release.

Yes OBL was impressive but Son Tay truly went "downtown" and really if analyzed was the first successful Joint operation---but after that raid the lessons learned were never again looked at in the following years.

If Desert One planners had intensively understood that raid the technical mistakes would not have been made, but I would also argue the failure of Desert One was a failure of Jointness.

A SWJ author mentioned in a recent article of his that the success of the current military was built on the failures of Grenada---why study Grenada when we had Son Tay to look at an example of a true Joint model.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/31/2013 - 5:13pm

A very large thank you to the author---I was wondering just when SF would make the full shift back to it's core roots of UW.

I was recruited into SF in 1966 and the core training was UW----the core belief was that an ODA could address any assignment if it mastered and fully understood UW. Everything flows out of UW.

My instructors were veterans from VN, Laos, Panama, and the 10th SFG in Bad Toelz, GE. And if we wanted to learn more about UW Ft. Bragg had the structures in place where we went in the afternoons/weekends after training---read and learned.

The instructors drilled UW into our heads and the entire SF structure was UW focused.

From Ft. Bragg I went on to Det A, Berlin Bde 1967 whose history has never been fully understood even in SF nor ever declassified ---a memorial stone will be set this year at Ft. Bragg for all SF soldiers who served east of the Elbe.

There I met a form of UW taught to me by the original SF types from the 77th and where I perfected UW skill sets that carried me as a civilian interrogator extremely well into Iraq in 2005/2006 and allowed me to fully understand the Iraqi insurgency in ways the conventional force never understood. Tradecraft at Det A was second nature and what I learned there carried me well in later years at the Joint Allied Refugee Operations Center-Berlin (JAROC-B) and the 766th MI Detachment Berlin

From Det A it was then onto VN ---through the Recondo School, onto an A Team, onto to Mike Force and finally survived MACV-SOG. Not once did I ever leave UW in that period.

From VN it was back to Company A, 10 SFGA Bad Toelz with engagements through all of Europe, Jordan Sept 70, Greece, and Lebanon in the 80s ---again all literally wrapped around UW.

What this generation of SF did not understand as it attempted to survive the brutal reduction in force practiced against SF by the Regular Army after VN was that strat recon and direct action is not UW ---they are in fact individual elements that evolved out of UW---by the way practiced by the various SF Projects in VN.

While SF shifted to VSO in AFG--it was really a copy of the VN CIDG program---I am not sure though that the current SF/Army/NCA senior leaders understand what it takes to make VSO successful.

NOW is the correct time and place to rediscover their roots and actually create what worked so well for SF from 1954 until 1994 which was pure UW nothing more nothing less.

Just a side note---one of the most painful experiences as a former SF veteran of the 60/70s was experienced when I was a senior civilian interrogator at Abu Ghriab during parts of 2005 and parts of 2006 when we as interrogators were under massive pressure to avoid that bad T word and when we were under massive oversight at all levels.

I had to formally report four cases of detainee abuse caused by SOF personnel during their detainee operations--it was really personally painful especially since my entire SF training had taught me the importance of the GC and importance of correctly handling prisoners---even in the heat of combat in VN I protected my prisoners as I protected my Cambodians.

Again a complement to the author for pointing out what truly did function well from 1954 to 1994 for SF and just because it is 2013 one does not have to do something totally different if in fact your history has perfect examples of what worked extremely well and was tested in the field from 1954 to 1994.