Refuting the Irregular Warfare Pipedream
By Charlie Black
Let’s begin with stating that this forum is great for candid debate. I applaud James Armstrong who came out swinging in his recent rebuttal to an article authored by LTG Cleveland et al. Unfortunately, his article mischaracterizes the many causal factors of a two-decade long war and misplaces blame for associated military failures that are shared by many, elected and appointed.
First, war of any character is ultimately pursued for political purposes with the uniformed military as only one among many instruments to achieve desired outcomes. This is especially stark when conducting an irregular war. Armstrong’s first elephant isn’t. No executive department and certainly no single military service has “the” responsibility for irregular warfare (IW). Additionally, we are reminded that the development of IW capabilities and the conduct of irregular warfare are two different roles as clearly delimited between Warfighters and the services. Ultimately the responsibility, authority, and accountability reside with the Commander-in-Chief.
Second, there is also no 2nd elephant. We can argue for eternity about the numerous success and failures consequent to the employment of joint forces over the past twenty years. It has been a long war with well-known and lesser known operations conducted across the globe. There are many tactical to strategic level examples of success and failure over the conduct of many campaigns. A broad and deep exploration of this episode of war might best be distributed to the academe and military schoolhouses, conducted by scholars and military practitioners alike. There is much to be learned and the new Irregular Warfare Functional Center (IWFC) has a key role to that end no matter where its final home.
Placing blame on any single Combatant Command, especially USSOCOM as a functional command, for the many failures in our recent war experience comes off as parochially naïve. The overarching theme of his rebuttal reads as if USASOC, seen as a proxy of USSOCOM, has somehow displaced the US Army’s rightful place to lead IW. We should be cautious not to conflate irregular warfare and the subordinate role of special operations within such an undertaking. Most troublesome is an invalid attempt to simplify cause-effect that ignores the irreducible complexity of war, shows a misunderstanding of jointness, and undervalues the contributions of partners.
To be clear, I do agree that the U.S. has often failed to achieve political outcomes in over two decades of conflict. We might avoid framing our recent “war” as a single coherent policy- clearly it was not. Perhaps an alternative interpretation is to frame this war period as the aggregate of campaigns and operations with different geography, time, constraints, enemy, and purposes. We’ve too often conflated and oversimplified. There is much to be learned by the uniformed military, policy makers, appropriators, and American citizens. In my view the IWFC should not be subordinated to a service or unified command. Both Cleveland and others have offered propositions worthy of consideration. The IWFC has a role to inculcate the entire Department in the ways of irregular warfare, as well to be a bridge to and from a broad range of partners for IW endeavors.