The Need to Understand and Conduct UW
Interview with retired US Army Special Forces Colonel David S. Maxwell.
David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.
SWJ: Insurgency, counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense, terrorism, counterterrorism - does this spectrum of possibilities fall within the larger framework of Unconventional Warfare (UW)?
David Maxwell: Terminology is important. But since 9/11 we have embarked on an effort to rename wars, rename conflicts and come up with new doctrinal terms trying to explain old things in new ways. As Clausewitz said before you embark on a war you first must understand the war. But in America there is this tendency to first must name the war and in order to understand the war we have to name the doctrinal terms that we are going to use. We spend more time on naming than on understanding. When it comes to counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism I subscribe to Collin Gray who said that the strategist needs to understand his subject, which is not COIN, not CT, but strategy for its particular challenge in COIN or CT. I think we spend more time on arguing about COIN and CT than we really do trying to devise effective strategies to protect our national interests some of which includes either defending against terrorism through CT or helping others to conduct counterinsurgency which I still think is a very necessary capability that our military needs. Although the way we have conducted counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan must be thoroughly examined, whether this is the right or wrong way.
At the same time, seeing everything through only the lens of terrorism really misses the point. Looking at everything as a terrorism problem has hurt our strategic thinking. 9-11 was a tragic event and there are people out there that are conducting terrorist acts, trying to harm the West, the US, and western interests. But terrorism is not the only problem. Naming Al Qaeda a terrorist organization is correct from a legal point of view, but what they are really conducting is more of a form of unconventional warfare. UW is a form of warfare that has been conducted for generations and for millennia. It is part of the nature of war. The phenomena we are really facing emanates from a fundamental aspect political-military operations and that is revolution, resistance, and insurgency. Clausewitz described the paradoxical trinity and UW falls within it. But we have this tendency trying to put everything into a box - terrorism, insurgency, hybrid conflict, conventional war, nuclear war – when we really need to look at and understand the strategies of the organizations and nation-states conducting warfare. I fear that we don’t spend enough time understanding strategy. Do we understand the strategy of ISIL, of Boko Haram? We have to do a better job of thinking strategically. And one weakness is our inability to observe and understand the strategies of our opponents.
SWJ: What are the key components/dimensions of UW?
David Maxwell: The US has a definition of UW, which is simply “activities to support or enable a resistance or an insurgency to coerce, disrupt, overthrow a government or an occupying power through and with an underground auxiliary guerilla force in a denied area.” This is the basic definition.
The definition should be viewed in three parts, the first at the campaign plan level, the second as a strategic decision requiring the application of a combination of the elements of national power, and the third as tactical employment. “Activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency” require an integrated campaign plan executed by a designated task force usually under the command of a geographic combatant commander. A strategic or national level decision is required to “coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power.” This has to be nested in national policy. Tactical employment is conducted by special operations forces and elements of the intelligence community working “through and with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.” Unlike most other doctrinal military definitions this special operations mission requires policy direction, strategic decision-making, campaign planning and tactical execution. Again it is both simply defined and a complex operation. However, there is one more important aspect of this definition. It is not US centric nor exclusively a US concept. In fact, a number of countries and non-state actors are conducting various forms of unconventional warfare.
Everyone thinks that the UW as being simply about overthrowing another government. That may be one purpose, but there is also the concept of coercing and disrupting. One of the things that we wanted to be able to do when developing the UW definition was to build the focus on other entities in addition to formal governments, specifically on non-state actors (which behave like occupying powers). If we look at ISIL forces they are clearly occupying territory in Iraq and Syria so they are an occupying power. The Taliban in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan is an occupying power.
Using a resistance or insurgency to coerce and disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power, is a strategic option and this might be something that we are called upon to do in support of our national security strategy. Clearly what we should be doing in Syria (if an assessment shows that it is feasible) would be to conduct UW to enable some resistance within Syria to fight against the Islamic State and perhaps Assad. That would be a UW mission. Instead we are focusing on a train and equip program, which I think is too narrow and fraught with difficulty. We cannot hope that just a train and equip program will be successful. However, what I think is most problematic and something that we should take as lesson is that we might have started with too little, too late. If we had decided to conduct UW in Syria three years ago we might have enabled a resistance to overthrow the Assad regime. Although there is no way to say what might have happened, the possibility must be considered that had a Syrian resistance been successful ISIL might not have been able to develop into what it is today, at least perhaps in Syria. A key takeaway is that you cannot conduct UW “in-extremis” or after a crisis occurs unless there has been sufficient prior preparation. Our post 9-11 UW campaign to oust the Taliban from Kabul was of course “in-extremis” but we were able to capitalize on and exploit the long term relationships and trust established by the CIA. So I would adapt the fourth SOF Truth, “Competent Special Operations Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur” to create a UW truth: “Effective UW cannot be conducted without sufficient prior preparation and investment in relationships.”
The tactical component of UW which is practiced by Special Forces and the CIA is executed through and with an underground, an auxiliary and a guerilla force in a denied area. That is where there is the real execution of UW by Special Forces and CIA, or of a combination of the two together occurs. While everyone focuses on the guerilla force and the tactical fighters the real essence, the key element of UW, lies in the underground. This is where the intelligence work and the political mobilization is done, from where the shadow government emanates. Understanding this is very important, particularly regarding the shadow government and its aims and objectives because if we are going to support or enable an insurgency or resistance we must really try to figure out what comes next, especially when they are successful. Understanding and having a relationship with the underground and the shadow government will provide us with the ability to try to align resistance and US interests in the short and long term.
UW is not only being practiced by Al-Qaeda, it is clearly practiced by the Russians through so-called new generation warfare or non-linear warfare, in Ukraine. It is classic UW or what George Kennan would say political warfare:
Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz's doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation's command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures (as ERP--the Marshall Plan), and "white" propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of "friendly" foreign elements, "black" psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states. (http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/history/johnson/65ciafounding3.htm)
His 1948 memo to the Policy Planning Staff was prescient and although really focused on the establishment of the CIA and the operations it should be charged with it did and still does provide a template for political and unconventional warfare. Although we never really embraced and implemented much of what he said, others did and now do: for example the Russians, the Iran Action Network in the Middle East (and other parts of the world), and the Chinese in Three Warfares. In this context, we also need to have the capability to counter the unconventional warfare that is conducted by our adversaries. Focusing today on the UW aspect gives us a much better strategic framework and can help in our strategic thinking about the problems of terrorism and insurgency by providing the tools to assess, to organize, and to support either resistance or insurgencies or to counter adversaries’ UW operations to exploit revolution, resistance and insurgency that are counter to US interests.
Another example of unconventional and political warfare is Giap’s strategy of Dau Tranh, an integrated political and military struggle with its three vans: action among your people, actions among the enemy’s military, and action among the enemy’s people. This should be seen as an adaptation of Kennan’s political warfare concept but perhaps with Vietnamese characteristics.
While we want our friends, partners and allies to increase their capabilities and to defend themselves we shouldn’t consider them as fighting for us. We want them to secure themselves. Some of the things that troubled me over time was the rise of the security forces assistance, and for some a replacement for FID (foreign internal defense). FID is really a strategic, whole of government effort to help friends, partners, and allies in their internal defense and development programs to defend themselves against lawlessness, subversion, insurgency and terrorism. This is a good strategic framework for how we can help our friends and allies when they are faced with these problems. But the problem with the security force assistance is that it is more focused on the military aspects of foreign internal defense, which includes training foreign forces. A problem with UW and FID is that form many in the military they exclusively associated with the Special Forces and Special Operations. Both require support and action from other military forces and civilian government agencies as part of an integrated campaign plan and holistic strategy. We need to break down the stovepipes and silos and look at using all the tools to include UW and FID.
UW, countering UW, and FID are some of the best doctrinal and theoretical constructs (note: countering UW is not a doctrinal concept) that really can help us thinking strategically. The biggest weakness of UW and FID is that they take time. Americans are very impatient people. These are concepts that are taking a long time and don’t achieve success quickly or even very thoroughly because they are dependent on so many factors. We seem to favor the strategy that is the least costly, the least politically damaging, and fastest which often translates to the least effective.
One important point to keep in mind. FID is not simply the reverse of UW and vice versa. FID is a holistic strategy to help a friend, partner, or ally with its internal development of defense programs to defend itself against subversion, lawlessness, insurgency and terrorism. FID and countering UW are also not synonymous though they are of course closely related. Countering UW is focused on attacking an enemy’s UW strategy – how that enemy say, for example, the Russians or the Iranians, are exploiting resistance movements. While the host nation needs to focus on countering a resistance movement or insurgency we must look broader at the major powers or non-state actors who are exploiting resistance and insurgency for its interests that are beyond the host nation insurgency. Counter-UW brings an offensive component to the strategy by attacking the enemy’s UW strategy while FID is more defensive in perspective by helping a friend, partner, or ally defend itself (though offensive military operations by the host nation should be a part of FID).
To really delve into these areas I strongly recommend two projects for students. First is the work that the US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) has done in partnership with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab call the “Assessing Revolution and Insurgent Strategies Project” (ARIS) (http://www.soc.mil/ARIS/ARIS.html). The second is also work from USASOC in the white paper called “SOF Support to Political Warfare” (http://maxoki161.blogspot.com/2015/03/sof-support-to-political-warfare-white.html) where the concepts of traditional UW, countering UW, and proactive fashion UW are the foundation for ways to operate in the strategy gap between peace and where that some call the gray zone or the “missing middle.”
SWJ: Can we say the Al Anbar Awakening and the Sons of Iraq as examples and outputs of UW? In the end, it was about harnessing, supporting, enabling a resistance to coerce, disrupt, an occupying power (AQI).
David Maxwell: Yes, but it was an expedient measure and you can see how it played out. The Iraqi government was not committed to that initiative. We created and supported the rise of that organization and it accomplished a short term objective for us. But for this reason I think you need to take a UW perspective to understand the intensions and the nature of these organizations and what they are going to do. If we are supporting the Iraqi government in their sovereign country and create a paramilitary organization that is not under that government’s control, that can turn out to be problematic. The technique and the intent may be useful, but it has to be embedded and synchronized with the larger strategy. An objective assessment might have showed that yes this is a short term expedient, but it is going to have long-term problems. From the beginning you have to be thinking about the end and what is going to happen after successful execution of operations and the campaign. If we create the force maybe we can demobilize the force. UW takes you from the initial assessment through demobilization, which it really has to have a plan for how you transition this force. But you have to think through to the desired end and be able to balance short and long term obejctives.
SWJ: What would the contours of a UW campaign against ISIL look like?
As mentioned, you have to first determine the feasibility of a UW strategy or a UW component of a campaign plan. The assessment is arguably the single most important aspect of UW because upon it will rest the strategy and campaign plan and most importantly the decision even to execute a UW campaign. ISIL is a complex problem. As mentioned in terms of Syria the train and equip program being executed now may be too little too late. We are also under significant self imposed constraints that hinder any UW campaign plan in Syria. Had we identified the UW potential (which I am sure that the CIA and SOCCENT did three or more years ago focusing on overthrowing the Assad regime) and executed a UW campaign we might have had a chance to prevent the evolution of ISIS (though there is of course no way to prove that). Now we are in a difficult position because of the myriad groups and interests with the most important problem being whether we can find resistance groups whose interests and objectives sufficiently align or are compatible with US interests and objectives. ISIL in Iraq has assumed de facto state status and is certainly at least an occupying power. The assessment should be underway to determine if there is resistance potential within these occupied areas and whether it is feasible to support that resistance in support of a broader campaign by the Iraqi government with US and coalition support to defeat ISIL and take back the lost territory. UW is not a silver bullet and will not succeed in Iraq or Syria alone but it can offer an important adjunct to a campaign plan and broader strategy.
SWJ: Are we at that point when UW and FID should become skills to be practiced beyond the narrow specialized segments, also by conventional forces?
David Maxwell: As I said UW and FID are not silver bullets. They are not activities that we should employ in every situation. We have to develop a strategy that informs the ways and means to accomplish our ends. But UW and FID are tools that should be considered by our national leadership. FID in particular should be a mission beyond Special Forces and Special Operations Forces. It takes joint military capabilities to employ as well as important contributions from US government agencies outside of DoD. But most importantly we need policy makers and strategists who have an understanding of and appreciation for UW, countering UW, FID and Political Warfare and know that they are potential strategic options to be employed in the right conditions.
SWJ: To what extent is Edward Lansdale a model for FID?
David Maxwell: Sometime in my lectures I show a chart that shows General Pershing in the Philippines (that was of course a military occupation conducting pacification vice counterinsurgency), Edward Lansdale which was really just a small advisory mission while the main effort were the Filipinos, and OEF-P which is really in the middle of those. It provided more support than Lansdale did, a larger US presence, but like Lansdale, the military operations were all executed by the Filipinos. In OEF-P we looked to Lansdale as a role model for how to advise and how to help the Filipinos to help themselves. But we must take the lessons of Lansdale and look at them with caution. When he went from the Philippines to Vietnam his methods were not appropriate in Vietnam. This is I think the big lesson: there is no template, there is no cookie cutter solution. We need to study the history, to look to all the lessons but the key thing that we did in the Philippines as Lansdale did, is that we effectively assessed the situation from the strategic to the tactical level. We started in Manila, looking at their national strategy, then we went to their equivalent combatant command in Mindanao and assessed what their capabilities were and most important what the problems were; what they understood the problems were. Then we assessed the tactical units and the situation on the ground. Eventually we did local surveys of local villages, talking to the people and collecting large amounts of data. This informed how we wrote the campaign plan which was developed by then Colonel and now retired LTG David Fridovich, in conjunction with the Filipinos, under the auspices of now retired Lt Gen Donny Wurster at Special Operations Command Pacific, briefed to Admiral Blair (Commander of the Pacific Command at the time) and ultimately approved in DC. That campaign plan formed the foundation for what we continue to do today (despite the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines being stood down on May 1st as keys tasks from the campaign plan will continue to be executed under the command of the Joint US Military Assistance Group - Philippines) . You first have to have the ability to understand the problem that you have and then apply the right ways and means to address the problem in accordance with national policy and strategy. The important thing is that we cannot look to any model to copy. I am really resistant when I hear people talking about models. The conditions may be different. You just don’t apply models. You’ve got to develop a unique strategy for each situation.
SWJ: What was Lansdale’s approach in order to enable and incentivize Magsaysay and the political local elites to do the necessary reforms in order to target the conditions that were supporting the insurgency?
David Maxwell: The Lansdale and Magsaysay relationship was very unique. I don’t think that Lansdale told him what to do. What I would like to believe is that Magsaysay developed these ideas, that they were homegrown though I imagine a lot of discussion probably late at night occurred between Lansdale and Magsaysay that influenced the development of the land reform and political conflicts that contributed to defeating the insurgency. The ideal thing is not how to tell people how to do things but for them to develop their own solutions. The governance solutions that were developed were appropriate for those conditions. The real key is that governance and political structures have to be developed by the host nation. They cannot be imposed externally when conducting UW, state building, stability operations or FID. Our focus on governance is really wrong. We have to help them develop their own but recognizing always that developing their own governing system is messy, difficult and time consuming. It doesn’t happen overnight. For example I am looking at North Korea as a person that is starving for a long time. You can’t take such a person to an all you can eat buffet and eat as much as they can because they just get sick. You need to develop slowly, to recover. The same thing applies to a failed state where there is no governance. You’ve got to start small and slow. The problem is that we want immediately to bring stability, democracy and raise everyone’s standard of living overnight and often what is worse is to try to recreate societies (to include government structures and their military and security forces) in our image. That may not be in accordance with their customs, history and traditions and thus it may lead to further conflict and possibly failure.
SWJ: What were the specific lines of operations for OEF-P?
David Maxwell: We had four synchronized lines of operations which were developed from the very beginning of the campaign in 2001 well before FM 3-24 came into being. Obviously, advising and assisting Philippines security forces to enhance their capabilities to be able to conduct operations against terrorists and insurgents. We used the term security forces very deliberately because the problem required more than military, it required effective law enforcement as well. The second line of operation was targeted civil-military operations to really affect the conditions that exist where there is no effective governance, where there are no essential services. The Philippine military worked with the local governing bodies as well as the Mindanao Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO) and its US counterpart USAID. They would go in and build schools and bridges, providing public goods on behalf of the state. The other purpose of the civil-military operations was that they were targeting contested areas that are in conflict. Targeted civil-military operations were really an important foundation leading to security. The third line of operations was really one way that we made a significant contribution-intelligence. We were able to fuse Philippine and US intelligence, establishing fusion cells at their combatant command level, at their task force level, and at their battalion level and really use that information to support operations. The fourth line of operation was what we call influence operations: the foundation was about ensuring the legitimacy of the Philippine government and military. OEF-P was designed to target on multiple levels the population and the threats. We would go through a cyclical assessment process-daily, weekly, monthly. We used surveys (67 standard questions) extensively to understand the political, security, economic, infrastructure, health issues of a community that would help the government and the military to prioritize resources and gain a better understanding of the environment. It is about supporting local host nation government, helping them to help themselves. If you are going to take lessons from the Philippines these would be assessments, not being in charge, really being able to truthfully advise and assist without operating under a façade of doing it for them. We never had to say things like put a Filipino face on operations because the Filipinos were absolutely in charge and conducting their own operations.
Although we were not conducting UW we were informed by UW and the study of revolution, resistance, and insurgency. Special Forces soldiers used their UW training and knowledge to develop plans that supported the Philippine government and security forces. The ability to work through and with myriad local governments and security forces, to conduct area assessments to understand the evolving conditions and to be concerned with respect for host nation sovereignty all come from Special Forces’ UW training and education.
SWJ: Does the T.E. Lawrence’s legacy matter for the practitioners of UW?
David Maxwell: T.E. Lawrence should be studied, but we shouldn’t follow his example exactly. We should understand the history and the context. He was conducting unconventional warfare. He was trying to use Arab tribes in order to achieve military objectives, supporting the strategic objectives of a larger war. It was a form of unconventional warfare. But he doesn’t provide a template.
We need to realize the vast distinctions in all these different cases throughout history. There is no template, there is no cookie cutter. We have to understand each situation for the conditions as they really exist, and not try to fit them into a narrow box that we have constructed and made ideal.
More important than Lawrence, I like to say that any complex military problem can be found by reading Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. You wouldn’t find the answers in those books, but they teach you how to think. If you study and continuously read them then you will come up with the answer to include strategies for unconventional and political warfare. I actually wrote about this in the 3d volume of Small Wars Journal in October 2005, “Timeless Theories of War in the 21st Century” (http://smallwarsjournal.com/content/journal-way-back-issues).
SWJ: This indirect approach for advising and assisting makes sense when the host nation government operates a decent functional administrative and institutional machinery. What if there is no such strong state capacity? There may be circumstances when US may be called to assume this effort of state-building.
David Maxwell: I think we should avoid what we have come to call nation-building ourselves and we should focus on being able to conduct effective post-conflict stability operations. The mistake I think we might have made in Iraq and Afghanistan was not taking a formal surrender and saying whomever is there that this is your country. Many said we should know how to do this based on our experiences in Germany and Japan but if we were to use those examples we would have sought a surrender from the remnants of the existing government and then helped them reestablish their own government while we provided initial security and essential services in accordance with the law of land warfare and our doctrine for post conflict stability operations. Instead in both countries we tried to at least partially recreate them in our image. We should have approached this from the perspective of: We are going to restore essential services, we are going to provide security but you have got to build your government. It was a mistake to bring in the CPA and really usurp their sovereignty and embark on a social experiment. They were (and are) a sovereign country and should figure out their own government. The biggest mistake is to try to re-make others – either governments or militaries – in our image.
The indirect approach is also being criticized for the situation in Yemen. One of the things that I think we should consider in Yemen is that we were focused on AQAP using US unilateral CT forces and unmanned aerial systems and at the same time training Yemeni forces to be able to conduct partnered or unilateral CT operations against AQAP. In effect we were using the Yemeni forces as proxies in our war on terrorism. Yet we did not help the Yemeni government with its internal defense and development programs in order to defend itself against lawless, subversion, insurgency, and terrorism even though SOF in Yemen recognized and reported the threats to the Yemeni government. We self –constrained our forces in Yemen because we did not want mission creep and did not want to address threats that were outside the terrorism threat to the US. Yes we faced and still face a very real threat from AQAP but the Iranians were and still are conducting a form of UW that has resulted in civil war in Yemen, relief and sanctuary for AQAP, and the loss of military bases and forces from and with which to conduct US and partnered CT operations. Our failure to assess the broader threats (in particular the Iranian UW threat) has resulted in a set back for our CT operations. Again the blame does not fall on the US troops in country because they recognized the threats. This was not a failure of the indirect approach. The blame has to be on our policy and strategy and the myopic focus on terrorism.
SWJ: Does NATO need a UW doctrine to help Ukraine help itself?
David Maxwell: In Ukraine we need to help the local government to be able to counter UW. What it is really important about Russia’s use of UW is that they are making a very good use of integrated special operations and conventional forces. They emphasize the orchestration of various joint military and interagency capabilities to achieve the desired effects. And all of this is supporting their political objectives. That is the one thing in the West we talk about the importance of political objectives, but we really don’t understand the politics. The Russians are using their military in a way that supports their political objectives. We are not so good at that part. That’s why I emphasize the need for us to be able to understand UW, political warfare and develop the capabilities to counter it. NATO should do the same because Russia is going to use these techniques and this doctrine to achieve its political objectives without going to direct conflict.
I would close with saying that a lot of us are averse to Unconventional Warfare, from policy makers to politicians, from strategists to conventional military leaders and even some within the SOF community. But to borrow, paraphrase, and update one of Trotsky’s famous quotes I would say “America may not be interested in unconventional warfare but UW is being practiced around the world by those who are interested in and who have a great understanding of and appreciation for it.” We had better catch up.