Small Wars Journal

Preparing for an Irregular Future-Counterinsurgency

Thu, 07/18/2013 - 5:31am

Preparing for an Irregular Future-Counterinsurgency

Dr. Oscar Ware, US Army (Ret)


The domains influencing international politics has significantly changed since the end of World War II. In this new landscape military leaders and politicians alike continue to debate future threats, nature of conflicts and the national strategy. Nation states that were once consumers of security have become producers, and find themselves projecting their political and military influence well beyond their boarders. Leveraging this reality is vital in partnership engagements to lessen unintended consequences as the United States (U.S.) prepares to enter regional conflicts. Governments are being confronted by hard realities, peace and stability can’t be sustained through the introduction of military power alone. Today’s military powers are either engaged in, or preparing for counterinsurgency operations. It appears the power of ideology is assisting insurgents in overcoming the weakness associated with persuasion and it is not beholden to a particular region of the world.

Many governments are new to the concept of defending against a geographically dispersed and culturally diverse cell driven network that maintain secrecy, uses terror to destabilize populations and undermines the rule of law by exploiting inabilities. Insurgencies require certain conditions to exist and insurgents need well grounded causes with which to attract supporters, so they exploit inabilities and pray on social and religious beliefs. Unfortunately the nature of free societies today supports terrorist movement across sovereign state boarders with impunity. Whether its extremist ideologies, instability, competition for resources, or states unwilling or unable to exercise control of their boarders, the U.S. must remain vigilant in reestablishing its role as a global leader. Embarking on this journey, the U.S. must balance cultural differences, political requirements and strategic objectives in a manner that complements the sovereignty of nations. Regional conflicts will continue, and many more of an irregular nature will manifest; how the United States addresses its interest is tied to how well the U.S. understands local and regional cultures.  The U.S. and its partners have learned hard lessons over the last two decades; insurgents have basic rules, defeat your enemy at all cost, and exploit cultural misunderstandings whenever possible. Whether its Bosnia, Kosovo, or Serbia of the 1990’s, or Colombia, Philippines, Iraq, or Afghanistan today, world powers are finding out hard realities in the implementation of sustainable peace - it’s difficult and very expensive. Terrorist organizations have unlimited funding, are not constrained by the rule of law, operate on the fringes of communities and look just like the very people you’re assisting.

The U.S. and its partners have a vested interest in ensuring the effects of insurgency don’t spill over into more developed countries. The apparent significance in preventing spillover are tied to efforts to gain influence in regions that provide potential safe havens for terrorist organizations, to counter drug and human trafficking, and seek to improve the human condition. It is estimated that Hezbollah receives over $100 million annually from Iranian backers1 and that it operates in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, North America, and Latin America. Counterterrorism experts say Al-Shabaab has benefited from several funding sources over the years; the organization has been able to coral an estimated $35 - $50 million a year2 and operates throughout East Africa.  Experts estimate that the FARC takes in between $500 and $600 million annually from the illegal drug trade in Central and South America3, and it is estimated that Boko-Haram takes in millions from AQIM in the Sahel region of North Africa4. According to published reports Abu-Sayyaf (ASG) has raised millions through kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, paid body guards, and counterfeiting5. These groups are continuously seeking to extend their reach and sustain control over strategic locations through recruiting, sometimes forcibly using guerrilla warfare and terrorist tactics. Ceremoniously, the U.S. is bound to many of these nations because their democratic beliefs overlap and by proxy share responsibility for their continued security.

In Libya, Syria, Egypt, Nigeria and Somalia we were witness to many of the same insurgency concerns seen in Afghanistan and Iraq: non-state actors, ineffective governments and civil institutions, tribal conflicts, military incompetence, and instances where conflict effects spread across sovereign boarders. As the U.S. grapples with legitimate State breakdowns, and securing the worlds most dangerous weapons, non-state entity grievances are continuing to set conditions for regional instability. Understanding the impetus for these events is vital in developing pre and post crisis responses and speaks to the risk posed for the United States, because not all situations presenting as an insurgency require western intervention. The way the U.S. conducts future operations can affects ideological support for terrorist organizations, especially if the U.S. gets it just a little wrong.

The Irregular Future

On January 5, 2012 the Obama Administration gave new strategic guidance as a roadmap to the United States’ (U.S.) priorities in engaging the Pacific region, Africa and Middle East6. In FY 2012, the Department of Defense (DoD) simultaneously began reducing overhead cost within the military services and across the defense enterprise by an estimated $200 billion which is projected to last through FY 20177. According to the National Priorities Project the budget included $526.6 billion for the Department of Defense base budget, a figure that does not include war costs or nuclear weapon activities within the Department of Energy3. The new budget also does not specify funding levels for operations in Afghanistan beyond 2014; yes, beyond 2014. Budget proposal for 2013 demonstrates end strength reductions of 72,000 Army, 20,000 Marines, and a projected loss of 6,500 Navy, and 9,900 Air Force personnel8. This dramatic reorganization means the U.S. is preparing to do more with less, and terrorist organizations are preparing to do more with more. In most instances, insurgents are not obligated to prove much, but countering an insurgency you have to prove everything you say. This creates an imbalance of conditions needed for success, even though the U.S. and its ally’s posses the latest and most advanced technology systems on the planet. One staple of present day insurgencies appears to be the ability of insurgents to manipulate counterinsurgency forces into a drawn-out endeavor. Many scholars will tell you that a counterinsurgency met by strong insurgent ideologies plus longevity is destined to fail, no matter how strong the techniques, tactics or procedures-or how much technology is infused.

Since 9/11 COIN operations have given military leaders different perspectives for engaging legitimate state enemies and from that have spawned new doctrine, but one shoe does not fit all. The U.S. challenge in conducting COIN and counterterrorism is that they demand some granularity and comprehension of the culture, especially if decisions are made that support intervention. Contrary to what’s unfolding in Iraq and Afghanistan, western style democracy is not the prevailing solution; again one size does not fit all. Another area western leader grapple with is: how do you transition a fighting force from a decade of combat operations to the mental rigors of host nation building, stability, counterinsurgency, or humanitarian operations? The U.S. success is tied to how well U.S. forces are educated in balancing their combat experience against the ability to win the hearts and minds-the ability to apply restraint. Previous wars, military leaders reveled in the idea of engaging enemy forces with overwhelming force, to do so in a counterinsurgency can put the very lives you’re seeking to improve and political goals at risk. Understanding indigenous population’s cultural and religious sensitivities and how the enemy uses U.S. actions are vital considerations for any future engagement. The days of defending the Fulda Gap and despite the difficulties in Asia and Middle-East, the likely hood of state on state war are paradigms of the past. This is not to say we will not witness skirmishes between states, but these most likely will be precipitated by the actions of non-state actors.

At the end of WW II, major world powers were predominately preoccupied with a nuclear standoff, and a relative period of peace ensued. Today, that peace has been shattered as world powers confront insurgents in varying forms and ideologies. This dynamic and uncertain canvas is the backdrop to the fact the U.S. Special Operations Command has been granted greater than ever before freedoms of action. In 2012, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated in a National Defense article that “post 9/11 draw-downs provide more opportunities for Special Operations Forces (SOF) to train and assist partner nations in several regions”.9As this reality unfolded, the U.S., and the world were forced to grapple with sustaining monolithic military forces in an era of persistent conflict, non-definable enemy actors and shrinking budgets. The fact that Special Operations Forces (SOF) have grown for most of the free world, not only in fiscal dollars, but in authority and new roles at home and abroad, highlights the understanding of governments in dealing with counterinsurgencies. The Obama Administration has put on a full-court press against terrorist organizations no matter where they hide. The U.S. is dedicated to preventing terrorist organization to set up shop with impunity in regions previously hospitable, and must also ensure that its national power tool box maintains a force that is adaptable, agile, aggressive and expeditionary. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) directed an increase in U.S. SOF force structure, particularly in terms of increasing the number of enablers and rotary and fixed-wing SOF aviation assets10. The commander of USSOCOM, Adm. McRaven informed the Senate Armed Services Committee, his command was stepping up partnerships and training for irregular warfare and counterterrorism in “high risk or sensitive environments” 11. The Joint Chiefs stated in the “Joint Vision 2020” the overall goal of future transformation is the creation of a force that is dominant across the full spectrum of military operations, persuasive in peace, decisive in war, and preeminent in any form of conflict12. The new reality of future conflict is that the tensions between nation-states are decreasing, and irregular security situations are continuously arising. To remain the most adaptive and premiere force, Special Operation Forces are tying future capabilities to projected irregular threats, and are also undertaking unprecedented steps to ensure forces are educated in identifying them before they happen.

The Joint Chiefs of State published “Capstone Concepts for Joint Operations,” in 2012, and it highlighted the need for new concepts to address perceived security issues of the future. The document presented approaches for global posture in meeting the new strategic guidance, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership13. Senior Pentagon officials recognize there will be an increased need for Special Operations like forces to address future threats, and the U.S. continues to focus on rapidly deployable, self-sustaining forces such as submarines, long-range bombers, special operation, and carrier strike groups which can project power over great distance and carry out a variety of missions14. Pending fiscal cuts and the public’s fatigue of protracted and large scale combat operations has given rise to the accepted use of Special Operations Forces. Since 9/11, USSOCOM’s versatility and credibility as a fighting force has soared and remains high today. The American public would like to turn away from present day insurgencies, but insurgents continue to threaten U.S. national interest; not sure if this is the reality we want or can accept. Turning a blinds-eye now will only embolden organizations that export terror.


Future engagements appear to be by-with and through partner nations in developing and sustaining security situations around the world. Countering an insurgency requires large amounts of resources when using population centric (indirect) methods. This has the potential to lessen U.S. influence in regions as others perceive the U.S. involvement as an intrusion on regional sovereignty.  Not all insurgencies look alike, and not all seek the same results. The task for the U.S. is to develop strategist that analyze each insurgency through the lens of local ethnicities, culture, religious networks and those factors which allowed conditions for insurgents to take root.  This is where the rubber meets the road, if conditions were set due to states inabilities; whether it’s declining economics, imperfect security or ideological differences, effort to counter must take the underlining cause into account. Just killing insurgents (direct) is not a sustainable strategy; it only buys you time and creates conditions for future recruits. No matter how many times you kill the number-one terrorist, they always reappear.

While many skills of SOF are hard to showcase, counterinsurgency operations are ideal for such a versatile force.  The relationships between culture, learning, and success in cross-cultural interactions play a significant role in the implementation of the U.S. National Strategy; the U.S. can’t afford to get it just a little wrong. Future military operations are nested in the use of Joint Forces, either unilaterally, bilaterally or with international partners. While engaging future threats the U.S. has to understand and appreciate the perspectives of all the nations with relevant interest in the region other-than just that of the U.S. It is vital to the success of future operations that education efforts take into consideration the social forces which impel individuals to join social movements challenging state sovereignty. The U.S. must also understand that it can not make foreign governments legitimate; it must be the will of the people.

Future Combat Systems should be the core of modernization along with educating the force, this will provide military personnel unparalleled skills in understanding their operational environments, increased precision and lethality and increases the chance of survivability. These recommendations reflect the perceived nature of future conflicts in which the U.S. must prevail; to do this the U.S. must also leverage new concepts like advances in special operations education, space, cyberspace15.


  1. Yehudit, B. H. (2005). A Mega Terrorist Organization. American Jewish Committee.
  2. Masters, J. (2013). Al-Shabaab. Council on Foreign Relations
  3. Hanson, S. (2009). FARC, ELN: Colombia’s Left Wing Guerrillas. Retrieved from
  4. Soniyi, T. (2013). Nigeria: Kabir Sokoto Trial-Sharing of Funds Split Boko Haram. This Day 10 May 2013. Retrieved from
  5. Read, M. (2012). Abu Sayyaf Crime, Ideology, Autonomy Movement? The Complex Evolution of a Militant Islamist Group in the Philippines. Small Wars Journal Oct 2012.
  6. Miles, D. (2012). PACOM’s Priorities Reflect New Strategic Guidance. American Forces Press Service. Retrieved from
  7. Defense Budget priorities and Choices-Fiscal Year 2014. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  8. Kramer, B. (2013). President Obama Proposes 2014 Budget. National Priorities Project April 10, 2013
  9. Magnuson, S. (2012). Changes on the Horizon for Special Operations Command as Force Grows. National Defense Magazine. May 2012.
  10. Feickert, A. (2013). U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 7-5700.
  11. Pincus, W. (2013). Special Operations Win in 2014 budget. National Security. The Washington Post. April 11, 2013.
  12. Via, D. L. (2012). Sustaining the Decisive Edge for the Army and Joint Force 2020. United States Material Command.
  13. Joint Chiefs of State (2012). America’s Military: Preparing for tomorrow. Capstone Concepts for Joint Operations: Joint Force 2020. U.S. Printing Office, Washington DC
  14. U.S. Department of Defense. (2012). Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense. January 5, 2012.
  15. Nash, C. W. (2005). Post-Conflict Operations: Preparing our Military for the Future

About the Author(s)

Dr. Oscar Ware is a course developer at the Joint Special Operations University in Tampa, FL.  He is also a retired Special Forces NCO, with numerous years of experience serving as a Special Forces Medic, Special Forces Team Sergeant, Special Forces Medical Instructor, and Senior Enlisted Medical Advisor to the United States Army Special Forces Command (USASFC) , the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) Surgeons, and as the NCOIC for AFRICOM’s TSOC (SOCAFRICA J-33). He holds a Doctorate in Public Health, specializing in Epidemiology, and focusing on research into preventable deaths in combat.


Bill C.

Fri, 07/19/2013 - 12:18pm

"Insurgencies require certain conditions to exist and insurgents need well-grounded causes to attract supporters ... "

In the American Civil War, the conditions that existed -- and the well-grounded cause which allowed the rebels to attract supporters -- was the fact that the U.S. government had moved to (1) eliminate/eradicate the way of life of the South and to (2) force the South to adopt a way of life to which it was not accustomed and did not desire.

In the American Indian Wars, the conditions that existed -- and the well-grounded cause which allowed the Indians to attract supporters -- was the fact that the U.S. government had moved to (1) eliminate/eradicate the way of life of these native peoples and to (2) force the remaining Indians to adopt a foreign/alien way of life.

Likewise today the conditions that appear to exist -- and the well-grounded cause which seems to allow populations in various regions to attract supporters -- is the perception/understanding that the United States (often working through the population's own local government) has once again moved to (1) eliminate/eradicate the way of life of various populations and to (2) cause different populations to adopt a way of life that they do not understand, do not agree with and/or do not desire.

Thus, it is against this general back-drop -- yesterday and today -- that certain forces (military and other) are organized, brought forward and deployed. Thus,

a. In the case of the United States et. al: The forces needed to achieve the state and societal changes that the United States desires. (Requires forces needed to deal with those who will actively resist these desired transformations.)

b. In the case of the local populations, rebels, insurgents, etc.: The forces needed to defend, preserve and/or to regain their more-traditional and/or preferred way of life and way of governance.

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 07/18/2013 - 7:21am

First I wish we could get the grammar right. We only need to operate through and with, we do not need to add the "by." (note that the definition of unconventional warfare uses only the correct "through and with.") But on a serious note I think the formation of indirect as population centric and killing insurgents as direct is an unhelpful construct. It is not as black and white and as simple as that and this construct leads to misunderstanding of strategy (and incorrect and ineffective strategy) and misapplication of forces. This is why Army Special Operations discusses its capabilities (correctly I think) in terms of Special Warfare and Surgical Strike. We should note that these two complementary activities are not mutually exclusive and can support both direct and indirect approaches (but also note that no effective strategy will be distinctly direct or indirect - while operations in such places as Colombia. The Philippines and Africa are touted as so-called indirect approaches for US forces, there are very much direct approaches being employed by host nation forces.) This is why the concept of Special Warfare is such an important and useful construct because it keeps in mind that Special Operations Forces are first and foremost "sanctioned agents of violence" that can employ violence or help others employ violence as necessary to support operations in the military, diplomatic, or intelligence realms (domains?). At the opposite end of the spectrum (per my good friend and colleague Joe Celeski) they can support human security operations and perhaps most importantly they can conduct operations that challenge the legitimacy of adversaries whether nation-state, occupying powers, or non-state actors such as insurgents, terrorists, transnational criminals, etc.