Immediately following 9/11 there was a brief window of opportunity. The normal bureaucratic institutions in Washington, DC were paralyzed. Big DOD was paralyzed. Into this window of opportunity walked some individuals with some very unconventional ideas. In the absence of an alternative the Bush Administration opted to give them a green light and turn them loose. The results were astounding.
In the space of a few months, a handful of CIA officers and special operations personnel working with indigenous forces and U.S. Air Force, crushed the Taliban and won the Afghan war.
Then the bureaucracy surged back into action. Tens of thousands of conventional forces were deployed. Never mind that the mission was at best fuzzy. Never mind that the entire concept of nation building in a place like Afghanistan was ill-advised. The large bureaucratic elephants in Washington, DC awakened, and we returned to responding to perceived threats using old, tired, very conventional means. We spent billions of dollars. We built massive new bases and compounds. We bogged ourselves down, lost track of the mission and created a quagmire where none need have existed.
Again in 2002 there was another brief window of opportunity. I took a team of CIA personnel into northern Iraq. We were intended to be the vanguard for a larger conventional force, but the Turks refused to cooperate. The promised conventional force never followed on.
Over the next ten months a very small number of CIA and Special Forces personnel operated on their own in northern Iraq. We ran intelligence operations. We prepared the battlefield. We conducted sabotage. We trained our Kurdish allies. All of this with fewer personnel then would constitute a couple of United States Army infantry platoons.
In the end in the spring of 2003 we secured the agreement of senior Iraqi military leaders to surrender intact the bulk of the Iraqi Army in the north and to place it at the disposal of American forces. The US military officer designated to accept the surrender so offended the Iraqi officers in attendance they stormed out. We secured the agreement of the Iraqis to return to the table anyway and once again offer their surrender.
It did not matter. This window also closed. No further negotiations were held. Tens of thousands of American forces were in country, and once again the forces of bureaucracy took over. We did not need Iraqi help. We would remake Iraq in our own image. Another ruinous nation building exercise began.
Giant bases were constructed. Whole new compounds were built. Massive reconstruction efforts were undertaken. Thousands of lives were lost. Billions of dollars were wasted.
We won the Second World War by virtue of a giant logistical exercise. We mobilized our manpower, and we mobilized our industry. We crushed the Axis Powers with Sherman tanks and B-17 bombers churned out of our factories. And ever since we have attempted to apply this method of warfare to every conflict in which we have become entangled.
An entire military industrial complex has grown up in Washington DC around this method of warfare. It is geared toward the movement of mass numbers of troops. It is adept at churning out massive programs, adding layers of command and creating new bureaucracies. And often it is very, very counterproductive.
We need a new approach.
Simple Sabotage Field Manual by United States. Office of Strategic Services. Download the complete manual here. | Photo: National Archives | Link |
If you want to see an example of the kind of unconventional thinking we need you need look no further than Vladimir Putin's recent operations against Ukraine. Utilizing relative handfuls of Russian special forces, propaganda and local agitators he has seized the Crimea. He is poised to seize another large chunk of Ukrainian territory. We stand helpless. Because we cannot conceive of a conventional response we have convinced ourselves that there is nothing to do.
We stand similarly paralyzed in regard to Syria. We are unwilling to intervene conventionally. We cannot figure out a way to use our carrier battle groups and armor brigades and therefore we sit on the sidelines terrified to act. Assad, one of our most vicious enemies in the Middle East, brutally slaughters his people with impunity, and we watch. Hezbollah, an avowed enemy of the United States of America which has killed hundreds of our citizens wages war on Syrian territory, and we watch. Iran grows stronger and spreads its influence, and we watch.
Americans have been become familiar with the exploits of special operations units like Seal Team 6 and Delta Force over the last 10 to 15 years. We are justly proud of the capabilities of these elite forces. There have probably never been units of this quality in the history of the planet.
The fact remains, however, that none of those units are in fact unconventional warfare forces. If anything they are hyper conventional. That is they are units composed of very highly trained, superbly equipped men who carry out what are best described as commando type operations. They are in superb physical condition. They are exceptionally well versed in the use of all of the hardware they employ. But they represent affectively the epitome of conventional military skills.
Unconventional warfare is something completely different. Unconventional warfare does not depend on large bases. It does not depend on a large logistical tail. It does not employ commando type raids.
Unconventional warfare is the ultimate in asymmetric warfare. It is defined by small numbers of operators, keeping a very low profile and relying upon limited resources and local personnel to accomplish the mission. It turns the tactics of the guerrilla against our enemies. Unconventional warfare forces operate in the shadows. They exploit our enemies' weaknesses. They adapt their tactics and methods of operation to the situation, and the strike when and where the enemy does not expect.
We do not need so much to develop such capabilities as we need to let them loose. Within the Central Intelligence Agency and what is referred to as 'White SOF', the numbered Special Forces groups within the United States Army, we already have a significant number of individuals trained in and adept at unconventional warfare. What we need to do is to free them from the smothering effect of the military industrial complex and bureaucratic Washington. What we need is to empower them to do what they have already shown the can do and to unleash an unconventional response to the threats we face.
Abu Shahab in Damascus Syria, who is a member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), one of the key groups fighting the Assad regime. Shahab is pictured here speaking with Charles Faddis of The United States of Common Sense. | Photo: Aaron Stipkovich | Abu Shahab, Free Syrian Army, Bashar Al-assad, Rebel, Freedom,
What would such a capability achieve? In Syria it would allow us not simply to hand over weapons to pre-existing forces, but to shape the battlefield, influence who wields power in the opposition and bleed Assad and his Iranian allies dry. In Libya it would allow us to support and direct government and militia groups and work to counteract the forces that are gradually ripping that key nation apart. In Ukraine it would allow us to give Vladimir a dose of his own medicine, tear down his special operations networks and bloody his thuggish allies.
And it would do so without any significant commitment of US forces and, by Washington standards, at minimal cost.
During the Bush years we learned the price of open-ended, ill-considered conventional adventures. Now, under President Obama, we are learning the price we pay for doing nothing. In an increasingly chaotic world we need to find a better, more sustainable way for combating our foes. In a world characterized by increasingly unconventional threats we need an unconventional response.