The war on terror cannot be fought on a conventional battlefield where opposition forces fire at each other. National militaries that are trained on this form of warfare are now finding it increasingly difficult to engage amorphous enemies that are elusive, baseless, and can strike at will. This reality is not foreign to African militaries that have sought to engage militant insurgents, and ultimately realize that the enemy is ‘faceless,’ unidentifiable, and unwilling to engage the conventional rules of military combat. In this article David S. Maxwell shows why America, with the world’s most lethal military force at its disposal, is having difficulties containing the elusive forces of Al-Qaeda. African governments can learn from Maxwell’s narrative.

 David S. Maxwell

The United States has the most powerful conventional military force and the strongest nuclear deterrent in the world. It remains the sole superpower because it is well prepared to fight and win in state on state conflict.  Yet the majority of wars, conflicts, and threats in the 21st Century are unlikely to be purely conventional or nuclear.  In the 21st Century we are more likely to experience kinds of warfare for which scholars have been hard pressed to find a name. Scholars have used many names including irregular warfare, hybrid warfare, 4th Generation Warfare, and of course the post 9-11 rediscovery of insurgency and counterinsurgency.  Yet despite all these various names the one overarching form of warfare that encompasses all is unconventional warfare (UW). However, the fundamental question is do we understand unconventional warfare?  And if not, why not?

We know that the Department of Defense (DOD) defines unconventional warfare as “activities to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power through and with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.”[1]  Although this was designed by the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) UW working group in 2009 to be a broad definition and apply generally to this form of warfare and not specifically from a U.S. centric perspective it continues to connote a very narrow description of warfare (e.g., the overthrow of a hostile government) and has often been relegated to the province of Special Operations Forces and more specifically Special Forces.[2]  Furthermore many political leaders either fear the blowback from such operations or, perhaps worse, have unrealistic expectations of the efficacy of UW.  However, as I have argued before, if the United States is going to consider employing unconventional warfare as an option in support of policy and strategy then it is imperative that policy makers, strategists, and theater commanders and staffs have sufficient understanding of and appreciation for unconventional warfare not only if UW is to be conducted by the US government but also for when the US government must develop policies and strategies to conduct operations to counter unconventional warfare executed by opponents of the US or our friends, partners and allies.[3]

Although this definition now resides in the DOD dictionary there is no DOD or joint level doctrine specifically for unconventional warfare.  There is no national policy for unconventional warfare.  There is Army Special Operations Forces (SOF) and Special Forces doctrine[4] but, as we know, few people in uniform or out really read, study, internalize, and practice the concepts published in our doctrine.  USSOCOM has been working over the past year to remedy the lack of joint and DOD doctrine and will soon publish the first ever joint doctrine for UW; however, that is unlikely to solve the problem of policy makers and strategists not appreciating and understanding unconventional warfare and all that operating in that realm of warfare entails.  There seems to be an insufficient intellectual foundation in unconventional warfare.

Before addressing the lack of intellectual foundation let me state for clarity the essence of UW.  Definitions and doctrine aside, unconventional warfare at its core is about revolution, resistance, and insurgency (RRI) combined with the external support provided to a revolution, resistance, or insurgency by either the US or others (who may or may not have interests aligned with the US and may in fact be opposed to the US and our friends, partners, and allies).  This is a type of warfare that is timeless, timely, and something that we can expect to occur over time in the future.  It is both political in nature and at times violent – even as violent as conventional warfare in some cases.

What makes me say that we do not have an understanding of and appreciation for unconventional warfare?  Two recent articles from the New York Times and the Daily Beast illustrate this.  In the first Mark Mazzetti writes about a classified CIA report that alleges that the US has rarely been successful in training and equipping rebel forces and because of this report the US Administration was reluctant to arm and train Syrian rebels.[5]  Christopher Dickey takes issue with the report and claims there have been some successes despite there often being an “acrid aftertaste” as in the case of the Afghan war in the 1980s.[6]

What the Mazzetti and Dickey articles (as well as simply the emphasis on “train and equip” by government spokespeople and pundits) illustrate is that policy makers really do not understand the nature and conduct of unconventional warfare.  It is neither an abject failure in every case nor is it a war winner in almost any case but it is a viable strategic option if used in the right conditions at the right time by the right organizations.  But most importantly it is both risky and hard and what makes it most difficult for policy makers and the public is that it is time consuming.  It cannot be employed “in extremis” in most cases (in the fall of 2001 post 9-11 being an exception) and really requires long-term preparation, thorough assessments, and relationships with key players to have chance of being successful.  And most importantly it must absolutely be part of and in support of a coherent policy and strategy.

Again to restate the problem there is little intellectual foundation for unconventional warfare.  Yes there are some important books to ready from Max Boot’s Invisible Armies to John Tierney’s Chasing Ghosts, to John McCuen’s The Art of Counter-Revolutionary Warfare as well as works by Hy Rothstein and Thomas K. Adams and one of the most prescient studies by the late Sam Sarkesian from 1993: Unconventional Conflicts in a New Security Era.  These are all important to read and I would commend them to any policy maker or strategist; however, what the all lack is how to think about the strategic application of unconventional warfare because they do not delve sufficiently into the common “principles” used to conduct unconventional warfare (save perhaps McCuen’s work).  There is only one time in the history of the US military that unconventional warfare was sufficiently studied to provide the necessary knowledge to policy makers and strategists and that was in the 1950-1960’s with the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) and the partnership between the Army and the Academy.

We have a number of contemporary examples about UW that are worth examining to illustrate both our lack of understanding as well as the continuing importance of UW.  We have only to look at both Libya and Syria from a US perspective and how we either “led from behind” or are now focusing only on train and equip.  We have thoroughly adopted such concepts as “through, by, and with” and “train and equip” and “building partner capacity” as ways in our strategic calculus.  But we do not understand the complexity, the difficulties and the depth of operations and activities necessary for the conduct of effective UW and we expect to simply apply building partner capacity and train and equip to problems that may require an understanding of UW to support a strategy.  This is most prominently illustrated by the public statements of our political leadership and pundits who only focus on training and equipping rebel forces as if this action is enough to succeed and achieve our interests.  The second example we have comes from competitors and opposition.  We are seeing variations of UW conducted by the Russians and their New Generation Warfare,[7] the Chinese and their Three Warfares,[8] and the Iranian Action Network.[9]  And finally groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are conducting variations of UW (though ISIL might be said to have completed its UW campaign and is now functioning like a quasi-state).  Interestingly the roots of these strategies and campaigns can be found in George Kennan’s political warfare that he described in his 1948 memo to the Policy Planning Staff:

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.[10]

Kennan describes the realm of revolution, resistance, and insurgency that can contribute to coercing, disrupting or overthrowing a government or occupying power.  These are truly strategic actions and objectives but the question remains: do we understand what it requires to implement strategies with campaigns that either support or counter-revolutions resistance, or insurgency.

To graphically illustrate our lack of understanding of unconventional warfare we can turn to two charts from the Assessing Revolution and Insurgency Strategy (ARIS) project.[11]  The first depicts the relationship and relative size of the fundamental components of UW: the underground, the auxiliary, and the guerrilla or armed military force as well as the public component.


For some years in Syria we have been focusing on training and equipping the “armed component” (and until recently provided only limited non-lethal assistance).  Yet it is the underground that provides the key to understanding the motivation, objectives, interests, methods, and strategy of the leadership of a revolution, resistance, or insurgency (RRI).  It is through the underground that we can not only vet members but also try to determine one of the most important questions of “what comes next?” after the organization achieves success.  We really need to assess all the organizations of an RRI and not solely the armed component, which seems to always be the focus of our strategy and activities.

Another chart illustrates the scope of activities in an RRI environment and in particular the underground.  We tend to focus only on the “tip of the UW iceberg.”

Again, the focus on the armed component as the main effort shows that we lack the depth of knowledge required to not only understand UW but to devise strategies that include UW as an option and most importantly to support UW operations.

Conversely when faced with the threats of RRI to our friends, partners, and allies, we need to understand the same relationships, methodologies and concepts in order to devise strategies and campaigns to counter our opponents’ UW operations (assuming we deem it in the US national interest to do so).

The above charts are from the Assessing Revolution and Insurgent Strategy Project (ARIS).  As noted this project existed in the 1950’s and 1960’s as part of the Special Operations Research Office.[12]  There has not been an organization like SORO since that time that has provided the intellectual foundation for UW.  However, the work of SORO has not been lost and in fact has been not only captured but updated.  A partnership between the US Army Special Operations Command and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory led by Paul Tomkins, a retired Special Forces Officer has resulted in updated versions of the project, building on the foundational intellectual framework from the 50’s and 60’s.

While we lament the lack of national policy and DOD and joint doctrine on UW, we should look to the ARIS project for the intellectual foundation for UW based on history but well adapted to the present and for the future.  Even some within the Special Operations community dismiss any study of historical examples of UW as anachronistic and not worth the effort necessary to develop a deep understanding of the phenomena.  However, within the ARIS project are not only case studies of revolution, resistance, and insurgency from the 20th Century through 2009, there is detailed analysis of current UW practices, methods and strategies being employed in the contemporary operating environment.  Although I strongly recommend that the entire project be studied I commend two of the works so that those who wish to being to understand contemporary UW can begin to build the foundation necessary to understand and appreciate the need to have strategies that employ UW along with the ability to counter UW as part of the national security tool kit.

In Underground, Insurgent, Revolutionary, and Resistance Warfare (2d Edition, 25 January 2013) a reader can glean important insights into recruiting to include radicalization as we understand it today, financing of UW operations (e.g., “threat financing,” and the development of shadow governments just to name a few of the important topics. In Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies (2d Edition, 25 January 2013) one can understand how the Internet and media are exploited by resistance and insurgent organizations, the use of propaganda, group dynamics and more on radicalization, the employment of terrorism as well as nonviolent resistance.  We find everything from the political action to subversion, to violence in the ARIS Project, with the all-important emphasis on human factors.  What is important is that the ARIS Project is not a rehash of historical UW (though you can trace its development through history).  It provides the most relevant and current information on how various resistance organizations are conducting UW around the world.  The techniques, methodologies and strategies discussed throughout the myriad publications in the entire project provide us with the knowledge for our own employment of UW as well as our strategies for countering UW.

However, I have heard from friends in the national security community that there is great reluctance to describe the actions threat organizations as unconventional warfare or to advocate that the US should employ unconventional warfare.  There seems to be no stomach for the complex, violent, messy, and difficult to control nature of unconventional warfare.  However, it is clear to UW practitioners that there is a role for UW in Syria if our intent is to support resistance to ISIL (as well as Assad).  And of course assessing the resistance from a UW perspective might also reveal that support to the resistance is infeasible.  But if our strategy in Syria and Iraq fails, a contributing factor could very well be our distain for UW.  We have both deniers of UW threats (who want to “bin” everything in terrorism and insurgency) and those who think UW is anachronistic and not longer relevant.  To which I respond, read, study and internalize the ARIS project and you will be enlightened and if not you will remain in the dark about UW.  UW is not some passing phenomena.  It is also something not to be romanticized in ways such as been done with the re-emergence of counterinsurgency.  To borrow a time worn dictum we have to deal with the world as it really is and not as we would wish it to be.  Unfortunately some in the national security wish they did not have to worry about UW, either ours, or our enemies’.

There is much more to discuss on UW and countering UW. We need to determine effective concepts of employment and especially campaign plans in support of strategy and we need to develop policy makers and strategists who understand the complex nature of UW and recognize how it is being employed around the world.  We need to figure out how to train not only military forces in UW but the intelligence community and other government agency personnel as well.  We should also determine if we need a new SORO-like organization.

Let me close with two thoughts. First, if you are going to enter the discussion or criticize UW as anachronistic and no longer of value because terrorism and insurgency are the dominant threats then I would urge you to first read the ARIS project especially the two books on human factors and undergrounds.  Second, I would offer the following as something to think about as we look to the future of UW.

I argue that one of the important missions for both the intelligence and the SOF communities is the continuous assessment the resistance potential of current, nascent and potential future revolutionary, resistance, and insurgent organizations.  By understanding the resistance that exists around the world we will be in a better position to develop strategic options and avoid many of the pitfalls we have experienced in the past decades and that the CIA report referenced in the NY Times will likely show.  But the problem really lies with policy makers who grasp at straws and want to “do something” and then force the intelligence community and SOF to conduct long duration unconventional warfare operations “in extremis” without the necessary preparations or understanding of the operational and strategic environment.

A modification of the fourth SOF truth[13] might be that it is hard to conduct effective UW by beginning UW operations after crises occur.  (Of course Afghanistan 2001 might be considered an exception by some but the reality is that the success of OEF from October 2001 to January 2002 rested on the foundation of relationships built prior to 9-11 that allowed for at least sufficient understanding of the resistance potential.)  The same is true for countering UW.  America can only be effective in UW and Counter UW if it invests in developing the intellectual foundation necessary to develop strategies and campaign plans.  The ARIS Project is part of that foundation.

UW comes from the past, is here in our present, and will be around in our future.  And with no apology to Trotsky for stealing his idea:  You may not be interested in UW but you can be damn sure UW is interested in you.

David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is a 30 year veteran of the US Army retiring as a Special Forces Colonel with his final assignment serving on the military faculty at the National War College. He spent the majority of his military service overseas with nearly 25 years in Asia, primarily in Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. He has Masters of Military Arts and Science degrees from the US Army Command and General Staff College and the School of Advanced Military Studies and a Master of Science degree in National Security Studies from the National War College of the National Defense University. He is also a pursuing a Doctorate of Liberal Studies degree at Georgetown and teaches Unconventional Warfare and Special Operations for Policy Makers and Strategists in the Security Studies Program.

End Notes

[1] Department of Defense Dictionary of Military And Associated Terms, Joint Pub 1-02, as amended 15 August 2014, p. 263.

[2] David S. Maxwell, “Unconventional Warfare Does Not Belong To Special Forces,”  War on the Rocks, August 12, 2013,

[3] David S. Maxwell, “Thoughts on the Future of Special Operations: A Return to the Roots – Adapted for the Future,” Small Wars Journal, October 31, 2013,

[4]  Army Training Manual, Unconventional Warfare, 6 September 2103,

[5] Mark Mazetti, “C.I.A. Study of Covert Aid Fueled Skepticism About Helping Syrian Rebels,” NY Times,  October 14, 2014,

[6] Christopher Dickey, “The CIA’s Wrong: Arming Rebels Works,” The Daily Beast, October 19, 2014,

[7] Janis Berzins, “Russia’s New Generation Warfare In Ukraine: Implications For Latvian Defense Policy,” National Defence Academy of Latvia, April 2014

[8] Stephan Halper, “China: The Three Warfares,” For the Office of Net Assessment, May 2013

[9] Scott Model and David Asher, “Pushback, Countering the Iran Action Network,” Center for New American Security, September 2013,

[10] George Kennan, “Policy Planning Staff Memo,” May 4, 1948,

[11] USASOC, Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategy,

[12] Joy Rhode , Armed with Expertise: The Militarization of American Social Research during the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013)

[13] Five SOF Truths were authorized by COL(RET) John Collins in 1987.  Today they can be found on the USSOCOM web site:

Truth 1: Humans are more important than hardware.

People – not equipment – make the critical difference. The right people, highly trained and working as a team, will accomplish the mission with the equipment available. On the other hand, the best equipment in the world cannot compensate for a lack of the right people.

Truth 2: Quality is better than quantity.

A small number of people, carefully selected, well trained, and well led, are preferable to larger numbers of troops, some of whom may not be up to the task.

Truth 3: Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced.

It takes years to train operational units to the level of proficiency needed to accomplish difficult and specialized SOF missions. Intense training – both in SOF schools and units – is required to integrate competent individuals into fully capable units. This process cannot be hastened without degrading ultimate capability.

Truth 4: Competent Special Operations Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur.

Creation of competent, fully mission capable units takes time. Employment of fully capable special operations capability on short notice requires highly trained and constantly available SOF units in peacetime.

Truth 5: Most special operations require non-SOF assistance.

The operational effectiveness of our deployed forces cannot be, and never has been, achieved without being enabled by our joint service partners. The support Air Force, Army, Marine and Navy engineers, technicians, intelligence analysts, and the numerous other professions that contribute to SOF, have substantially increased our capabilities and effectiveness throughout the world.