Wherever U.S. forces have deployed in recent years — be it Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere — they have faced political and strategic realities that their military training and education prepared them poorly for. Similarly, wherever its interests are most threatened — in the South China Sea or Russia’s Near Abroad — the American government has faced strategies chosen by adversaries precisely because the United States has no response to offer.
In all cases, the United States has remained overly reliant on the strategic utility of military force and struggled to translate such martial abilities into political progress. Despite some advances in terminology — most recently the rise of “hybrid war” and “the gray zone” — the fundamental understanding of war in the West remains replete with theoretical barriers and unfounded presumptions, with real implications for how resources are distributed and strategy is conceived.
In this article, we present the basis for a framework that can yield better analysis of threat strategies — approaches that, despite being described as such in the West, are neither “non-traditional” nor “irregular.” Analytical frameworks are no panacea for the malaise facing Western strategy, but they are an indispensable starting point for all that must follow. Indeed, unless the United States and its allies adopt a more politically astute and strategically integrated way of understanding organized violence, they will repeat the mistakes of recent campaigns in wars to come.
Back to the Future
The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy made headlines by officially downgrading terrorism as a national-security priority in favor of “inter-state strategic competition.” Many interpreted the statement as signifying a return to “conventional combat” after many years of emphasis on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. Such a shift would turn away from protracted engagements against shadowy non-state armed groups and toward state-based wars that are deemed less ambiguous, albeit more lethal, offering the tantalizing promise of decisive victory for the most militarily powerful. Though some critics of American engagement in counterinsurgency will welcome this shift, other observers fear that the United States will once again, as it did after the Vietnam War, forget the lessons of irregular warfare in favor of what it does best: three weeks to Baghdad.
This may indeed occur — it would be historically typical — yet a closer reading of the National Defense Strategy suggests a more complex reality. Indeed, the text acknowledged that even in “state-based competition … the enemy gets a vote.” Specifically, it speaks of state adversaries mingling not only weapons of mass destruction (WMD) with conventional capabilities but also of “revisionist powers and rogue regimes … competing across all dimensions of power.” As Secretary of Defense James Mattis explains in the foreword to the strategy paper, these actors “have increased efforts short of armed conflict by expanding coercion to new fronts, violating principles of sovereignty, exploiting ambiguity, and deliberately blurring the lines between civil and military goals.”
With this insight, the National Defense Strategy acknowledges a longstanding pattern, whereby rivals create advantages by blending separate instruments of power to produce an effect larger than the sum of their parts. A central pillar of Vladimir Putin’s aggressive nationalism, for example, has been to circumvent and dilute Western security guarantees by building Russian power in non-military ways. Whereas NATO’s Article 5 provides the necessary deterrent against direct aggression, these indirect approaches operate under the threshold that would trigger Western retaliation. Russia’s multifaceted arsenal includes cyber attacks, energy-related threats, electoral interference, limited military provocation, information operations, and other “active measures,” along with the use of destabilizing non-state proxies.
Russia’s so-called Gerasimov Doctrine provides a coherent and illustrative theorization of Putin’s approach. Elaborating on what the West most commonly calls “gray zone” operations, General Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, the former Russian chief of general staff, emphasizes the brackish interplay of war and peace and the relative advantages of appearing non-violent in achieving political goals. His article deserves to be quoted at length:
The very “rules of war” have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness. The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures — applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population. All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special-operations-forces. The open use of forces — often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis regulation — is resorted to only at a certain stage, primarily for the achievement of final success in the conflict.
Although presented as a new doctrine in the West, this approach draws upon a Russian strategic legacy going back to the 1917 Revolution. Similarly, almost 20 years ago, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui elaborated the concept of “unrestricted warfare,” by which the People’s Republic of China would use “all means, including armed force or non-armed force … to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.” As with Russia, the Chinese variant draws upon a blending of historical practice with Marxist-Leninist doctrine that has also been used formally for a century.
While in 2003 China revised the “Political Work Guidelines of the People’s Liberation Army” and advanced the concepts of “public opinion warfare,” “psychological warfare,” and “legal warfare,” this introduced nothing new to the political warfare concept that at one point was not only a branch of its armed forces but a complete system in the military schools (it remains as such in Taiwan). The approach is the same: multiple, complex security challenges obscured by their ostensibly “non-military” nature. As an illustration, in the South China Sea, Beijing has increased its control not by launching major offensives against its neighbors but by gradually and slowly broadening its regional influence, often through civilian or paramilitary means, so that it can now claim most the Spratlys, Paracels, and Scarborough Shoal.
A Disturbing Track Record
The West seems incapable of mounting a graduated and combined diplomatic, military, and economic response to check these multi-faceted strategies. Though the United States and its allies can double down on technological know-how, it has proved more difficult to build and integrate the non-military capabilities suitable for the nexus between war and peace.
Ironically, as the United States prepares for the full complexity of “inter-state competition,” it is facing the very problems that crippled its approach to the apparently diminishing threat of “terrorism.” In responding to the menace of al-Qaeda, Washington failed to make a clear distinction between the use of terrorism as part of a strategy and the use of terrorism as a strategy in and of itself. As Michel Wieviorka and others have argued, whereas some groups rely upon terror exclusively (sometimes known as pure terrorism), others — we can call them insurgents — use it as merely one of many “methods,” most of which are not even violent. Pure terrorism lacks a serious political project and therefore makes itself a ripe target for counter-terrorism operations, yet with insurgency, such actions must be complemented with broader political, economic, and other efforts to address the fuller strategy at play, and the sources of conflict that are driving the problem.
The American-led response to the 9/11 attacks made no meaningful distinction between these two forms of terrorism. The “War on Terror,” in its initial years, did little to address the reasons for isolated yet significant pockets of support for al-Qaeda or the factors that might spread it further. As Charles Lindholm and José Pedro Zúquete convincingly argue, this was not just a terrorist group; its self-proclaimed “jihad” exploited a transnational social movement and used violence to propel its concerns onto the global stage, awakening, extending, and radicalizing a pre-existing network. Yet not only did the “War on Terror” neglect al-Qaeda’s focoist insurgent approach to strategy, it was conducted in an alienating manner that all but ensured the empowerment of al-Qaeda’s counter-hegemonic ideology.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, counterinsurgency emerged as a corrective to the counter-terrorist lens but in a way that, at most, shaped only security operations. The very use of the term was problematic, as it described a purely expeditionary and predominantly military activity, rather than the political campaigns of armed reform envisaged in the traditional literature. In Iraq, the consequences of empowering sectarian Shia elements within the government were left mostly unaddressed, fueling schisms and violence well after the departure of U.S. troops. In Afghanistan, no political plan emerged to address the conflict’s regional dimension or to de-conflict the multitude of contradictory Western aims. It did not help that, in both theaters, the United States gave counterinsurgency only two or three years to work, betraying faith in this concept as a quick military fix to deep-rooted political problems.
As in its response to state-based threats, whether gray-zone or hybrid, the United States approach to irregular treats has relied too much on decisive military force and failed to convert it into political outcomes. Even when the military makes gains, it remains a “moon without a planet to orbit.” Unless defeat is to be accepted as a desirable outcome, this is a pattern in need of reform.
Free Your Mind, and the Rest Will Follow
The rise of new terminology to describe purportedly new environments — be it hybrid threats, gray-zone operations, or counter-insurgency — is a helpful effort to advance a lexicon for discussing the challenge at hand. But these new words seem unable to upend the undergirding theoretical foundation that has served the West so poorly not only today but in the past.
The resurrection of “counter-insurgency” in the mid-2000s failed to change significantly how the U.S. government and military prepare for irregular warfare, despite repeated official analyses suggesting future engagements in foreign, urban environments and against asymmetrical threats. Nor has historical familiarity with insurgent strategy — from the American Patriots of Revolutionary War to the communist theorists of people’s war, such as Mao Tse-tung and the Vietnamese figures Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Truong Chinh — helped the United States prepare for this type of fight.
As for hybrid or grey zone challenges, Western strategists were surprised by Hezbollah’s use of conventional approaches within an irregular matrix in its war against Israel in 2006. This surprise came despite ample precedent involving the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), never mind the Vietnamese doctrine and practice upon which both FMLN and FARC drew. Despite coining the phrase hybrid to make sense of it all — this mingling of conventional, irregular, and other forms of violence — the West was again set back on its heels analytically by Russia’s “hybrid approach” in Ukraine and the Near Abroad. The amnesia is astonishing, particularly given the vigorous advocacy for change in academic writing, think-tank reports, and even from within government.
While today there is a broad realization that “you cannot kill your way out of this war,” and that greater integration of different functions is needed, we have yet to see serious implementation of such slogans — they have prompted neither a reorganization of the instruments of state nor injected greater modesty about what force can achieve in isolation. Instead, the institutions of political engagement and diplomacy remain altogether absent or at least are under-resourced and poorly structured to carry the political lead around which other instruments of state can rally. The American way of war continues to reject “the cold Clausewitzian rationalization of war as an instrument of policy.”
In the face of continued difficulties to adapt, it may be necessary to question the core assumptions of our understanding of warfare: its character, expression, and purpose. Our study of war should emphasize its political nature. War is not just political violence, but more accurately, violent politics and as such a subset of contentious politics — a term derived from social movement theory and denoting the full repertoire through which organizations can push for structural change. This placement of politics as the engine of action, both violent and non-violent, reflects the manner in which history’s most successful strategists have sought and achieved societal change. As a young insurgent, for example, Mao famously chastised those who “think the task of the Red Army … is merely to fight. They do not understand that the Chinese Red Army is an armed body for carrying out the political tasks of the revolution … Without these objectives, fighting loses its meaning.”
A few important implications flow from this perspective. For irregular threats, the critical distinction is not whether a group uses terrorism, but what place terrorism assumes within the broader strategy. Is the group defined by the terrorism that it inflicts on society — i.e. pure terrorism — or is the violence a mere component of a broader political-military strategy, steeped in social and economic contradictions? These are two different manifestations of “terrorism” that can no longer be conflated, as each requires a distinct type of response.
For state-based threats, what, alongside the actual or threatened use of violence, is that state doing to achieve its political objectives? What non-military lines of efforts and campaigns are being undertaken to create political advantage, spin narratives, and create a more advantageous strategic environment? The United States and its allies must prepare for all of this — not just the chimera of a militarily decisive confrontation. This will require embedding the use of force within a more multifaceted strategy, wherein the military is subservient to policy and coordinated as one of several instruments of state.
Second, we must eliminate the unhelpful assumption that state actors will fight conventionally, or like us, and non-state actors engage only “asymmetrically,” through low-tech military capabilities. When faced with such dichotomies, Western military institutions find good reason to prepare for conventional combat and to neglect the rest (whatever lip-service is afforded in doctrine to the demands of “unified land operations”). This rank-ordering held even at the height of the “War on Terror” and has repeatedly subverted the U.S. military’s ability to focus on irregular warfare. Yet if the intent of such prioritization is to prepare for state challengers, this has faltered on the assumption that these adversaries would, like the United States, stick to traditional forms of combat. Instead, irregular warfare — best thought of as warfare unregulated by the laws and norms of war — has appeal also for state actors seeking to offset traditional military weakness or extend their influence, much as insurgents have utilized conventional combat capabilities to overthrow or subvert regimes.
Third, the United States must grow more aware of the continuity between war and peace. In describing the murky interplay between these two poles, George Kennan in 1948 coined the term “political warfare” to frame adversarial activity below the threshold of combat. Peacetime endeavors, both positive (alliance-building, mobilization) and negative (subversion, information operations) are critical to shaping strategic outcomes including, in some cases, after armed confrontation. For too long, the absence of outright war has fueled complacence in the United States, allowing Russia to exploit and subvert the Western media landscape, or China to use educational, commercial, and civil society initiatives to penetrate deep into the bowels of American society. That these countries were engaged in political warfare was never obvious, because there was no war. There is, today, no place for such naiveté.
A New Framework
We propose a theoretical framework that places military tasks in their proper supporting relation vis-à-vis the political, and which identifies and explores its interaction with other, non-military lines of effort. Such a framework can be constructed by interrogating the irregular and non-traditional conflicts of the past to derive a guide for analysis. “People’s war,” in particular, has left a substantial body of material that can be used to operationalize a truly political strategy of warfighting. As the Chinese noted at the time in their communications with Che Guevara, the revolutionary construction of a new world is best achieved by a symbiosis of “kinetic” and “nonkinetic” approaches (the terminology, of course, is ours). Che’s foco theory fatefully failed to grasp this premise, and his reliance instead on the use of violence to inspire spontaneous mass mobilization led to his death in Bolivia in 1967.
A review of past successes suggests that a sophisticated strategy of violent politics will typically involve five components. First, to mobilize people and resources politically, find the issues that will empower the effort. Second, win over domestic allies who will support the cause on tactical issues even if they hesitate to embrace strategic goals. Third, use violence when necessary enable these two fundamentally political activities. Fourth, use non-violence, such as subversion, propaganda, offers of negotiations, or inducements, to make violence more effective. Finally, internationalize the struggle, making it difficult to contain or terminate within national borders.
These components provide a potential blueprint for the how of strategy, the totality and integration of ways, or the bridge between means and ends. As displayed below, the five components, when interrogated, can be represented as lines of effort. Each such line of effort will comprise campaigns, or bundles of tactical activity united by their shared strategic purpose; the figure below provides typical yet hypothetical campaigns.
Not all threats will operate along all these lines of effort, or use the same campaigns; indeed, it is the role of the analyst to map the strategy at hand according to the five components above: What is the threat doing politically, violently, non-violently, and through international and/or domestic partnerships? Such a mapping exercise provides a blueprint for an effective response to nontraditional challenges. By identifying a threat strategy’s lines of effort and campaigns, even sub-campaigns, a set of “targets” is identified that must in some way be addressed in coordinated fashion by one’s own counter-strategy.
If an adversary is engaging in a campaign of terrorism, a campaign of counter-terrorism is required — this much is clear. Yet if the group is also found to engage in a line of effort of domestic alliance-building, the state must counter the specific campaigns of this effort as well. If a group is internationalizing the struggle to create legitimacy, diplomatic and other international efforts will be required in return. If the group engages in campaigns of subversion, lawfare, protest, and propaganda as part of a non-violent line of effort, the government must resource an effective and appropriate response. Most fundamentally, if the group is mobilizing through a political line of effort, the government should concern itself intimately with the drivers of alienation and the roots of its own illegitimacy.
Put this way, it all seems obvious, yet as seen governments all too often miss critical components of their adversary’s strategy, often because of a near-exclusive focus on its use of violence. Partial responses such as these can be counterproductive. Thus, rather than detaching military and security affairs from their political purpose, the above framework forces close consideration of their intimate relation. Rather than artificially bifurcating state and non-state uses of force, it anticipates a blending of styles and of modes of violence to achieve a political effect.
Rather than let the use of violence eclipse the broader strategy at play, it compels a comprehensive analysis of wide-ranging lines of effort and their interaction. It is through careful engagement with these questions, and the construction of an appropriate counter-strategy, that we do better in the challenge at hand. Simply recognizing the parameters is no panacea, but it is a sorely needed first step.
David H. Ucko is the Director of the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program and an Associate Professor at the College of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University. He tweets @daviducko.
Thomas A. Marks is Distinguished Professor and MG Edward Lansdale Chair of Irregular Warfighting Strategy at the College of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University. This article is adapted from “Violence in context: Mapping the strategies and operational art of irregular warfare”, Contemporary Security Policy, 39(2), pp. 206-233.