US Special Forces has some fairly good Unconventional Warfare doctrine to work from as a base.  The concept of using a small 12-man team to infiltrate deep behind enemy lines, train guerrilla forces, and launch of unconventional campaign is a sound one, but one that is only now beginning to be updated, an endeavor which took far too long.  Special Forces is making some positive steps in the direction of modernizing their approach to Unconventional Warfare but they still have a long way to go.  Until Title 10/50 disputes are resolved, Special Forces will never truly conduct covert operations unless they are done so under the auspices of the CIA.  With new UW capabilities left in legal limbo, it may only be a matter of time before some bean counter in the Pentagon, or even within SOCOM, realizes they are spending money on a shiny new toy whose only purpose is to gather dust in garrison and suck up training resources at the Special Warfare Center.

It would be inappropriate to go into the details of these emerging capabilities right now so I will simply wish all the Green Berets out there the best and hope that the bureaucracy wakes up to the potential of Special Forces.  Instead, I’d like to use this space to point towards a few other directions in which Unconventional Warfare can go.  One is in the context of non-violent perception management and gradual cultural re-direction.  Another is financial warfare, but that will have to wait for another time.

Rachel Kleinfeld and Harry Bader recently published a paper which critiques American strategy for making a series of dangerous assumptions in how we approach Counter-Insurgency, such as the notion that locals don’t support the insurgents, how training and advisory programs are short sighted and episodic in nature, and how Counter-Insurgency is particularly difficult when there is no legitimate government to fill the vacuum.  Bader and Kleinfeld propose a form of non-violent unconventional warfare to help bridge these gaps.

Now before anyone here thinks that I’m going soft as of late, by no means do I think that airstrikes, Direct Action raids, sabotage, and assassinations are not valid techniques to use in war or in counter-terrorism operations.  This is a ugly business, and killing is inevitably a part of it.  When we do kill, we should make sure that we do so for tactical and strategic purposes, not just to rack up a body count.  The manner in which we kill should be at a time and a place of our choosing, and conducted in a surgical manner to the extent possible.  However, there are non-lethal options which would more than likely work in tandem with other forms of espionage and military operations.

Kleinfeld and Bader write:

…military action to counter violent groups is often necessary. Yet force alone is rarely sufficient to end violence by nonstate actors. Kinetic activities can also create backlash that strengthens insurgencies and makes it easier for violent groups to recruit individuals.

Meanwhile, civilian agencies in the international community generally implement governance programs and economic development projects to promote stability. Governance programs are essential to establishing strong, functioning states that are based on the rule of law and citizens who can hold such states accountable. Yet these initiatives take decades to bear fruit, while violent armed groups grow, spread, splinter, and become more difficult for even the strongest, most legitimate states to tackle.

Replaced? Security Force Assistance Brigades vs. Special Forces

Read Next: Replaced? Security Force Assistance Brigades vs. Special Forces

In Afghanistan the Natural Resources Counterinsurgency Cell, or NRCC, worked with local groups who were interested in improving their community, filling in some of the gaps between the aforementioned programs.  The NRCC began by targeting key individuals, those who were not radicals but sought upward mobility and increased status in their society.

The problem which the authors point out is that our current Counter-Insurgency strategy actually perpetuates many of the causes which lead to insurgency in the first place.  America’s response is often to offer economic incentives, training and advisory programs, and even Special Forces to conduct COIN or UW operations.  All of these actions involve propping up a host nation government which may be corrupt and illegitimate in the eyes of the people.

Non-violent Unconventional Warfare proposes to change social norms in the targeted country by re-directing energies and perceptions, making new venues for positive behavior which still conform to local values as opposed to incompatible Western ideals.  Because the vast majority of insurgents are young men, this was the demographic which the NRCC worked with.  “The NRCC created a psychologically astute program that recognized the roles played by honor, status, and a desire for respect—rather than economic gain or political ideology—in fueling violence.”

Based on the theory that poverty dis-empowers and emasculates men in Afghan culture, leading to a hyper-macho society, the NRCC built their own narrative of what manliness could be for Afghan men and instituted programs for these men to participate in which would benefit their community and give the participants increased social status.  Potential candidates were put through a type of selection program which tested physical endurance and knowledge of local Islamic practices.  By separating the men from the boys, the locals saw this new group as distinct and worthy of respect.

Planned in conjunction with village elders, and supported by locally available resources, the Afghans selected by the NRCC engaged in, “building water-conservation and soil-erosion control dams, planting trees, creating terraces, and conducting assessments of natural resources.”  These projects were built locally and the Afghans taking part in them were charged with creating a code of conduct based on local values.  This was not a overhaul of the existing social structure, “but it was possible to build a code that portrayed a man who regularly beat his wife as showing a lack of self-control that was unmanly.”  Rather the NRCC helped shift values a little to the left or right from where they had been previously.

The net result was that these “at risk” young men were prevented from joining the insurgent groups active in the area because they were now a part of a new social order.  The authors admit that it is very difficult to actually measure how effective the NRCC was but it did seem to have a positive impact on a local level with over 5,000 projects completed which continue to be run by Afghans.

It should be noted, that it is highly unlikely that non-violent Unconventional Warfare will succeed anywhere by itself, but rather needs to work alongside other Counter-Insurgency tactics.  For instance, non-violent UW and violent UW would provide the carrot and the stick.  Locals can accept the carrot, but if they drift over to the insurgency than they will have a Special Forces team along with their indigenous commando force blowing down their door in the middle of the night.

What should be clear to us as we come off the tail end of two failed wars is that military force alone will not allow us to win the conflicts of today and tomorrow.  Neither will a bunch of USAID projects gifted to autocrats as a form of graft.  Rather, we will need a more holistic approach to counter-insurgency that incorporates and even respects the values of the host-nation government, all while trying to partially subvert them.