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The Irregular Warfare Initiative’s inaugural conference was conducted on September 10, 2021, and brought together almost nine hundred participants. This conference builds on the mission of IWI—to bridge the gap between scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to support the community of irregular warfare (IW) professionals. A conference medium aims to complement the podcast series and written pieces, providing an interactive means of discussing topics of interest to this community.

Within this conference, IWI sought to bring together small groups of leading researchers and practitioners for subject-based, focused conversations on the lessons learned from the past twenty years of IW. We brought this select group into six breakout room sessions, the essence of which is distilled as follows for the broader community of IW professionals.

Based upon the clear demand for additional engagement opportunities on these issues, IWI is planning a series of future events to continue to bridge the gap and address the broadest range of IW challenges.

Influence with Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Nagata and Craig Whiteside—by Matt Sardo

In discussing the global competition for influence, Retired Lieutenant General Michael Nagata highlighted the US government’s lack of synchronization between what it says and what it does. This lack of clarity restricts the United States’ ability to develop innovative strategies to shape adversary behavior. By defining the competition for influence as the ability to persuade a population to wittingly or unwittingly conform with state interests, he highlighted the critical shift necessary to move the US strategic resource focus from readiness for armed conflict to the competition for influence. Although the discussion focused on the Defense Department, the lack of US government consensus in defining great power or strategic competition inhibits the interagency coordination required to fully leverage the United States’ enduring advantages as global strategic dynamics shift.

Between World War II and the Global War on Terrorism, reliable US strategic generosity earned the trust of nations and peoples the United States had an interest in persuading. Targeted US foreign investments nested within a central strategy to be the partner of choice over the Soviet Union as the single global competitor. The current multipolar global environment, coupled with the proliferation of communications and financial transaction technology, has lowered the barriers of entry to power projection. The battles for influence are now fought on social media, in the unregulated flow of assets, and in transnational divergence and convergence of laws and norms. The US aversion to information operations in the combat theaters of the past twenty years developed a cadre of senior military and civilian leaders who see red tape from Congress before they imagine the strategic potential of American ingenuity. This repression of imagination has resulted in the current reactive posture to attacks on American reliability as opposed to the proactive approach necessary to win the partner-of-choice competition against adversaries.

In order to regain an offensive mentality, the United States and allied nations should identify the interests worth pursuing and determine what indicators might measure their success or failure. A starting point may be developing an interagency and private sector approach that crosses international borders to generate consensus on what it means to be “with the Americans.” Success might be measured by the traditional indicators of migratory flows, which represent people seeking opportunity, or through financial transactions, which represent trust in a reliable currency. Influence here will require cooperation and ingenuity from outside the Department of Defense, yet an irregular warfare perspective on how to apply new tools will be necessary at the strategy table to account for the geopolitical competition dynamics that will undoubtedly surface.

Unconventional Warfare with Melissa Lee and Mark Grdovic—by Sara Plana

Unconventional warfare (UW) is just one tool in a toolkit of militarized and nonmilitarized tools to advance foreign policy objectives. Research shows that UW is appealing to states for several reasons: it allows them to outsource effort to another actor, compete with a rival without needing to maintain superiority with that target, and hide involvement and escape retaliation through plausible deniability. But the risks and disadvantages of employing UW often do not receive similar attention, especially in policy audiences.

A key downside to UW is that by delegating some form of warfare to nonstate armed groups, these groups could use the support they receive to engage in behavior outside what their state sponsors wish to achieve. States have often struggled to find nonstate partners with preferences sufficiently aligned with theirs, and it is rare, if not impossible, to have perfect alignment on all interests.

Controlling the behavior of sponsored groups always comes with tradeoffs. For example, the tools used to increase monitoring over these groups could risk the ability of states to plausibly deny their involvement. In addition, once these relationships are built, the question of when to walk away from a given group involves giving up a potential advantage in a theater or potentially harming a state’s ability to engage with other groups later on by harming that state’s reputation as a partner. However, it is an open empirical question whether a state’s experiences of UW in one theater affect the likelihood that a potential future group would partner with it. At the same time, continuing a relationship with a nonstate armed group is not always strategically beneficial. Another important downside of employing UW is that it is much easier to sponsor nonstate warring parties to break institutions and societies (and prolong civil wars) than to build them back up.

Given the failures and risks of UW, the discussion challenged whether practitioners should reframe their approach to the tool, investigating first whether a situation actually merits its use as opposed to including it by default in every options list. Experts agreed that it might not be the most applicable tool for most situations.

Counterterrorism with Jenna Jordan and Levi West—by Catrina Doxsee

Two decades after 9/11, policymakers still lack a clear set of definitions to guide counterterrorism efforts, and without these definitions, it is difficult to assess the successes and failures of the last twenty years or to set a course for the future.

US political and military leaders have failed to define the threat of terrorism and to subsequently set objectives that are proportional and achievable. For most of the past twenty years, the goal of US counterterrorism operations was to “defeat” terrorist groups—to remove their capability and will. Yet there was always an insurmountable gap between resources available and the ability to defeat groups such as al-Qaeda, as well as a lack of focus on consolidating gains to prevent regrouping. These efforts also failed to account for the threats posed by different types of terrorist groups—including local networks, transnational groups and their affiliates, and state-sponsored groups. Military leaders did not meaningfully question the focus on defeat until 2018, when the National Defense Strategy diverted military focus away from counterterrorism. As policymakers set goals for future counterterrorism operations, they should consider the types of threats a counterterrorism strategy must address—for instance, threats to the homeland, threats to US interests abroad, or threats to individuals abroad. They should also consider the acceptable outcomes—including degrading groups’ size, location, or capabilities to a level they deem manageable.

Moreover, the evolution of US and partner operations in Afghanistan and Iraq conflated counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, making it more challenging to evaluate efficacy and draw lessons for the future. It is difficult to assess whether counterterrorism successes since 9/11—the lack of a mass-casualty attack by an international terrorist group in the United States and the widespread discrediting of the Salafi-jihadist ideology—were commensurate with the costs—tremendous military spending, more than three hundred thousand local civilians killed and millions more displaced, more than seven thousand US servicemembers killed, and widespread mental health challenges in the military. The question is particularly intractable because it is difficult to draw a clean line between the costs of the initial US and allied counterterrorism efforts and those of the counterinsurgency campaigns the deployments later became.

Finally, in addition to better defining counterterrorism, political leaders should also strive to build a society that is more resilient to terrorist attacks. Terrorist groups will endure, yet the average citizen is highly unlikely to be harmed in an attack. Looking to the future, policymakers and researchers alike should strive to identify counterterrorism objectives that are proportional to the threat, define an acceptable level of risk, and adequately convey these assessments to the public.

Counterinsurgency with David Kilcullen and Candace Rondeaux—by Ryan Van Wie

Following the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, recent commentary has focused on the failures of counterinsurgency (COIN) policies over the last two decades. Narrowly focusing on the strategic failure in Afghanistan, however, overlooks several important instances of tactical and operational COIN successes, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Objectively analyzing successful and failed counterinsurgency policies is a critical task, as data shows that civil conflicts continue to dominate the international security landscape. This is likely to remain true in the current era of great power competition, as suggested by the Cold War’s historical record.

Gap between tactical success and strategic failure. Empirical evidence demonstrates that COIN policies can result in tactical and operational success, under certain conditions. But more research is needed to understand how these various policies should be sequenced to produce strategic success. Further, it is evident that effective tactical COIN policies are not helpful if they are not nested in an overarching strategic framework. As an example, while several COIN initiatives in Afghanistan led to temporary local success, the US strategic failure to deny the Taliban’s safe haven in Pakistan nullified many of those tactical gains. Similarly, had the United States considered the importance of a political settlement to resolve Afghanistan’s civil conflict earlier, then a viable intra-Afghan peace settlement may have become a possibility much earlier.

Counterinsurgency takes time and resources. Building on the difficulties in attaining strategic COIN success, research demonstrates that successful COIN campaigns take significant time and resources. But the domestic political will required to sustain those resources is often lacking, and this is especially true for external interveners. In Afghanistan, the US and NATO mission only had the required resources to effectively implement a COIN campaign for three out of the last twenty years. US and NATO forces predominately conducted a mix of security force advising and counterterrorism operations, while Afghan National Defense and Security Forces were the primary COIN force for the remaining seventeen years. This points to the significant principal-agent challenges that exist for external interveners, and that will persist for future external counterinsurgents.

Considering the imperial legacies for external COIN. External counterinsurgents routinely failed to grasp local cultural nuances that were key to understanding local conflicts. In Afghanistan, disagreements over competing forms of Islamic jurisprudence remained a major source of conflict and a key factor in mobilizing combatants. Persistent ignorance of local culture degraded external counterinsurgents’ legitimacy and hindered their efforts to increase the host nation government’s legitimacy. This dearth of cultural awareness was accentuated by the frequent unit rotations, bringing in new units every nine months or so, and leading to “a one-year war, fought twenty times over.” Local and regional colonial legacies also posed significant challenges to the United States and its allies, and these legacies are frequently exploited by insurgents to mobilize popular support and increase legitimacy.

Ethics in Irregular Warfare: Should there be a “SOF-peculiar” ethical framework? with Deane-Peter Baker and Roger Herbert—by Lisa Munde

Are special operations distinct, in ethical terms, from other military operations? Are current moral frameworks for when and how decision makers may employ special operations forces (SOF) inadequate given technological and geopolitical realities? Considering the surgical nature of strategic special operations, should they be subject to the same ad bellum constraints that have evolved to inform the resort to full-scale war?

The “Ethics in Irregular Warfare” session featured a lively discussion between Dr. Deane-Peter Baker and Dr. Roger Herbert—two of the most prominent researchers tackling the complex moral and ethical questions surrounding modern special operations. To frame the discussion, the authors provided participants with a courtesy draft chapter from their forthcoming book, The Ethics of Special Operations: Raids, Recoveries, Reconnaissance, and Rebels.

Participants included a diverse group of SOF operators, intelligence professionals, congressional staffers, attorneys, academics, and other irregular warfare practitioners—from the United States, Jordan, Australia, and Turkey—brought together by a shared interest in the field of ethics in irregular warfare.

To provide context for the discussion, Dr. Herbert reviewed Just War Theory and its three main categories—jus ad bellum, jus in bello, and jus post bellum. Given the timing of the conference coinciding with the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the jus post bellum or “postwar” discussion seemed particularly prudent as we examined the ethical framework underpinning US obligations in a postwar Afghanistan. The timeliness of this theme was driven home as a few participants even shared disclaimers and apologies during the introductions that they might need to sign off abruptly given their involvement in ongoing volunteer efforts like Task Force Pineapple.

The heart of the discussion, however, revolved around the central proffer from Dr. Herbert and Dr. Baker: that the field of military ethics may not be adequately keeping pace with the emergence of special operations as a preferred tool of policymakers. They cited the concept of jus ad vim (just use of force short of war), as offered by Michael Walzer in the fourth edition (2006) of his contemporary classic Just and Unjust Wars. We examined how jus ad vim might inform a unique ethical construct for SOF.

Some of the participants expressed reservations at the very idea of a distinct special operations ethical framework, citing recent high profile misconduct and unethical behavior on the battlefield by both American and Australian special operations forces.

Participants were grateful to Dr. Baker and Dr. Herbert for sharing their research and insights vis-à-vis today’s ethical challenges at the intersection of irregular warfare and special operations in an era characterized by strategic competition. The opportunity to assemble a diverse group of stakeholders in an intimate forum and open a dialogue bodes well for our ability to leverage diverse perspectives and bridge the gap between the academic and practitioner communities.

Foreign Internal Defense with Patrick Howell and Leo Blanken—facilitated by Max Margulies

The United States’ ability to train foreign militaries has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, following the collapse of the Afghan military and the earlier disintegration of Iraqi security forces. But simplistic descriptions of these US efforts to build allied forces as outright failures are misleading. This narrative fails to credit the warfighting ability of the Islamic State and the Taliban. Further, this view also ignores variation in the capacity of different segments of the Afghan military, some of which have performed well over the last decade. Yet the question remains: how do we measure success or effectiveness in conducting such missions?

This question formed the crux of discussion with Colonel Patrick Howell and Leo Blanken. A challenge with measuring effectiveness is determining an appropriate measure of success. Analysts and practitioners are often too focused on imbuing foreign militaries with US values or cultural practices that may not be suited to the local context.

In some cases, this might be appropriate. Certain Western measures, such as respect for civilians and the rule of law, have been demonstrated to be more effective in counterinsurgency environments. Other Western measures, such as an airmobile capability, might be inappropriate if they are simply unaffordable for a foreign military.

To address this dilemma, analysts should focus on the importance of shared interests with the partner. Understanding their incentives is important for understanding what and how to measure, as well as the probability of success. For example, the United States may want to build an effective fighting force, but the literature on coup-proofing suggests that developing such militaries may be a risky proposition for unpopular regimes struggling to hold onto their power.

Moving forward, policymakers must retain an appropriate perspective. The United States has succeeded at building specialized units like special operations forces and helping other countries that share US interests; where it has failed, it has often been where countries lack the will to build capable militaries. Interest alignment and local will are key.

The Irregular Warfare Initiative seeks to keep the flame alive regarding the hard-won lessons of the past twenty years of conflict. The breakout discussions in our inaugural conference demonstrate that scholars and practitioners still have much to observe, debate, and learn. We plan to continue a drumbeat of conference engagements to complement the written and audio content our audience has become familiar with. Please follow the IWI on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn for details of subsequent engagements.

Andrew Maher is the engagements director for the Irregular Warfare Initiative, an active duty Australian Army officer and a lecturer with the University of New South Wales Canberra on irregular warfare.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Sgt. Russell Gilchrest, US Army

,The Lessons of Two Decades of War: A Review of IWI’s Inaugural Conference - Modern War Institute,

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