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Unconventional Warfare of the USA


The 9/11 attack on the United States was followed by an immediate military response. A question that might be asked regarding such a response: was it successful. Considering that such a response lasts for almost nine years and two military campaigns, an unambiguous answer cannot be given in such an aspect. As it is stated by Thomas Barnett in his book The Pentagon’s New Map (2004), the US leading asymmetrical warfare in the 21st century succeeds in intimidating enemies so that a rapid military success is achieved (Barnett 2004). On the other hand, once the enemy falls, the US fails to manage the period afterward. Although the first phase of US military campaigns is asymmetrical, i.e., the military forces were so different in power that almost no resistance was observed, such phase resembles conventional warfare against a conventional enemy. However, with such an enemy disappearing through defeat, the US fails to manage the next transition phase, in which terrorism and insurgency occur as unconventional enemies, and for which conventional warfare might not be a suitable solution.

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Problem Statement

The importance of identifying the way terrorism will be fought in the future is of vital importance. It is certain that most terrorist attacks will be from the gap, a term coined by Barnett to outline the states that did not integrate into globalization and globalization’s security rule sets. Accordingly, until such gap integrates with the rest of the world, the countries falling within such gap will be a major terrorism export source and a threat to the United States (Barnett 2004, 88). Following the way the United States responded to the terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, it can be stated that there are certain difficulties in managing unconventional enemies, indicating a lesson that should be learned from such a response. Such response includes building political capacities to fight and contain insurgencies, as indicated in Jones (2008). Another approach should be seen in managing the transition period through a system of administrators, who will manage the peace space after the first phase of the military campaigns starts (Barnett 2004). US advantages in asymmetrical strikes cannot be matched, but nevertheless, through insurgencies and regular warfare terrorists can achieve success despite asymmetry in power. Unconventional warfare is proposed as a suitable method for conducting warfare. The literature, despite variations in coining the term unconventional warfare, supports the need to distant from conventional warfare as a method for dealing with terrorism. With most arguments failing to justify such need, is based on the realist paradigm, there is a need to investigate the underlying reasons to conduct unconventional warfare to win the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Thus, the research question proposed is: why is it necessary to conduct unconventional warfare to win GWOT?

Purpose Statement

The proposed study will attempt to answer the question of the reasons that justify the use of unconventional warfare as opposed to conventional ones. The working definition of unconventional warfare in the context of the proposed study will differ from some of the definitions proposed in the literature. Such definition implies a continuous initiative of occupying post-conflict transition spaces, focusing on civilian partnerships and allied forces to be integrated and political victories to be won (Barnett 2004, 320). The question will be answered through a qualitative case study, in which the data will be collected through intensive interviews and secondary sources. The questions of the study will be governed by the liberal paradigm in international relations as opposed to the realist paradigm usually mostly covered in scholarly works. The main hypothesis in the study state that conventional warfare does not contribute to the restoration of the normal condition of peace, while administrative forces as unconventional warfare methods will reduce extremists’ manifestation.

Theoretical Framework

It is proposed that the main theoretical framework governing the study is the liberal paradigm in international relations. Although it is argued that a large portion of the recent researches in international relations is not paradigmatic, the majority is related to the realist tradition. In that regard, one of the main works that are proposed to be used, Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map is largely based on the realist tradition, which states that “foreign policy-makers ‘think and act in terms of interest defined as power’” (Daddow 2009, 89). The theory approach proposed to be used, on the other hand, emphasizes economic and social welfare and collective commitment to security by states (United States Government 2008). The main assumption of the liberal paradigm that will be utilized in the study is that peace is the normal condition of states. Thus, the purpose of unconventional warfare is to eliminate the factors and conditions that prevent the restoration of peace, and the occurrence of a terrorist threat. Such a statement shall be reflected through the investigation of secondary resources, the interviews, and the themes and patterns that might emerge.

Literature Review

The necessity to adopt unconventional warfare doctrine is generally accepted by the majority of scholars. Different arguments are used to justify such necessity. On the one hand, it is claimed that such doctrine was already adopted by the United States for almost 300 years of American military tradition. In that regard, such a notion is supported in Campbell (2007), where it is claimed that the military abandoned such expertise in recent conflicts. The position proposed in Campbell emphasizes several points, one of which is defining the perspective of unconventional warfare, which is following the “institutionalized practice of working with and through local irregular armies” (Campbell 2007). Another historical fact supporting the doctrine of unconventional warfare can be seen in Brister (2006), in which historical evidence of the US engaging such type of warfare was cited (Brister 2005). The author nevertheless, that the current realities demand a new strategy for unconventional warfare. The approach proposed is titled authoritative control, which is accordingly, is more representative of the realist paradigm, establishing authority rather than popularity among the population. In that regard, a general trend that can be witnessed through such a review is that historical evidence is important in indicating the necessity of unconventional warfare, where current failures serve as arguments for using such an approach.

Similarly, it can be stated that an important aspect of investigation can be seen in defining unconventional warfare, where the same term might imply different meanings. As argued in Stevenson (2006), unconventional warfare might imply using military power, although in an unconventional manner, as opposed to non-military aspects, such as law enforcement, intelligence, and diplomacy (Stevenson 2006). Paralleling such argument with Barnett’s view of asymmetrical warfare, it can be stated that the term unconventional is attached to the same military efforts, although in a manner that eliminates direct army-against-army battles. Such an approach can be seen as another argument supporting that the majority of works use the realist paradigm in foreign relations. In that regard, it is imperative to use a unified definition of unconventional warfare, which will be used to answer the main question of the proposed research.

In that regard, the present proposal outlines several assumptions that will be used as a definition of unconventional warfare. These assumptions will be derived from several key works. One assumption is taken from the system of administrators proposed by Barnett (2004), as the system that will govern the state after the military intervention. Accordingly, unconventional warfare is a continuous initiative of occupying post-conflict transition spaces, focusing on civilian partnerships and allied forces to be integrated and political victories to be won (Barnett 2004, 320). In Jones, such task can be seen through Special Forces, who would begin to “shape the post-conflict environment as combat operations ended to ensure success in the stability phase by identifying potential threats, providing security, and transitioning the insurgents into local militia units that would disrupt any attempts by former regime elements to establish an insurgent infrastructure” (Jones 2006).

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It review indicates that despite the absence of sound arguments supporting the use of unconventional warfare, such doctrine is largely accepted by the majority of scholars. At the same time, confusion might be seen over what constitutes unconventional in warfare, for which the definition that will be used in the study was proposed. Finally, the review indicated that most works approach unconventional warfare for the position of realist paradigm, lacking a justification for the use of unconventional warfare from the perspective of a liberal paradigm in international relations.

Research Design and Methods

The research design proposed in this study is of qualitative nature. The proposed method for this research is a qualitative case study. The justification for choosing such method can be seen from different perspectives. On the one hand, “case study does not claim any particular methods of data collection or data analysis”,… [where] any and all methods of gathering data, from testing to interviewing, can be used in a case study” (Merriam 2009, 42). The objective of the case study will be to support the position that unconventional warfare is a necessary mean to combat terrorism, and outline the reasons for holding such position. In that regard, the case will be bounded through the two military campaigns that followed the 9/11 terrorists attacks. The issues that the case will address include: 1) describing the methods used in Iraq/Afghanistan as being relevant to conventional or unconventional warfare; 2) understanding the reasons for success/failure of the identified method; 3) the reasons why unconventional warfare should be further used to combat terrorism as opposed to conventional warfare methods.

The research will collect primary and secondary data for the case study. The secondary sources will include documents and articles that cover the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two secondary articles proposed for analysis are “A Standing Unconventional Warfare Task Force to Combat Insurgency in the 21st Century” (2005) by Christopher Haas and Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare (2006) by Hy Rothstein. The aforementioned two documents will be analyzed for common patterns, which in turn are governed by the theoretical framework in the proposed study. The liberal paradigm will illuminate the facts that peace is the normal condition of a state, “democracy is necessary”, and that unconventional warfare contributes through returning the state to its normal condition (Daddow 2009, 70).

The primary sources for the study will be collected through intensive interviews. Intensive interviews are a great source of primary data, for which main reasons justifying such a method include: 1) small samples to use; 2) the focus on the reasons underlying specific answers; 3) customizing interviews (Wimmer and Dominick 2006). The main criteria for the respondents of intensive interviews are their authority in the field of national security and/or experience in any of the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Non-probability sampling will be conducted for such a method of data collection, for which expert sampling will be used. Expert sampling, in that regard, implies that the sample should contain respondents with demonstrable experience and expertise in the area in question (Trochim 2006). It is proposed that such sample will be collected through the aid of organizations connecting veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) is one of the organizations that can be contacted for finding participants for the study (IAVA 2010). Other potential sources for participants for intensive interviews include Coalition for Iraq + Afghanistan Veterans (CIAV), Research Partnerships and Outreach in US National Security Agency, National Veterans Foundation, and others. Several of the aforementioned agencies and organizations will be contacted to form a sample of four to five respondents, with whom intensive interviews will be held.

The interviews will be based on hypotheses such as conventional warfare does not contribute to the restoration of the normal condition of peace and administrative forces as conventional warfare methods will reduce extremists’ manifestation. Accordingly, the following research questions will be derived from those hypotheses: 1) what are the roles of administrative forces; 2) in what way they contribute to eliminating terrorist threat; 3) how the periods after the first phase of invasion can be characterized.

The analysis for both sources of data will be comprised of such procedures as identification of key patterns and themes, clustering and structuring the data, comparing for similarities and contrasts, and interpretive analysis to establish constructs from patterns (McNabb 2010, 436). In that regard, the link with the main points found in the literature will be attempted to be established as well as the relation of the results’ analysis to the theoretical framework in the proposed study.


The main limitations of the study can be seen through several aspects. One of the aspects is related to the selection of the participants. The reliance on non-governmental organization might provide a bias in the perspective of the participants toward wars in general. If the participants are likely to be supporting anti-war movements, their answers might not provide a clear distinction between unconventional warfare and charity works. Accordingly, a clear definition of unconventional warfare should be provided to the participants, in which a distinction should be made between operational preparation, asymmetric warfare, and others. Other limitations can be related to the research design and the chosen methods of data collection. Such limitations include difficulties in generalizing the findings of the study, ethical concerns with data selection for interpretation, and accordingly, issues with validity and reliability.

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Barnett, Thomas P. M. 2004. The pentagon’s new map: war and peace in the twenty-first century. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Brister, Paul D. 2005. Beyond hearts and minds: Evaluating us unconventional warfare doctrine. Master of Science in Defense Analysis, Naval Postgraduate School.

Campbell, James D. 2007. Making riflemen from mud”: Restoring the army’s culture of irregular warfare. United States Army War College Civilian Research Project. Web.

Daddow, Oliver J. 2009. International relations theory. Sage course companions. Los Angeles: SAGE.

IAVA. About “IAVA”. Web.

Jones, D. 2006. Ending the debate: Unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, and why words matter. Master of Military Art and Science, Colorado School of Mines.

McNabb, David E. 2010. Research methods for political science: Quantitative and qualitative approaches. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.

Merriam, Sharan B. 2009. Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. The Jossey-bass higher and adult education series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Stevenson, Jonathan. 2006. Demilitarising the ‘war on terror’. Survival 48, no. 2: 37-54.

Trochim, William M.K. Sampling. Web.

United States Government. U.S. Army war college guide to national security issues: National security policy and strategy. Web.

Wimmer, Roger D. and Joseph R. Dominick. 2006. Mass media research: An introduction. Wadsworth series in mass communication and journalism. Belmont, CA: Thomson, Wadsworth.

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