As the United States and the military reflect on the end of the war and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan it may be useful to return to the beginning on the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001. The entire nation suffered a tremendous blow and from that day forward the U.S. military, the intelligence community, law enforcement, diplomats, development specialists, and contractors have been engaged in bringing to justice the perpetrators, preventing another terrorist attack on the homeland, and trying to alter the geopolitical environment in the face of a global threat of terrorism. Although many may be experiencing a sense of strategic failure there have been many successes over the years. Most importantly, after-action reviews will take place to learn from mistakes. The national security community also must identity what did work and make sure America does not forget the positive lessons even as the negative ones dominate the news.
The nation, the intelligence community and the military were caught off guard on September 11, 2001. While the government learned much from the 9-11 Commission Report and made many changes, America was flatfooted with no plan on how to respond to the attacks. However, there was one force that was part of the initial response that was trained and ready for just such a response. This was due to one person and his vision in two words: unconventional warfare. The man was the commander of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, the late Brigadier General Frank Toney.
When General Toney took command, he sought to instill two things within the Special Forces Regiment: a total focus on unconventional warfare (UW) and advanced combat skills training with a heavy emphasis on marksmanship. He personally mentored every group and battalion commander and sought to infuse in them the mindset and philosophy of UW as the core foundational mission of Special Forces.
Despite there being no response plan for the September 11th attacks it was the UW focus and the advanced combat skills training that allowed 5th Special Forces Group (SFG) and its horse soldiers to effectively partner with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and exquisite U.S. air power operating in shared battlespace to conduct a punitive expedition in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and Al Qaeda. One author says the U.S won the war before losing it.
At the same time, through the early years of the war on terrorism, the other Special Forces Groups were just as effective. 3d SFG operated in Africa and Afghanistan. 7th SFG sustained operations in Colombia and throughout the rest Latin America and rotated with 3d SFG in Afghanistan. 10th SFG conducted a highly successful UW mission in Northern Iraq with the Kurds as well and a little known mission in the Republic of Georgia. 1st SFG conducted long-duration operations in Philippines and throughout Asia. All the groups, to include the National Guard 19th and 20th SFGs, rotated Special Forces battalions and companies to Afghanistan and Iraq while continuing their employment in the respective regional theaters.
Although throughout the years the perception developed that special operations forces (SOF) broadly, and Special Forces in particular, emphasized direct action to capture and kill high value targets, the core of the UW mission remained instilled within every Special Forces soldier, along with Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs soldiers. This is an innate desire to work “through, with, and by” indigenous forces as retired Colonel Mark Boyatt first described in the 1990’s. This concept greatly influenced BG Toney and the entire Special Forces Regiment and beyond. By 2010 it was adopted as a fundamental operating concept for U.S Forces in Iraq (page 610).
The UW mission and General Toney were responsible for the success of Special Forces in the beginning of the war on terrorism. No one was certain what threats would emerge in the 21st Century. General Toney understood the best way to prepare for uncertainty was to focus on unconventional warfare. The definitions of UW have evolved over the years and the term itself is controversial, complicated, and often misunderstood. However, rather than focus on the doctrinal definition, UW should be understood as a mindset and philosophy that drives the thinking of Special Forces. At the root of UW it is about working through, with, and by indigenous forces to solve or contribute to solving complex political-military problems. It is also about working through, with, and by indigenous forces to create dilemmas for the nation’s adversaries through developing resistance capabilities among populations. The training, and more importantly the education, required of the UW mission is what gives Special Forces not only the capability to outfight the enemy but to outthink him as well. This is especially true as the U.S. and its friends, partners, and allies face myriad threats from great power competition, gray zone, hybrid warfare and violent extremism. As the former USSOCOM Commander General Schoomaker used to say, “train for certainty, educate for uncertainty.” There is no better way to prepare for the uncertain future than through UW.
In great power competition, the dominant threat or problem the U.S. faces is one of political warfare supported by hybrid military approaches – and these approaches are best described as irregular warfare (IW) in DODD 3000.7 – a “[violent] struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.” It states that IW consists of UW, foreign internal defense (FID), counterterrorism (CT), counterinsurgency (COIN), and stability operations (SO).
The revisionist powers of China and Russia are employing their own forms of political warfare and hybrid approaches such as through the “Little Green Men.” The rogue and revolutionary powers of Iran and North Korea conduct their own unique forms of unconventional and political warfare. Special Operations Command Europe and 10th Special Forces Group, along with NATO allies, have supported development of an innovative approach called the Resistance Operating Concept which employs indigenous forces to counter the malign activities of the likes of the Little Green Men and to make sure an adversary knows that the cost of invasion and occupation will be too expensive in blood and treasure.
The Irregular War Annex to the National Defense Strategy provides the guidance for preparing for the wide range of threats as well as the activities necessary to counter them including in the context of great power competition. The 1st Special Forces Command’s Vision for 2021 and Beyond provides guidance to Special Forces, Psychological Operations, and Civil Affairs units on organizing and preparing for the future, from employing cross functional teams built from across the SOF disciplines to leading with influence and developing, supporting, and when appropriate countering, indigenous resistance. A close reading of the vision reveals that all concepts are derived from deep knowledge of the UW mission. BG Toney would find this vision completely in synch with his in 2001.
Although most might not recognize Congress as a place for strategic military thought, in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act it outlined a sound operational concept for employment forces in IW: “Irregular Warfare is conducted in support of predetermined United States policy and military objectives conducted by, with, and through regular forces, irregular forces, groups, and individuals participating in competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.” (Sec. 1202). This succinct statement provides the basis for planning and conducting IW operations from the strategic to the tactical level.
The Chinese threat is the dominant one for the foreseeable future. China seeks to export its authoritarian political system around the world to dominate regions, co-opt or coerce international organizations, create economic conditions favorable to China alone, and displace democratic institutions. It is doing this through its One Belt and One (OBOR) initiative which provides the economic and diplomatic capability to coerce and co-opt nations in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Like Europe, there are ways to develop resistance and resilience against Chinese hegemony built on the foundational mission of UW. Special operations forces, the interagency, and U.S. country teams must consider new approaches to address Chinese malign influence and threats.
As Special Forces, Psychological Operations, and Civil Affairs move forward in the 21st Century and educates for uncertainty they would do well to rely on the “two SOF trinities” to guide them. This is a shorthand summary of the essence of the 1st Special Forces Command’s vision:
- Irregular Warfare
- Unconventional Warfare
- Support to Political Warfare
The second “trinity” is the comparative advantage of SOF:
- Support to indigenous forces and populations
A foundational focus on these two trinities will continue to prepare special operations forces for the future. A future of irregular and unconventional warfare is not something most in the national security community may want to ponder. However, with no apologies to Leon Trotsky, “America may not be interested in irregular, unconventional, and political warfare; the revisionist and rogue powers are conducting their versions of them around the world.”
Lastly, it should be obvious that Special Forces cannot be successful alone. It cannot always operate unilaterally, and it requires integration, coordination, and synchronization with the boarder military and the interagency. Most importantly, it cannot develop strategic concepts on its own or in a vacuum. The U.S. needs to establish an American political warfare capability to orchestrate all relevant elements of U.S. national power in response to these irregular, unconventional, and political warfare threats, both in war and in peace. The U.S. must be able to effectively counter the political, unconventional, and hybrid warfare being conducted by the revisionist and rogue powers through its own superior form of political warfare.
The crisis of September 11th galvanized America and the U.S. military and intelligence community and entire U.S. government. Despite the uncertainty, the future security environment may still be described by adapting the prescient words of President Kennedy in 1962:
This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin — war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him. It is a form of warfare uniquely adapted to what has been strangely called “wars of liberation,” to undermine the efforts of new and poor countries to maintain the freedom that they have finally achieved. It preys on economic unrest and ethnic conflicts. It requires in those situations where we must counter it, and these are the kinds of challenges that will be before us in the next decade if freedom is to be saved, a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of military training.
The aftermath of September 11th demonstrated that those who prepared for unconventional warfare were prepared to meet uncertain challenges. Let us honor General Toney’s legacy with a renewed focus on UW for the future.
David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 20 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional. and political warfare. He had command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College. He is the editor of Small Wars Journal and a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.