In a world where our enemies don't wear uniforms, our allies don't have to, either.
- By Whitney KasselWhitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm.
The White House is enthusiastically touting its plans to put together a coalition to fight the Islamic State that will include Britain, Turkey, and, among others, Poland. But the United States’ most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated the limits of even the broadest-based coalition warfare — over 40 countries in the case of Afghanistan — in places where the host government has its own ideas about what an acceptable end state could and should look like.
In Iraq and Syria, where both host governments are, at best, questionable allies, the most effective way to take on the Islamic State (IS) isn’t going to be with conventional armies or airplanes. It will be armed guerrillas with mismatched uniforms, languages, and objectives who will likely have the most impact in fending off the extremists.
That much is already clear in the case of IS. The United States’ first truly effective effort against IS since the group began its ferocious campaign across Iraq and Syria was primarily conducted not by an allied nation-state or coalition of militaries, but rather through a non-state actor, the Kurdish militias known as Peshmerga, and associated forces.
The fact that it’s been an irregular fighting force of volunteer soldiers with decades of experience in guerrilla warfare that has succeeded in fighting IS raises questions about the Obama administration’s signature plan to confront global threats primarily by training and equipping allied nations’ military and counterterrorism forces. This is a strategy the administration expanded and reemphasized in May, pledging to spend $5 billion for a new counterterrorism fund, in addition to the tens of billions already spent on foreign military assistance each year.
Instead of throwing dollars at corrupt and marginally effective armies from Nigeria to Pakistan, the administration would do better to spend a little more time and energy building relationships with pro-Western, non-state actors around the world, from the Hazaras in Afghanistan to certain elements of the Baloch ethnic group in Pakistan. The long-standing if bumpy friendship between the United States and the Kurds is a good model.
Support for and cooperation with insurgents or other fighting groups not directly associated with a nation state — irregular forces, as they are doctrinally known — is a long-standing and central element of what U.S. Special Operations Forces (U.S. SOF) are trained to do, dating back to the early days of the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s World War II-era precursor, which backed the French resistance against Nazi occupation.
In recent decades, this type of operation, known as unconventional warfare (UW), has largely fallen out of favor, primarily for fear of arming dangerous and unaccountable militias or undermining sovereign states. Reports of U.S.-trained soldiers committing gross human rights violations in Indonesia in the 1990s gave birth to the Leahy Amendment, a set of requirements intended to prevent U.S. tax dollars from providing arms and support to known human rights abusers.
Despite these risks, the United States should consider responsibly and carefully expanding these programs, as the world increasingly faces scenarios where enemy non-state actors are far more powerful than the regular forces of "allied states," and particularly when those states are not quite as allied as they appear.
To understand the potential role of expanding the use of UW in U.S. foreign policy, it is worth briefly diving into the arcane world of military doctrine and, specifically, U.S. SOF’s core tasks and missions. U.S. Army Special Operations Forces, which has traditionally been the arm of the U.S. military that trains and equips foreign forces, defines UW as "Operations conducted by, with, or through irregular forces in support of a resistance movement, an insurgency, or conventional military operations." Irregular forces are further defined as "individuals or groups of individuals who are not members of a regular armed force, police, or other internal security force. They are usually non state-sponsored and unconstrained by sovereign nation legalities and boundaries."
The Peshmerga are exactly the kind of irregular forces these definitions refer to. And Washington’s support to the Kurds over recent months is a perfect example of how UW can work. U.S. advisors are training and aiding irregular forces to achieve a shared objective — stopping IS. As of Aug. 15, the Wall Street Journal reported over 1,000 U.S. military advisors in Iraq (though not all in Kurdistan). Daily meetings reportedly take place between Peshmerga, U.S., and Iraqi military commanders in the Kurdish capital of Erbil.
The U.S. has also been providing air support to Kurdish and Iraqi forces, including in support of the mission to retake the Mosul Dam on Aug. 17. Unlike many of the Iraqi forces that have fought against the Islamic State since they crossed into Iraq in June, the Peshmerga have succeeded in securing territory. At the same time, tensions surrounding U.S. support to the group is even further complicated by the fact that among those fighting with the Peshmerga are members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, a group designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State department.
As the IS and other jihadist groups, the most extreme elements of the rebel forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, have come to dominate the Syrian resistance, it is increasingly clear that the United States and others missed a critical opportunity to build alliances with moderate rebels early in the civil war. (Not to mention potentially prevent some portion of the nearly 200,000 casualties.) This devastating reality further shows that training, equipping, and building relationships with sympathetic non-state actors in critical areas could prove useful in achieving U.S. security objectives. The initial concerns about the reliability and human rights records of the early leaders of the Syrian revolution, which is what stalled those relationships at the time, now seem somewhat trite in light of the barbaric behavior of the IS, which has claimed the mantle of leading the opposition today.
Policymakers working on Syria and Iraq should also look to Afghanistan, where UW tactics have been a growing part of the NATO strategy since 2009. Village Stability Operations (VSO), in which U.S. SOF train and equip local armed groups with close ties to traditional and tribal governance structures, have been fairly successful in pushing Taliban militants out of communities in central and southern Afghanistan. The long-term success of efforts to build the Afghan National Security Forces, on the other hand, are coming under increasing doubt, in part due to political stalemate within the Afghan government.
It’s still too early to say if VSO will do more to stabilize Afghanistan than traditional military assistance, which has been plagued with ethnic rivalries and corruption and infiltrated by insurgents. But it’s logical to assume that local, non-state security bodies may be more committed to protecting their communities than national-level forces. In some towns in northern Iraq, every able-bodied Kurdish man is picking up a gun to defend his home and family from IS. That’s the kind of dedication that a conventional army will rarely bring to a conflict when it has to defend members of different ethnic groups who may not even speak the same language, and with whom the military may have long-standing tensions or rivalries.
In fact, among the potential benefits of UW is the ability to stay independent of national-level disputes, thus reducing high-level political interference. Divergent objectives between U.S.-trained military forces (and the governments to whom they belong) and the United States has proven damaging not only in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, where the national leadership aren’t fully aligned with the Washington on military objectives. The payoff from billions of dollars of military assistance to Pakistan since 9/11 stands out as a particularly stark example.
This is not to say that non-state groups are easier to control than state-affiliated military allies. Again, one of the major downsides of UW is the potential that U.S.-provided weapons could end up in the hands of those committing human rights abuses — or even fighting against the United States and its allies. This very real risk must be mitigated at every possible turn by carefully vetting the forces that get U.S. support and recognizing that in underdeveloped and ungoverned areas it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to identify exactly who is who on the battlefield, let alone predict what they might do with weapons or funds. But these risks are very real in the case of state-affiliated militaries, too: From Indonesia to Pakistan and, most recently and most egregiously, in Iraq, American weapons have ended up turned on civilians and American allies.
The other very real and dangerous potential risk is that training and equipping non-state groups could undermine the stability of the states where they operate. That’s exactly what’s happened in Iraq, where empowered Kurds have amplified their calls for independence. And, of course, arming insurgent groups within sovereign nations can severely compromise relations between the United States and the country in question. In such cases, UW should be carried out covertly, while policymakers prepare for potential exposure and fall-out.
Looking around at the world’s conflict zones, few irregular forces seem like they will make for as reliable allies as the Kurdish Peshmerga, who are well-organized, relatively accountable, and working (at least to some extent) in tandem with Iraqi military forces. But there are options nonetheless: Moderate rebels in Syria remain a potential one. Former CIA analyst Ken Pollack has argued it is not too late to build a viable opposition force that can defeat the Syrian regime and simultaneously contain the Islamic State. Expanding VSO in Afghanistan could also be a promising way to reduce the likelihood of a civil war in the wake of the coming U.S. and NATO withdrawal. The former Soviet Union also seems potentially rife with opportunities to partner with non-state actors as President Vladimir Putin continues to flex his muscles in eastern Ukraine.
U.S. policymakers should consider each situation carefully on its own merits. But the larger case for combating increasingly non-state threats with a UW strategy that capitalizes on both state and non-state resources could provide the U.S. and its allies the flexibility they need to successfully contain their enemies. In a world of non-state enemies that exploit the fissures between nation states, the United States should similarly seek to find allies wherever it can, whether they wear uniforms or not.