Full Spectrum Dominance
Irregular Warfare and the War on Terror
Maria Ryan



This book offers a political history of how and why the US military—and indeed the whole of the US government—reoriented the country’s early twenty-first-century national security strategy to encompass a concept that came to be known as “Irregular Warfare.” (Throughout the book, I use the term Irregular Warfare, with capital letters, to refer to the US government’s official definition of the concept, while irregular warfare, without capitals, refers to the concept contested by scholars and practitioners.) It focuses on the intellectual, organizational, strategic, doctrinal, and operational shifts—with particular emphasis on the importance of the peripheral theaters of the war on terror—that led to and resulted from the elevation of irregular warfare in planning and operations across the US government, led by the Department of Defense (DoD), from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. The ultimate purpose of this was what the Pentagon called “full spectrum dominance”—dominance across the entire spectrum of conflict from conventional war through to irregular forms of conflict, for it was only through ensuring supremacy across the range of possible conflict that the United States could prolong its position of primacy in an era of globalization in which the information revolution had apparently changed the character of some of the security challenges faced by the United States.

The concept of irregular warfare, derived from the first internationally accepted definition of “regular” war in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, was—and remains—a contested one.1 Colin S. Gray calls it “exceedingly illusive.”2 According to Hew Strachan, war cannot be subdivided neatly into regular and/or irregular forms because hybrid wars—encompassing both regular and irregular techniques have been the historical norm.3 M. L. R. Smith and David Martin Jones claim that entire attempt to categorize war is futile and counterproductive because—as Carl Von Clausewitz, the canonical theorist of Western warfare, argued—“wars must vary with the nature of their motives and the situation which gave rise to them.” In other words, all wars are the unique product of their specific time and place.4 The term irregular warfare also has ethical connotations that can elicit both opposition and support depending on the context.5 Moreover, there are significant disagreements about how to execute irregular warfare in practice.6

These debates notwithstanding, the US defense community developed its own specific definition of irregular warfare, embodied in the September 2007 Joint Operating Concept on Irregular Warfare, the first of its kind:

Irregular warfare (IW) is defined as: a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. IW favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.7

This explanation of irregular warfare, which emerged from several years of debate, resulted in a final definition that encompassed three elements: the agent, who was doing the fighting—which was just as likely to be a nonstate actor as a state; the method—the tactics and techniques used, which were likely to include indirect and nontraditional methods as much as military force; and the objective—winning the allegiance of the people rather than relying on brute force to assert control. The most distinctive feature of IW, according to the Joint Operating Concept, was its focus on co-opting the population.8

This official definition drew on classic accounts of unconventional or untraditional wars, especially counterinsurgencies fought against independence movements by imperial powers such as Britain in Malaya and France in Algeria.9 Unlike conventional interstate war, fought by traditional military units to assert physical control over vast swathes of territory, irregular warfare was a population-centric form of conflict that aimed to secure decisive influence over an area by winning the allegiance of the population—often referred to as a hearts-and-minds approach. This effort employed a panoply of political, psychological, social, economic, and military measures. Famously described by Mao Zedong as “20% military, 80% political,” irregular warfare relied just as much on nonmilitary methods as on kinetic military activity—that is, ground operations in which lethal force is used.10 Undermining the appeal of irregular forces required not just military activity to separate insurgents from the indigenous people they hid among, but also a host of ideological, political, social, and economic activities designed to undermine the insurgents’ ideological appeal to the people, offer a counternarrative, and ultimately secure the territory by building an alternative society that the population would have a stake in defending.11

The purpose of this book is not to refine or challenge the US government’s definition of “irregular warfare,” as a practitioner might, but to offer a political history of the rise of this conception of IW across the US government and in practice on the ground in the war on terror on the periphery—the first testing grounds for IW techniques in the twenty-first century. My concern is how and why the US government came to approve such a countercultural definition of warfare and elevate a concept that had been largely peripheral to military planning and U.S. foreign policy since the 1960s, alongside more conventional notions of conflict, and how this initially manifested in the peripheral regions of the war on terror.

Arguably more akin to nation building than conventional conflict, this type of protracted warfare had little in common with what Russell Weigley described in 1977 as “the American way of war.” Weigley argued that US wars had traditionally focused on overwhelming battlefield victories and physical destruction of the enemy with little account for what came afterward.12 The traditional conception of conventional interstate war also informed the principles of military intervention articulated by Casper Weinberger, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense, in 1984, and later by General Colin Powell, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 1990. The Weinberger and Powell doctrines both emphasized clear and attainable objectives, the use of overwhelming battlefield force, and the importance of an exit strategy.13 In this conception of war, the conflict was enemy-centric, not population-centric, and relied overwhelmingly on raw military power.

For most scholars, it was not until the United States faced an insurgency in Iraq in the mid-2000s that the Army and, ultimately, the U.S. government were forced to grapple with the realities of irregular warfare—in this case, counterinsurgency, a variant of IW.14 Until then, the military was devoted almost exclusively to conventional war, and it was principally in response to the crisis in Iraq that the U.S. Army rediscovered the practice of counterinsurgency that it had largely ignored since Vietnam. This book argues that the pursuit of an irregular warfare capability was also part of a much broader project, with roots that predated the application of counterinsurgency in Iraq (and later, in a modified form, in Afghanistan) and transcended the war on terror. This was the pursuit of what the Pentagon called “full spectrum dominance,” a phrase that came to refer to dominance across the entire spectrum of warfare from conventional through to irregular conflict, in order to ensure the continuation of US military preeminence in an era of globalization, in which networked nonstate actors now also challenged US hegemony alongside traditional state-based threats.

Irregular warfare was not a new phenomenon, as its imperial lineage demonstrated, but for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the contemporary wave of globalization and the communications revolution had given new leverage to nonstate actors such as terrorists that could turn the technologies of the information revolution against the United States. The impact of globalization on conflict has been contested by Patrick Porter, who argues convincingly that physical distance and geography still act as constraints on both states and nonstate actors even in a globalized world, and that networked threats from the latter have been exaggerated.15 This was not the view that prevailed in the US defense establishment, however, where the apparent challenge from networked nonstate actors was taken seriously.

I argue here that it was not just the quagmire in Iraq that catalyzed the turn toward irregular warfare, but also 9/11. The shock of 9/11 set in motion a new interpretation of the twenty-first century security environment for senior US policymakers. This developed gradually and unevenly, but nevertheless discernibly. For policymakers, the devastating terrorist attacks inside the United States exposed America’s security vulnerabilities, despite its awesome and overwhelming conventional military power. In Theo Farrell’s schema of norm change in modern conflict, the attacks functioned as an “external shock” to the US defense community, catalyzing, over time, “voluntary, radical cultural change” by “undermin[ing] the legitimacy of existing norms.”16 As Joseph Nye observes, for US policymakers, “September 11, 2001 was like a flash of lightning on a summer evening that displayed an altered landscape.”17 In this altered landscape, states were no longer the only or even the principal security threat. Nonstate actors and substate groups and networks could challenge the United States in ways it was not equipped to respond to: by employing asymmetric means and irregular methods that exploited new technologies.18 While the al-Qaeda network—a kind of transnational insurgency—was the immediate adversary in the post-9/11 world, it was but one manifestation of the new landscape of power. Over time, policy makers came to believe that to fight and win these new conflicts, and thereby ensure continued US global primacy, it was essential to develop irregular capabilities to complement existing strengths in conventional warfare. This book is the story of an attempt to maintain unchallenged and unassailable military preeminence in an era when potential challenges to American power seemed to be proliferating in ways that US officials had not anticipated.

As Max Boot demonstrates, “small wars” that did not fit the template of conventional interstate war were in fact a regular occurrence in American history.19 However, US military culture and doctrine, and the country’s overall national security strategy, remained firmly rooted in conventional notions of industrial interstate war. Time and again, lessons learned in the ‘small’ nontraditional conflicts were not institutionalized and passed on, but forgotten or ignored at the end of the campaign. When it came to unconventional wars, the US military was not, in John Nagl’s phrase, “a learning institution.”20 As David Fitzgerald notes, this resulted in a peculiarly American dual narrative: a long tradition of small wars and, at the same time, a disavowal of their lessons. As Fitzgerald observes, these wars “have not lingered in the [military’s] historical memory.”21 The archetypal example is Vietnam. Though certainly not a small war, Vietnam required, at least in part, the tactics and skills of counterinsurgency against the guerrilla forces of the National Liberation Front. The loss of the war in Southeast Asia was so traumatic for the US Army that it buried the lessons, expunged the defeat from its collective consciousness, and regrouped around its favored paradigm of industrial interstate war in Central Europe against the Soviets.22 This conventional American way of war informed the principles of US defense strategy through the Cold War and into the very early twenty-first century. Nor was this just down to strategic preferences; to some extent, the U.S. economy relied on what Jerry Sanders calls “Keynesian militarism.”23 As Daniel Wirls demonstrates, the continued reliance on military spending to stimulate the domestic economy goes some way to explaining why the state-centric model of equipment-heavy conventional warfare endured in US defense planning into the twenty-first century.24

Anticipating Irregular Warfare: Debates on the “New Wars” and Globalization

While official US defense planning at the end of the Cold War continued to rely primarily on models of conventional interstate conflict, at a lower level, military practitioners and defense intellectuals in the United States began to debate how the demise of the East-West confrontation and the nascent information revolution might bear on international security. Defense scholars and military officers, rather than senior policymakers, were the first to describe the contours of a new type of irregular conflict—though the word irregular was not used at this stage—quite different from the interstate model that they claimed would dominate the twenty-first century, a kind of war for which the US military, at the end of the Cold War, was thoroughly unprepared for. Indeed it was America’s dominance in conventional military terms that meant potential challengers would likely choose other ways of confronting the United States.25

One of the most enduring contributions to this debate was the concept of fourth-generation warfare (4GW), a term coined in 1989 by William S. Lind and colleagues.26 These authors argued that the history of warfare could be broken down into four distinct generations, each reflecting the technology, social conditions and ideas of the day, from smoothbore muskets (first generation) to machine-gun and mass firepower (second), followed by the third-generation blitzkrieg tactics: the synchronization of tanks, infantry, and airpower. Each of these generational shifts was characterized by change in four key areas: greater dispersion on the battlefield, decreasing dependence on centralized logistics, more emphasis on maneuver, and the goal of collapsing the enemy internally rather than physically destroying him. Fourth-generation warfare would be marked by an intensification of each of these existing trends and would no longer be recognizable as conventional warfare. The trend toward decentralization meant that “the fourth generation battlefield is likely to include the whole of the enemy’s society,” the authors wrote. The ultimate target would change: rather than focusing solely on destroying the adversary’s armed forces and associated infrastructure, targets would also include the population’s support for war and the enemy’s culture. Grinding down the will of the enemy government and its population would lead to victory. Dependence on centralized logistics would decrease further, and there would be a higher tempo to operations. The 4GW battlefield would be “widely dispersed and largely undefined.” Lind and colleagues described a kind of permanent low-intensity war in which “the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point” and the “distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ may disappear.”27 In many respects, this anticipated what the DoD would much later label “irregular warfare”: the dispersed battlefield, the decentralized form of command, and the targeting of civilian society would become indispensable components of the Pentagon’s IW concept.

Advocates of fourth-generation warfare particularly emphasized the importance of culture as a contested battleground and the imperative of psychological operations. Since 4GW took place—in Rupert Smith’s phrase—“amongst the people,” winning or maintaining the allegiance of the population was a strategic imperative.28 This required offering an attractive political narrative and undermining the adversary’s vision—an objective that could not be achieved through force of arms. Instead, according to Lind and colleagues, “Fourth generation adversaries will be adept at manipulating the media to alter domestic and world opinion to the point where skillful use of psychological operations will sometimes preclude the commitment of combat forces. A major target will be the enemy population’s support of its government and the war.”29 In Lawrence Freedman’s words, the challenge for each adversary in an irregular conflict would be “to seek to unbind the enemy force by undermining the[ir] strategic narrative.”30 In an age where information was cheaper than ever before and omnipresent, information warfare would become a central component of conflict. Even more prescient was Lind and colleagues’ suggestion that the genesis of fourth-generation warfare might be visible in terrorism. A fourth-generation terrorist might combine high technology with “highly sophisticated psychological warfare” while operating on a transnational basis, making it difficult for conventional forces “designed to operate within a nation state framework” to confront.31

The 4GW concept was updated for the 1990s by Colonel Thomas X. Hammes in 1994.32 According to Hammes, “The world is organizing itself in a series of interconnected networks,” meaning that nation-states were no longer the only actors on the international stage. Transnational and subnational groups and networks were emerging as powerful forces too. Since they lacked the resources to wage interstate war, these groups preferred to fight low-intensity conflicts, encompassing political, economic, social, cultural, psychological, and military measures. In many respects this sounded like classic insurgency warfare, but what distinguished 4GW from its predecessors, according to Hammes, was the “use of all the networks available in the information age.”33 Thus, the dominant form of conflict in the twenty-first century would be networked insurgency-style warfare.

Nevertheless, even transnational networks required physical bases somewhere. According to Mary Kaldor, who coined the contested but much-discussed term new wars to describe the conflicts of the 1990s, this type of warfare would flourish in the context of state disintegration. For Kaldor, the Balkan wars were the archetype of the new wars, defined by the disintegration of nation-states, ethnic conflict between nonstate and substate actors, and globalized financial networks that funded the conflict, often through illicit means.34 Observing the disintegration of West African states in the early 1990s, journalist Robert Kaplan came to similar conclusions about twenty-first century conflict. The chaotic and lawless megacities of West Africa were, he argued, the auguries of “the coming anarchy.”35 In other words, it was no longer powerful, centrally organized states that posed the greatest security threat but weak and failing states that might be exploited by nonstate actors.

What all these variants of low-intensity warfare had in common was a consideration of the impact of contemporary globalization on the character of conflict in the late twentieth century. The most recent phase of globalization had been driven by deregulation and a revolution in communications technology. The former led to the removal of barriers limiting the free flow of goods, finance, services, and people; the latter resulted in cheap global communications, the Internet, and an unprecedented sense of global interconnectedness.36 The Internet provided a new global communications platform for nonstate actors to share ideas and tactics and organize in relative freedom and secrecy.37 The removal of barriers facilitated global travel, the easy transfer of large sums of money, and the emergence of what Herfried Münkler calls the “shadow globalization” economy, from which nonstate actors could draw the resources necessary to wage conflict, including financial transfers from émigré communities, and (possibly illegal) business interests—all of which were easier to operate and to hide in a deregulated global economy.38 William Hartman points out that the 9/11 terrorists transferred over $500,000 into the United States to support their work, but with $1.5 trillion transferred around the world daily, the terrorists’ transactions were too small to attract any attention.39

Moreover, technology that had formerly been limited to states was increasingly available commercially.40 In October 1998, the Pentagon requested its Defense Science Board conduct a study on the security implications of the globalization of military production.41 The report warned of the “irresistible leveling effect [globalization] is having on the international military-technological environment.” Indeed because of

the proliferation of military technology, the commercialization of former military-specific technology, and the increasing reliance of militaries worldwide on commercially-developed technology, and the general diffusion of technology and know-how, the majority of militarily useful technology is or eventually will be available commercially and/or from non-U.S. defense companies.42

The resulting perception was what one commentator called “the democratization of violence.”43 Although states had never had a monopoly on the use of force, the contemporary wave of globalization nonetheless appeared to alter the balance of power between states and nonstate actors significantly. It was now easier than ever before for nonstate groups to communicate, organize, sustain themselves on a global scale, and acquire technological and even military capabilities that were once accessible only to states.

Twenty-First Century Irregular Warfare: 9/11, Iraq, and the Periphery

This book argues that 9/11 was the initial catalyst for the turn toward irregular warfare because it exposed U.S. security vulnerabilities in spite of its unassailable conventional military power. However, the initial testing ground for irregular tactics in the twenty-first century was not Afghanistan, the first target of the war on terror. Since the Taliban government had sheltered Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda training camps, the objective there was a fairly conventional one: regime change. It was also the only militarily realistic option at that time since the capabilities, resources, and doctrine of the general-purpose forces were dedicated almost entirely to major conventional conflict.44 Policy on IW did not suddenly arrive fully formed immediately after 9/11. Instead, the first testing grounds for irregular tactics in the twenty-first century were the “peripheral,” or smaller, secondary, theaters of the war on terror—weak states that lacked full control over their borders and territory, that policymakers feared terrorists might exploit as operational bases. On September 19, 2001, Rumsfeld wrote, “The President has stressed that we are not defining our fight narrowly and are not focused only on those directly responsible for the September 11 attacks.”45 While Afghanistan was the opening front in the war on terror, peripheral fronts developed from late 2001 onward across sub-Saharan Africa, in the Philippines, and in Georgia and the wider Caspian Sea region. On these fronts, US action would be led by special operations forces, which specialized in non-traditional warfare. The irregular approach used to secure these areas from transnational terrorists would later be subsumed into the official definition of Irregular Warfare contained in the 2007 Joint Operating Concept, and become, for a time, a core part of the mission of the general-purpose forces and a component of U.S. national strategy. Thus, peripheral counterterrorism operations constituted an important track—though by no means the only one—along which the policy, doctrine, and practice of IW gradually developed.

Yet the peripheral theaters of the war on terror, and their significance, are often overlooked. Most scholars focus on the war in Iraq as the key theater where IW—in particular, counterinsurgency—was rediscovered and implemented in the mid- to late 2000s, with a particular emphasis on the surge in 2007 and, in an institutional sense, on the US Army specifically.46 I agree with these scholars that important lessons about counterinsurgency (COIN) were learned from Iraq. The development of COIN in this theater was in part spontaneous and pragmatic, led from the bottom up by officers serving on the ground there, who realized they were facing an increasingly organized resistance distinctly recognizable as an insurgency.47 In 2003, Major General David Petraeus, then commander of the 101st Airborne Division, had used counterinsurgency tactics in the city of Mosul based on his experience of nation building in Bosnia and Haiti.48 For the most part, however, the deployment of a comprehensive COIN approach across Iraq from 2007 on was down to the subsequent influence of a cadre of scholar-officers, also led by Petraeus, who had a particular devotion to the reclamation of counterinsurgency doctrine and practice, and who, as Paul Rich notes, “found a momentary period of influence at the center of political decision-making on Iraq” in 2006–07.49 While serving as head of the US Army’s Combined Arms Center in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, from 2005 to 2007, Petraeus oversaw the rewriting of the Army’s Field Manual on counterinsurgency. In the meantime the insurgency in Iraq gathered pace, policymaking in Washington became dysfunctional, and neither the president nor the secretary of defense could forge consensus on the way forward. This policymaking deadlock provided the political space for enthusiastic COIN advocates to exercise decisive influence on the US approach to Iraq.50 The new COIN Field Manual, FM 3–24, provided the doctrinal guidance for the troop surge in early 2007 and attracted so much interest that a trade paperback version was released by the University of Chicago Press.51 The perceived success of the COIN tactics in Iraq led to Petraeus’s deployment to Afghanistan in 2010 to oversee a similar approach.

Writing in the Clausewitzian tradition of strategic thinking, many scholars who critique COIN in Iraq argue convincingly that the war on terror in this theater was, in Hew Strachan’s words, “astrategic.”52 In Clausewitz’s view, the strategist’s role was to “define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose.”53 In other words, a strategy required a political goal and viable military tactics to achieve that goal. For scholars of COIN in Iraq, the US failure there was down to the absence of strategy: COIN offered a set of military tactics, but political leaders could not articulate overall goals and objectives.54 The United States therefore needed to return to a Clausewitzian understanding of war in which policymakers provided coherent and realistic political objectives.

The peripheral theaters of the war on terror were not astrategic in this sense. They were governed by different premises and objectives, which included a political goal and a set of military tactics—flawed though they all were. The political goal in these areas, clearly stated in national strategy documents and understood by personnel on the ground, was to strengthen the security and governing capacities of weak and failing states and bolster their ideological appeal so as to prevent violent nonstate actors from finding refuge there, and to diminish the likelihood of local people tacitly supporting such groups. This was a capacious and ultimately unrealistic political goal, but a goal nonetheless. It was also accompanied by a set of military tactics that the relevant policymakers and practitioners appeared to agree on. As policymakers began to interpret the new al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism as a transnational, networked phenomenon, they tentatively began to turn toward nontraditional responses. In this context, irregular tactics were increasingly seen as the best method for bolstering weak and failing states that were most likely to attract terrorists, though such tactics ultimately proved to be an ineffective remedy. This was the Bush administration’s strategy in the peripheral regions of the war on terror, and the campaigns there developed in advance of the introduction and maturation of COIN in Iraq.

In fact it was in operations on the periphery, rather than in a bureaucratic or policy sense or in terms of national strategy, that IW was most advanced in the early years of the war on terror—most likely, because these activities were led mainly by special operations forces that were already trained to conduct unconventional operations.55 Under the auspices of Operation Enduring Freedom–the Philippines, a series of campaigns across sub-Saharan Africa (including Operation Enduring Freedom–Trans Sahara) and, on a smaller scale, in the Georgia Train and Equip program, the United States engaged in sophisticated multifaceted campaigns of foreign internal defense (FID) in which US forces would assist in every aspect of counterinsurgency but would stop short of direct participation in combat operations.56 In comparison, policy, doctrine, and new bureaucratic manifestations of IW were underdeveloped in the early war on terror. The irregular tactics used from an early stage in peripheral theaters anticipated the formalization of policy, doctrine, and supporting bureaucracy back in Washington, and eventually their application to the larger theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan. The turn toward irregular warfare was gradual. Although the irregular operations on the periphery were quite sophisticated, the IW concept did not come fully formed in late 2001. While the seeds of the comprehensive articulation of irregular warfare contained in the 2007 Joint Operating Concept are visible in the early months and years of the war on terror, the development of a national strategy, catalyzed by 9/11, that incorporated IW took several years to come to fruition. This process was uneven, often ad hoc, sometimes chaotic and contested. Nevertheless, to fully understand the evolution of US Irregular Warfare capacity and its elevation into national strategy, as opposed to merely its use by the Army in Iraq and later Afghanistan, it is important to think more broadly about the lessons policymakers learned from the 9/11 attacks and the ways in which the turn toward irregular operations often transcended the large core theaters of the war on terror, where the initial tactics and objectives were more conventional. Ultimately, then, this book argues that the elevation of IW in national strategy and doctrine developed along multiple complementary tracks. First and foremost, it was a response to the perceived impact of globalization on international security—with the al-Qaeda network and the 9/11 attacks the principal manifestation of this. Second, the peripheral theaters of the war on terror became the initial testing grounds for the utilization of irregular tactics; and, finally, as an insurgency developed in Iraq, that campaign became the focus of a major new counterinsurgency effort for the US Army, subsequently applied in a modified form to Afghanistan. That final track has been the subject of almost all studies of counterinsurgency and the war on terror. This book does not dispute the importance of those core theaters, but it seeks to widen the analysis by considering other locations in which IW techniques were applied and draws attention to the broader project to develop and embed an irregular warfare capacity to ensure “full spectrum dominance.”

Although the whole of the US government was eventually involved in an interagency attempt to build an Irregular Warfare capability, the individual who did most to drive these changes was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a major proponent of IW in the peripheral theaters of the war on terror. Rumsfeld saw IW as an integral part of national defense because he believed that irregular and hybrid wars would be the wars of the twenty-first century, and, as we shall see, even before 9/11, he worried about America’s vulnerability to asymmetric and nonconventional attacks. In this respect, then, the rise of IW was not purely a bottom-up phenomenon led by serving members of the US military in Iraq and scholar-generals like Petraeus, but also a top-down phenomenon led by the secretary of defense.

To some, this focus on Rumsfeld may seem like a counterintuitive argument. It is well known that as the violence in Iraq became increasingly deadly, Rumsfeld stubbornly refused to use the word insurgency to describe it.57 As Jeffrey Michaels argues, it is uncertain whether this was because he “either genuinely believed the United States was not involved in fighting a guerrilla war or felt that to make this admission, even in closed political and military circles, somehow reflected a personal failing that in turn could have jeopardized his bureaucratic position and authority.”58 An important premise of my argument is that the invasion of Iraq was not governed by the same (flawed) strategic logic as the peripheral theaters of the war on terror and needs to be separated from them intellectually and politically—because this appears to be what US policymakers did, at least in the buildup to the Iraq invasion and its immediate aftermath. For most in the Bush administration there was a strong preexisting tendency to see Iraq as a conventional state-based challenge. The problem, they thought, was not that Iraq was a weak or failing state (the concern in peripheral theaters); it was Saddam’s hold on power that was the problem. Regime change in Baghdad was conceived long before 9/11. Leading members of the Bush administration, including Rumsfeld, had lobbied for Saddam’s ouster during the Clinton years, and their support for regime change then had nothing at all to do with networked transnational terrorism or the supposed perils of weak states. The 2003 invasion was conceived and executed as a conventional projection of American power designed to make the Middle East region more pro-American. As Rumsfeld put it in the first meeting of the National Security Council in February 2001, “Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a regime that is aligned with U.S. interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond it. It would demonstrate what U.S. policy is all about.”59 For instrumental reasons, however, the Bush administration constructed a case for regime change in Iraq that attempted to link Saddam to 9/11 and therefore pursue the invasion under the expedient auspices of the war on terror, though in fact its goal there predated 9/11.

In time, however, the conflict in Iraq unexpectedly became an unconventional one because the presence of the US-led coalition provoked a violent backlash that the architects of the invasion had not foreseen. Rumsfeld’s prediction and assumption—and, in the end, his insistence over the advice of some of his generals—that a relatively low number of troops would suffice to topple the regime and stabilize the country was proven wrong. If indeed he did believe a guerrilla war was taking place, admitting this would have been a major political embarrassment. Until further documentation is released, we cannot know for certain why Rumsfeld was hostile to COIN in Iraq. What we do know, however, is that he was a strong supporter of other variants of Irregular Warfare elsewhere in the war on terror (although even his ideas about IW did not come fully formed after 9/11). Rumsfeld fulfills the function of the “norm entrepreneur” identified by Farrell as an essential component of norm change in modern conflict.60 I therefore argue that Rumsfeld’s initial dismissal of COIN in Iraq did not equate to an indiscriminate rejection of the concept of COIN or IW; it was a rejection of counterinsurgency specifically in Iraq, but not necessarily elsewhere because Rumsfeld believed that in an age of globalization, security threats were just as likely to be irregular as conventional, meaning that only full spectrum dominance could secure the United States at home and its interests around the world. The evidence presented here about the war on terror on the periphery suggests that Rumsfeld separated the invasion of Iraq intellectually, politically, and operationally from the phenomenon of transnational networked Islamist militants. More broadly, the Bush administration was eventually able to put forward a strategy for confronting transnational nonstate actors in the twenty-first century, flawed though this was, but was not able to do this for the more conventional challenge of Iraq. A crucial caveat is that Rumsfeld—also known as a champion of the so-called revolution in military affairs—did not drop his support for conventional military technology but sought to supplement this with irregular capabilities. The turn toward Irregular Warfare was never intended to come at the expense of existing strengths in conventional war fighting.

This top-down examination of doctrine and practice in IW also encompasses efforts to mobilize an interagency response to irregular security threats. The book demonstrates that to support the DoD and the military services, the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) also attempted to reorient themselves around the nonmilitary aspects of Irregular Warfare. Civilian experts from State and USAID would, it was envisaged, play vital roles in the non-combat aspects of Irregular Warfare, thus facilitating a holistic program of military, political, economic, social, cultural, and psychological measures designed to win the allegiance of the population and prevent extremism from taking route in ungoverned areas. These efforts were observable in the peripheral theaters of the war on terror from 2003 onward.

More broadly, the book considers why certain countries and regions—the Philippines, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Caspian Basin—emerged as fronts in Washington’s war on terror. My intention is to shed light on these often overlooked theaters by considering what it was it about these particular locations that attracted the interest and concern of the Bush administration after 9/11. As well as the presence of ungoverned spaces in these areas, in each case, I argue, important preexisting or emerging geopolitical interests were identified that might be threatened by the emergence or reality of terrorism there. In particular, the book posits a connection between energy security and the war on terror, which manifested clearly in Georgia and in West Africa.61 Often policymakers provided only scant evidence of a supposed al-Qaeda presence in these areas; in some cases, particularly the African countries, US activities were consciously preventive; in other words it was the potential rather than the reality of terrorism that apparently threatened US interests and spurred intervention.

In examining the peripheral theaters of the war on terror, the book eschews simplistic claims about the supposed unilateralism of the Bush administration and offers a more nuanced picture of how US counterterror initiatives were often accepted and shaped by elites in other states. For the Bush administration, twenty-first-century terrorism was a transnational phenomenon, meaning that multilateral cooperation was imperative. Although this study is primarily a consideration of US methods and objectives, it also demonstrates that the US presence in the peripheral theaters of the war on terror was often determined by the extent to which ruling elites in other nations were willing, or not, to cooperate. Whereas President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines publicly courted US intervention and set the parameters of joint operations, US overtures were less welcome in Malaysia and Indonesia. Notwithstanding its conventional (and, increasingly, irregular) military strengths, Washington could not always impose its agenda on these regions, and where it did achieve its objectives, this was usually the result of mutual perceptions of shared interests rather than a unilateral imposition of American power. This points to another reason that these particular locations became fronts in Washington’s war on terror: to some extent, the United States was invited in.62

Just as the efficacy of COIN in Iraq and later Afghanistan has been questioned, so I argue here that IW has been ineffective in stabilizing the peripheral areas of the war on terror. In Somalia, the US presence contributed to the emergence of a violent new Islamist group, Al-Shabaab. In the Philippines, acts of terror by the Abu Sayyaf Group increased during the twelve-year US presence. Ultimately, I argue, the US strategy toward the peripheral theaters was fundamentally flawed. The political objective of stabilizing weak states was misconceived since state failure is not the main catalyst for the emergence of terrorism. This generic assumption ignored the unique and specific circumstances of each country and each manifestation of political violence. The Irregular Warfare paradigm does not engage with the specific circumstances of each conflict zone; rather, it offers instead a depoliticized, one-size-fits-all set of tactics to be applied everywhere, in all circumstances. As M. L. R. Smith and David Martin Jones note, this approach ignores Clausewitz’s dictum that war is “more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case”—in other words, that all violence is unique to its time and place.63 The Bush, and subsequently Obama, administrations ignored the unique circumstances of each peripheral theater and transposed the same prefabricated irregular solution onto each of them. In doing so, they avoided the more difficult job of engaging with the details of what Laleh Khalili calls “the politics that defines and structures revolt.”64 Moreover, as Gian Gentile argues, the notion that Irregular Warfare tactics are a tool kit that can be applied indiscriminately to conflict-prone societies around the world offers the false promise of ‘better,” more successful wars, and even risks becoming “a recipe for perpetual war.”65 The IW approach that Washington developed after 9/11 went far beyond defensive measures designed to hedge against an asymmetric attack. Instead, full spectrum dominance was an imperial vision that combined an offensive approach to both irregular challenges and conventional military affairs, with the ultimate objective of maintaining American primacy on a global scale for as long as practicably possible.

Finally, I argue that the turn to Irregular Warfare left an ambiguous, though concerning, legacy. To some extent, irregular capabilities and objectives have become embedded in the thinking and practice of the U.S. military, the Department of State, and USAID. By the end of the Obama years, the perceived impact of globalization on conflict was firmly implanted in the organizational mind-set of the defense establishment. However, the political will to undertake major Irregular Warfare campaigns, such as in the failed state of Libya, diminished in the Obama years as a result of public weariness with war and the president’s preference for a more restrained American hegemony.66


The book offers a chronological and thematic history of the rise of the concept of Irregular Warfare, beginning, in Chapter 1, with the very early months of the Bush administration, in which Rumsfeld signaled his earliest concerns about nontraditional security threats. The 9/11 attacks began to catalyze a new way of thinking about international security, which was evident in the elevation of Special Operations Command as the lead integrating command in global counterterrorism operations, but was also visible to some extent in new national and departmental strategy and planning. The immediate post-9/11 period also established the truly global character of the new war on terror.

Chapters 2 through 4 examine the parallel, and in many respects more advanced, development of irregular campaigns in the peripheral theaters of the war on terror. Chapter 2 focuses on Operation Enduring Freedom–the Philippines. Chapter 3 examines the interagency campaign of foreign internal defense across sub-Saharan Africa, while Chapter 4 considers the smaller train-and-equip program in Georgia. These chapters also examine other US geopolitical interests in these areas and argue that these countries and regions emerged as fronts in the war on terror because of a confluence of preexisting or newly emerging geopolitical interests combined with the potential for, or reality of, Islamist terrorism in these areas.

Chapter 5 examines the maturation of the concept of Irregular Warfare in doctrine, organization, and practice at the Department of Defense from roughly 2005 to 2008 and concludes that a serious effort to embed the concept in DoD thought and practice was underway, as demonstrated in the continuity between Rumsfeld and his successor, Robert Gates, and by the ongoing use of IW techniques in areas outside Iraq and Afghanistan. Chapter 6 looks at the attempt to mobilize an interagency response to irregular security challenges and focuses on the intellectual, financial, organizational, and policy reforms at the Department of State and the USAID. These reforms were enthusiastically supported by the leaders of State and USAID, though not by Congress. Nevertheless, they led to some genuine interagency cooperation on the ground, but this came at the cost of making State and USAID subservient to US security policy. Finally, Chapter 7 examines the Obama years and argues that substantive changes had become embedded in national strategy and global outlook by this stage because no one failed to take seriously the perceived impact of globalization on international security, meaning that some competency in irregular responses was deemed essential. Yet Obama himself was unwilling to commit to large-scale IW operations, and his reliance on drone bombing in multiple countries indicated his preference for US forces to be somewhat distant from events on the ground.

This book is a work of contemporary history. Although it cannot draw on the vast archives that historians researching decades-old events can, it nevertheless draws from a rich and hitherto mostly unused base of primary source material, including unclassified materials from the Departments of Defense and State, USAID, the Executive Office of the President, US European Command, US Pacific Command, US Africa Command, US Special Operations Command, congressional hearings, the Government Accountability Office, and professional US military journals. Formerly classified State Department cables obtained via Wikileaks have provided extra insight, as have the papers of Donald Rumsfeld, available online. In addition, the book is based on over two hundred documents released by the Departments of State and Defense under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. The conclusions here are unlikely to be the final word on this subject, but I hope the analysis will provoke new questions that may be addressed in time as more materials become available.


1. Russell Crandall, America’s Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 7.

2. Colin S. Gray, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare (London: Phoenix, 2006), 214–215.

3. Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 82. See also Frank G. Hoffman, “Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars” (Arlington, VA: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, December 2007), Government Accountability Office, Hybrid Warfare, September 10, 2010,

4. Clausewitz, cited in M. L. R. Smith and David Martin Jones, The Political Impossibility of Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles, and Paradoxes (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 4. On the futility of categorization, see 1–28.

5. James D. Kiras, “Irregular Warfare: Terrorism and Insurgency,” in Strategy in the Contemporary World, ed. John Baylis, James J. Wirtz, and Colin S. Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 187.

6. This debate includes Steven Metz and Raymond Millen, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the 21st Century: Reconceptualizing Threat and Response,” Special Warfare (February 2005): 6–21. David M. Witty, “The Great UW Debate,” Special Warfare (March–April 2010): 9–17. Lew Irwin, “Filling Irregular Warfare’s Interagency Gaps,” Parameters (Autumn 2009): 65–80. Peter Charles Choharis and James A. Gavrilis, “Counterinsurgency 3.0,” Parameters (Spring 2010): 34–46. Amitai Etzioni, “Whose COIN?’ Joint Forces Quarterly, no. 60 (1st quarter 2011): 19–25. Sebastian L. v. Gorka and David Kilcullen, “An Actor-Centric Theory of War,” Joint Forces Quarterly, no. 60 (1st quarter, 2011): 14–17. Mark Grdovic, “Ramping Up to Face the Challenge of Irregular Warfare,” Special Warfare (September–October 2009): 15–18.

7. Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept (henceforth IW JOC 2007), version 1.0, September 11, 2007, Jennifer Morrison Taw argues that the key conceptual referent for understanding changes in the US defense community in the early twenty-first century is “stability operations” rather than “irregular warfare,” though she acknowledges that stability operations are a subcategory of IW. Because of the widespread use of multiple components of Irregular Warfare in the peripheral theaters of the war on terror, including stability operations, and the elevation of all of these components at the doctrinal and policy level under the auspices of Irregular Warfare, I argue that IW is the umbrella concept that best explains operations in the peripheral regions of the war on terror and the reorientation of the US defense establishment in the twenty-first century. See Jennifer Morrison Taw, Mission Revolution: The U.S. Military and Stability Operations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 3–6.

8. IW JOC 2007, 4–9.

9. On the imperial roots of Western counterinsurgency doctrine and practice, see Douglas Porch, Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Gian Gentile, Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency (New York: New Press, 2013); John A. Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Laleh Khalili, Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013); Daniel Marston and Carter Malkasian, eds., Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008); Alex Marshall, “Imperial Nostalgia, the Liberal Lie, and the Perils of Postmodern Counterinsurgency,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 21, no. 2 (2010): 233–258. Some of the colonial-era texts that inspired twenty-first century IW include David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (reprint, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006); Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency, Peacekeeping (London: Faber & Faber, 1971); Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000); and Robert Thompson Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experiences from Malaya and Vietnam (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1978).

10. This observation is cited by Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare, 63.

11. Overviews of irregular warfare and its most common variant, counterinsurgency, include Kiras, “Irregular Warfare”; Thomas Rid and Thomas Keaney, eds., Understanding Counterinsurgency: Doctrine, Operations, and Challenges (London: Routledge, 2010); Sarah Sewall, “Introduction: A Radical Field Manual,” in U.S. Army/Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), xxi–xxliii; Russell Crandall, America’s Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 15–28. For a brief history of guerrilla warfare, see Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 178–192.

12. Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1973).

13. Colin L. Powell, “U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead,” Foreign Affairs (Winter 1992/1993): 32–45. Casper Weinberger, “The Uses of Military Power,” remarks prepared for delivery to the National Press Club, Washington, DC, November 28, 1984,

14. See Thomas R. Mockaitis, Iraq and the Challenge of Counterinsurgency (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008); James Russell, Innovation, Transformation, and War: Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces Iraq, 2005–2007 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011). David H. Ucko argues that the transformation year in Washington was 2005 and that this was the result of events in Iraq. See his The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009). Iraq is also the key catalyzing case study for Steven Metz, Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2008); David Fitzgerald, Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013); Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013); Gentile, Wrong Turn; Toby Dodge, Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2012). Morrison Taw focuses on stability operations, a variant of IW, and, again examines Iraq as the key catalyst for the elevation of them into high-level US Army doctrine and strategy. See her Mission Revolution.

15. Patrick Porter, The Global Village Myth: Distance, War, and the Limits of Power (London: Hurst, 2015)

16. In his study of norm change and modern conflict, Farrell argues that norms are changed by norm entrepreneurs, external shocks, and changes in personnel. See Theo Farrell, The Norms of War: Cultural Beliefs and Modern Conflict (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005).

17. Joseph S. Nye Jr., “U.S. Power and Strategy After Iraq,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2003): See also Pascal Vennesson, “Globalization and Al Qaeda’s Challenge to American Unipolarity,” in How 9/11 Changed Our Ways of War, ed. James Burk (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), 232–260.

18. The concept of asymmetry is also highly contested. Colin S. Gray argues that all warfare is characterized by asymmetry to a certain extent because each state has its own strengths and weaknesses, though in irregular warfare, the asymmetries are extreme. See his Another Bloody Century, 230. For a defense of the concept, see Wyn Q. Bowen, “The Dimensions of Asymmetric Warfare,” in The Changing Face of Military Power: Joint Warfare in an Expeditionary Era, ed. Andrew Dorman, Mike Smith, and Matthew Uttley (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), 15–44. For an overview of the debate, see Jan Angstrom, “Evaluating Rivalling Interpretations of Asymmetric Warfare,” in Conceptualising Modern War, ed. Karl Erik Haug and Ole Jørgen Maaø (London: Hurst, 2013), 29–48.

19. Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002)

20. Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Frank G. Hoffman, “Small Wars Revisited: The United States and Nontraditional Wars,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28, no. 6 (2005): 913–940.

21. Fitzgerald, Learning to Forget, 5.

22. Ibid., 39–59; Richard Lock-Pullan, US Intervention Policy and Army Innovation: From Vietnam to Iraq (London: Routledge, 2006).

23. Jerry W. Sanders, Peddlers of Crisis: The Committee on the Present Danger and the Politics of Containment (London: Pluto Press, 1983), 210–228.

24. Daniel Wirls, Irrational Security: The Politics of Defense from Reagan to Obama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

25. The phrase “new wars” was coined by Mary Kaldor in 1999 to describe the new pattern of conflict in the post-Soviet world. See her New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (London: Polity Press, 1999). For analysis, see Herfried Münkler, The New Wars (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005); Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Penguin, 2005); Martin Van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: Free Press, 1991); Gray, Another Bloody Century. For critiques, see Jan Angstrom, “Introduction: Exploring the Utility of Armed Force in Modern Conflict,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 19 (2008): 297–302. Isabelle Duyvesteyn, “Exploring the Utility of Force: Some Conclusions,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 19 (2008): 423–443. Michael J. Artelli and Richard F. Deckro, “Fourth Generation Operations: Principles for the ‘Long War,’Small Wars and Insurgencies 19 (2008): 221–237.

26. William S. Lind, Keith Nightengale, John F. Schmitt, Joseph W. Sutton, and Gary Wilson, “The Changing Face of Warfare: Into the Fourth Generation,” Marine Corps Gazette (October 1989): 22–26.

27. Ibid., 23. The concept of low-intensity conflict was used by Van Creveld in Transformation of Warfare, 18–25.

28. Smith, Utility of Force, 17.

29. Lind et al., “Changing Face of Warfare,” 24.

30. Lawrence Freedman, The Transformation of Strategic Affairs (Oxon: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2006), 90.

31. Lind et al., “Changing Face of Warfare,” 26.

32. Thomas X. Hammes, “The Evolution of War: The Fourth Generation,” Marine Corps Gazette 78, no. 4 (1994): 35–44. See also Thomas X. Hammes, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2006). There has been much criticism of the 4GW concept. See Antuilo J. Echevarria II, “Fourth Generation Warfare and Other Myths,” Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, November 2005, Lawrence Freedman, “War Evolves into the Fourth Generation: A Comment on Thomas X. Hammes,” Contemporary Security Policy 26, no. 2 (2005): 254–263. Hew Strachan, “The Changing Character of War,” in Conceptualising Modern War, ed. Karl Erik Haug and Ole Jørgen Maaø (London: Hurst, 2011), 1–28. David S. Sorensen, “The Mythology of Fourth-Generation Warfare: A Response to Hammes,” Contemporary Security Policy 26, no. 2 (2005): 264–269.

33. Hammes, “Evolution of War,” 44.

34. Kaldor, New and Old Wars.

35. Robert D. Kaplan, ‘The Coming Anarchy: How Scarcity, Crime, Overpopulation, Tribalism, and Disease Are Rapidly Destroying the Fabric of Our Planet,” Atlantic (February 1994),

36. For an overview of the process of globalization across more than four centuries, see Jürgen Osterhammel and Niels P. Petersson, Globalization: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). On the contemporary wave of globalization, see Joseph S. Nye, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), chaps. 2 and 3. On globalization and conflict, see William J. Hartman, Globalization and Asymmetrical Warfare, Air Command and Staff College, Air University, April 2002,–053.pdf; Münkler, New Wars, 5–31, 74–98; Emile Simpson, War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (London: Hurst, 2012), 67–89; Norrin M. Ripsman and T. V. Paul, Globalization and the National Security State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Fathali M. Moghaddan, The New Global Insecurity: How Terrorism, Environmental Collapse, Economic Inequalities, and Resource Shortages Are Changing Our World (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2010); Richard J. Aldrich, “‘A Profoundly Disruptive Force’: The CIA, Historiography and the Perils of Globalization,” Intelligence and National Security 26, no. 2 (2011): 139–158; Kevin O’Brien, “Information Age, Terrorism, and Warfare,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 14, no. 1 (2003): 183–206.

37. Münkler argues, “The most important feature of the recent wave of international terrorism is [the] combination of violence with media presentation.” See New Wars, 112. On the difficulties the US intelligence services faced tracking the 9/11 hijackers’ online communications, see James Bamford, A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies (New York: Random House, 2005), 105–116.

38. Münkler, New Wars, 10, 74–98. Kaldor makes a very similar argument in New and Old Wars, 90–111.

39. Hartman, Globalization and Asymmetrical Warfare, 4.

40. Ibid., 14–15.

41. Defense Science Board Task Force on Globalization and Security, “Final Report,” Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, December 1999,

42. Ibid.

43. Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: Norton, 2007), 16.

44. I use the phrase “general-purpose forces” to refer to forces trained mainly to conduct conventional combat operations, in contrast to special forces, which specialize in unconventional warfare. Although the term “general-purpose forces” is no longer in the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms, it is still widely used in this way. See Shannon S. Hume, Rebalancing General Purpose Forces to Meet Expanding Worldwide Irregular Force Requirements, U.S. Marine Corps, April 2009,

45. Cited in Douglas J. Feith, War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 66.

46. See note 14.

47. Russell, Innovation, Transformation and War; Mockaitis, Iraq and the Challenge of Counterinsurgency, 124–144. See also Ucko, New Counterinsurgency Era, 60–61, 65–80.

48. Mark Bowden, “The Professor of War,” Vanity Fair, March 30, 2010,

49. Paul Rich, “A Historical Overview of U.S. Counterinsurgency,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 25, no. 1 (2014): 28. Writing on COIN by this group includes: David Petraeus, “Learning Counterinsurgency: Observations from Soldiering in Iraq,” Military Review (January–February 2006): 2–12,; David Kilcullen, “Countering Global Insurgency,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28, no. 4 (2005): 597–617; David Kilcullen, “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency,” Military Review (May–June 2006): 103–108; David Kilcullen, “Counterinsurgency Redux,” Survival 48, no. 4 (2006): 111–130; Kalev I. Sepp, “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency,” Military Review (May–June 2005): 8–12; Eliot Cohen, Conrad Crane, Jan Horvath, and John Nagl, “Principles, Imperatives, and Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency,” Military Review (March–April 2006): 49–53. On the drafting of the new Army Field Manual, see Conrad Crane, “United States,” in Understanding Counterinsurgency, ed. Rid and Keaney, 59–72, and John A. Nagl, Foreword to U.S. Army/Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3–24) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), xiii–xx. The most detailed secondary account of the so-called COINdinistas is Kaplan, Insurgents.

50. Jeffrey H. Michaels, The Discourse Trap and the US Military: From the War on Terror to the Surge (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 107–146. Bob Woodward, The War Within (London: Pocket Books, 2008).

51. U.S. Army/Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

52. Strachan, Direction of War, 11. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 88, 605.

53. Clausewitz, On War, 177.

54. The exception is Mockaitis, who argues that there was a political goal from November 2005 on as expressed in the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. See his Iraq and the Challenge of Counterinsurgency, 136–137.

55. Journalistic accounts of SOF activities in the war on terror offer valuable insights into some operational details of their work—especially capture-and-kill missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan—but do not offer a systemic account of the expansion of irregular activities, including in the general-purpose forces, as part of a broader effort to promote full spectrum dominance. In Afghanistan, SOF remained an adjunct to a largely conventional military campaign. See Linda Robinson, One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare (New York: Public Affairs, 2013); Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2013); Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (New York: Penguin, 2013).

56. FID was described as a variant of irregular warfare in IW JOC 2007, 9.

57. For example, Metz, Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy, 159.

58. Michaels, Discourse Trap, 134.

59. Cited in Paul O’Neill, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 85.

60. Farrell, Norms of War, 13.

61. Indeed it may be argued that energy security was a fundamental component of Bush’s grand strategy—visible in Iraq—and, more broadly, that oil security is integral to American hegemony. On oil and hegemony see Doug Stokes and Sam Raphael, Global Energy Security and American Hegemony (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2010).

62. The notion of “inviting” American power is derived from Geir Lundestad, The United States and Western Europe Since 1945: From Empire by Invitation to Transatlantic Drift (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

63. Cited in Smith and Jones, Political Impossibility of Counterinsurgency, xix.

64. Khalili, Time in the Shadows, 5.

65. Gian Gentile, Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency (London: New Press, 2013), 33. Khalili, Time in the Shadows, 5.

66. See Colin Dueck, The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford 2016), 2.