Insurgencies arguably are the most agile, sophisticated form of conflict. Opportunistic practitioners with infinite persistence and unstructured approaches to problem-solving thrive on chaos that they deliberately engender. Skilled craftsmen gain leverage from second-, third-, even fourth- and fifth-level effects that unfold unpredictably. Trends toward ever greater complexity are evident.
-John M. Collins1
AFTER THE FALL of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War, new debates began at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, about the changing nature of the threat environment. What would the 1990s bring in the form of strategic threats to America? The War on Drugs? Transnational crime? Asymmetric warfare and fights in the urban environment? The next "big one?" Not much debate occurred on irregular warfare, however, because the military still existed in a bubble of denial about its Vietnam War experience. Those who sought to learn about theoretical warfare areas other than Clausewitzian trinitarian warfare found but one elective on the subject of irregular warfare and could only learn about indirect war by reading Sun Tzu.
Conventional military strategists did not hold counterinsurgency (COIN) and irregular warfare acolytes in high esteem. In fact, strategists marginalized COIN and irregular warfare, never regarding irregular warfare as worthy of strategic-level discussions. This attitude hindered the formulation of an unconventional warfare (UW) theory and kept irregular warfare out of strategic wargaming scenarios. In fact, strategists viewed counterinsurgency as a discipline with tactical and operational components that did not lend themselves to strategic consideration. Ironically, strategists continued to believe this even as all of the ingredients for a national security debate and the elevation of this form of war to a strategic art were forming around them.
True strategic thinking on the subject of COIN and irregular warfare should consider time and space and the long strategic view. What will the critical areas for the global war on terrorism (GWOT) be in the near future? One day we will find ourselves out of Iraq and Afghanistan with our force postured for the next crisis. What strategic direction will we take, and what should we be prepared to accomplish?
COIN and the Three Levels of War
As we transform the Army to face 21st-century irregular warfare enemies, we can still use the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war as guidelines for professional military development. Our acumen is probably the strongest at the tactical level, where our forces have by necessity adapted the time-honored principles of counterguerrilla and foreign internal defense (FID) doctrine to local circumstances. Lessons-learned databases and emerging tactics, techniques, and procedures abound within doctrinal and professional literature. The experience level of our forces in this environment steadily increases (as a result of multiple deployments), and a new generation of Soldiers and leaders now know the fundamentals of tactical actions in irregular warfare. But we will not win if the COIN campaign degenerates into a solely tactical fight.
The last 3 years have changed our thinking at the operational level of irregular warfare, primarily in the COIN domain. At this level, combat commanders translate strategic concepts into viable plans within theaters of war. Joint Special Operations University Report 05-2, Operationalizing COIN, captures current thinking on how we are to analyze insurgencies during the 21st century; guides joint force commanders in overall campaign design, effects-based operations, and logical lines of operations; and updates COIN principles within the context of the current enemy.2
We have begun other initiatives to increase our knowledge at the operational level of war as it pertains to irregular warfare and counterinsurgency. …