Making Sense of Irregular War

In this article, Joe Brown reminds us that most conflict does not involve state-on-state military confrontation. When it comes to multi-domain thinking, one must not only consider multi-domain actions in large-scale war, but also how to apply multi-domain solutions across the range of military options and effectively use all national instruments of power. Keep this in mind as the author helps us make sense of irregular warfare.

By Joe Brown

Theory will have fulfilled its main task when it is used to analyze the constituent elements of war, to distinguish precisely what at first sight seems fused, to explain in full the properties of the means employed and to show their probable effects, to define clearly the nature of the ends in view. Theory then becomes a guide to anyone who wants to learn about war from books; it will light his way, ease his progress, train his judgment, and help him to avoid pitfalls.

— Karl Von Clausewitz, On War, 1832

Irregular war is an abused and non-intuitive term. It has become a catch-all phrase for any type of conflict which departs from the type of army-on-army, set-piece battle about which the History Channel likes to make documentaries. The term is often conflated and used interchangeably with unconventional, revolutionary, asymmetric, guerrilla, insurgent, civil, hybrid, and even terroristic war. In its etymological formulation, it connotes war that is not normal, deviant, or rare. This connotation is inaccurate and misleading because most armed conflict since 1945 has been of the irregular variety. Irregular wars have also been regarded as a lesser set of conflicts, described using terms such as “small wars” and “brushfire wars.” The implication is that these wars are easier and preparation for “regular” war, i.e. state-on-state conflict, is more than sufficient. This attitude has decreased after the humbling US experiences in Vietnam and Iraq, but the term still muddies the issues. Why is there so much confusion about irregular warfare?

To disentangle the confusing mess of irregular war, we must address four questions:

  1. What do we mean by irregular war?
  2. What is the central problem?
  3. What is the fundamental solution?
  4. What can an external actor do about it?

As a guide to practical action, we must address each of these questions in turn.

 What do we mean by irregular war?

The confusion about irregular war arises because, in modern war theorist Emile Simpson’s words, “wars and armed conflicts in general are typically classified in terms of their means, not their ends.” Terrorism, insurgency, and guerrilla attacks are all methods. Irregularity in terms of non-uniformed forces and indirect force application describe how the war is fought, not why. While this may seem like academic semantics, it is not. A strategist must never lose focus on ends. Strategy requires the rational linking of ends and means. If the strategist focuses on means, the means can become ends in and of themselves. Thus, it is crucial that we talk about war in terms of ends, even if it feels unnatural. In this framework, World War II and the 1991 Gulf War should not be called “conventional” or “traditional” wars. They are, in fact, an aberration in the whole of 20th century conflict. These wars are most aptly named wars of “hegemony” and “expansion,” respectively. It should be the object in dispute that defines the type of war. Thus, when one talks about irregular wars, what one really means are “wars of governance.” What defines these wars are not the specific methods used (terrorism, insurgency, etc.), but the fundamental question of “Who rules?” in a certain defined area. Therefore, the central problem of what is often called “irregular war” is the question of governance.

What is the central problem of wars of governance?

The central problem of wars of governance is contestation over who wields the legitimate use of force. This contest has arisen because the incumbent government has lost some degree of both legitimacy and control. This loss is rooted in poor governance, specifically an inability or unwillingness to deliver public goods and maintain what counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen calls a predictable “normative system.” This normative system is simply a set of rules that “tells them (the people) exactly what they need to do, and not do, in order to be safe.” This breakdown often derives from government corruption, ethnic particularism, or just state weakness. Contestation arises when another group challenges the incumbent government’s legitimacy and seeks to supplant it. There are three major actors in wars of governance: the incumbent, the insurgent, and the populace. They each have strengths and weaknesses that interact dynamically in response to their own deficiencies.

iraqcoinAt the outset of a war of governance, incumbents and insurgents have complementary strengths and weaknesses relative to one another. The incumbent typically has a monopoly or at least preponderance of resources and lethality. The insurgent has anonymity and mobility. The incumbent lacks the information to distinguish and use selective violence against the insurgent. The insurgent can easily distinguish the incumbent, but lacks the resources and firepower to confront the incumbent decisively. Put another way, the incumbent can kill every enemy he sees, but he cannot see everyone he wants to kill. The insurgent can see everyone he wants to kill, but cannot kill every enemy he sees. To make up for their deficiencies, each side must turn to the populace.

It is a cliché to say that in a war of governance the populace is the center of gravity. It is only cliché, though, because it is true. The populace is the center of gravity, because it is the source by which each side seeks to overcome the deficits inherent in their position. The populace collectively possesses the information necessary for the incumbent to selectively target and neutralize the insurgent. The populace also collectively possesses the resources, in terms of manpower, finances, and supply, which the insurgent needs to survive and eventually overcome the incumbent. The problem with the conception of the population as the center of gravity is that it objectifies an actor; it assumes away the human agency of individuals. The populace is not simply acted upon; it also acts in line with its strengths and deficiencies. The weakness of the populace is its vulnerability; it has neither the incumbent’s firepower nor the insurgent’s anonymity. The strength of the populace is in time. Both the incumbent and insurgent must act; the populace can wait. Kilcullen is again helpful by identifying seven population survival strategies (fleeing, passivity, autarky, hedging, swinging, commitment, and self-arming), most of which manipulate the time pressures on the political actors to avoid their dominance. This brings us to the fundamental solution in a war of governance: control and strategic narrative.

What is the fundamental solution to wars of governance?

Given two political actors with divergent needs and a populace that can meet those needs, the side who can extract from the population will be successful. But how does one do this? The answer lies in leveraging two basic assumptions about the populace: unity and rationality.

Although we often talk about the “populace”, there really is no such thing as a populace. The populace collectively is composed of people individually. Each individual person has a myriad of views, prejudices, interests, and identities. This is the fundamental challenge of politics; how to derive collective action from individual self-interest. The key in a war of governance is leveraging the individual’s self-interest to survive. Regardless of other desires and preferences, a rational actor has a predominant interest in survival. By appealing to individuals’ desire for protection, an actor can stimulate unity from plurality. This mechanism of polarization overcomes the collective action. It creates E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.” Because people are vulnerable, they will collaborate by trading resources and information in exchange for protection. This protection can come from either side. Thus, the competition is for unification through protection. The political actors manifest this protection through control and narrative. The side who exerts control and gains acceptance for its strategic narrative can unify people into the populace and extract from it.

Control, by either side, derives from a capability for violence and does involve providing security for the population, but it is also more than that. It is the enforcement of a normative system of rules. According to Kilcullen, “it’s the predictability inherent in the existence of rules, publicly known and consistently enforced, not the content of the rules themselves, far less the popularity of a given government, that creates the feeling of safety that allows a normative system to function.” Control creates a normative rule set and this system of rules must be exclusive. It is not enough that the population collaborate while one side is present; the goal is that the population commit to your side. For the incumbent, useful compliance requires active denunciation of insurgents and supporters. For the insurgent, useful compliance requires active support in men and material. Each of these actions by the population entails risk and thus requires commitment. For the populace to reach this level of commitment implies not simply acquiescence to physical control, but the adoption of one side’s strategic narrative.

afcoinWhen discussing strategic narrative, one may be tempted to think that narrative is simply public affairs, propaganda, or some ethereal “winning hearts and minds” campaign. One might also think that narrative is about comparing ideologies or partisan viewpoints. Although a strategic narrative may have ideological elements and employ a strategic communications methodology, it is larger than that. According to Emile Simpson,strategic narrative is the explanation of actions.” It is the structure through which an audience interprets behavior and connects them to policy. An example best illustrates this concept. Imagine Boston in a state of martial law where the government closes the streets, imposes a curfew, and sends armed officers searching from house to house. If these actions occurred after the Boston Marathon bombing, most of the populace would accept this behavior, because they have adopted the government’s strategic narrative of “keeping people safe from terrorism.” If this occurred amid a colonial dispute regarding taxation and representation, the portion of the populace who have rejected the British government’s strategic narrative would view these same actions completely differently. Thus, strategic narrative is the rationale for how actions relate to intent. In a war of governance, the strategic narrative is less about abstract values like freedom and democracy and more about staying power. Given the populace’s condition of vulnerability, the most appealing strategic narrative is one which rationalizes long term commitment. The successful side will be the one who not only controls the populace today, but who will continue to do so in the future. This reality informs and limits what external actors can hope to accomplish.

What can an external actor like the United States do regarding other states’ wars of governance?

The answer is less than you think.

f-15-epawwsBecause the United States has the greatest military force the world has ever known, it seems heretical to suggest that there is little the US can do in wars of governance. Like Gulliver, we are incredulous at the suggestion that Lilliputian non-state groups could tie our hands and that our force is not fungible at all levels. Yet, in the words of the great international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz, “To say that militarily strong states are feeble because they cannot easily bring order to minor states is like saying a pneumatic hammer is weak because it is not suitable for drilling teeth. It is to confuse the purpose of instruments and to confound the means of external power with the agencies of internal governance. Inability to exercise political control over others does not indicate military weakness.” Conversely, military strength does not indicate the ability to exercise political control. The ability of an external actor to positively influence a war of governance is extremely limited and fraught with danger. Nonetheless, there are a few actions an external actor can take, depending on which side the actor supports.

If supporting the incumbent side, the external actor may be able to help the host government increase its selective use of force as well as its mobility and reach. Recently, the US has assisted with the former primarily through sharing ISR technology and training in intelligence methods. This intelligence assistance, early on, can help the incumbent overcome its deficit in information for selective targeting, but cannot replace the long-term need to gain the complicity of the population. The danger of this assistance comes from making the incumbent dependent on your high-technology ISR, causing him to avoid the hard work of controlling the population and winning the narrative.

An external actor can also, through technology and training, increase the mobility of the incumbent. This enhanced mobility can allow the incumbent to strike the insurgent in areas previously secured by geography to expand government control. It can also allow the incumbent to provide public goods in regions with poor infrastructure to enhance its strategic narrative. As with information, this assistance comes with a paradoxical downside. By relying on external assistance, the incumbent can undermine the staying power portion of its strategic narrative. For example, if the population perceives that the incumbent is only strong and legitimate because it is supported by the US and they know that the US is fickle and may abandon the incumbent, the populace is less likely to commit to the incumbent.

If supporting the insurgent side, an external actor’s level of influence is similarly limited. The insurgent’s lethality can be bolstered by funneling arms, supplies, or financing. Alternatively, it may be possible to offer a safe-haven from which the insurgent can operate, either through a contiguous ally or a no-fly zone. Ultimately, though, an external actor cannot solve the central problem of contested governance unless the actor intends to take over the responsibility for the long term. As philosopher John Stuart Mill writes concerning self-determination as the right of a people: “to become free by their own efforts…the only test…of a people’s having become fit for popular institutions is that they or a sufficient portion of them to prevail in the contest, are willing to brave labor and danger for their liberation.” The process of unifying the people is necessary not only to defeat the other side, but also to create the political conditions for stability after victory. This political consolidation can only be done by an internal party.


As discussed, irregular wars are really wars of governance, where the incumbent and insurgent use various forms of force to control and receive support from individuals who make up the populace. Due to the internal nature of the ends of such a conflict, an external actor’s actions have limited long term effects. Moreover, security assistance also represents a moral hazard for US foreign policy. By assisting an incumbent government or insurgent freedom fighter, the US takes on their problems and becomes responsible for the outcome. Classically represented in Vietnam, this co-dependency can create a spiraling mission creep as political leaders’ unwillingness to forego sunk costs cause ever greater US commitments. The counterinsurgency aphorism of “Can I, should I, must I” holds true not only at the tactical level, but also at the strategic level when considering intervention in foreign wars of governance.

Maj. Joseph Brown is a student at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. He is an USAF intelligence officer with an operational background in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. He has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with several special operations commands and national intelligence agencies. A graduate and former assistant professor of Political Science at the United States Air Force Academy, he has graduate degrees in security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and USAF Air Command and Staff College. He will begin his doctoral studies at Duke University in Political Science in the fall.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


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