The key arguments are presented in the introduction. The book traces the history of the US government's Irregular Warfare (IW) concept and the elevation of this into national strategy from Bush to Obama. This occurred in response to changes in the international security environment associated with globalization, exemplified, in particular, by the 9/11 attacks. The book focuses on the peripheral theaters of the war on terror—Africa, the Philippines, and Georgia—as early testing grounds for new IW techniques. The ultimate US objective was what the Pentagon called full spectrum dominance: dominance across the spectrum of conflict from conventional through irregular warfare. Ultimately, however, the IW approach was flawed: it did not prevent or contain terrorism in these regions, and often it exacerbated it.
This chapter starts by examining the early months of the Bush administration, in which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signaled his earliest concerns about the threat of nontraditional security challenges. The 9/11 attacks began to catalyze a new way of thinking about international security: in the twenty-first century, networked transnational actors, who could take refuge in weak and failing states, could challenge the United States in asymmetric ways that it was not equipped to respond to. This analysis led policymakers to turn gradually toward new irregular ideas about how to tackle terrorism: by using special operations forces to secure weak and failing states, the United States could prevent violent nonstate actors from taking refuge in ungoverned spaces. Early ideas about how to tackle terrorism culminated in the 2004 National Military Strategy, which outlined a world in which irregular security challenges were now as salient as traditional military threats.
This chapter examines the convergence of interest between the United States and the Philippines that led to a joint irregular campaign, starting in 2002, in the southern Philippines, an area beyond the control of the central government in Manila in which a violent Islamist group, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), was active. The sophisticated campaign of foreign internal defense (FID), a variant of Irregular Warfare, led by US special operations forces was an example of operations in the war on terror anticipating the formalization of policy, doctrine, and supporting bureaucracy back in Washington. Overall, however, there was little evidence that the FID program was diminishing the strength of the ASG. The cooperation Washington received from Manila stands in contrast to the more mixed reception it received from other key countries in Southeast Asia (Malaysian and Indonesia) as it tried, but ultimately failed, to implement a regional maritime security initiative.
Before 9/11, the Bush administration had identified sub-Saharan Africa as a key oil-producing region that could contribute to US energy security in the twenty-first century. After 9/11, US officials feared that transnational terrorists could exploit the porous borders and ungoverned spaces of Africa. To secure these areas, and at the same time stabilize a region now identified as an important oil-producing area, the United States launched multiple irregular campaigns, such as the Pan Sahel Initiative and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, designed to preclude the emergence of terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa. However, there was little evidence that the approach worked. The US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 contributed to the emergence of a new Islamist extremist group, Al-Shabaab, while the establishment of US Africa Command, the first US military command structure for Africa, to oversee this activity was unpopular with African leaders.
This chapter also examines the conjunction of counterterrorism and energy security. In the pre-9/11 years, Georgia was a key oil pipeline transit state at the center of the US plan to transport Caspian oil to the West. After 9/11, rumors that al-Qaeda-linked militants were taking refuge in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, an area beyond the control of the central government, led to the establishment of the Georgia train-and-equip program in February 2002. This was enthusiastically welcomed by the Georgian government as part of its long-term strategy of Western integration. Mutual satisfaction and shared perceptions of success encouraged both sides to expand the program in subsequent years. Yet as critical as Georgia was to US energy security, US support was not limitless. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, partly in response to Georgia's turn West, Tbilisi discovered that Washington would not come to its aid.
This chapter examines the continuing intellectual, policy, doctrinal, strategic, and organizational development of Irregular Warfare at the Department of Defense and the ways in which this continued to play out operationally in areas beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. The irregular approach to counterterrorism that was emerging was defined by the Pentagon in 2006 as "war in countries we are not at war with." This approach entailed both the expansion of special operations forces and rebalancing the conventional military forces toward activities traditionally associated with special forces, such as irregular and asymmetric operations, stability operations, counterinsurgency, and psychological warfare against "decentralized network threats from nonstate actors." Many of these changes were ongoing and long term, and they survived the departure of Donald Rumsfeld from the Pentagon. His successor, Robert Gates, was also committed to maintaining a balance of conventional and irregular capabilities conducive to full spectrum dominance.
This chapter examines the intellectual, bureaucratic, and policy shifts at the Department of State and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) designed to facilitate the interagency synergy required to wage a major irregular warfare campaign. Transformational diplomacy and transformational development were authentic attempts to address the security implications of weak and failing states—the root cause of terrorism, according to the Bush administration—and develop what amounted to a nonkinetic irregular response capability. However, the pace and scope of the change meant that the "transformations" in diplomacy and development were often underfunded (at least initially), slow to come to fruition, and managed in an ad hoc manner. Despite this, there were some notable successes: the development of civilian response and reserve corps and an interagency program on stability operations run jointly between State and DoD.
The final chapter demonstrates that by the start of the Obama administration, the concept of Irregular Warfare had become normalized across the US government, even if, in practice, it was often still disorganized and ad hoc. Obama accepted the Bush administration's analysis of security in an age of globalization, the salience of irregular threats, and the dangers of weak states. Although he oversaw the drawdown of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, other smaller-scale irregular operations continued in peripheral regions (the Philippines, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere). Obama remained committed to ensuring the United States retained full spectrum capabilities. However, he also had a more restrained vision of American hegemony and was less inclined to use these irregular capabilities for the purposes of major combat operations.
The conclusion makes the case that Bush administration's attempt to achieve full spectrum dominance represented a willful rejection of the narrative of American decline prevalent in the early twenty-first century. It was the most expansive definition of American primacy ever articulated. Yet as it applied to the war on terror, the turn toward IW was anchored in a false analysis of the root causes of terrorism: weak and failing states. This analysis, which ignored all local and national specificities, led to the application of a generic, depoliticized, one-size-fits-all response: irregular warfare tactics designed to build security, stability, and governance; these were deemed to be the correct response to every manifestation of terrorism. The Bush and Obama administrations never understood the ineffectiveness, and occasionally the counterproductiveness, of these irregular interventions.