Armed Hostilities

Unconventional Warfare on the Global War on Terror

Table of Contents
  1. Literature Review
  2. Analysis
  3. Conclusion
  4. Reference List
  5. Footnotes

The use of the term “unconventional” about warfare becomes so common that more and more of its main aspects become “conventional”, so to speak. Throughout history leading conventional warfare implied that two military forces of states engaged in an armed conflict, and accordingly they face each other on a battlefield using conventional weapons.1 Those characteristics become less and less frequent, leading to that conventional warfare becoming the exception, rather than the rule, implying that “unconventional warfare” is not so “unconventional” after all. In that regard, it can be stated that even the term asymmetric warfare, i.e. a vast discrepancy in military forces according to which a fast victory is achieved, becomes the standard “conventional” warfare method led by the United States. As stated by Thomas Barnett in his book The Pentagon’s New Map (2004), the US leading an asymmetrical warfare in the 21st century succeeds in intimidating enemies so that a rapid military success is achieved. 2 However, it is the second stage to which unconventional warfare is applied, a stage in which the enemy largely disappears. Such stage was apparent through the 9/11 attack, in which terrorists attacked US targets on US soils. Such stage is also apparent through the latest US military campaigns, in which, following the quick defeat of the enemy, the US fails to manage the next transition phase. In such phase, terrorism and insurgency occur as unconventional enemies, and for which conventional warfare might not be a suitable solution.

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Following the way the United States responded to the terrorist attacks through military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, it can be stated that there are certain difficulties in managing unconventional enemies, indicating a lesson that should be learned from such response. It is certain that most terrorist attacks are and will be from the gap, a term coined by Barnett to outline the states that did not integrate into globalization and globalization’s security rule sets. Accordingly, until such gap integrates with the rest of the world, the countries falling within such gap will be a major terrorism export source and a threat to the United States.3 Thus, identifying the methods of dealing with unconventional enemies can be seen as a topic which significance is unlikely to decrease anytime soon. With the Global War on Terror (GWOT) still ongoing, it can be stated that it is necessary to conduct unconventional warfare to win such war.

Literature Review

In the present context of the GWOT, the definition of unconventional warfare might be provided according to Barnett’s view, which views the main problem in dealing with the post transitional period of a military campaign, i.e. a continuous initiative of occupying post-conflict transition spaces, focusing on civilian partnerships and allied forces to be integrated and political victories to be won.4 Nevertheless, the doctrine of unconventional warfare is not a new notion, and thus, it might imply other aspects as well. The doctrine of unconventional warfare, although abandoned in recent years, was an element of the US military tradition for almost 300 years.5 The different definitions of unconventional warfare might imply also such aspects as institutionalizing the work with and through local irregular armies, using Special Forces shaping the post conflict environment, and/or unconventionally using military power. 6 It should be noted that considering the efforts to combat terrorism in failed states, it can be seen that the definition provided by Barnett includes all of the aforementioned aspects in managing the post-conflict environment.

One approach to unconventional warfare can be seen through counterinsurgency strategies, which development took a decisive turn following the Vietnam War. In promoting the role of counter insurgency strategies a large role is devoted to practitioners, who developed the theory and practice of counter insurgency. The need for such strategies can be explained through several factors, which in the context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be explained through the corresponding occurrence of insurgencies, right after the invasion and the defeat of the enemy. It is argued that the implementation of proper governance can be seen as the main panacea for insurgency, which main goal is “reestablishing the bond between the population and the government”. 7 It can be seen that such rationale cannot explain the need for unconventional warfare, considering the argument that the focus on population degrades the ability to fight conventional threats to national security.8

Thus, it can be stated that counterinsurgency strategies fail to incorporate all the goals and the aims in fighting the threats of conventional warfare. At the same time, it can be stated that the position of pure military power in fighting such unconventional enemy might be limited as well. True, the military initiatives led by the United States were successful in crushing any opposition, either in Iraq or Afghanistan, but at the same time it is stated in Rothstein (2006) that the scale of the operation might pose a challenge in the way the armed forces can respond to the ever changing environment. On the one hand, whenever the armed forces are comprised of attrition warfare, i.e. focusing on internal administration and operations, the less those forces are to external environment, i.e. the enemy, the terrain, and the specific characteristic of particular conflicts. 9 On the other hand, whenever the forces are focusing on maneuvering, the more external the focus is, “[s]tudying the enemy, identifying his weaknesses, and configuring one’s own capabilities to exploit those weaknesses”.10 Equally distributing attrition and maneuvering is argued to be challenging in the case of leading unconventional warfare, as stated in Rothstein (2006). Accordingly, the latter leads to that mainly the US military plays the attrition strategy, failing to respond to unconventional enemies in an ever changing setting.

Another historical fact supporting the doctrine of unconventional warfare can be seen in Brister (2005), in which historical evidences of the US engaging such type of warfare were cited.11 The author nevertheless, states that the current realities demand a new strategy for unconventional warfare. The approach proposed is titled authoritative control, which is accordingly, is more representative of the realist paradigm, establishing authority rather than popularity among the population. In that regard, a general trend can be witnessed through such review is that historical evidences are important in indicating the necessity of unconventional warfare, where current failures serve as arguments for using such approach.

Finally, the method proposed by Thomas Barnett in leading warfare is mostly governed by the realist paradigm, although largely can be stated to apply to the deficiencies observed in other approaches. Simply put, Barnett argues that to combat terrorism in a failed state the responsibilities, the tasks, and the goals should be divided between two forces, the leviathan force 0 brute military power, and system administrators, trained professionals who will manage the transitional space, after the invasion. Although, it can be assumed that the term unconventional refers to combining those two forces, it can be stated that it is the “Sys Admins” notion which constitutes the unconventionality of warfare.

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Thus, it can be stated that there are different views on the way US military can respond to the enemy leading unconventional warfare. One common element in the review is the need for a new strategy to combat the terrorist threat. Accordingly, a rationale should be provided for such strategy, defining the measures that will demonstrate success in defeating the threat. Accordingly, it can be stated that the views on unconventional l warfare along with the deficiencies in the current US military interventions are viewed in light of the realist paradigm, i.e. thinking and acting in terms of interests defined as power.12 Self interest can be seen through national security goals, avoiding terrorists’ threats, protecting national interests, etc. With all those initiatives taking place on foreign soil, it can be assumed that the liberal paradigm will be better suited to explain the strategies that should be adopted to combat terrorism, especially considering that terrorism is an international threat. The liberal paradigm in that regard, can be seen as a more suitable approach, in which the goal of any initiatives are the restoration of the normal conditions of states, which is peace, through eliminating the factors that hinder such conditions. Accordingly, the hypothesis that emerges in the light of the liberal tradition is that conventional warfare does not contribute to the restoration of peace in a failed state. The research question that can be derived for such hypothesis is: 1) why the use of administrative forces, as proposed by Barnett, can be seen as a suitable method of unconventional warfare?; 2) why is unconventional warfare is necessary for the restoration of peace, as an aim of the GWOT?


Answering research question will be conducted through two phases, the first of which is analyzing the applicability for Barnett’s Sys Admins as a method of leading unconventional warfare, and second, linking unconventional warfare –the independent variable, to the condition of the failed state in which the military campaign takes place –dependent variable. Both variables will be analyzed within literature, including those covered the review.

The rationale of the method proposed by Barnett can be in its generalizability. Defining unconventional warfare, also called irregular in some instances, the differences in the definitions provided by the Department of Defense (DoD) are based on whether focusing on “who conducts it” or “how it is conducted”.13 In that regard, Barnett’s proposed solution covers both aspects, and at the same time does not provide a single correct way of doing it. In terms of “who”, Barnett states that the Sys Admin forces are those run by an older soldiers who have families, among which are many military advisors and trainers. They should have expertise in the systems and functions of governments, cultural experts, and engineers various fields.14 Accordingly, explaining the “how it is conducted” part, it can be stated that generally their functions is mostly related to helping the failed state in the transitional period, and putting the country on the track of integrating it into the core. As opposed to the approaches used such as the Special Forces, and/or institutionalizing the work with and through irregular armies, the approach proposed by Barnett is more general. That is, it is not only concerned with security as the ultimate goal, rather than a mean to build the capacity of the state. At the same time, the integration of the Sys Admins Force is also a response to an unconventional enemy, which utilizes the characteristics of failed states to pose a threat. Taking examples of failed states and the manifestations of unconventional terrorists’ threats, it can be seen that most of them utilize the unique characteristics of the Gap.

Somalia for example, according to Maplecroft, a UK organization providing ratings for terrorism risks, is the top country with the most risk of a terrorism threat.15 The characteristics of Somalia include poor economic conditions, internal conflicts, the absence of law enforcements, and radical Islamist groups among other. All of those factors contribute to the utilization of Somalia as a training ground for terrorism and the fact that more than 556 terrorist attacks occurred in Somalia for one year.16 Using conventional warfare might eliminate the short term terrorism threat, reducing terrorist population, but will not eliminate the conditions that contributed to the occurrence of a breeding ground for terrorism in the first place. The same can be said about Afghanistan and Iraq, where in terms of the former, according to Barnett, it was a violent place even before Taliban stepped in and a major of source of heroin.17 Thus, securing the environment and building the capacity of a failed state through a combination of leviathan force and Sys Admins can be seen as a method of conventional warfare.

The first reason for the implementation of unconventional warfare can be seen through the way an unconventional enemy operates. With the defeat of a filed state, the enemy is dispersed, where one of the insurgencies tactics used is operating through the population; “[i]n Afghanistan and Iraq the insurgent’s have optimized time, access to the population, and irregular warfare tactics in an attempt to win the minds of the local populations”.18 In a presentation performed on Ted, Barnett explained the reason for the failure is that the population turned on against the US military, because they were “fed up”.19 Trapped between US military and violence, looting, arms and military disappearing and terrorist acts, they were utilized by terrorist and radical organizations in their insurgency tactics. Thus, if asking the question of what the initial condition of the state should look like, the answer will be security AND rebuilt state capacity. Thus, one reason for using unconventional warfare is winning the population, so that it condemns the acts of terrorism. It should be noted that security is not less important than capacity building, where both aspects should be interchanged. It is noted that when security is absent, “the vast majority of the population typically remains uncommitted, providing support only when coerced, or when a clear winner emerges”.20 No security means failed attempts in reconstruction and political reforms, as it was evident in Iraq, and at the same time, the absence of resurrection efforts, will result in a need for a massive and continuous funding, draining US resources to keep the security in a failed state. The need for both efforts, security and capacity building, can be seen through the failed operation Restore Hope in Somalia, when the security efforts of UNITAF forces were replaced with the humanitarian mission of UNISOM I and II, leading to the withdrawal of the US and UN forces from Somalia.21

Another reason for the use of unconventional warfare is the elimination of the breeding ground for the sources of terrorism threat. In that regard, it should be mentioned that the condition of peace in a liberal tradition will not imply returning the state into the condition that it was in before the military intervention, e.g. Saddam’s regime, Taliban’s regime, etc. According to Barnett, such state can be seen through the integration back into the core, which implies several aspects, such as removing human rights abuses, freedom of speech, fair elections, etc. Thus, it is not merely using Special Forces to eliminate the bands of insurgencies that occurred after the invasion, nor it is a destruction of the government or its followers. As argued in Rothstein (2006), it is also in the additional measures taken, which will restore the default condition of a state – peace; “[o]nce one of these threats to global security is brought under control or neutralized, development or reconstruction efforts must be taken to preclude the seeds that created that organization in the first place from germinating again”.22

Analyzing a work such as Rothstein’s Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare, it can be seen that one of the arguments used for unconventional warfare is the challenge of the army in adapting the strategy to the changes in the enemy form conventional into unconventional. Barnett’s argument, on the other hand, is that such change in the strategy is not necessary, as different forces will do the job. The military’s focus should remain in waging the leviathan force in an asymmetric warfare, when necessary. There is no need to switch back and forth from humanitarian aid and shooting. At the same time, the importance of managing security in the invaded country is still important, albeit by different force which not only secure the environment, but will ensure that the initial causes for the threat to occur are not existent.

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Analyzing the arguments provided in that paper, it can be stated that two main points were emphasized. One point is that administrative tasks combined with security measures is an unconventional warfare method, as it is targeting enemy, although not in a direct armed conflict, and it removes the initial causes for its appearance. The second point is that unconventional warfare is necessary for the restoration of peace in a state in which the threat of terrorism occurs. Such initiatives were conducted by the US before, while it is suggested that such strategy becomes a blueprint for action. It was argued that the countries disintegrated from globalization will remain as the main source of terrorism threat and thus, conventional methods target merely the threat itself, rather than the reasons for which a state becomes disintegrated. The implications of the findings for US foreign policy can be seen through targeting regional security, rather than focusing on a single country a source of terrorism. The latter can be specifically seen in the light of the emergent threat of terrorism in Africa, where similar conditions in neighboring countries contribute to that the threat is attributed to the entire continent.

Reference List

Barnett, Thomas P. M. The Pentagon’s New Map : War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004.

Brister, Paul D. “Beyond Hearts and Minds: Evaluating Us Unconventional Warfare Doctrine.” NAVAL POSTGRADUATE SCHOOL, 2005.

Campbell, James D. “Making Riflemen from Mud”: Restoring the Army’s Culture of Irregular Warfare.” UNITED STATES ARMY WAR COLLEGE CIVILIAN RESEARCH PROJECT (2007). Web.

Creveld, Martin van. Modern Conventional Warfare: An Overview. Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 2004. Discussion Paper.

Daddow, Oliver J. International Relations Theory Sage Course Companions. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009.

DeWitt, Garrett Scott, “Counterinsurgency Colonels: The Role of the Practitioner in the Evolution of Modern Counterinsurgency”, Theses and Dissertations. Web.

Haas, Christopher. “A Standing Unconventional Warfare Task Force to Combat Insurgency in the 21st Century.” USAWC STRATEGY RESEARCH PROJECT (2005). Web.

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Jones, D. “Ending the Debate: Unconventional Warfare, Foreign Internal Defense, and Why Words Matter.” Colorado School of Mines, 2006.

Kennet h C. Coon s, Jr., and Glenn M. Harned. “Irregular Warfare Is Warfare.” Institute for National Strategic Studies (2009). Web.

Kligman, Aimée, “Somalia Heads the Maplecroft Terrorist Index”. Web.

Rothstein, Hy S. Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2006.

Stevenson, Jonathan. “Demilitarising the ‘War on Terror’.” Survival 48, no. 2 (2006): 37-54.

TED, “Thomas Barnett Draws a New Map for Peace”, TED Conferences.

UN Department of Public Information, “United Nations Operation in Somalia I”.


  1. Martin van Creveld, Modern Conventional Warfare: An Overview (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 2004), Discussion Paper.
  2. Thomas P. M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map : War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004).
  3. Ibid., 88.
  4. Ibid., 320.
  5. James D. Campbell, “Making Riflemen from Mud”: Restoring the Army’s Culture of Irregular Warfare,” UNITED STATES ARMY WAR COLLEGE CIVILIAN RESEARCH PROJECT (2007). Web.
  6. Ibid; D. Jones, “Ending the Debate: Unconventional Warfare, Foreign Internal Defense, and Why Words Matter” (Colorado School of Mines, 2006); Jonathan Stevenson, “Demilitarising the ‘War on Terror’,” Survival 48, no. 2 (2006).
  7. Garrett Scott DeWitt, “Counterinsurgency Colonels: The Role of the Practitioner in the Evolution of Modern Counterinsurgency”, Theses and Dissertations. Web.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Hy S. Rothstein, Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2006), 131.
  10. Ibid., 2.
  11. Paul D. Brister, “Beyond Hearts and Minds: Evaluating Us Unconventional Warfare Doctrine” (NAVAL POSTGRADUATE SCHOOL, 2005).
  12. Oliver J. Daddow, International Relations Theory, Sage Course Companions (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009).
  13. Jr. Kennet h C. Coon s and Glenn M. Harned, “Irregular Warfare Is Warfare,” Institute for National Strategic Studies (2009). Web.
  14. Barnett.
  15. Aimée Kligman, “Somalia Heads the Maplecroft Terrorist Index”. Web.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Barnett.
  18. Christopher Haas, “A Standing Unconventional Warfare Task Force to Combat Insurgency in the 21st Century,” USAWC STRATEGY RESEARCH PROJECT (2005). Web.
  19. TED, “Thomas Barnett Draws a New Map for Peace”, TED Conferences. Web.
  20. Haas.
  21. UN Department of Public Information, “United Nations Operation in Somalia I”. Web.
  22. Rothstein.

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