In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The plan on paper was that the indirect actions were primary, and that direct action was only meant to buy space and time. But in practice, direct action came to rule the day.

—Admiral Eric Olson, former commander of US Special Operations Command, October 8, 2020

After two decades of waging irregular warfare the United States remains ineffective at influencing populations. Rather than using its power to achieve legitimacy through persuasion and influence, the United States relies on two coercive approaches to irregular warfare: directly attacking enemy forces and training partner forces to directly attack enemy forces. The military refers to these as “direct” and “indirect” approaches, descriptions that differ according to narrow means, the who, rather than broader ways, the how. As a former Special Forces officer describes it, “both [approaches] come to the same place: killing somebody. The question then becomes who pulls the trigger.” This poor conceptualization leads the US military to overly focus on units and capabilities that employ coercion and neglect those that influence populations.

Why has the US military’s understanding of irregular warfare converged on the use of coercive force over the last two decades? In 1989, retired Colonel Arthur Lykke published a renowned article in Military Review defining strategy as the sum of ends, ways, and means. The reductionist formula has led to “an overemphasis on simplistically applying resources” while failing to develop creative ideas for how to employ them. The tendency to focus on means plagued the United States as it waged counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaigns around the world after 9/11. Options focused too narrowly on the exact size and composition of US forces to the exclusion of how those forces should be employed. Instead, irregular warfare must be understood according to the ways, such as the type of power employed and the intended effect of that power. Alternative ways of population influence include information operations (persuasion) and defense institution building (inducement); though they have played a supporting role to coercive force in the post-9/11 era, they have not been considered independent approaches. State adversaries have taken note, adapting their own strategies to capitalize on America’s inability to conduct successful information and influence operations.

Both special operations and conventional forces have misused conceptions of indirect and direct approaches, with negative implications for how the United States views its options in irregular warfare. As the United States faces increasingly difficult challenges from great power rivals, as well as continued threats from nonstate actors, it needs to invest in capabilities built for noncoercive influence and stop overapplying coercive force to address irregular warfare problem sets.

Direct and Indirect Approaches

Western militaries’ conception of the “indirect approach” emerged from British soldier and military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart, who, in response to what he believed was the avoidable disaster of World War I, argued that militaries should avoid the main strengths of their adversaries and instead attack their physical and psychological vulnerabilities. US doctrine combines Hart’s argument with Clausewitz’s concept of a “center of gravity” to describe direct and indirect approaches. According to Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Planning, direct approaches apply combat power against an enemy’s center of gravity, whereas indirect approaches attack an enemy’s center of gravity through critical vulnerabilities while avoiding its strengths.

The delineation of direct and indirect approaches makes sense when planning conventional operations against a known adversary in a defined battlespace such as cutting supply lines along the Western Front. These concepts do not easily translate to irregular warfare, which the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy defines as “a struggle among state and non-state actors to influence populations and affect legitimacy.” Problematically, the next sentence declares that irregular warfare “favors indirect and asymmetric approaches” without defining the indirect approach. The actions of special operations forces in America’s post-9/11 wars reveal the military’s definition of direct and indirect approaches: directly targeting non-state enemies unilaterally or targeting them indirectly through partner forces.

Special Operations Forces: Indirectly to Blame

The labels of direct and indirect approach go beyond semantics; they influence operational and institutional strategy across the military and affect how we conceptualize our options in irregular warfare. Early in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, special operations leaders described the indirect approach as addressing root causes and environmental factors that facilitate terrorism and instability, a holistic approach to conflict in line with Joint Publication 5-0. For example, the leadership of US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) repeatedly told members of Congress that the indirect approach “will be decisive” and that the direct approach (i.e., the United States killing terrorists) was only a supporting effort. The indirect approach was then described as creating “an environment that is inhospitable to terrorism” and “eliminating underlying conditions” and “extremist ideologies.”

Over time, the way special operations leaders spoke about the indirect approach shifted and narrowed. Though training foreign forces was always a subcomponent of the indirect approach, it has come to be the single emphasis. For example, a decade after the war in Afghanistan began, Admiral William McRaven described the indirect approach as “focused on advising, assisting, and training our global partners.” Building partner capacity and operating “by, with, and through” foreign forces allows the United States to minimize risk and achieve economy of force. However, conflating this line of effort with the indirect approach is problematic for two reasons. First, there are other important components to irregular warfare that are neither direct action nor building partner capacity, such as information operations. Second, conflating train, advise, and assist missions with the indirect approach only distinguishes the means, limiting thinking about other possible applications of military power. Training and assisting foreign forces to militarily defeat an enemy is the direct approach through a proxy; it fundamentally does not change the commander’s underlying theory of how to defeat the adversary. In fact, working through partner forces can become a mechanism for US units to directly engage in combat themselves, using their training mission as the justification to conduct otherwise kinetically oriented operations.

The conflation of the indirect approach with training missions is vividly captured in Jessica Donati’s book Eagle Down. She describes how Special Forces teams in Afghanistan from 2015 to 2018 were frequently tasked with recapturing territory lost to the Taliban. The teams were effectively operating as conventional infantry units, except they mostly (and sometimes reluctantly) fought alongside Afghan counterparts. Despite the conventional and direct nature of these engagements, military leaders insisted that Special Forces units were only conducting train, advise, and assist missions. In other words, though the teams were fighting pitched battles and had little engagement with local populations, they were employing the indirect approach. Conflating the indirect approach with advisory missions offers civilian policymakers politically expedient solutions but precludes more meaningful discussions about how the military can best be used in the conflict or whether it should be used at all. The approach has not yielded strategic success, as the Taliban is currently poised to retake the same cities Special Forces helped Afghans recapture several times.

Limiting the indirect approach to train, advise, assist or by, with, and through operations has a detrimental impact on the military’s institutional strategy as well. US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) formalized the distinction of direct and indirect in its doctrine under the labels of “surgical strike” and “special warfare.” Special warfare is undertaken by a force specially trained in foreign languages and culture with “proficiency in small-unit tactics, and the ability to build and fight alongside indigenous combat formations.” Based on this definition, civil affairs and psychological operations are doctrinally unable to conduct special warfare. Given these observations, it is unsurprising that the psychological operations force structure and capabilities have failed to keep pace with USSOCOM’s tremendous growth. From 2001 to 2015, the number of active duty psychological operations soldiers actually shrank from roughly 1,200 to 1,050, while a dataset built by the author found the percentage of civil affairs and psychological operations soldiers fell from over 20% of USSOCOM’s military force structure to less than 5%. The sharp decline was largely the result of shifting all reserve civil affairs and psychological operations soldiers (roughly 9,000 at the time) out of USSOCOM in 2006, but that simply made it easier for special operations leaders to marginalize the remaining forces and the operations they conduct. Psychological operations units also have significant shortfalls in their ability to conduct sophisticated operations on the internet and social media, which are becoming more important in irregular warfare. The military needs to redefine its approaches to irregular warfare to fully leverage forces and capabilities that influence populations, such as those that operate in the information environment.

The Direct Impact on Conventional Doctrine

The misuse of direct and indirect approaches in irregular warfare has not been limited to special operations forces. For example, the current version of Field Manual 3-24, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies applies the means-based descriptions of direct and indirect approaches rather than an understanding based on the enemy’s center of gravity. FM 3-24 describes one approach to counterinsurgency, the population-centric approach, based on two different sets of means. The direct approach is “resource intensive” and primarily uses American forces, whereas the indirect approach uses fewer American resources by working through host-nation forces. The direct approach uses the framework of “shape-clear-hold-build-transition,” which is designed to provide security and win support from the population. The indirect approach describes a similar framework to win popular support, but US forces are mostly replaced with host-nation forces and the words “shape-clear-hold-build-transition” are replaced with “identify-separate-isolate-influence-reintegrate.” The primary difference between the two approaches is the scale of US force commitment and the emphasis on host-nation forces, both of which are means rather than ways to defeat an insurgency.

This means-based approach to population-centric counterinsurgency fails to consider alternative centers of gravity. Chapter seven of FM 3-24, “Planning and Operational Considerations,” states that the center of gravity for an insurgency could include elements like external support from another country or the group’s core leadership. However, the chapters describing direct and indirect approaches only fit with the population-centric framework of winning support from the population. The doctrine is inadequate for addressing counterinsurgency problems the United States currently faces. For example, a population-centric approach failed to defeat the Taliban insurgency because external support from Pakistan, not the Afghan population, was arguably the center of gravity. No amount of force, either direct or indirect, thrown to a population-centric approach in Afghanistan will lead to a successful theory of victory if it is focused on the wrong center of gravity.

Reconceptualizing Approaches to Irregular Warfare for Great Power Competition

Irregular warfare is likely to become even more important in great power competition than it has been since the end of the Cold War. As the United States prosecuted irregular warfare against weaker adversaries in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other locations around the globe, it relied primarily on military overmatch to succeed. This method was far from optimal, though limited capabilities among US adversaries prevented them from severely harming US national interests. Proxy wars and gray zone competition with near-peer adversaries will not be as forgiving. States like China and Russia have already adapted their strategies to capitalize on the capabilities the US military has marginalized over the past thirty years. As the line between direct and indirect approaches blurred and indirect approaches became conflated with training missions, these states moved to fill the void of all other operations meant to “influence populations,” especially in the information environment. Competing effectively against near-peer states will require a revision of its approach to irregular warfare.

One way the military can do so is to recast the direct and indirect approach according to existing doctrinal definitions previously described. The direct approach would be the application of all resources applied to the population, such as civil affairs and psychological operations, and the indirect approach would be any effort to influence populations and build legitimacy not directed at the population, including both training missions and direct action. While this solution brings the terminology in line with doctrine, it does not fundamentally solve the problem of uncreative and poorly conceived approaches to irregular warfare.

A better way to improve our approaches to irregular warfare would be to abandon the idea of direct and indirect approaches altogether. Though they still have utility in planning for conventional warfare, the simplistic division has limited our creativity and strategy in irregular warfare. Instead of creating a single division between irregular warfare approaches, the military should consider a more nuanced typology of irregular warfare. The typology should primarily focus on forms of power applied, such as coercion, inducement, or persuasion, and the intended effect, such as to enable, assure, compel, deter, or destroy. A more complicated typology could add additional variables, such as the primary and secondary audiences affected by US actions. More complicated typologies sacrifice the ability to describe an approach in simple and abstract terms, but they would force more creativity and place more focus on how to apply power rather than which means should be applied.

The United States has not learned how to effectively influence populations or affect legitimacy even though it has been waging irregular warfare continuously for the past two decades. The US military underinvests in forces and capabilities built for noncoercive influence, such as information and psychological operations. At the same time, it overapplies coercive force, falsely believing that defeating armed adversaries, either unilaterally or with a partner, is the same as building legitimacy. The US military needs to completely reconceptualize its approaches to irregular warfare by focusing on the type of power employed and its intended effect rather than the means used to apply power. China, Russia, and Iran are destabilizing threats not because they can apply coercive force more successfully than the United States, but because they do not have to in order to advance their agendas. To effectively influence populations and build US legitimacy in competition with these adversaries, the United States military needs to ask which levers should be pulled rather than who should pull the trigger.

Cole Livieratos is an Army strategist and term member in the Council on Foreign Relations. He teaches in West Point’s Defense and Strategic Studies Program and is the course director for two courses, “Insurgency & Counterinsurgency” and “Leadership in Future War.” He is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University completing his dissertation on special operations institutions and strategy in irregular warfare.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt, US Navy