Special Forces doctrine, organization and training has traditionally centered on UW and the mission "to develop, organize, equip, train, and direct non-US forces in the conduct of guerrilla warfare." However, US foreign policy and our military operations have increasingly gravitated towards the other side of this COIN. The pun, though unintentional, describes the problem perfectly. In Viet Nam SF worked the UW mission with the Montagnards, Hmong and others while the Viet Cong conducted their own brand of UW. In Central and South America, SF more frequently worked with government military forces to combat local insurgencies. After 9/11, the focus became even more solidly on defeating insurgencies. The cult of COIN and the SOF operators reigned supreme.
With this year's Arab Spring and the near textbook example of a successful insurgency in Libya, I suggest that US foreign policy will be better served if it dispenses with its distrust of all insurgencies and releases its death grip on the status quo. As Thomas Jefferson advised us, a revolution now and then is a good thing. In this article I will point out a few salient points of current US doctrine on insurgencies and then examine the Libyan revolution through the lens of UW.
The version of FM 3-05.201, Special Forces Unconventional Warfare Operations, published in 2003 contains a wealth of well developed doctrine on insurgencies and the SF role in a US sponsored insurgency. There may be later editions of this FM, but the 2003 version is readily available on the internet. In its opening paragraphs, this FM states, "The intent of United States UW operations is to exploit a hostile power’s political, military, economic, and psychological vulnerability by developing and sustaining resistance forces to accomplish US strategic objectives." This is an important point. Our doctrine does not call for supporting insurgencies wherever they are found, nor does it push for the spreading of democracy and the American way of life. It is much more pragmatic and restrained in scope.
What is an Insurgency? FM 3-05.201 does an excellent job of answering this question. I cannot improve on the following three excerpts.
"Resistance may be either nonviolent or violent. Nonviolent resistance involves acts such as ostracism, tax evasion, boycotts, strikes, or other types of civil disobedience. Violent resistance includes sabotage, subversion, and guerrilla warfare. People usually resist nonviolently at first. However, they may willingly take up violent resistance if a subversive cadre provides them with a cause they perceive to be both worthy and achievable. If the sociopolitical conditions are oppressive enough, resistance may develop into an organized resistance movement."
"An insurgency is an organized resistance movement that uses subversion, sabotage, and armed conflict to achieve its aims. It is a protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken government control and legitimacy while increasing insurgent control and legitimacy - the central issues in an insurgency. Insurgencies normally seek to overthrow the existing social order and reallocate power within the country."
"The structure of a revolutionary movement can be compared to a pyramidal iceberg, the bulk of which lies submerged with only its peak visible. In building a resistance structure, insurgent leaders give principal attention to the development of a support infrastructure - a task done by specially trained personnel. The resistance cadre organizes the support infrastructure, which in turn supports the guerrillas. This infrastructure works among the citizens in rural villages, towns, and urban cities; within the military, police, and administrative apparatus of government; and among labor groups and students."
This FM goes on to explain the three phases of an insurgency; latent insurgency, guerrilla warfare, and mobile warfare. During the latent insurgency phase, the resistance leadership recruits, organizes and trains cadres and establishes cellular intelligence, operational, and support networks. It also infiltrates key civilian groups, such as political groups and trade unions, and government organizations, including the military. During the latent phase the resistance may also develop sources for funding and other external support. The guerrilla warfare phase is the overt military aspect of an insurgency. The transition from guerrilla warfare to conventional warfare is the last phase. If successful, this phase causes the collapse of the established government or the withdrawal of the occupying power. These phases do not necessarily follow each other sequentially throughout the country. An insurgency may never go beyond the guerrilla warfare stage or it may slip back to either the latent or guerrilla warfare stage if the mobile warfare stage is unsuccessful. In other words, the three phases can be quite fluid and ambiguous.
The bulk of the FM describes the tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) used by SF Operational Detachment Alphas (SFODAs) in supporting a US sponsored insurgency. There are seven phases in a US sponsored insurgency; preparation, initial contact, infiltration, organization, buildup, combat employment, and demobilization. Like the phases of insurgency, the different phases of US sponsorship may not receive the same degree of emphasis or may occur simultaneously. They may not even occur sequentially. These seven phases have stood the test of time in SF doctrine. Keeping in mind the previously mentioned doctrinal characteristics of an insurgency, let us examine the Libyan insurgency using the seven phases as an organizing outline.
Phase 1 - Preparation: Doctrine holds that there are two parts to this phase. The population is unified against the established government or occupying power. This happens in any insurgency, but in order to become a US sponsored insurgency efforts must also be made to prepare the people, or at least the insurgents, to accept US support.
The Libyan revolution or Libyan civil war officially began on 17 February 2011 when opposition organizers called for a "Day of Rage" to bring thousands of protesters into the streets throughout Libya. In actuality, the Libyan people and the Qathafi regime began preparing for this day months and even years beforehand. Dissatisfaction with and opposition to Qathafi's policies were present in most sectors of Libyan society. The events of the Arab Spring emboldened the people. February 17 was chosen as the "Day of Rage" to commemorate Benghazi demonstrations that were violently put down five years previously. As it turned out, events rapidly spun out of control when Qathafi quickly moved from heavy-handed crowd control to an all out shooting war against the dissidents. The dissatisfaction and opposition was also widespread within the Libyan military. This factor proved to be critical to the eventual success of the insurgency… at least as critical, if not more so, as NATO air intervention. The intent was not to begin a revolution or civil war, but to force the Qathafi regime to enact needed reforms. In spite of the extended preparation of the Libyan people for an insurgency, the conflict was still an accidental insurgency.
As to the task of preparing the Libyans to accept US support, we performed poorly. US policy and actions gave conflicting signals to the Libyan opposition. Since Qathafi's rehabilitation in 2003, we were only too eager to deal with him as was the rest of NATO. Our reaction to the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt were tepid and our support for the governments of Bahrain and Yemen certainly did not indicate that we would support the Libyan rebels. Perhaps the truth is that we never wanted the Libyan rebels to seek our support. We certainly had no stomach for another Afghanistan or Iraq. And rightly so.
Phase 2 - Initial Contact: This phase is normally accomplished by USG agencies other than SF. It could be State Department, CIA or DIA. I would argue that this is well within the capabilities of DoD clandestine HUMINT elements and should be integral to the SF Groups. In this phase the USG coordinates with the resistance leadership for desired US support.
The NTC originally did not seek direct outside military intervention in their struggle against Qathafi. This was evident in the embarrassing arrest of British SAS and Foreign Office personnel by the rebels in the early days of the conflict. The Libyans clearly wanted to do this themselves. The NTC did, however, seek international political support for their cause and help in stopping Qathafi from using his wealth stashed overseas. NTC emissaries and Libyan expatriates actively sought out contacts with sympathetic countries. Once Qathafi began to bring the full power of his forces against the rebels, the NTC realized they needed some kind of military help. This eventually led to France, Britain, Qatar and the US pushing for the UN no fly zone resolution. France seemed to be the driving force. Maybe their successful military intervention in Côte d'Ivoire whetted their appetite for more.
The Libyans wanted no part of foreign occupation, nor did the US public or political class have any stomach for boots on the ground. The use of that phrase, boots on the ground, was unfortunate. It ruled out deploying combat brigades to Benghazi (a smart thing), but it also ruled out deploying SF to assist the rebels. What would have been the NTC reaction if we offered to sponsor their insurgency the SF way? Low key and damned near invisible… certainly more so than the air operations enforcing the no fly zone. Much cheaper, too.
Phase 3 - Infiltration: To an SFODA, this is the most butt puckering phase. The teams infiltrate the area, establish communications with their base and contacts the resistance. Even if a successful initial contact is made at the national level, there is no guarantee that the SFODA's first contact with the resistance force leaders will go smoothly. In the early stage of an insurgency, local resistance leaders are usually quite independent and may have their own ideas on working with outsiders. The SFODA, on the other hand, trains hard for this specific task and practices for it every time it is deployed to a training mission with foreign forces. If anyone could do this, it would be an SFODA. In the case of Libya, augmenting the SFODAs with Qatari personnel or expatriates from the local areas could have greased the first contact. As Colonel Lang has aptly described the process, "First you sell yourself, then you are all sold."
Phase 4 - Organization: In this phase, the SFODA organizes, trains and equips insurgent leadership cadre. The emphasis is on developing infrastructure to include administrative and logistic functions. Since the rebellion transformed from a nationwide street protest to an armed insurgency in only a few days, the rebels had to both organize and buildup their forces simultaneously. The rebel fighters were geographically isolated into four areas providing very different environments for the growing insurgent forces; the forces around Benghazi, the defenders of Misrata, the largely Berber forces in the Nafusa Mountains and the nascent underground in Tripoli.
The rebels from Benghazi began the war as little more than a partially armed, leaderless mob. This is the force that initially took Brega and Ras Lanuf by sheer numbers and enthusiasm. Although this force was no match for Qathafi's tanks, artillery and aircraft, it did manage to stop Qathafi's armored assault on Benghazi the night before the NATO bombing started. In a few short weeks, a partially armed, leaderless mob managed to organize and arm itself enough to turn back a combined arms assault. This was no doubt made possible by the efforts of recent deserters from Qathafi's forces and rebels with prior experience in Qathafi's forces. We later saw the videos of these veterans instructing the rebels in use of previously seized weapons and in basic combat skills.
Misrata was a city under siege. Early in the conflict Qathafi put his best forces in the fight to take the city. Fortunately, even these "crack troops" were hampered by defections and refusals to fight. The Misrata rebels knew every street and back alley and were able to mount a creditable, but costly, defense. Here, as on other fronts, NATO air operations gave the rebels some breathing space. An example of effective organization and buildup by the resistance was the infiltration of a team of insurgents, trained and equipped to combat armor in built up areas, by sea from Benghazi to Misrata. This team trained the Misrata rebels to defeat Qathafi’s tanks. This act lead to Qathafi withdrawing from the city and allowed the Misrata rebels to begin to go on the offensive.
The Berbers of the Nafusa Mountains eventually proved to be the most effective forces within the resistance. The mountainous terrain provided protection while they organized and built up their forces. By sending many of their noncombatants to refugee camps in Tunisia, the rebels freed themselves from having to constantly defend their families. The operations of this group was characterized by patience and prudence. They conserved their resources while they grew stronger and did not attempt an advance out of the mountains until they had sufficient strength to make a go of it.
Tripoli was the grand prize and center of focus for both the NTC and Qathafi. The initial street protests were violently suppressed and Qathafi's forces quickly established checkpoints and other population control measures.Eventually, these control measures were not enough. The rebels in Tripoli organized themselves into an effective fourth force… an urban underground. The first order of business was to establish their own tight security measures and to avoid dissipating their forces in uncoordinated, ineffective attacks before they were sufficiently organized. Occasional defacements of government propaganda billboards and revolutionary graffiti grew into attacks on checkpoints and security patrols.
Phase 5 - Buildup: In this phase, SFODAs assist the resistance cadre in developing an effective fighting force that can be sustained for the duration of the insurgency. Limited combat operations are conducted, but the emphasis is still on development. What the media characterized as a stalemate can be better explained as the buildup phase of the Libyan insurgency. The rebel forces were never lacking in ingenuity, manpower and revolutionary zeal. It just took time, effort and blood to forge an effective fighting force.
SFODAs were not in Libya. At least as far as I know. However, the Brits, the French and certainly the Qataris were in country providing some sort of support. At the very least they were doing target acquisition for NATO air strikes. They were also providing critical military logistical support. Were they also training and advising the rebels? I don't know for sure, but I bet they were. The planning and execution of the battle for Tripoli showed the rebels learned a hell of a lot about the military arts in six short months.
Phase 6 - Combat Employment: Obviously, the insurgent forces conduct combat operations to achieve resistance objectives in this phase. By the end of July, the NTC had sufficient trained, equipped and led forces to begin offensive operations. The methodical drive from the Nafusa Mountains to the coast (Az Zawiyah) was a brilliant move… a check if not a checkmate move. The incorporation of Az Zawiyah resistance fighters into the Nafusa forces not only strengthened the rebel army, but provided critical local intelligence for the assault on that city. The NTC decision to move a force composed of rebels from the Tripoli area from the eastern front to the Nafusa front proved to be just as key during the battles for Tripoli.
The conquest of Az Zawiyah and Gharyan put Tripoli and Qathafi's forces in a logistical stranglehold. The NTC in Benghazi issued statements that "Zero hour has started. The rebels in Tripoli have risen up." This was the beginning of Operation Mermaid Dawn, the liberation of Tripoli. The NTC sent weapons to the resistance in Tripoli by sea to support their uprising. This was coordinated with assaults by the Nafusa forces from the west and the Misrata forces in the east. The difficult sieges of Sirte and Bani Walid laid ahead, but the conquest of Tripoli sealed the deal.
The military success of the mostly Berber rebel groups from the Nafusa Mountains was remarkable. They managed to raise, equip, train, lead and employ an effective, albeit still rag tag, army to eventual victory. Perhaps the largely rural, pastoral nature of these hill people provided a more suitable pool of recruits than the coastal urban areas. However, the exploits of the boyos from Misrata offer an effective counterpoint to this argument. What was common to both fronts was that the terrain was more suitable to guerilla operations than the area from Benghazi to Sirte. And the rebels in both the Nafusa Mountains and Misrata knew their operational areas like the back of their hands. These would have been ideal environments to employ SFODAs back in February or March.
Phase 7 - Demobilization: In this phase, the insurgent forces either are incorporated into the national armed forces or are demobilized. Libya is now in this critical stage. Many of the rebel fighters will probably turn in their arms and go back to their civilian lives of their own accord. Other varied and sizable groups will not be willing to do so. If I were a Berber, I'd probably want to retain an effective "home guard" while I see how the new political landscape unfolds. That is not a problem. However, bands of armed men independently roaming the countryside will only lead to reprisals and banditry… and even to another insurgency. SF keeps the demobilization phase in mind even during the organization and buildup phases. Without a successful demobilization phase, all that comes before can unravel tragically.
What Could Have Been: I contend that if we had used SF in a US sponsored insurgency, we would have saved a lot of NATO money and a lot of Libyan lives. SF training and guidance could have quickly created some rebel forces capable of waging effective guerrilla operations such as sabotage, deep raids and ambushes behind Qathafi's lines, in addition to the more conventional tactics used by the rebels. Effective guerrilla operations might have been able to disrupt Qathafi's supply and communications lines enough to require less NATO bombardment. Had SFODAs provided targeting for drone strikes, as well as 1st SOW and TF 160 assets, the NATO air campaign would have been much less noisy or maybe not even necessary. It could have been a very different war, but make no mistake, it would have been their war and not ours. SF and the UW mission should be enhanced as a tool of US policy. It is a relatively quiet tool as practiced by the "Quiet Professionals" and one that could prove quite useful in the future.