When Boxers Wrestle: A Critique on Counter Insurgency During the Global War on Terror.


War has not changed. Since the beginning of human conflict warfare has retained principles that have transcended human history. Understanding conflict we must understand that the primary determining factors are intangible, and unmeasurable, with the chief incalculable being will. It is the will of individuals, organizations, and states to engage in conflict that determines the victor. In order to defeat an adversary in conflict it is required that you break their will, or render them incapable of acting upon it. Dismantling the infrastructure of a force so that it can no longer enact its will is conceptually the same as submitting an opponent in wrestling. Annihilating an opponent’s force is conceptually the same as a knockout victory in boxing. A combatant achieves victory by setting conditions to seize their opponents will through incapacitation, immobilization, or forfeiture. Once conflict starts, it is the enduring will that achieves victory. At all levels of conflict whether strategic, operational, or tactical, these principles apply in determining which belligerent wins the conflict due to successive actions that erode the will of an opponent. It must be understood that in the era of the Global War on Terror, our opponent has the will of the Imperial Japanese, and the fighting style of the Vietcong. The following provides a few principles of conflict broken down and explained at the individual level of conflict so that an understanding of their significance when applied to higher levels may be obtained.


Gaining and maintaining the initiative is a key factor in conflict. Initiative and response are the primary actions, with the most beneficial being initiative. Initiative can be described as imposing will, while response can be described as resisting an others will. Initiative can also be described in terms of offense or defense, where the belligerent who has the initiative is the offense. An effective defense is one based on offense, as the reaction seeks to seize the initiative. Initiative is important because action causes a reaction, reaction creates opportunity to be exploited, and exploitation of opportunity creates decisiveness. In boxing a counter striker may have a defensive style, but the style is based in seizing the initiative and acting offensively. In a local pub brawl, the belligerent who strikes first and maintains the initiative will more often than not be the victor. 


Speed is a prerequisite for maneuver and surprise. In boxing it is speed that allows the athlete to act against and react to their opponent. Speed allows a boxer to change their angle on an opponent and exploit an opening, it allows a boxer to throw a strike that their opponent is unprepared for. Without the employment of speed relative to the opponent a belligerent will not be able to impose their will effectively, or resist the will of their opponent. Speed aids in creating surprise and surprise creates shock, which can erode the will of an adversary when exploited. Speed can also be used to counter strength.


Surprise creates a state of disorientation that degrades an opponent’s ability to resist. Surprise can be achieved through deception, ambiguity, and stealth. In a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu match a belligerent may attack an arm in a manner indicating an arm bar in order to get their opponent to react, for the actual attack of an omoplata, effectively enacting deception. At a pub, a belligerent may conduct themselves calm and collective before springing into aggressive action, effectively enacting ambiguity. While during a verbal altercation a belligerent may choose to walk away, while the other comes from behind and implements a rear naked choke, effectively enacting stealth. 

After 20 years of conflict, the United States has failed to develop an effective strategy to combat terrorist insurgencies. As the deadline for the withdrawal of U.S forces from Afghanistan quickly approaches, it must be acknowledged that the Taliban still remains a relevant force that can contend with the current government. However, Afghanistan is not the only example of failed policy or strategy; the rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, the spread of Islamic terrorism from the Middle East to Africa, and the consequences of the Arab Spring, to name a few. The implications of these failures are paid for in a currency that only war will accept, human life. At the core of this dilemma resides domestic politics, a failure of the conventional military to evolve and adapt, and a general lack of respect for the nature of war and our adversaries. Whether it is toppling a state such as Iraq or entering a conflict with a non-state actor, it must be acknowledged that other actors observing the wars recognize the value of insurgencies. This deduction of recent history emphasizes a need for change from both policymakers and strategists so that the United States does not find itself fighting yesterday’s wars tomorrow.

One of the core issues with the U.S strategy is domestic politics and the nature of our society. Policy in democracies is driven by its citizens. It is well known that the American people are casualty sensitive and opposed to violence. However, war fundamentally entails the killing of human beings and the use of extreme violence. Carl von Clausewitz acknowledges that war is not an isolated phenomenon, with the outcome being limited to the actions of a state’s military. Rather, he states that war encompasses all facets of society to include economics, politics, and the state’s citizens. Clausewitz also compares the nature of war to a wrestling match. Observing that the basic principles and nature of conflict at the individual level transcends the continuum of conflict and remains relevant at the level of war. It is in part because of this relationship between the collective whole, the individual, and the nature of the conflict, that efforts in the Global War on Terror have failed to produce desirable outcomes. 

This can first be observed at the onset of the Iraq war. Before the invasion, policymakers were informed that a force of 500,000 personnel would be needed to maintain order once the Iraqi regime had been toppled. This professional advice was dismissed. As a result, chaos ensued, an insurgency gained momentum, and the U.S found itself in a perpetuating conflict. From the onset of the war, policymakers were reactive, later providing additional forces in the surge of 2007. However, it would appear that policymakers were not aware that time and initiative are important factors of conflict. In addition to the unknown and uncontrollable factors of conflict, this failure cost the U.S time, the support of the American people, and lives of both American and Iraqi forces, setting a precedent for reactive strategy. 

The disconnect between policymakers and military officials continued into the war, most notably at the battle of Fallujah. The first battle of Fallujah, deemed Operation Vigilant Resolve, was conducted in response to the killing and mutilation of Blackwater private military contractors. In April 2004, U.S forces laid siege to the city. Shortly after, due to civilian casualties and criticism from the hastily formed Iraqi Governing Council, the siege was halted. Despite seizing a substantial portion of the city, the U.S withdrew. After the withdrawal, Fallujah became a stronghold for insurgents. In November 2004, the U.S would lay siege to Fallujah again in Operation Phantom Fury. It would become the most intensive urban battle for American forces since Vietnam. The disconnect, prioritizing local national perceptions and political objectives over a military objective deemed necessary, set conditions for the insurgency to exploit. This ultimately cost more human life and resources. A disconnect that emphasizes a need for understanding the necessity of military actions, and support from policymakers so that campaigns can be accomplished decisively. 

If conflict fails to be conducted decisively, it continues. The longer a war drags on, the more factors outside of the military’s control become essential in determining the conflict’s outcome. Factors such as the cost of sustained war and popular support come into play, altering how the war is conducted. After a decade of war and indecisive action, the U.S found itself in this predicament. Elected leaders campaigned off promises to end the conflicts, and the American people tired of war supported it. In 2011, the U.S withdrew from Iraq, creating a security vacuum. Although President Obama fulfilled his campaign promise and fulfilled the American public’s will, Iraq paid the price. The consequence of conducting warfare indecisively led to conditions where the U.S withdrew prematurely. This ultimately led to an erosion of U.S efforts in Iraq and set the stage for ISIL to emerge in the global theatre. Failure to establish lasting security has led to a regression in both Iraq and Afghanistan, prolonging U.S involvement in the Middle East. 

At the onset of the Arab Spring, the U.S saw an opportunity to promote democracy in the Middle East. Weary from a prolonged war, the U.S sought to do so with minimal involvement. Air assets were designated to support pro-democracy forces in the hopes that this would allow the ousting of regimes so that democracy could be instilled. However, this strategy to create desired outcomes without actual investment in the conflicts was disastrous. It ignored the fact that air assets alone in conflict cannot create desired conditions on the ground. Lastly, it failed to consider that there were other actors who would see opportunity in the destabilization of regimes. This overreaching and half-hearted attempt to promote democracy contributed to human rights disasters such as the civil wars in Yemen and Libya and the spread of terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East and Africa

A minimal footprint on the ground and an overreliance on air assets have become a normalized strategy for conducting counter-insurgency operations. Raids by special operations against the leadership of terrorist organizations, assets to strike targets of opportunity, and military advisors to local national forces comprise the main effort that the U.S is willing to employ. Although this strategy fulfills its need, reducing casualties and minimizing the cost of efforts, it has been ineffective. Raids against a terrorist group’s leadership have shown to be a quick victory for national morale without producing significant changes within the conflicts. For example, Osama Bin Laden’s death was a significant victory; however, there was a designated successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The death of an organization’s leadership can also lead to the fracturing of terrorist organizations leading to more organizations with new agendas and structures seeking influence in new regions. Small footprints and military advisors align with the degree of willingness to conduct counter-terrorism. However, lack of effectiveness can be observed throughout conflicts in the Sahel, East Africa, South East Asia, and the Middle East. Further, this strategy fails to consider how it might affect the performance of a force against other adversaries.

This strategy fails to recognize that special operations forces, although highly effective and unmatched in their trade, are still human beings. Human beings that are subject to the corrosive effects of combat. In the past decade, special operations communities have seen record levels of suicides and mental health issues directly related to combat. With a high operational tempo that spans two decades, it should be considered that in a near-peer conflict, our adversaries will be free from the effects of prolonged exposure to the stressors of war. It should also be considered that special operations forces possess specialized skills in warfare that conventional units cannot carry out. For example, conventional forces do not have the capability of ship seizures, airfield seizures, and hostage rescue missions. However, the employment of special operations forces in counter-insurgency is within the capabilities of conventional units. An example of this is the use of conventional forces to conduct raids against insurgents in Iraq. The differences between special operations and conventional forces in counter-insurgency can be more attributed to mindset, employment of forces, and adherence to principles of warfare rather than specialized skills.

Conventional forces in Afghanistan routinely conducted operations from Forward Operating Bases and Combat Outposts. From these defensive positions, patrols would be conducted to set a presence amongst the local population in an attempt to provide security for local nationals in order to undermine the influence of an insurgency. Regardless of the social and cultural factors that may interfere with this strategy, it ultimately does not adhere to principles of conflict. Compounded with extensive rules of engagement, U.S forces were placed at a distinct disadvantage while conducting operations. Operations that could be better compared to policing rather than warfare. Of the six patrols conventional forces are capable of, conventional forces in counter-insurgency would primarily conduct security patrols. Although security patrols provide a presence to local populations, they are designed to be defensive in nature. While rules of engagement are fluid, rules of engagement in counter-insurgency can be more restrictive than rules of engagement for police forces in the U.S.

Insurgents were provided freedom of movement throughout the battlespace masking their activities in a fashion that does not adhere to rules of engagement. The routine patrols from defensive positions allowed for observation and anticipation of U.S forces. While security patrols amongst the local population provided opportunities for insurgents where principles such as initiative, speed, and surprise were in their favor. Insurgents were provided the opportunity to inflict maximum losses with minimum resources and assets while minimizing losses for prolonged periods of time. Insurgents in Afghanistan would routinely attack U.S forces, initiating the attacks with improvised explosive devices and then exploiting the attack’s chaos with small arms fire when U.S forces were vulnerable. Insurgents would then break contact before U.S forces could effectively bring air assets on station or begin to maneuver on insurgent forces effectively. 

In contrast, the employment of forces with specialized skills or that operate unconventionally expressed great success in combating an insurgency. Sniper teams would infiltrate an area at night and observe local populations from a concealed position. Insurgent forces that believed they were unobserved would move weapons or plant improvised explosive devices and be engaged by the teams. The impact of these units produces effects that are psychological, deterring insurgent activity. Conventional forces utilizing trained designated marksmen in each squad can be employed in the same fashion, with similar capabilities, and at a more comprehensive scale. Special operations forces would receive intelligence on high-ranking insurgents and conduct raids under the cover of darkness; they also train local, national forces. Conventional forces are also capable of conducting raids and routinely conduct their own internal training making them capable of training local national forces in basic tactics and weapons systems. The military has already recognized a need for change by creating the Security Force Assistant Command, which trains and advises foreign militaries. This supports that unconventional or specialized units are not effective because of their specialized skills; instead, they are effective because of how they were employed, their ability to adhere to principles of warfare, and their filling of roles required by the operational environment with respect to insurgencies. These forces are employed in a manner where they are able to obtain the initiative, initiate actions with surprise, and dictate the terms of an engagement while simultaneously following counter-insurgency doctrine.

Counter-insurgency operations require that conventional U.S forces are placed in vulnerable positions. Once the initial fighting is done, and general security is established, U.S forces focus on building a favorable perception of the local population, acting as a supplement to a hosting nation’s legitimate government, not an occupying force. The goal of this is to work with a hosting nation’s legitimate government and to eventually turn the responsibilities of security and counter-insurgency over completely to the hosting government. Although sound in logic, this fails to consider that an insurgency is also evolving with the strategic environment. Whether it is creating new vehicles that can withstand explosive blasts or learning the time it takes for an opponent to bring air assets to bear, both belligerents are continuously evolving. This evolution process in conflict creates disadvantages for hosting nation forces as security is transitioned due to the experience and adaptations that occur within the insurgencies. 

In Afghanistan, the insurgency eventually opted to avoid direct encounters with U.S forces and focused their efforts against the hosting nation’s force. While in Iraq, the majority of Shia security forces perpetuated sectarianism and ultimately could not withstand an opponent like ISIL. This change in focus of the insurgency could give the perception that a hosting nation is becoming capable of combating the insurgency independently, when in fact, the force is still incapable. Insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan grasp the significance of time in strategy. At its core, an insurgency is based around the factor of time, seeking to drag out a conflict and make it indecisive, knowing the effects this will have on an occupying force. Data on kinetic activity should not be used to measure the effectiveness of counter-insurgency operations and the capabilities of a hosting nation’s security force, just as battlefield data in Vietnam was not a viable measure for counter-insurgency effectiveness. This expresses a need for the U.S to not just employ conventional forces on the basis of counter-insurgency strategy but also to evolve a strategy for offensive operations against insurgencies for the sake of time and creating decisive outcomes in a battlespace. Without this, the atmosphere of security in a hosting nation could be attributed to an insurgency becoming strategically dormant, not because of an effective counter-insurgency strategy or a capable security force, but because of an understanding by insurgents that U.S policymakers will seek to impose timelines to conflict. 

However, the U.S military has failed to adapt and evolve its conventional force to face insurgencies. Throughout history, militaries have adapted in order to meet the needs of a changing strategic environment. In 1676, during King Phillips’s war, Benjamin Church trained and led a colonial militia to adopt indigenous tactics. This was an adaptation that took place after observing how effective indigenous tactics were against colonists. In 1942, units like the 101st Airborne were constituted to adapt to the strategic environment influenced by industrialization and the development of aircraft. In 1952, the first Special Forces unit was formed to address the unconventional nature of the Cold War, creating insurgencies to combat the influence of communism. Despite these adaptations and the increasing complexity of the conflict in the global theatre, the conventional military has not adapted in a manner that can effectively combat insurgencies. This failure to adapt to the art of war by conventional forces paired with indecisiveness from policymakers contributed to the Global War on Terror becoming the longest conflict in American history. A failure that will likely perpetuate itself in future conflicts that involve insurgencies if a change is not adopted. 

Although military shortcomings can be attributed to conventional forces’ failure to adopt an effective strategy for combating insurgencies, this does not speak to the capabilities of conventional forces. The U.S military boasts a resilient force capable of decentralizing and conducting asymmetric warfare without an overreliance on technology and assets to do so. However, due to the nature of an insurgency, the operational environment and general sense of superiority have led to an overreliance on the science of warfare. Technology should not dictate tactics or strategy; it should supplement it. The Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication “Warfighting” addresses this issue by emphasizing that the significant determining factor in conflict is not the science of war; rather, it is the art. The ability of significantly disadvantaged groups such as the Taliban to remain relevant after two decades of conflict is a testament to this truth. 

Where an insurgent’s use of improvised explosive devices is cost-effective and can disable a $500,000 vehicle, the devices also support an insurgency’s strategic needs. Although the U.S has made innovative progress, such as outfitting predator drones with offensive capabilities which support counter-insurgency, it has failed to invest in cost-effective methods for conventional ground forces. For example, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, improvised explosive devices’ heavy presence limited conventional forces’ ability to conduct counter-insurgency operations at night. In the day, Marines would mark cleared paths with shaving cream to minimize casualties from the insurgent placed bombs. Investment in an infra-red compound for marking previously swept paths could have been used to provide conventional forces the ability to exploit their night operational capabilities, employ forces on foot with stealth, and provide initiative or surprise to intercept insurgent activities to scale. Rather than leveraging economic power to develop vehicles that will travel down predictable routes, or reliance on assets with an estimated response time, conventional forces should seek to develop methods that are unpredictable. It must be understood that a boxer can not beat a wrestler in a wrestling match, and a wrestler can not beat a boxer in a boxing match. For the sake of future conflicts, conventional forces must either develop effective strategies and tactics to wrestle or exploit our capabilities to make an insurgency box.

In order to prevent a repeat of past conflicts, the U.S needs to change its approach to conflict. Policymakers need to understand that once conflict starts, it becomes chaotic and unpredictable as two wills battle to assert themselves. Policymakers should be certain that they are willing to provide the necessary support to military leaders so that conflicts can be fought with clear political objectives and with decisiveness. Policymakers should also consider that decisions regarding the conflicts based on domestic politics can have detrimental effects not just on progress made, but for local populations in regions of conflict. It should also be understood that although the U.S attempts to interact with conflict as ethically as possible, war is inherently immoral, ultimately conflict should be conducted out of necessity and operate on necessity, as long as it adheres to international law and the rules of war. Suppose conflict is not interacted with on the basis of its nature. In that case, conflicts can be prolonged, furthering the costs in human life, economic costs, and further violations of human rights while failing to obtain original political objectives.

Military leaders should consider the conditions that an insurgency can exploit in counter-insurgency operations. That uncontrollable factors in conflict, such as civilian casualties and the nature of conflict itself, will deter local populations from building genuine relationships with U.S forces. Without social factors already separating the insurgency from the local population, this becomes increasingly likely. Transitionary periods to partner forces also provide an opportunity for insurgencies to exploit. An overreliance on military superiority does not attribute to significant strategic and tactical changes needed within conventional forces to combat insurgencies effectively. Observing the effectiveness of unconventional units or units with specialized skills could lead to questions such as “what makes these units effective?”. Moreover, “how can we employ our conventional units in this operational environment?”. Although securing the local populations is vital, conventional forces must develop methods to combat insurgencies in an offensive manner that is advantageous based on the operational environment. `

Conflict and Support

Policy makers should use military force when deemed an absolute necessity and allocate sufficient resources while simultaneously providing substantial bipartisan support for the effort. If support is not bipartisan, and all resources deemed necessary are not allocated, it could bring to question the necessity of the conflict. Without this prerequisite to engaging in conflict the conflict will likely become indecisive due to the influence of domestic politics and the inability to address the “unknown, unknowns” of conflict. 

Commitment to Conflict

If in fact policy makers deem a conflict to be a necessity, full commitment to the conflict should be adopted. Policy makers should understand that the only black and white of conflict is that there is a winner, and a loser. Policy makers should act with moral courage, committing fully to the conflict they deemed necessary, despite lack of domestic support. Attempting to achieve political objectives through conflict without commitment, will lead to indecisive conflicts, and unobtained political objectives. In turn, this will create prolonged conflicts, further instability in foreign states, and draw out periods of violence, while simultaneously expending more resources than if the conflict was executed decisively. 

Adaptation to Counter-insurgency

The Department of Defense should seek to provide the training and education at the tactical and operational levels to effectively implement principles of conflict against an opponent that uses insurgency tactics. Without this needed adaptation, insurgencies will continue to remain a relevant threat to the United States despite our combat power. In order to retain support and commitment from policy makers, conventional forces must adopt tactics that not only gain the support of local populations, but also effectively combat the insurgent group and their tactics to scale. 

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