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American irregular warfare is the United States' unique and, in recent times, troubled approach to conflict in which armed civilian or paramilitary forces, and not regular armies, are the primary combatants. In most forms, it emphasizes the importance of local partnerships and gaining legitimacy and influence among targeted populations. It is thus a critical capability in contests in which populations, rather than territory, are decisive.

This memoir explores the strengths and limitations of America's current irregular warfare capability and provides recommendations for what the United States must do to develop the world-class American way of irregular war it needs. This analysis is based on a detailed examination of Lieutenant General Charles T. Cleveland's career, the majority of which was spent with U.S. Special Forces, and his experiences in Europe during the Cold War, Bolivia, El Salvador, Operation Just Cause, Bosnia, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as in command of 10th Special Forces Group, Special Operations Command South, Special Operations Command Central, and U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

The United States, despite the admirable performance of civilian and military tactical-level irregular warfare formations, has failed to achieve its strategic objectives in nearly every population-centric military campaign during the past 40 years. The memoir concludes that the reason for this consistent failure is that the United States lacks the concepts, doctrine, and canon necessary to be effective in population-centric conflicts and as a result is not well organized for irregular warfare.

In the wake of the coordination breakdown that led to the failed Operation Eagle Claw and the intelligence failure that led to September 11, action by Congress and the support of the President were needed to drive reforms. This memoir concludes that Congress and the President will need to act again. To provide a proactive defense against the irregular warfare campaigns of U.S. enemies and the necessary offensive potential to destabilize Great Power adversaries, the country must turn to, and not away from, the American way of irregular war.

This research was sponsored by the Smith Richardson Foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This commentary is part of the RAND expert insight series. RAND Expert Insights present perspectives on timely policy issues. All RAND Expert Insights undergo peer review to ensure high standards for quality and objectivity.

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