Options for Maintaining Counterinsurgency Capabilities in the Great Power Era

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.

Harrison Manlove is a Cadet in the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps at the at the University of Kansas and is currently studying History and Peace and Conflict Studies. Harrison has also written for The Strategy Bridge, where he examined Russia’s strategy in Syria and the Middle East. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) struggle with retaining an enclave of counterinsurgency (COIN) capabilities alongside a renewed focus on training and equipping for great power competition.

Date Originally Written:  May 6, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  June 27, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Harrison Manlove is a Cadet with the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Kansas where he studies History and Peace and Conflict Studies.

Background:  The 2017 US National Security Strategy (NSS) identifies the return of great power competition as a strategic threat to U.S. interests across a variety of domains. Challenges to U.S. military and economic power are meant to “change the international order…” that the U.S. has overseen since the end of the Cold War. The NSS acknowledges the ability of near peer competitors to operate “below the threshold of open military conflict…”. In addition, the NSS identifies the need to “sustain our competence in irregular warfare…” in a long-term capacity[1]. This “competence” most certainly includes COIN, or the employment of various means of national power by a government to counter an insurgency “and address its roots causes[2].” DoD’s 2018 National Defense Strategy identifies “Long term strategic competition with China and Russia” as “the principal priorities for the Department…[3]” Both of the above mentioned documents indicate how non-state threats have slowly moved down the priority list.

Significance:  Recent decisions by U.S. President Donald Trump and the DoD to drawdown forces in a variety of conflict areas seem to reflect a desire to realign U.S. force posture to counter near-peer competitors in both Europe and Asia, and bolster conventional military capabilities. In December 2018, President Trump directed U.S. forces in Syria to withdraw, while simultaneously halving U.S. forces deployed to Afghanistan over several months as peace talks continue[4]. U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and General Purpose Forces (GPF) U.S. forces have spent almost two decades advising and training foreign forces as a function of COIN efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and others. Last fall, U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) was directed to drawdown SOF missions on the continent over a period of three years[5]. SOF in Africa suffered a highly-publicized loss of troops in the 2017 Tongo Tongo ambush in Niger, while SOF personnel were also killed and wounded during an attack on their outpost in Somalia last year[6].

Option #1:  U.S. SOF addresses COIN threats through Direct Action.

Risk:  SOF conduct countless direct action missions, or “Short-duration strikes…”, against insurgent and terror groups in multiple countries across theaters like USAFRICOM and U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM)[7]. American deaths during these operations has proven damaging for domestic opinion on global U.S. operations, exemplified by the 2017 deaths of four American Special Forces soldiers in Niger. An uninformed public, a largely opaque DoD concerning SOF missions and their specific purpose, and U.S. military roles within those missions, has created a wider civil-military gap. This lack of clarity has brought some American lawmakers to call the Niger scenario “an endless war” where “We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world militarily and what we’re doing[8].” These lawmaker opinions underscores concerns about the scale and cost of worldwide U.S. military involvement and its impact on SOF personnel. In addition, raids often do not solve the political or economic challenges within COIN and can become a whack-a-mole strategy for targeting an insurgency’s network.

Gain:  The GPF often take the brunt of the task involved in conducting major COIN operations. Recent moves by the U.S. Army to retool brigade combat teams from infantry roles to Stryker and armored roles is one of the clearest examples of the “pivot back to the near-peer fight[9].” SOF addressing COIN threats through direct action drastically reduces the overall need for GPF on the frontlines in COIN and frees them up to focus on the near-peer fight.  Additionally, while direct action does not address the factors driving the insurgency, it does succeed in disrupting insurgent formations and presents metrics to Washington D.C. that are more easily understood than the more esoteric quantification of “winning of hearts and minds.”  Funding for U.S. Special Operations Command was given a massive hike to cover personnel increases to maintain a reliance on SOF[10]. SOF in Africa often operate under the Section 127e authority that allows SOF to accompany partner forces on missions, staying behind at the “last position of cover and concealment.” This has been touted by USAFRICOM Commander U.S. Marine Corps General Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, as “high payoff with low risk to US forces[11].” Direct action is relatively low-cost and, under 127e, also provides SOF the ability to directly control partner forces during operations to achieve US objectives.

Option #2:  Specially trained non-SOF units address COIN threats through Security Force Assistance.

Risk:  Global military engagement may be spreading U.S. forces too thinly if a near-pear conflict were to breakout. Since the 9/11 attacks, a focus on COIN and counterterrorism has resulted in U.S. deployments to 40% of the world’s countries[12]. The U.S. Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) deployed to Afghanistan in early 2018 to train and advise Afghan forces. Insider attacks by Afghan Taliban insurgents posing as members of the Afghan military have taken a toll on that deployment and highlight the potential dangers of a continued U.S. military presence there[13]. In mid-2018, the 2nd SFAB was established and is also slated for deployment to Afghanistan in 2019. SFABs could pull troops and resources from DoD’s ability to train and prepare for near-peer threats. DoD personnel involved in arms transfer, security assistance, and short-term military-to-military engagement programs are meager within the context of broader defense spending, but might offer an area for DoD to repurpose personnel and funding to critical capability gaps like artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber warfare.

Gain:  While military force is often the preferred method in COIN, an emphasis on non-kinetic means for DoD could provide better results at a much lower cost. The defense budget for fiscal year (FY) 2017 brought major reforms to security assistance authorities and organizations, a problem that had previously plagued those initiatives. Security assistance programs allow small teams of DoD personnel to train partner forces in basic military tactics and provide weapons training[14]. DoD spending as part of the foreign assistance budget totaled out to $6.4 billion spent worldwide in FY 2018, which includes these programs. Total spending for the foreign assistance budget in FY 2018 was $17.6 billion[15]. In comparison, the war in Afghanistan alone cost $45 billion in 2018, a little under half the $100 billion spent every year during the war’s height between 2010-2012[16]. DoD training with partner militaries is relatively inexpensive when compared with other DoD programs and deployments, and “builds relationships with friendly foreign forces, improves interoperability with and indirectly contributes to building the capability of key allies through exposure to United States tactics, techniques, and procedures…[17]” Capacity-building conducted by specially trained units could better enhance opportunities for partner forces to provide security in COIN conflict environments. The Army’s SFAB model appears to be a comprehensive training force, standing in contrast to the ad hoc approach used throughout Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. This option could alleviate pressure on SOF to manage similar missions on a global scale that would continue to strain overworked equipment and personnel.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendations:  None.


1. “National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” The White House. December 2017. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.

2. United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Washington, D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, April 2019. 54.

3. “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.” January 19, 2018. May 2, 2019. https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.

4. Gibbons-Neff, Thomas, and Mujib Mashal. “U.S. to Withdraw About 7,000 Troops From Afghanistan, Officials Say.” The New York Times. December 21, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/us/politics/afghanistan-troop-withdrawal.html.

5. Browne, Ryan. “US to Reduce Number of Troops in Africa.” CNN. November 15, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/15/politics/us-reduce-troops-africa/index.html.

6. Sonne, Paul. “U.S. Service Member Killed, Four Others Wounded in Somalia Attack.” The Washington Post. June 08, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-special-operations-soldier-killed-four-service-members-wounded-in-somalia-attack/2018/06/08/39265cda-6b5f-11e8-bbc5-dc9f3634fa0a_story.html

7. . United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Washington, D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, April 2019. 66.

8. Callimachi, Rukmini, Helene Cooper, Alan Blinder, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff. “‘An Endless War’: Why 4 U.S. Soldiers Died in a Remote …” The New York Times. February 20, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/02/17/world/africa/niger-ambush-american-soldiers.html.

9. South, Todd. “New in 2019: From Tanks to Strykers, Major Brigade Combat Team Conversions Are Coming This Year.” Army Times. January 02, 2019. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2019/01/02/new-in-2019-from-tanks-to-strykers-major-brigade-combat-team-conversions-are-coming-this-year/.

10. South, Todd. “Special Operations Command Asks for More Troops, Biggest Budget Yet.” Military Times. February 27, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-army/2018/02/23/special-operations-command-asks-for-more-troops-biggest-budget-yet/.

11. Morgan, Wesley. “Behind the Secret U.S. War in Africa.” POLITICO. July 02, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.politico.com/story/2018/07/02/secret-war-africa-pentagon-664005.

12.   Savall, Stephanie, “This Map Shows Where in the World the U.S. Military Is Combatting Terrorism.” Smithsonian.com. January 01, 2019. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/map-shows-places-world-where-us-military-operates-180970997/.

13.   LaPorta, James. “U.S. Soldier Killed in Afghanistan Was Highest Enlisted Soldier Supporting Army’s New Adviser Brigade.” Newsweek. October 04, 2018. Accessed May 3, 2019. https://www.newsweek.com/afghanistan-soldier-killed-attack-us-1104697.

14.  Elliot, Adriane. “U.S. Security Assistance Soldiers, Nigerian Army Partner to Combat Terrorism.” Army Values. December 13, 2017. Accessed May 3, 2019. https://www.army.mil/article/198066/us_security_assistance_soldiers_nigerian_army_partner_to_combat_terrorism.

15.   “ForeignAssistance.gov.” Foreignassistance.gov. May 3, 2019. https://foreignassistance.gov/explore.

16.   Pennington, Matthew. “Pentagon Says War in Afghanistan Costs Taxpayers $45 Billion per Year.” PBS. February 06, 2018. Accessed May 3, 2019. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/pentagon-says-afghan-war-costs-taxpayers-45-billion-per-year

17.  “Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 President’s Budget Security Cooperation Consolidated Budget Display.” Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller). February 16, 2018. Accessed May 3, 2019. https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2019/Security_Cooperation_Budget_Display_OUSDC.pdf.

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Assessing the Widening Russian Presence in Africa

Harrison Manlove is a Cadet in the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps at the at the University of Kansas and is currently studying History and Peace and Conflict Studies. Harrison has also written for The Strategy Bridge, where he examined Russia’s strategy in Syria and the Middle East. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessment of the Widening Russian Presence in Africa

Date Originally Written:  November 26, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  December 17, 2018.

Summary:  Africa is quickly regaining its past place in world affairs as a proxy battleground. Amidst a potential U.S. military drawdown in Africa, Russia seeks to maintain and expand political and economic influence on the continent through military deployments and arms deals with several states. While Russia may face potential blowback due to a ham-fisted approach, lack of U.S. presence in Africa could enable Russian success.

Text:  The deployment of advisers – military and civilian – and the provision of security assistance to several African states is indicative of a renewed Russian interest on the continent. Russia’s speed of action in this line of effort has caught many observers off-guard, causing the issue to be an under-reported element of Russian foreign policy actions.

Russia’s national security strategy, published at the end of 2015, identifies instability in several regions – including Africa – as a security threat. Ethnic conflict and terrorism are outlined as two key concerns. The strategy places emphasis on “reliable and equal security,” trade partnerships, and the use of diplomacy to preclude conflict. The strategy dictates force as a last resort[1].

Counter-terrorism operations and civil wars dominate the Sub-Saharan region of Africa. Continued volatility has undermined Western influence there and opened opportunities for exploitation. For the Russians, old Soviet allies in Africa – like Angola and Sudan – offer opportunities to provide military equipment, training, and technical assistance. Over the last three years, the Russian government has signed approximately 19 “military cooperation deals” with sub-Saharan states, to include U.S. allies, such as Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and Niger. Russian cooperation ranges from arms shipments to joint exercises[2]. Resource acquisition is also potential motivating factor for Moscow, as seen in the Central African Republic with its large deposits of gold. Regarding instability, attempts to intervene with marginal force, and the provision of aid packages and security assistance is standard Russian practice. Russian aid programs are growing, however that line of effort is not covered in this assessment.

The Central African Republic (CAR) has seen a major increase in violence since the start of its civil war at the end of 2012. In 2013, an arms embargo against the CAR was put in place by the United Nations (UN) after an outbreak of violence. Outside the capital, Bangui, the rule of law is scant, enforced instead by local Muslim and Christian militias and armed groups. A French military operation, Operation Sangaris, ended in October 2016 after reports of “sexual violence and abuse against civilians” battered the deployment. A UN peacekeeping mission in the CAR has also come under attack by armed groups, losing a total of fourteen peacekeepers thus far[3]. Security in the CAR is generally limited to the capital. In December 2017, Russia was given UN authorization to supply arms to the CAR after repeated requests by CAR President Faustin Archange Touadéra[4]. Some 175 Russian advisers have deployed to supply arms and provide equipment training. Five advisers are Russian military personnel, while most others are civilians working with private contracting firms[5].

The Russian approach in the CAR is destabilizing. Brokering talks between rebel factions and the presence of Russian personnel assisting “prospectors” in mining operations in areas controlled by the primary rebel group in the CAR, the Front Populaire Pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC), is exacerbating an area already under crisis. Recently, FPRC leadership has called for the withdrawal of Russian personnel from the CAR, placing the Russian mission and its objectives – even at the regional level – in danger[6].

Cameroon is a likely area for Russian influence. In February 2018, reports surfaced that Russian military equipment was seized from a ship sailing for Douala, Cameroon. The ship docked at Sfaz, Tunisia due to major mechanical problems. It was searched by customs authorities who found the weapons shipment inside. To be sure, the ship’s track and timeline was followed by a Russian maritime blog, which found the ship’s track unusual for a course to Cameroon[7]. A plan for U.S. Special Forces to exit Cameroon was submitted by United States Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser, Commander of U.S. Africa Command, as part of an alignment with the U.S. National Defense Strategy released at the beginning of the year. The strategy moves to a focus on great power competition, rather than counterterrorism. The exit would be continent-wide, affecting several U.S. missions in Africa[8].

Elsewhere on the continent, military to military cooperation is integral to Russia’s relationship with Egypt. Bilateral airborne exercises have been held in both countries since 2015. Recent Russian arms sales and deliveries to Egypt include some 50 MiG- 29 fighter aircraft, 46 Kamov Ka- 52 Alligator attack and reconnaissance helicopters, the Ka-52K model helicopter designed for maritime use, and an advanced model of the S-300 mobile air defense system. In keeping with traditional policy stemming from its colonial history, Egypt has been careful in sidestepping foreign aid dependency. This dependence avoidance is evident in Egyptian purchases of fighter aircraft, ships, and submarines from countries like France, Germany, and South Korea[9].

Libya’s continued instability has offered another arena in which Russian influence can take hold. In March 2017, Reuters reported a possible Russian special operations unit operating near Egypt’s western border with Libya. This presence was denied by Russian officials, however U.S. military sources have posited that Russia has deployed to the region to “strengthen its leverage over whoever ultimately holds power” in Libya’s civil war[10]. Russian support for Khalifa Hiftar, the primary challenger to the Government of National Accord in Libya, seems to indicate a desire to re-forge old overseas Soviet relationships.

In early 2017, members of Russian private military contractor RSB Group were reportedly operating in Libya[11]. Similarly, Wagner – a Russian contracting firm with ties to a Putin associate – has had a reported presence in Syria, supplementing Syrian government forces in ground operations. Reporting on Wagner’s deployments to Syria have shown a high level of security and potential consequences for those members who disclose any information about the firm. The Russian government has denied any presence of contractors in Syria[12]. In August 2018, three Russian journalists were murdered in the Central African Republic under murky circumstances[13]. While investigating the Wagner deployment there, the journalists were gunned down in what has been officially called a robbery. However, Western suspicion surrounds the incident and the story has been called into question, casting even greater light on the proliferation of contractors operating in Russia’s areas of interest[14].

The Russian approach in Africa is indicative of a general trend set in its 2014 intervention in Ukraine: low-visibility, low-cost exploitation of instability to secure political and economic objectives through marginal force deployments and security assistance to areas that once held Soviet influence. The potential decline of a U.S. military presence on the continent could drive further expansion, while access to resources provides a set of economic objectives for Russia to act upon.


[1] Russian National Security Strategy. 31 Dec. 2015, www.ieee.es/Galerias/fichero/OtrasPublicaciones/Internacional/2016/Russian-National-Security-Strategy-31Dec2015.pdf.

[2] “Factbox: Russian Military Cooperation Deals with African Countries.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 17 Oct. 2018, uk.reuters.com/article/uk-africa-russia-factbox/factbox-russian-military-cooperation-deals-with-african-countries-idUKKCN1MR0KZ.

[3] “Global Conflict Tracker.” Council on Foreign Relations, 2018, www.cfr.org/interactives/global-conflict-tracker#!/conflict/violence-in-the-central-african-republic.

[4] “UN Gives Green Light on Russia Arms to C Africa.” News24, 16 Dec. 2017, www.news24.com/Africa/News/un-gives-green-light-on-russia-arms-to-c-africa-20171216.

[5] McGregor, Andrew. “How Russia Is Displacing the French in the Struggle for Influence in the Central African Republic.” The Jamestown Foundation, 15 May 2018, jamestown.org/program/how-russia-is-displacing-the-french-in-the-struggle-for-influence-in-the-central-african-republic/.

[6] Goble, Paul. “Moscow’s Neo-Colonial Enterprise Running Into Difficulties in Central African Republic.” The Jamestown Foundation, 6 Nov. 2018, jamestown.org/program/moscows-neo-colonial-enterprise-running-into-difficulties-in-central-african-republic/.

[7] Voytenko, Mikhail. “Secret Russian Arms Shipment? Cargo Ship with Arms Detained in Tunisia. UPDATE.” Maritime Bulletin, 9 Apr. 2018, maritimebulletin.net/2018/02/16/secret-russian-arms-shipment-cargo-ship-with-arms-detained-in-tunisia/.

[8] Cooper, Helene, and Eric Schmitt. “U.S. Prepares to Reduce Troops and Shed Missions in Africa.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Aug. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/08/01/world/africa/us-withdraw-troops-africa.html.

[9] McGregor, Andrew. “How Does Russia Fit Into Egypt’s Strategic Plan.” The Jamestown Foundation, 14 Feb. 2018, jamestown.org/program/russia-fit-egypts-strategic-plan/.

[10] Stewart, Phil, et al. “Exclusive: Russia Appears to Deploy Forces in Egypt, Eyes on Libya…” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 14 Mar. 2017, www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-libya-exclusive-idUSKBN16K2RY.

[11] Tsvetkova, Maria. “Exclusive: Russian Private Security Firm Says It Had Armed Men in…” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 13 Mar. 2017, www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-libya-contractors-idUSKBN16H2DM.

[12] “Secret Flights and Private Fighters: How Russia Supports Assad in Syria.” Public Radio International, PRI, 6 Apr. 2018, www.pri.org/stories/2018-04-06/secret-flights-and-private-fighters-how-russia-supports-assad-syria.

[13] Plichta, Marcel. “What Murdered Russian Journalists Were Looking For in the Central African Republic.” World Politics Review, 22 Aug. 2018, www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/25640/what-murdered-russian-journalists-were-looking-for-in-the-central-african-republic.

[14] Higgins, Andrew, and Ivan Nechepurenko. “In Africa, Mystery Murders Put Spotlight on Kremlin’s Reach.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Aug. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/08/07/world/europe/central-african-republic-russia-murder-journalists-africa-mystery-murders-put-spotlight-on-kremlins-reach.html.

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