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Kennedy School Review

Topic / International Relations and Security

Another Way To Fight: Unconventional Warfare from Rome to Iran


On 20 October 2011, Mahmoud Jibril, the interim Prime Minister of the Libyan National Transitional Council, publicly announced the death of former Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi. Qaddafi’s overthrow was the culmination of months of intense effort from Libyan revolutionary militias, the United States, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The victory was also a bright spot in the tumultuous Arab Spring that continues to engulf the region.

Most aspects of the military operation in Libya were largely familiar to the general public. First, NATO established a naval blockade along Libya’s 1,100-mile coastline, cutting Qaddafi off from external supplies. Second, the United States used its superior air power to strike enemy targets and control the skies. Less familiar was the third prong of the strategy: the foreign military advisors who worked beside Libyan fighters to help equip, train, and direct them in combat. When this advising role came to light, major publications like the London Telegraph heralded it as a “new way of waging war.”

Combining air and sea power with operations in support of rebel forces was definitive in the overthrow of Qaddafi. However, the manner in which the coalition supported the rebel forces on the ground was nothing new. In Libya, NATO and its Arab allies conducted an unconventional warfare (UW) campaign, defined by U.S. Special Operations Command as:

Activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerilla force in a denied area.[i] (Emphasis added.)


UW has been an inseparable component of armed conflict since the inception of warfare, but as an officer with seven years of experience in Special Forces, I have seen its specific role often overlooked and misunderstood. In fact, many of the activities that characterize the Libyan conflict are present throughout military history. This misunderstanding leads policy experts to miss opportunities to study cases that can guide, inform, or offer solutions to today’s conflicts. This article analyzes the use of UW during three different historical periods, ranging from ancient Rome to modern-day Iran, and concludes that a failure to understand UW represents a failure to understand a major strategy used by our adversaries.

Ancient Rome: Quiet Envoys, Mass Defections

In the third century BCE, Rome and Carthage were the preeminent superpowers of a region that spanned from Western Europe and the Mediterranean to North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. The battle for primacy between these two empires lasted more than a century. After a series of grievous defeats to Carthage at the outset of the Second Punic War, Rome decided to try a new approach.

In 213 BCE, the Roman Senate dispatched a military envoy to meet with Prince Syphax, ruler of the Numidian territories in North Africa.[ii] Numidia was aligned under Carthage and provided its leader Hannibal with his best cavalry units. The envoy consisted of three Roman centurions who beseeched Syphax to turn against Carthage. In return, Rome would repay Syphax, with interest, following the successful conclusion of the war. The prince agreed, but his one condition was that a centurion remain “with him as instructor in the art of war.”[iii] The centurion Quintus Statorius agreed to stay behind and began the task of arming, equipping, and training the Numidian tribes. Syphax kept his promise and immediately sent messengers to the Numidian fighters in the Carthaginian army to persuade them to leave. Carthage then witnessed a portion of their military forces abandoning them and an uprising on the home continent.[iv]

The challenges that Statorius faced more then a millennia ago were very similar to those that coalition advisors encountered on the ground in Libya in 2011. Statorius had to instruct a society accustomed to fighting on horseback and open plains on the finer points of fighting in a tightly packed phalanx (the military innovation of its day). Similarly, the soldiers deployed by countries such as the United Kingdom, France, and Qatar had to train new Libyan volunteers in hit-and-run tactics so that they could stand up to Qaddafi’s well-equipped military. Both tasks required special skills such as diplomacy and an understanding of how to develop capability with limited external support. Most importantly, both Numidia and Libya highlight the inordinate impact that a handful of well-trained soldiers can have in a quiet advisory role.

The American Revolution: France’s Gamble

Today, the United States commands the most capable armed forces in the world. But, as is easy to forget, during its fight for independence, the U.S. military began as a ragged mix of militia very similar to Libya’s 2011 revolutionaries. Both the United States and Libya would not exist in their present form had a foreign power not intervened with UW.

In 1775, France was approaching financial insolvency, smarting from the loss of its colonies in North America, and stifled by England’s encroaching power. Across the Atlantic, as the Continental Congress prepared to declare independence from England, Louis XVI saw an opportunity to reverse France’s misfortune by stoking the conflict between King George III and his subjects in America.

France initially provided the American insurgency with money, gunpowder, and expertise from military advisors such as Polish engineer Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko and France’s Major General Marquis De Lafayette. Publicly, Paris gave London assurances that France had no desire to capitalize on the war,[v] but secretly, French ministers used fictitious shell companies to continue supplying the revolutionaries with material and ammunition.[vi] U.S. General George Washington was appreciative yet cautious about France’s offers of assistance. Like smart bombs and laser-guided munitions today, cannon and military engineering were the advanced technologies that America needed to defeat the British. He even made the energetic Lafayette his aide-de-camp—to the delight of the French court. However, Washington was aware that France’s efforts were not wholly altruistic. “I am heartily disposed to entertain the most favorable sentiments of our new ally and to cherish them in others to a reasonable degree,” he said, “but it is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest.”[vii]

By October 1781, the condition on the ground was strikingly similar to that in Libya in 2011. The American revolutionaries had won a share of symbolic victories. The fledgling government enjoyed diplomatic relations with countries like France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic. In the south, the Continental Army—led by Lafayette and reinforced by the French Navy on the Chesapeake—trapped British forces at Yorktown. The Southern British Army’s ultimate surrender in Virginia forced Britain to the negotiating table and signaled the end of the war.

During both the American and Libyan revolutions, foreign governments shaped the outcome of events against regimes that they did not favor by using UW. It provided France, and later the United States, with the capability to influence these conflicts quietly, without involving large numbers of their own troops. When the timing was right, France and the United States used their conventional military power (i.e., naval blockade, air force) to support the unconventional fighting on the ground. Moreover, although both the Americans and Libyans received substantial foreign assistance, both still felt in control of their own revolutions. Had Libya or the American colonies won their independence without a distinct sense of ownership, the victory would fail to unite the citizenry or garner acknowledgement from the international community.

Iran Today: UW Comes First

As the dust settles in Libya, one of the biggest mistakes U.S. leadership can make is to assume that other countries are not conducting their own UW campaigns. Among the most notable that I observed firsthand is that of Iran.

Iran looks to UW as its almost exclusive means of projecting military power. Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Iran sent approximately twenty-four members of its Revolutionary Guard Corps to Beirut to support Hezbollah.[viii] In the eighteen years that followed, the number of agents in the country rose as high as five hundred. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, the Ayatollah Khomeini addressed the Iranian National Security Council to comment on “Iran’s greatest foreign policy success. We will repeat it across the Islamic world until all of Islam is liberated.”[ix] Iran considers the Israeli withdrawal the first decisive defeat of a Western power in postmodern times.[x]

Unlike NATO’s efforts in Libya, Iran’s UW efforts are not limited to a singular country or region. Where Iran can find a group with whom it shares a common enemy, it will build relationships. Iran’s recruiting pool of insurgents comes from the geographical swath of land known as the “Shia crescent”: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Bahrain. According to intelligence reports, all have sizable Shia populations that Iran can use as a sectarian baseline to build surrogate forces. Further afield in South America, Iran has a presence in the Tri-Border region of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. Hezbollah affiliates provide funding for their military wing in Lebanon, and Iran builds contacts inside the drug trade.[xi] In my experience, even if Iran falls short of supplanting a hostile regime and installing a friendly one, these surrogates provide a capacity to retaliate when Tehran feels threatened. In Iraq, for example, I was aware that the Revolutionary Guard supplied illegal Shia militias with munitions that could penetrate the armor on U.S. vehicles. When the United States convinced China and Russia to agree to tighter United Nations (UN) sanctions against Iran on 18 May 2010, I believe that Tehran gave the order to attack U.S. forces.[xii] Two days later, I saw car bombings on American patrols in the Diyala Province, an area previously characterized by relative calm.[xiii]

Conversely, Iran uses unconventional strategies to protect regimes fighting their own insurgencies. In Syria, there have been reports of Iranian Revolutionary Guard members advising Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s military officers.[xiv] Iranian operatives wear Syrian uniforms, speak the local Arabic dialect, and provide tactical assistance in combating the Free Syrian Army. Though not playing the role of the insurgent, these agents are performing much the same function: quietly supporting foreign forces to fight a common enemy.

One of the biggest differences between Iran and the West is how Iran prioritizes its UW capability above that of its conventional military. Consider that for any NATO member, the most senior leaders are overwhelmingly conventional military officers. Their backgrounds are in the infantry, on naval ships or in jet fighter squadrons. This experience influences their planning, which consequently does not factor in UW. Iran is the opposite; the Revolutionary Guard is the closest to the Ayatollah’s ear while the conventional military sits further down the table. I can attest that when the United States feels threatened, we reach for our tanks and our cruise missiles. When Iran feels threatened, it reaches for UW.


UW will only play an increasing role in today’s state of affairs. As the United States wrestles with intervention in Syria, how to deal with Taliban bases in Pakistan, and the right response for Al Qaeda in Yemen, UW will be an appealing choice—especially to an American public fatigued by a decade of war. UW can be cost-effective and minimally visible; it can legitimize local authorities and make conventional military options more effective. However, UW also carries real risks. In Libya, the world is still coming to terms with those recalcitrant fighters who have yet to align with the central government. What share of responsibility does the international community bear for the resulting instability, given that they armed them?

It is vital that the dialogue over UW begins now. Special Operations, the proponent of UW, has grown immensely over the last twelve years. However, there has not been a corresponding growth in the understanding of UW within the Defense Department and its various agencies. The military is eager to return to its traditional mission and redevelop its conventional warfighting skills. But if there is no corresponding push to educate senior leaders and policy makers on this subject, the United States may lose a potential edge in future conflicts. Our adversaries are learning and with each passing year the United States’ technological superiority is lessened. Like Rome in 213 BCE, it is time for a different approach.


Dave Coughran is a 2014 Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, currently studying diplomacy and international affairs. Coughran completed two tours to Iraq as a Green Beret in the Special Forces. He speaks Arabic and has served in numerous advisory posts to militaries and governments from the Middle East.


[i] Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02. 2010.

[ii] Livy, Titus. 1965. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. The war with Hannibal. 3rd Ed. London: Penguin Books, 47.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid, 47-48.

[v] Saint Bris, Gonzague. 2010. Translated by George Holoch. Lafayette. New York: Pegasus Books, 89-91. In the fall of 1777, King Louis XVI met with Lord Stormont (English Ambassador to France) at his Palace in Versailles. The minutes of this meeting clearly indicate that France’s official stance toward the American insurgency was one of neutrality and that the French monarchy was dedicated to maintaining good relations with London.

[vi] Ibid, 72-73.

[vii] Ellis, Joseph J. 2000. Founding fathers: The revolutionary generation. New York: Random House, 132.  General Washington also wrote many letters to Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress, warning him of France’s true aim. Washington was wary of introducing large numbers of French troops onto the continent.

[viii] Baer, Robert. 2008. The devil we know: Dealing with the new Iranian superpower. New York: Crown Publishers, 22.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Gato, Pablo, and Robert Windrem. 2007. Hezbollah builds a Western base. NBC News, 9 May.

[xii] MacAskill, Ewen. 2010. Iran faces fresh sanctions as Russia and China support UN resolution. Guardian, 18 May.

[xiii] This is my personal assessment of the event. I believe the timing is too perfect to be a coincidence. I also believe that the attack was of such a sophisticated nature that only an element backed by the Revolutionary Guard could have succeeded in such a manner.

[xiv] Gordon, Michael R. 2013. Clinton reviews tenure, focusing on Syria and Iran. New York Times, 31 January.