The US Navy calls it “violent peace.” One of its foremost academic boosters says it means “to fight without appearing to fight.” They are talking about low-intensity conflict. This is the term the US government uses to describe a strategy of fighting small, relatively cheap wars. Few US troops are involved, so there are few American casualties and there is no need for a draft. The US people may not even be aware of — let alone oppose — US involvement. The goal is to destabilize or overthrow “undesirable” Third World governments or to underpin the stability of “friendly” governments. As Col. John D. Waghelstein, former chief of the US military mission in El Salvador, summed it up: Low-intensity conflict is a “post-Vietnam counterinsurgency doctrine.” [1]

This is a strategy designed for a world in which, over the last 30 years, US power has steadily declined relative not only to the Soviet Union, but also Western Europe, Japan and even the Third World. Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Nicaragua, Ethiopia — these countries symbolized growing US difficulty in maintaining control of the developing countries. Successive US administrations have tried to address this problem in various ways. The Nixon Doctrine aimed at utilizing foreign countries as proxies and regional police, a strategy best fulfilled in the Middle East with Israel and the Shah’s Iran. President Carter promoted a trilateralist approach, coordinated with Japan and Western Europe. These approaches failed badly, as the Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions and the hostage affair in Tehran demonstrated.

The Reagan administration is now promoting a strategy of indirect military intervention in the Third World, low-intensity warfare, which is intended not only to halt the decline of US influence, but also to regain control over countries like Iran, Angola and Nicaragua that are already “lost.” Reagan administration officials strike a persistent theme in identifying the root cause of eroding US control. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, speaking in 1986, found the matter to be self-evident: “Tonight,” he said, “one out of every four countries around the globe is at war. In virtually every case, behind the mask is the Soviet Union and those who do its bidding.” [2] Secretary of State George Shultz argues that the Soviet Union, too weak to confront the US in a conventional or nuclear conflict, has itself resorted to low-intensity warfare in the Third World: “a flanking maneuver, in military terms.” [3] Weinberger insists that the Soviet Union is promoting “those depredations known as wars of national liberation” worldwide, forcing the US to respond at the same level. [4]

Some top civilian and military officials are well aware that the threat to US interests is much more complex. Two military analysts addressing a conference on Special Operations at the National Defense University in Washington admitted that “the most likely threats to US interests may arise from local and regional conflicts and internal instability of US allies or clients. Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea — American or Western allies to some degree — are all vulnerable to internal unrest and to external attack.” Although proponents and critics alike identify low-intensity conflict with administration policy in Central America, six of these examples are in the Middle East. “As the causes of instability are often rooted deeply in the political and social fabric of the state,” the analysts continue, “this kind of security threat is one the United States would appear ill suited to resolve unilaterally.” [5]

In the official army view, “nuclear stalemate” between the US and the USSR “serve[s] to confine the confrontation to low- to mid-intensity conflicts within Third World countries, such as Afghanistan and Vietnam, or support for third parties against clients of the other.” [6] This implies that the US will have to decide again and again whether to deploy troops to the Third World.

At one level, little about this analysis and the resulting military strategy is new. From 1946 to 1975, US troops engaged in 215 conflicts below the level of war, even though during those years the US military was relatively unprepared for such “political” deployments. [7] What is new is the high-profile campaign to convince the US military establishment to shift political and budgetary priorities away from Central Europe major war planning toward Third World brushfire war planning. A 1983 study prepared for the US Army’s doctrine command took up the theme:

The Army’s dilemma is that the conflict least likely to occur — extended conventional superpower hostilities in Europe — nevertheless dominates Army thinking, training and resource allocation. The hostilities most likely to engage the Army’s attention will be those small but critical low-intensity conflicts proliferating at the periphery of the great powers; whether indigenous or externally driven, many of these conflicts — or proto-conflicts — engage important US interests in the Gulf, in the Caribbean, in Africa, in the Southern Pacific, and potentially, even within the US itself. This low-intensity conflict environment is not one for which the Army is currently prepared. [8]

To get the Army ready to fight these battles, low-intensity conflict strategists had to do three things: define the circumstances for low-intensity deployment; formulate appropriate military doctrines; and reform US military thinking so that it can adjust to the personnel, material and training requirements of the newly developed doctrine.

Total War

Col. Waghelstein, who came to Fort Bragg by way of a stint as chief of the US military group in El Salvador, summed up low intensity conflict as “total war at the grassroots level.” [9] It combines political, psychological, economic and military means. And while it may be low-intensity on a global scale, at the grassroots it is very intense. The official literature identifies five possible scenarios in which US troops would fight below the level of conventional or nuclear war.

  • Counterinsurgency (or “foreign internal defense,” as in El Salvador and the Philippines);
  • Organization of and support for insurgencies (Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola);
  • Spearhead operations: “precise” and limited use of conventional forces (Libya, Grenada);
  • Terrorist and counter-terrorist actions; rescue operations (Iran, Lebanon, Libya);
  • Peacekeeping operations (Lebanon).

In a strategy to control the Third World, some of these categories are more important than others. Some are simply euphemistic terms for operations with quite different purposes: the “peacekeeping” force that intervened in the Lebanese civil war or the “rescue mission” that conquered Grenada. Low-intensity conflict specialist Sam Sarkesian collapses these scenarios back down to the basics: “Revolution and counterrevolution are the main categories,” he says. [10] Phrases like anti-terrorism, rescue and peacekeeping operations are added simply to legitimate the basic thrust of policy.

Legitimacy is an important issue for the military. Several speakers at a January 1986 conference on low-intensity warfare hosted by Defense Secretary Weinberger noted that such conflicts are not easy to sell to a post-Vietnam public. The US is handicapped, said Sarkesian, because “in many instances, some of the most effective responses stretch the notion of democracy.” [11] Weinberger’s answer to that concern is that it is just not the same when the US adopts these tactics: “Those who mold public opinion in America,” he says, “must see the failing in a fatuous objectivity which affects to judge the ambitions of the wolf and the lamb by an equal measure.” [12]


Counterinsurgency, the keystone of low-intensity conflict, aims to mold a society and its government apparatus along lines which will guarantee US control. [13] Military force is an important element — and an instrument — of this strategy, but it is not equivalent to the strategy. The basic goal is to separate anti-government guerrilla forces from the population. The separation can be either civilian or military (resettlement programs or aerial bomb attacks against civilians); the instruments are selected according to effectiveness: anything from large-scale massacres to “social reforms.” This approach to counterinsurgency was successfully tested in the early 1950s in the Philippines; it failed elsewhere, especially in Vietnam. The present version tries to take into account the experience of Vietnam.

Counterinsurgency requires relatively stable general economic conditions. Where these do not exist, it is the goal of the US Economic Support Funds program to create an artificial stability. In El Salvador, for example, US aid had to make up for tremendous losses from the war, support the government’s budget, compensate for capital flight to Miami and Swiss bank accounts, and finance necessary imports. This “economic aid” was in fact a direct contribution to the government’s war effort. (The overwhelming share of US Economic Support Funds — 80 percent — go to Middle Eastern countries.) [14]

Counterinsurgency recognizes that the roots of insurgencies generally are intolerable social, economic, and political conditions. Some counterinsurgency planners even like to talk about “addressing the causes” of insurgencies. But fundamental change is the goal of the insurgents. US policy aims at a status quo reformed only to the extent needed to continue in place. The US allies itself with “reformist” elements of the oligarchy and the military.

To really change unbearable conditions could further destabilize a US-backed regime. The trick is to create the hope for correction through “civic action” programs — aid given to civilians by the military. As counterinsurgency expert Douglas Blaufarb puts it, “Economic aid, broadly interpreted, has often been of value in strengthening local government in the countryside…. In most instances, the purpose of such programs has been to improve the government’s control of the countryside and to bolster the support of its cause by the rural population.” [15] Maj. Frederick F. Woerner, director of the civic action advisory staff in Guatemala from 1966 to 1968, is more blunt. He calls civic action “a military weapon in counterinsurgency. I wish I could say that our main concern is in improving nutrition…. These are only byproducts. The security of the country is our mission.” [16] Along with limited and symbolic reforms (civic action), psychological operations carried out by the US Information Agency and psychological operations (PSYOPS) units of the Special Operations Forces are important elements of low-intensity conflict.

“Democratization,” if it really were to open up the system for democratic participation, would be of no use as a counterinsurgency tool. “Democratization” aims at integrating a small part of the “moderate” opposition into the government-controlled political process, and isolating other opposition forces. By posing unacceptable conditions for opposition participation in the “political opening” — usually laying down its weapons while government troops keep theirs — this strategy can exclude the insurgents and place the blame on their own intransigence.

Low-intensity conflict is, at bottom, also a military affair. No counterinsurgency campaign can function without a minimum of “security” in the field. Generally, military strategy consists of at least three phases. First, the army eradicates any perceivable guerrilla presence in selected areas through large-scale search-and-destroy missions. Their goal is not to destroy the insurgent forces, but to force their withdrawal, clearing the way for the second phase: civil-military operations by the government forces. These operations aim at destroying the insurgent infrastructure, including opposition labor unions and other “subversive” organizations. Phase two aims at sealing off the target area, reorganizing the local entities of government administration, and building an apparatus for efficient intelligence gathering. If successful, this phase would give the local population compelling reasons for cooperating with the army and the national government and would even organize some people into local “self-defense” militias. After completing these tasks, the army leaves behind a military network and turns to a neighboring area to repeat the process. Israel, an important source of counterinsurgency inspiration and training in Central America, has most recently tried to apply it in southern Lebanon, with mixed results.

Other, complementary aspects of the military strategy involve guarding strategic points against guerrilla attacks, massive expansion of army manpower, strengthening mobility on the ground, air transport and air attack capabilities, and creating more effective intelligence and communications capabilities. [17]

Rolling Back Revolution

One of the most prominent elements of low-intensity conflict in recent years — the flip side of counterinsurgency — is to promote the overthrow of governments which are not firmly in the US camp. Dubbed the Reagan Doctrine, this is actually a casual policy applied only selectively.

Conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation have forcefully advocated this rollback strategy. In its 1984 recommendations, the foundation urged the president to “employ paramilitary assets to weaken those communist and non-communist regimes that may already be facing the early stages of insurgency within their borders and which threaten US interests.” It named Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Iran and Libya among the prime targets. [18]

As in counterinsurgency, destabilization and overthrow are much more than purely military tasks. One of the best historical examples is the CIA-organized coup in Iran in 1953. The CIA helped to organize pro-Shah military officers against Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq’s government, which had nationalized Iran’s oil industry. The basic strategy was to split the government and the army. Bribes, military intimidation and a professionally organized campaign of psychological warfare (rumors of an imminent communist takeover if the Shah did not reclaim authority) turned the tide against Mossadeq after three days of street battles in Tehran. The government surrendered after the army withdrew its support.

Similar programs were repeated elsewhere; some failed (the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba) and some succeeded (Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973). But the shift of public opinion away from support for such ventures — the “Vietnam syndrome” — made such political-military interventions much more difficult. The 1975 Clark Amendment prohibiting the CIA and other US government institutions from destabilizing the government of Angola signaled the new constraints.

The 1979-1980 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan provided the pretext for reopening the door for large-scale covert paramilitary operations by the CIA. President Carter, and later President Reagan, provided weapons and money to the mujahideen in Afghanistan and their allies in Pakistan. What began as a modest operation (conducted in cooperation with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and China) now costs $640 million per year (about half of that sum provided by other countries). The CIA skillfully used its Afghanistan operation to rehabilitate paramilitary operations generally.

Low-intensity conflict in Afghanistan did nothing to promote a solution to the war, nor did it contribute to a Soviet withdrawal. The CIA goal was just the opposite: pin down and exhaust the Soviet Union. Washington noisily demanded a Soviet withdrawal, but made it militarily impossible for the Soviets to leave. In the summer of 1986 a high-ranking Pentagon official described this approach to me as “fighting to the last Afghan.”

The other important application of low-intensity conflict at the service of the Reagan Doctrine is Nicaragua. In early 1981, the administration began an ambitious campaign to topple the Sandinista government. The precondition for any effective US intervention was to subvert the national unity that had been forged in the common experience of overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship. Economic warfare and paramilitary aggression were the key ingredients. The contras’ job is not to take control of the country, but to destroy its economy, its infrastructure and its constructive political climate. The goal is to create dissent and disruption. This process of destabilization is a precondition for a US-sponsored “political reorientation.”


The third major element of low-intensity conflict has little to do with fighting outrageous acts of bloodshed and destruction such as the 1986 bombing of a synagogue in Istanbul. Counterterrorism in this formulation aims to delegitimize liberation struggles. The African National Congress in South Africa, the FMLN in El Salvador and the PLO are defined as “terrorist organizations,” while the contras in Nicaragua or the mujahideen in Afghanistan are “freedom fighters.” Counterterrorism also provides the rationale for US military intervention in specific circumstances.

Libya is a case in point. The Libyan government has surely been responsible for acts of violence, including the murder of Libyan dissidents living in exile. But Libyan responsibility for terrorist acts against other countries is far from proven. No European government, including those of Italy and Austria, bought Washington’s charge that Libya organized the bombing of the airports in Rome and Vienna in December 1985. Even the Israeli prime minister, during a trip to Bonn, discounted those charges.

The April 1986 bombing of the La Belle disco in Berlin, in which a US soldier was killed, was similar. A Pentagon official insisted to me several months ago that the US government had “irrefutable evidence” of Libyan sponsorship of the bombing. When asked for the source of this evidence, he replied that the West German government had provided it. But the West German government, in parliamentary committees, had discounted the evidence that had been provided by the Reagan administration and had nothing better of its own.

The aerial bombing of Libyan cities had nothing to do with fighting terrorism; it was aimed at a “political reorientation” of Libya. The US hoped to topple the Libyan government by killing or weakening Qaddafi. A State Department official admitted to me that the bombing was “not really necessary.” It “just had to be done for domestic reasons.” Like other elements of low-intensity conflict strategy, counterterrorism is more than just a military operation: the campaign against Libya has included a show of force, military provocation, psychological operations (disinformation), political isolation, economic warfare and air raids. Low-intensity conflict aims at integrating all these tools into a single strategy.

Special Operations Forces

Regular troops generally are not capable of carrying out low-intensity conflict operations. “In the popular vernacular,” says analyst Sarkesian, “individuals and units should be ‘Rambo’-oriented.” [19] This is the domain of the Special Operations Forces of the Army, Navy and Air Force, whose motto is “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere, Anyhow.”

When low-intensity conflict emerged as an important military-civilian strategic concept again in the early 1980s, the military was still under the shadow of the Vietnam defeat. The second half of the 1970s was the low point in history of the SOF. Its budget had plunged from $1 billion a year to just $100 million. In the view of Col. Waghelstein, during this period the “state of preparedness” of the Special Operations Forces’ counterinsurgency capabilities was “at its lowest point in 20 years.” [20]

Between 1981 and 1985, the Reagan administration increased SOF manpower by almost 30 percent, to 14,900 on active duty and 32,000 including reserves. If increases continue as planned, active duty figures will be up to 20,900 by 1990, an increase of 80 percent over 1981. [21] These units have also received upgraded equipment and training. Weapons have been modified to fit SOF-type deployments, air transport capacity is stronger and additional swimmer delivery vehicles have been procured. The SOF budget climbed back up to $1.2 billion in FY 1986 to make low-intensity conflict work. [22] In November 1986, a spokesman for the Army’s First Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg said that four units were being trained for operations in specific regions and languages: the Persian Gulf, Latin America, the Pacific and Europe. A fifth group is planned for North Africa. [23]

Dissent in the Ranks

Taken as a whole, low-intensity warfare is anything but new. Counterinsurgency as a strategy existed even before the Kennedy administration made it more sophisticated and popular. Washington was destabilizing and overthrowing foreign governments long before Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s. Neither are “surgical” military operations new; only the justification (counterterrorism) is.

If none of these main elements of low-intensity conflict are new, why all the clamor? Even within the US military there is by no means a consensus about its worth. None of the Joint Chiefs of Staff addressed the conference on low-intensity conflict which Secretary of Defense Weinberger sponsored in January 1986. Less than two weeks before that conference, the New York Times reported that “the Reagan administration’s five-year effort to build up special commando units for unconventional warfare and counterterrorist operations has been hampered by the indifference, and sometimes active opposition, of regular Army and Air Force officers, according to senior Pentagon officials and members of Congress.” [24]

The military opposes the integrated approach of low-intensity conflict. This represents a constraint on purely “military solutions,” and suggests that the military might be held responsible for political consequences it cannot really control. Looking back to the Vietnam period, Col. Harry G. Summers, writing in Military Review in 1985, criticized the application of counterinsurgency — a criticism that could easily apply to some low-intensity conflict theorists — when he wrote that “Army doctrines ignored the traditional principles of war in favor of the writings of revolutionary war theorists and guerrilla leaders. These counterinsurgency doctrines had more to do with social science than they did with military science.” [25]

These perceptions inside the military have led some to oppose at least specific non-military aspects of the doctrine, and to emphasize the military components at the expense of the “reformist” components. The experience of the US Marines in Beirut has greatly affected the top brass’ enthusiasm for this approach.

Still, low-intensity conflict should definitely not be discounted or underestimated. For Washington, low-intensity conflict is a relatively low-cost and low-risk strategy. It sanctions the idea of fighting many “low-intensity” wars simultaneously. These wars do not engage many US troops. Spending is often small enough to be hidden in other budget categories. Popular opposition can thus be confined and minimized.

Low-intensity conflict has chalked up some successes. Granted, the Nicaraguan contras have not yet managed to defeat the Sandinista government militarily, but that was never their job. In 1980 and 1982, Nicaragua represented a model for revolutionary development in the Third World — as even the US ambassador conceded. Today the contra war has destroyed the economy and hundreds of development projects. Nobody knows how many more years of war the country can survive — even though the Sandinistas are “winning” the war. Low-intensity conflict is more than military battles. Other cases are similar: in Afghanistan the mujahideen are not winning, but they apply considerable pressure and have created a political dilemma for the Soviet Union. And in El Salvador, the FMLN is not defeated, but it has been set back from late 1983 when it was on the verge of winning the war.

Taken together, the results are mixed. The resurgence of low-intensity conflict — and of counterinsurgency, its most important element — is the result of a US desire to keep or regain control of the Third World in a very complicated international situation and after a period of waning influence. In this sense, low-intensity conflict has the function of confronting the Soviet Union, or what US decision makers like to perceive as Soviet proxies, in the Third World. It weakens or destroys liberation movements or progressive governments in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

At the same time, the goal is to avoid any “second Vietnam” — wars that pin down large numbers of US forces and, if lost, weaken US influence, prestige, and national cohesion considerably. For the ideologues of the Reagan administration, the means to that end is low-intensity conflict. Where this fails, the US can always disengage, and holds the option of intervening militarily after all.


[1] Cited in Paul Martin, “No More Vietnams: Old Slogan, New Vision,” NACLA Report on the Americas 20/4 (July-August 1986), p. 9.
[2] Caspar Weinberger, “The Phenomenon of Low-Intensity Warfare,” Proceedings of the Low-Intensity Warfare Conference, January 1986, sponsored by the Secretary of Defense (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 1986), p. 3. (hereafter Proceedings).
[3] George Shultz, “Low-Intensity Warfare: The Challenge of Ambiguity,” Proceedings, p. 9.
[4] Proceedings, p. 5.
[5] Maurice Tugwell and David Charters, “Special Operations and the Threats to the US Interests in the 1980s,” in Frank R. Barnett, B. Hugh Tovar and Richard H. Shultz, eds., Special Operations in US Strategy (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 1984), p. 38.
[6] Military Operations — US Army Operational Concept for Low-Intensity Conflict, TRADOC PAM 525-44, February 10, 1986, p. 3.
[7] Donald B. Vought, “Preparing for the Wrong War?” Military Review (May 1977), p. 17.
[8] Low-Intensity Conflict, Vol. 1, Main Report. Prepared for the US Army Training and Doctrine Command by Robert H. Kupperman Associates, July 30, 1983, p. viii.
[9] John D. Waghelstein, “Low-Intensity Conflict in the Post-Vietnam Period,” transcript of presentation at American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, January 17, 1985, p. 1.
[10] Sam C. Sarkesian, “Low-Intensity Conflict: Concepts, Principles and Policy Guidelines,” Air University Review 36/2 (January-February 1985), p. 5.
[11] Sam C. Sarkesian, “Low-Intensity Warfare: Threat and Military Response,” Proceedings, p. 40.
[12] Proceedings, p. 7.
[13] For an overview of US counterinsurgency strategy, see Jochen Hippler, Krieg im Frieden: Amerikanische Strategien fur die Dritte Welt: Counterinsurgency und Low-Intensity Warfare (Koln, 1986), pp. 47-73.
[14] General Accounting Office, US Security and Military Assistance: Programs and Related Activities — An Update, September 1985.
[15] Douglas S. Blaufarb, “Economic-Security Assistance and Special Operations,” in Tugwell and Charters, p. 203.
[16] David Tobis, “Retaliation in Guatemala,” National Guardian, January 27, 1968.
[17] Field Circular 100-20, pp. 4-17ff.
[18] Mandate for Leadership II (Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation, November 1984), pp. 267-268.
[19] Proceedings, p. 45.
[20] John D. Waghelstein, “Post-Vietnam Counterinsurgency Doctrine,” Military Review (May 1986), p. 44.
[21] Defense Monitor 14/2 (1985), p. 1.
[22] New York Times, January 6, 1986.
[23] New York Times, November 26, 1986.
[24] New York Times, January 6, 1986.
[25] Harry G. Summers, “Principles of War and Low-Intensity Conflict,” Military Review (March 1985), p. 43.

How to cite this article:

Jochen Hippler "Low-Intensity Warfare," Middle East Report 144 (January/February 1987).

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