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The Pentagon this week approved a major policy directive that elevates the military’s mission of “irregular warfare” — the increasingly prevalent campaigns to battle insurgents and terrorists, often with foreign partners and sometimes clandestinely — to an equal footing with traditional combat.
The directive, signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England on Monday, requires the Pentagon to step up its capabilities across the board to fight unconventionally, such as by working with foreign security forces, surrogates and indigenous resistance movements to shore up fragile states, extend the reach of U.S. forces into denied areas or battle hostile regimes.
The policy, a result of more than a year of debate in the defense establishment, is part of a broader overhaul of the U.S. military‘s role as the threat of large-scale combat against other nations’ armies has waned and new dangers have arisen from shadowy non-state actors, such as terrorists that target civilian populations.
“The U.S. has considerable overmatch in traditional capabilities . . . and more and more adversaries have realized it’s better to take us on in an asymmetric fashion,” said Michael G. Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities, and a chief architect of the policy.
Designed to institutionalize lessons the U.S. military has learned — often painfully — in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, the policy aims to prepare the military for the most likely future conflicts and to prevent the type of mistakes made in the post-Vietnam War era, when hard-won skills in counterinsurgency atrophied.