Marines engaged around the world today are superior to their opponents in nearly every way. They possess more advanced technology, greater numbers, better weapons, logistics, medical care, transportation, fire support and air power.
But history is full of examples of larger, better equipped conventional forces suffering defeat at the hands of smaller, unconventional opponents who use superior cultural knowledge to blend in among the population and exploit relationships.
To locate, close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver is not enough in irregular conflicts. Marines also need an expert knowledge of language, politics, power structure, physical environment, religion, economics, ethnicity and history. This level of understanding does not exist within the Marine Corps and cannot be taught — but without it, Marines cannot win.
It’s a challenge the Marine Corps has faced across its history of engaging around the world in irregular, population-centric conflicts that aim to defeat ideologies.
Referring to irregular conflict in Vietnam, Marine Lt. Gen. Victor “Brute” Krulak observed: “An idea cannot be defeated with a bullet; it can only be beaten by a better idea.” Decades later, an advisor to Army Gen. David Petraeus, Army Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill , echoed Lt. Gen. Krulak’s sentiment when he said about Iraq: “You can't shoot your way out, you can't kill your way out, of an insurgency. You just can't. You have to find other kinds of ammunition, and it's not always a bullet."
In order to fight and win future conflicts, the Marine Corps should form an Irregular Warfare Regiment, or IWR, consisting of foreign- and American-born Marines, and tasked with supporting U.S. military operations around the world.
The cultural deficiency that exists in Marine Corps operating units is lamentable and entirely avoidable. As the world’s populations become more connected and less controlled, victory in conflicts will rely largely on the mastery of irregular operations, which require native-level fluency that currently does not exist within the Corps. Will the Marine Corps be victors in future conflicts, or victims of them? An Irregular Warfare Regiment is an investment in people that will empower the Corps to be as dominant and adaptable on human terrain as it is in every other area.
Sangin, Afghanistan, 2010
Afghanistan in the fall of 2010 was a volatile place, especially in the Helmand province. The most lethal area of operations was in the Sangin District. Between September 2010 and April 2011, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (Darkhorse) lost more Marines in Sangin than any other battalion in the history of America’s war in Afghanistan. During that time, I commanded Company L.
Like every battalion, 3/5 conducted predeployment training that included cultural training and best practices in counterinsurgency. No shortcuts were taken. The Darkhorse also included two police mentor teams and one military adviser team, all of which received additional specialized training in advising, language and culture.
When we arrived in Sangin, we were eager to engage the enemy. But after a few months the enemy had dealt severe blows through an insidious combination of sniper fire, improvised explosives, small arms and occasionally indirect fire. The enemy’s greatest advantage was the ability to operate among the population. When we conducted shuras, or town hall meetings, we had no idea who was from the area and who was an enemy fighter brought in from other parts of the region. I never knew if I was speaking to a legitimate community leader or a Taliban fighter.
We had very little understanding of the people we were there to secure, the economy we were to develop or the local political system we were there to strengthen. As casualties mounted we became more reliant on indirect fire support, air power and heavily armored vehicles that transported us along narrow roads and canals, and isolated us from the population.
We became yet another example of a numerically and technologically superior force stopped by a small, unconventional opponent, because we lacked real understanding of the human terrain.
It was aggravating. I wanted to build roads, mosques and schools, but I didn’t know which contractors were trustworthy or which ones were going to take our money and leave. I wanted to develop the economy, but I could not tell the difference between a legitimate store and a Taliban front. I wanted to develop the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan police, but I never knew whether their ranks had been infiltrated by the enemy. I wanted to secure the population, but I did not know who was a member of the community and who was an embedded enemy fighter.
The superficial cultural training I had received was of very little use to me. I had the support of interpreters who were helpful to an extent. They could bridge the language gap, but since none of them were from Helmand they could not offer advice on issues specific to the region, and since I could not arm them they became a liability in firefights.
I needed advisers with a native understanding who also could be employed as combatants. Such men did not exist at that time, and still do not.
How it can be achieved
An Irregular Warfare Regiment could be recruited, trained, equipped and employed in a manner consistent with Marine Corps’ operating concepts and core values.
All personnel above the rank of sergeant would be American Marines, all others (including sergeants) would be non-U.S. citizens recruited from selected areas to address the unique requirements of each geographic combatant command.
Once screened, all applicants would attend language training until their mastery of the English language is sufficient for completion of Marine Recruit Training. Following recruit training, the IWR Marines would complete training at an Infantry Training Battalion and then receive follow-on training in foreign advising, counterinsurgency, theater security cooperation, information warfare and network engagement, all of which could be received in schools that already exist in the Department of Defense.
Upon completion of entry-level training, each Marine would be assigned to the battalion and company most aligned with their background. For instance, a Marine native to Indonesia would go to Company B, 1st Battalion, since that is the company in support of Southeast Asia in Pacific Command. A Marine from Niger would be assigned to Company N of the 3rd Battalion, which is the company that supports operations in the Sahel region of Marine Corps Forces Africa.
The battalions would be located near the headquarters of the combatant command they support, and would be force providers akin to Light Armored Reconnaissance or tank battalions. Following five years of honorable service, each Marine would be sworn in as naturalized U.S. citizens with all of the benefits that honor implies.
This proposal represents a significant investment in new personnel, weapons and equipment as well as a dramatic shift in recruiting processes. All of which are challenges that can be overcome.
The investment in personnel, while substantial, is not prohibitive. An IWR could include about 4,200 personnel and consist of essentially two groups of Marines: citizens and noncitizens. The vast majority of those Marines would come from foreign countries, not from existing Marine units.
I suggest that an IWR would not contain any heavy or crew served weapons; it would be equipped strictly with small arms. Procurement of weapons could be phased in over time along with the gradual phasing in of the companies. Manning and equipping the IWR over the course of time would reduce the impact on the budget, and it would also enable the IWR concept to be validated.
Recruiting, screening and shipping the right applicants from foreign countries would be a combined effort of Marine Corps Recruiting Command, the U.S. State Department and Marine Security detachments at embassies and consulates all over the world. Non-U.S. citizens residing within the United States could apply through local Marine Corps recruiters. All applicants would be thoroughly screened and issued a special work visa.
Recruitment might be problematic in some areas. Reducing the potential risk for espionage would require a careful process. The risk of possible infiltration could never be fully eliminated, but the benefit outweighs the risk.
There is a precedent for a program like this in the United States. In 2008, the Department of Defense implemented the “Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest,” known as the MAVNI. MAVNI authorized the military services to recruit legal aliens whose skills, such as language and cultural expertise, were considered vital to the national interest.
The MAVNI program is currently on indefinite hold pending review by the DoD, but it produced more than 10,400 troops since 2009, none of whom have presented a security threat to the nation as of December 2017. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis supports the program, and has taken steps to save it.
Empowering the Corps
What advantage might a battalion commander conducting security cooperation training in Kuwait be able to leverage if he has a company of Marines born and raised there supporting his mission? What deadly missteps might be avoided in Syria if the commander of a Marine Expeditionary Unit is advised by Marines born and raised in Aleppo? What if the target population of information operations was represented organically in the unit conducting them? Who better to engage with a population after a lethal incident of collateral damage than a Marine from the area who not only knows the language and culture, but is also trained in information operations?
The enemy we face in irregular conflicts already is unable to contend with American forces on conventional battlefields. If his sanctuary and advantage in irregular, human terrain is also taken away from him, would he not then be on the proverbial horns of a dilemma?
Maj. Matt Peterson was a company commander with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines in Sangin, Afghanistan in 2010-2011. He is now the operations officer at Marine Barracks Washington.
A version of this commentary first appeared in the Marine Corps Gazette.