Document Created: 23 August 2007
Air & Space Power Journal
Fall 2007

Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare by Hy S. Rothstein. Naval Institute Press (, 291 Wood Road, Annapolis, Maryland 21402, 2006, 224 pages, $26.95 (hardcover).

The initial phase of the US military campaign in Afghanistan received praise as a formidable display of American military prowess, especially the role of US special forces in ousting the Taliban regime and pursuing members of al-Qaeda into their own backyard. American civilian and military leaders alike have issued repeated statements insisting on the importance of unconventional capabilities in fighting a war against terrorists. Yet today in the Middle East, increasing numbers of coalition forces continue to battle a persistent enemy. Have operations in Afghanistan actually been unconventional, or have we used special operations forces (SOF) simply to conduct what in essence remains a conventional campaign?

Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare is a study of what defines unconventional warfare and how we must posture SOF in order to engage irregular threats successfully. The title of the book speaks directly to its purpose: to highlight the inability of the US military to conduct unconventional warfare effectively. Using operations in Afghanistan as a contemporary case study, author Hy Rothstein examines how the American military has historically waged war and how it cannot help using conventional methods to fight in the future. Framing his study in a conceptual discussion of what constitutes unconventional warfare, the author explains why our military finds itself ill equipped to fight such a conflict. He argues that despite significant investment in developing special operations, the military lacks the institutional capability of engaging opponents with irregular methods. Employing SOF in a mission does not automatically constitute a special operation. Initial operations in Afghanistan rightfully consisted of using conventional means to defeat a conventional opponent. Since the fall of the Taliban regime, however, the conflict has become unconventional, while US actions in the region have remained conventional.

A retired career special-forces officer with 30 years’ active duty, Rothstein writes from a perspective of experience. His concise prose punctuates each point of the book, and he personalizes the case study of the conflict in Afghanistan through extensive interviews with members of specific units and with leaders who directed the employment of those units. The author’s concise, well-documented review of the literature, which defines the context of special operations and the arena of unconventional warfare, transforms several vague definitions into clear terminology. Gradually developed on a foundation of contemporary history and theoretical analysis, the author’s insights into the current state of US capabilities in unconventional warfare present an efficiently constructed volume that reflects Rothstein’s provocative thought.

For the reader who has but a few minutes to spare, the book’s introduction, which reads much like an executive summary, explains the author’s main points quite well. Yet the true value of the book lies in its examination of the American military system and how that system’s structure resists the concepts of unconventional warfare. In presenting the fundamentals of organizational theory and dependency relationships, the author identifies the self-reinforcing nature of contemporary military organizations and the way they further promulgate their established procedures. At times the many lists, intended to define unconventional warfare, seem only to obscure a basic definition, but perhaps that is really the point: to realize that because unconventional warfare in fact defies the limits of an organizational structure, one must conduct it through an outward perspective that allows continuous adjustment to the environment in which it occurs.

As an analytical tool that frames a view of what constitutes unconventional warfare and the way one should use SOF to combat irregular threats, Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare represents a valuable reference to the contemporary military professional fighting the global war on terrorism. For the astute reader, Rothstein’s use of Afghanistan as a case study to illustrate his arguments also provides insight into the insurgency in Iraq. By conducting a far-reaching analysis of SOF in particular and unconventional warfare as a whole, the book offers innovative insight into how the US military conducts war. Nevertheless, readers looking for easy answers should beware: the author’s recommendations are as unconventional as the type of warfare he seeks to define.

Maj Benjamin R. Maitre, USAF
Naval Postgraduate School, California


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University . They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University .

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