Shifting Landscape: The Evolution of By, With, and Through

Shifting Landscape: The Evolution of By, With, and Through
Iraqi Prime Minister\'s Media Office via AP
Shifting Landscape: The Evolution of By, With, and Through
Iraqi Prime Minister\'s Media Office via AP
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The gunfire had stopped. On July 10, 2017, the rubble-strewn streets of Mosul were once again alive and full of cheerful shouts. The Islamic State had been forced out by the Iraqi Security Forces. Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, was in town, preparing to speak to the Iraqis and the world. Abadi walked to the center of a large group of Iraqi service members posed around several military vehicles. Ten Iraqi flags waved wildly in the background as he began to speak:

Honorable Iraqis, your land has been completely liberated. The dream of liberation is now a reality. We have accomplished a very difficult mission. Our heroes have reached the final strongholds of Daesh [the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State] and purified it. The Iraqi flag flies high today over all Iraqi lands.

It was a powerful moment, a victory for all Iraqis. A victory by Iraqi forces, with the support of enablers from the United States, facilitated through authorities and agreements. A victory for the by, with, and through approach.


General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CNN)

It is nearly impossible to read any recent military article or listen to speeches by military leaders and not find the phrase by, with, and through used to describe America’s contemporary approach to military operations. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, and United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) Commander General Joseph Votel all have used the phrase. The April 2018 issue of Joint Forces Quarterly had an entire section on the approach in Central Command. By, with, and through is not a new concept, but its meaning has changed significantly over the three decades since its first appearance in military literature. Once exclusively the purview of unconventional warfare and special operations forces, by, with, and through has gone mainstream, but it is not yet found in joint doctrine for conventional warfare. The evolution of the phrase and its individual elements has increased the lack of clarity because of inconsistencies in messaging and understanding of the definitions, responsibilities, progression, and ultimate goal of the approach.


The use of partisan forces was first explored by the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. In 1955, the idea of using local forces in unconventional warfare to accomplish U.S. objectives first appeared in Army doctrine. Lieutenant Colonel Mark Boyatt’s 1993 Army War College thesis and subsequent 2016 book, popularized the idea of special operations forces working “through, with, or by” indigenous forces for unconventional warfare. In 2003, the phrase first appeared in a joint publication titled Doctrine for Joint Special Operations noting, "[Unconventional warfare is] conducted through, with, or by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external force." The Army later brought the term out of the exclusively special operations realm, changing the order of the words and the conjunction in 2007, recognizing that these by, with, and through unconventional warfare forces could be used “in support of conventional military operations.” In 2009, General Ray Odierno, Commander Multinational Forces-Iraq, gave a televised interview about Iraq wherein he cemented the phrase into popular military jargon, saying:

Outside the cities, U.S. forces will continue to conduct full- spectrum and stability operations by, with and through our Iraqi security force partners. Our combined efforts will establish a layer of defense as Iraqis secure the cities. Our combat forces, partnering with the Iraqi security forces, will secure the belts and borders in an attempt to eliminate safe havens and sanctuaries and to limit freedom of movement of insurgents and prevent the facilitation of foreign fighters through the borders.

General Odierno was clearly referring to by, with, and through in its original unconventional warfare context: operations conducted by partners, combined with U.S. forces. Since that day, the phrase was permanently flipped in the military lexicon. “Through, with, or by” had become by, with, and through. The term has continued to evolve, and all the three elements of the approach have changed significantly from their origins.


In its initial context, by included with and referred to the approach special operation forces take to accomplish U.S. military objectives by using indigenous personnel to carry out the fight while the Special Forces would “provide and/or coordinate the equipment, training, logistics, fire support, aviation support, etc.” By presupposes the forces conducting the fight have the will and capacity to execute it and recognize it as a fight worth taking on. This approach relied heavily on relationships developed between the U.S. and indigenous forces and the alignment of U.S and host nation objectives.


On the other hand, General Votel and Colonel Keravuori currently define by as operations led “by our partners, state or nonstate.” While the term partners encompasses indigenous people, it also includes third parties, intermediaries, and surrogates, such as allied nations, which was part of the through concept in the initial definition. This distinction highlights the potential role of nonstate actors, including not only non-military interagency partners and international organizations, but also factions within a host nation who might be more influential and whose interests may be more aligned with those of the United States than the host nation itself.

Starting in 2007 in Yemen, the United States employed the original intent of the by concept. The U.S. spent more than $500 million for military equipment between 2007 and 2011, in a failedattempt to bolster Yemen’s military in its fight against al Qaeda affiliates and domestic insurgents. Nepotism and corruption were rampant throughout Yemen’s government, and funds were used to strengthen president Saleh’s power rather than fight terrorism.

Since 2014 in Syria, a mixture of Kurdish militias and Syrian Defense Forces have fought against both the country’s dictator and violent extremist organizations. While some U.S. support is on the ground, local forces are fighting the fight, much like Iraq since 2014. Of course, by includes withand through in the modern context, so the fighting is predominately supported with U.S. and coalition enablers (training, equipping, and sustainment) and through authorities (Syrian Train and Equip Fund, Authorization for the Use of Military Force) and agreements (Access, Basing, Overflight, and Acquisition Cross-Servicing Agreements).


The modern interpretation and application of the with in by, with, and through has little in common with its predecessor. In its original context, the term with is explained as “working, eating, sleeping, and living, side by side 24 hour per day, seven day a week, with those we are helping for as long as it takes—years or generations—to accomplish objectives of both the people we are supporting and the USA.”

The current Central Command definition of with is “with enabling support from the United States or U.S.-led coalitions.” The updated definition starkly contrasts with the original meaning. WithU.S. enablers is not the same thing as with U.S. forces. Additionally, these enablers were already captured in Boyatt’s original definition of by: “By indigenous forces with U.S. enablers.”

After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the President Bush announced operations to “disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” Central Command noted, “The U.S. military was employing greater numbers of conventional forces and gaining increasing ownership of the problem.” As a point of juxtaposition, Boyatt’s original with called for equitable ownership of problem sets and equal involvement in execution of solutions. As senior leaders began to recognize this, they “determined that, in order to achieve more durable operational success, advisor teams operating with host nation forces were needed at lower headquarters echelons of the [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces].” This was the shoulder-to-shoulder approach originally envisioned when with was coined.

In more modern times, with U.S. enablers has become the focus over the original shoulder-to-shoulder approach. Since 2011, The U.S. shifted its approach in Yemen to a with approach providing enablers to others. In Yemen, the U.S. provides intelligence, equipment, munitions, fuel, and other enablers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervening in the civil war in Yemen. Very few U.S. military forces are in Yemen. Moreover, the U.S. Embassy has relocated to nearby Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen if enabling external actors without more significant U.S. force involvement in Yemen can repeat the recent successes in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqah, Syria.


Over the evolution of the elements of by, with, and through, through has changed the most. Boyatt originally explained the idea as "through surrogates (trusted third parties and intermediaries)...when we wish to conceal U.S. support or when...forces are not permitted direct contact with the people we wish to help." Today, through is characterized and executed very differently. General Joseph Votel and Colonel Eero Keravuori explained their current understanding in a recent Joint Forces Quarterlyarticle: “Through American authorities and partner agreements, joint force enablers can support, organize, train, equip, build/rebuild, and advise partners’ security forces and their supporting institutions from the tactical to ministerial levels.” General Michael Garrett, et al., defined through as “through a coordinated legal and diplomatic framework.” These two definitions are similar, but they bear no resemblance to the original usage of the term.

General Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, in 2016. (Thomson/Reuters)

From 1979 to 1989, the increasingly unstable Soviet Union was waging a war in Afghanistan to support the Soviet loyalists then in charge. The U.S. and the Soviet Union had been adversaries since the end of World War II, and the U.S. saw an opportunity. Working directly with Afghan jihadi groups was not possible due to international and public sentiment coupled with the very real possibility of escalation were the U.S. to intervene directly. The best answer was to work through a third party, according to Boyatt’s initial definition of the term. The U.S. spent years working throughPakistan’s intelligence service (a third party to the Afghan fight itself) to bring supplies and weapons to the jihadi groups, even providing training to the local unconventional forces.

In a democracy, the military is under the control of a legitimate government and carries out the will of the people. To maintain legitimacy, military operations must be bound by regulations and laws that are delivered as authorities to act by the government on behalf of the citizenry. All funding is received through taxation and allocated based on the priorities of the populace and its civilian government. Operations in other countries with legitimate governments require agreements with those foreign governments or with international organizations like the United Nations. The modern definition of through recognizes these constraints. Through authorities and agreements, the U.S. military carries out a wide variety of programs—developing, equipping, training, sustaining, and supporting foreign forces. Through, then, is the means by which the U.S. employs the ways of the current paradigm’s by and with to achieve ends supporting U.S. objectives. In short, with some exceptions, nearly every modern military operation is conducted through authorities and agreements.


With all of the use of the phrase by, with, and through from the highest ranks of military leadership, it is clear the idea is here to stay, but leaders must clarify exactly what they mean. The significant changes in the way the U.S. military has defined by, with, and through creates challenges in how it understands and applies the concept. Furthermore, the lack of any current doctrine contributes to the potential confusion. As Gregory Radabaugh noted, “Joint doctrine provides the foundation for joint training and education.” Without an update to doctrine to enshrine the terms in the military lexicon with a commonly understood and applied definition, training and education programs cannot begin to develop tools to teach the next generation of military leaders how to employ the concept.

Another troubling aspect of the current lack of clarity is the reference to by, with, and through as an operational approach. General Votel and Colonel Keravuori admitted in a recent article, “…by, with, and through is not yet a doctrine or a strategy or a formal military program. Instead, it is considered an operational approach to be used during the course of security cooperation activities or military campaigns.” Unlike by, with, and through, the term operational approach is clearly defined in doctrine. Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Planning, defines the operational approach as follows:

a commander’s description of the broad actions the force can take to achieve an objective in support of the national objective or attain a military end state. It is the commander’s visualization of how the operation should transform current conditions into the desired conditions—the way the commander envisions the [operating environment] at the conclusion of operations to support national objectives….

The operational approach describes the ways an objective will be accomplished. In the context of this definition by, with, and through is not only not doctrine, it clearly is not an operational approach. Rather, by, with, and through is a mixture of ways and means. Calling it an operational approach contributes to the confusion.


When General Odierno publicly used the term by, with, and through, he fixed it soundly in the public and professional discourse of modern military operations. In flipping the order of the terms and changing the conjunction, something has been potentially lost. While never explicitly stated, through, with, or by carried with it the potential for a progressive approach. Initially, U.S. forces might work through an intermediary, then fight with those forces when possible, and finally leave a competent fighting force behind, initially enabled by but also eventually independent of permanent U.S. involvement. Through, with, or by could be interpreted as progressive towards an end. The newer by, with, and through approach has no such end. Additionally, the change to the conjunction from “or” to “and” implies all three elements are happening simultaneously and inseparably from one another. Through, with, or by provided a menu of options from which to choose, while by, with, and through is all or nothing. By, with, and through sets up a permanent cycle wherein the military tries to reduce the amount of blood in the blood-and-treasure formula by exponentially increasing the amount of treasure required to sustain an effort without the economy of scale leveraging the full force brings.


By, with, and through must be clearly defined in joint doctrine to remove confusion in how the joint force understands and applies the concept. Doctrine forms the foundation of a shared understanding of how strategy is used to inform operations and even tactical engagements. Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations states, doctrine “will be followed except when, in the judgment of the commander, exceptional circumstances dictate otherwise.” Without a clear understanding of how the term applies to joint operations, education programs can never teach military members what the term means and how it is applied. The lack of doctrine and subsequent education will continue to contribute to a lack of clarity about by, with, and through until it is resolved.

Referring to by, with, and through as an operational approach should be discontinued as it is not consistent with doctrine. Mixing a non-doctrinal concept with an inappropriately used doctrinal term further clouds the water. The new definition of the terms as “by partner forces, with U.S. enablers, through authorities and agreements,” contains elements that are clearly outside the operational commander’s purview. Authorities and agreements are means established and negotiated by civilian governments. An operational commander trying to leverage by, with, and through as an approach has no control over the authorities and agreements. Perhaps it could be referred to as an operational paradigm or—since it clearly involves other elements of national power—as a strategic approach.

U.S. Army Special Forces members train Iraqi fighters from Hashid Shaabi at Makhmur camp in Iraq, December 11, 2016. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)


Recent operations in Iraq and Syria continue to prove the potential of by, with, and through. With limited U.S. military exposure to the violence of conflict, the United States has been able to secure important operational objectives aligned with the nation’s strategic vision. While the cost of these operations has been significant, they were predominately costs of treasure and not blood. Defining the terms in doctrine is essential for consistent application of by, with, and through as an approach in the future. Clarifying the approach in doctrine will remove uncertainty and maximize the understanding and potential of by, with, and through. Additionally, by, with, and through efforts should be towards a specific end. The end of by, with, and through should be a fully trained and equipped partner force capable of defending its citizens and promoting stability without indefinite U.S. involvement. By, with, and through ends with by. The photograph of Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi speaking in front of Iraqi service members is powerful in many ways, but its greatest power lies in the jubilant Iraqi smiles. There isn’t an American face in the picture.

Diana I. Dalphonse is a U.S. Navy officer. Chris Townsend is a U.S. Army officer and a member of theMilitary Writers Guild. Matthew W. Weaver, Ed.D., is a U.S. Air Force officer. The views expressed in this article are the authors alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

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