The Danger of Even a Lot of Knowledge

Abu Muqawama: Special Forces, or the Danger of Even a Lot of Knowledge by Andrew Exum, World Politics Review and Are Special Forces Special Enough? By James Joyner, Outside the Beltway.

A few weeks ago, when I started this series of columns on the perils of the special operationalization of U.S. national security policy, I briefly argued that U.S. special operations forces are often not as good as they or their commanders believe them to be. I worried about a young Special Forces officer with six months of Arabic convincing himself he was “Sir Richard Burton in a green beret.”

Some of my friends in the U.S. Army Special Forces demanded to know why I was picking on them, while others suggested my own service in the 75th Ranger Regiment explained my obvious bias against “indirect” special operations forces. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and in this column, I will expand on why both special operations forces and their commanders should be more humble about what these forces can and cannot do in complex operational environments…

Are Special Forces Special Enough? By James Joyner, Outside the Beltway.

In a World Politics Review column titled, “Special Forces, or the Danger of Even a Lot of Knowledge,” former Army Ranger and current Middle East policy expert Andrew Exum argues persuasively that special operations forces have far less regional and cultural knowledge than they’re given credit for. This is important, Exum explains, because it’s easy to assume that a crash course in the local language and mores combined with some time in country allow people to make more nuanced judgments than they’re truly qualified to make.

Driving his point home, though, I believe Exum takes it too far…

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"Cultural expertise is not the most important thing - but cultural respect is paramount."

I've had the opportunity recently to talk to several Regular Army folks who were thrust into the job of advising without having the benefits of SF selection, training, and organizational culture. Basically, it was learn as you go- innovating on the fly.

When we looked at what we did to have success, it was relationship building, period.

1. Spending at least one meal together everyday- not the drive buy cup of tea.
2. Watching movies together.
3. Talking about families.

Contrastingly, the hardest moral dilemma we faced, was what to do when your counterpart's norms, value, and beliefs violated your ethics? The most harmful one being torture.

My most memorable/peaceful moment in Iraq was after Ramadan in 2006. I was invited to a friend of mine's house (Sheik who's uncle was the governor of Diyala province) to share in the feast after Ramadan. We stayed up until midnight discussing life, family, and religion. He explained Islam, and I explained Christianity. We both walked away understanding it was the same God just different beliefs.

Also, partnering requires a good fit just as it does with a good CO/1SGT relationship. In some cases, an advisor may be a good advisor and his counterpart may be a good officer, but the two don't work well together for various reasons.

One last point. After you've developed the personal relationship, you still have to separate the professional relationship particularly if you are trying to conduct conflict resolution between competiting tribes, families, etc...

The key to Special Forces is in the assessment and selection, coupled with the institutional culture; far more than the training, and perhaps even the operational experience.

I have had several conversations with my US AID compadres, or assorted PhDs who have much more experience in a particular place, or with a particular language or culture. But it is hit or miss as to the essence of that person as to how they process that knowledge and apply it.

In this business, far more than what one knows, it is what one understands that is important. I never cease to be amazed by the many brilliant people I meet, often with amazing educational credentials or years of experience in a particular place who know so much, only rely so much upon that knowledge that they cannot see what they do not understand. The are trapped by their very knowledge, in that they attempt to frame every situation into that context. This is very much true with much of our conventiional force approach to these types of problems as well. This is why we "Clear-hold-build" to conduct COIN, or why we build host nation forces that mirror our own so that they too can clear-hold-build like us some day.

But the goal of SF is to recognize that we do not know everything about anything, but to go in with the curiosity and respect Dave Maxwell describes below; to accept any situation or populace as it is, to seek to understand it through their lens and to assist as best we can to help them to be a better version of what they are, rather than a lesser version of what we think they should be. Do we always get this right? No, of course not. Has the last 10 years affected our ability to do this in negative ways? I suspect it has. Everyone needs to get back to their roots, and that includes SF.

We don't need a massive force of Americans out fixing the world on our terms armed with tremendous knowledge of the places they are doing this. We simply need a handful of quiet professionals who humbly interact with a wide range of cultures and people, operating off of the inate instincts they were selected for and a solid base of training and experience, going off of not what they know, but rather fully aware of what they don't know, and seeking simply to better understand.

"We don't need a massive force of Americans out fixing the world on our terms armed with tremendous knowledge of the places they are doing this. We simply need a handful of quiet professionals who humbly interact with a wide range of cultures and people, operating off of the innate instincts they were selected for and a solid base of training and experience, going off of not what they know, but rather fully aware of what they don't know, and seeking simply to better understand."

Well said, and exactly right. To which I would also add...and let's remember that we are not engaging with any culture, person, ethnic group, or anything else out of the goodness of our hearts. We are there for a purpose, and frankly, that purpose may be in our best interests and not in the best interests of those with whom we partner.

Building a relationship, being culturally aware, etc., is great - but those doing it must also have the mental and emotional fortitude to know that they are there to execute the mission that serves the interests of their country.

scottjk,
You wrote,

"We are there for a purpose, and frankly, that purpose may be in our best interests and not in the best interests of those with whom we partner."

With the greatest respect - as I have read many of you sound and informed comments, this is very poor advice. There is something about many third world people or even poor people everywhere who understand that someone having this agenda is not to be trusted.

Afghans like many Asians have a way of staring into your eyes as if looking at the inside of the back of your skull when you engage them in conversations regarding matters of life and death. What they are looking for is the sign which reveals the sentiment you are epousing in the above. More often than not, if it is there, they will see it.

regards,
RC

I didn't take that as advice as much as it is the reality of politically-driven involvements. We in the military don't dictate the political reasons we are in a country and we can't change the fact that our countrymen don't like to deploy lots of troops and spend lots of money being altruistic.

As a taxpayer- I favor sticking with our own interests as well- taking on the interests of others gets us into sticky situations IMO. We simply can't be everything to everyone. And the Afghans know this- they are WAY more Machiavellian than we are in my experience.

Agree with Grant and Scott. We are not a chairty, and frankly, the people we work with prefer the honesty.

The key though, is to go in with the mindset of looking fow how one can advance the interests of both parties to some mutual degree, and not subjugating the needs of either party to the other. This requires candid conversation and compromise on all parts.

No amount of honesty and candour will alleviate a lack of mutual trust. If your host believes you do not have his or her best interests at heart you should not be there. The belief that lots of expensive toys and money could circumvent this basic human requirement was the root cause of the misadventure in Vietnam and Iraq.

I have no idea how you stand shoulder to shoulder with a man in a fighting position whose best interests you don’t have at heart.

Whilst the Domino Theory and Saddam’s WMD seem in respect complete idiocy I would have thought there are profound selfish reasons for the US presence in Afghanistan. Leaving aside 9/11 and a possible repetition, the genuine threat posed by the rest of Pakistan becoming Warziristanized via anarchy in Afghanistan would suggest peace and stability in Afghanistan is very much in the interest of the West.

The possibility of Pakistan falling apart and dozens of tactical nuclear warheads passing through the hands of criminals and terrorist and being sold-on - like hostages are now - is something very real.

The drug trade emitting from the region has perfected a delivery system into every city in the world. In fact the system is so refined that in the vein of Kubrick’s ‘Cobalt Thorium G’ deterrent they may already be happily bobbing around the world in shipping containers.

However if for whatever reason the partnership has in fact collapsed into Machiavellian deceit then IMO you are correct in saying that the individuals responsible are indeed a waste of taxpayer’s money.

Regards,
RC

Hey RC,

Your assessment regarding trust is the correct one.

Let's also consider some other viewpoints however. Folks who spend the majority of their time on a FOB and who are but part of a policy of rapid personnel 'churn', do not not spend the 'contact hours' necessary to develop the level of trust and understanding of which you speak. So it goes...

Take care,

Steve

I'm at a loss to think of any foreign military person I've worked with who 100% trusted why I was in his country. Hell- I didn't even trust the rhetoric over the reality! And I don't get a vote over whether I should be there or not. Like it or not- the government sends you in to do a mission that many times is murky and and the "why" changes as the political winds change. This idealistic concept that we should always have others best interests at heart briefs well maybe on campus, but isn't the reality- and everyone knows it. If you pretend to be there altruistically, then they won't trust you in my experience. They know you're there for yourself- any rational actor in their mind wouldn't be there for any other reason. The trick- as COL Jones mentioned- is to figure out how to give them what they want while at the same time getting what the US wants. THAT- IMO- is what makes COIN, FID, etc.- so hard to do.

And what is a man's best interests? Continued subjugation of women? Continued rule of law avoidance? Continued corruption? Am I to concentrate on what he says are in his best interests or what I think are in his best interests? Sounds like the slippery slope on the way to nation-building and cultural/societal change if you ask me. As much as we like to think of everyone being altruistic and only wanting a fair shake- reality is much more complicated than that and people a lot more selfish. No, I'll stick with concentrating on the US's interests and not trying to fool anyone to believe I'm "from the government and here to help".

If we were only worried about Pakistan going south or the region becoming a drug zone- we might have decided to stay out of Afghanistan- or leave quickly now that we are there...

These articles could have been summed up very simply by stating hubris is extremely dangerous and unbecoming of anyone in a leadership position (SF or not, military or not). We should of course welcome criticism in SF and use it to improve, but I didn't see any recommendations for change other than to do a better job of humbling the small percentage of our officers who think they're more capable than they actually are. Yet we all know it is hard to change personality, some people take their arrogant traits to the grave, others mature over time. The bottom line is we do a fairly good job of training and educating SF soldiers to adapt to their environments.

This is a terrible analogy, but an individual can attend an outstanding safe drivers course, do well in the course, and then disregard everything he/she learned after they graduate and end up killing an innocent family in an auto accident due to careless driving. He knew how to drive safe, but failed to do so. We'll always have our 10%.

I especially like this comment from an apparent senior Infantry NCO in the comments section of Joyner's article that illustrates a trait that SF selection tries to screen for and that most SF Officers and NCOs learn in Robin Sage and from experienced senior NCOs when on their teams - Cultural expertise is not the most important thing - but cultural respect is paramount. This is one key aspect of being able to operate in the Human Domain.

11B40 says:
Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 13:30
Greetings:

When the time came for me to begin my world travels, my dear, now-departed father took me aside for another good bit of his advice. When you go to foreign countries, or even other parts of our own country, you go as a child. There is much to learn. Go gently. Eat the local food, laugh at the local jokes, and be very cautious with the local women.