Small Wars Journal

U.S. Special Operations Forces at 9-11, Today, and for the Future

U.S. Special Operations Forces at 9-11, Today, and for the Future by LTG Charles Cleveland, USA Ret., and COL David Maxwell, USA Ret., The Cipher Brief

Following the tragic attack on 9-11, U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the CIA, supported by airpower, conducted a punitive expedition that resulted in the Taliban and al Qaeda being routed from Afghanistan.   In 2003, working with the Kurds, U.S. SOF conducted operations in northern Iraq, accomplishing the mission intended for a U.S. infantry division that was not allowed to deploy through Turkey.  U.S. SOF were already advising and assisting Colombian military and police operations as part of Plan Colombia that contributed to the peace agreement in 2016.  And in Asia, U.S. SOF supported the Philippine security forces in degrading and destroying terrorist organizations linked to al Qaeda while supporting peace negotiations with Moro insurgent groups. 

U.S. SOF were well positioned and ready in 2001 to execute their fundamental doctrinal missions for which they were organized, trained, equipped, educated, and optimized: unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense or Special Warfare. However, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations soon came to dominate the U.S. military campaigns for both special operations and regular forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and later in Yemen and throughout Africa…

The emergence of The SOF Campaign, consisting of a balanced application of surgical strike and special warfare in conjunction with conventional forces and other instruments of national power in support of statecraft and political warfare, can address the future security challenges, where revolution, resistance, insurgency, and civil war is the only viable form of struggle.  It is there that wars are now fought and won.  

Our traditional tools of warfare, having been focused on state-on-state war, are in many ways ill-suited in war among the people where large-scale expeditionary warfare is not feasible.  We must consider The SOF campaign in this old domain that is new again…

Read on.


Bill C.

Mon, 09/19/2016 - 12:15pm

Edited and added to slightly:

In my "Bill C. | September 16, 2016 - 4:16pm" reply-to-comment below, I addressed what I see as the Foreign Internal Defense aspect of our Special Warfare requirements of the New/Reverse Cold War; this, through the lens of our "expansionist" grand political objectives of today and going forward.

In that reply-to-comment, I also suggested -- in that exact same context -- what "good" (actual or potential pro-westernizing) and what "bad" (actual or potential anti-westernizing) resistance elements would look like. (Thus, and as per LTG Cleveland and COL Maxwell's paper here, to see the need to keep a list of and keep track of the various actual and potential resistance elements found throughout the world?)

Now, let us see what such things as Unconventional Warfare and Counterinsurgency might look like in the New/Reverse Cold War of today; this, likewise, within the context of our such "expansionist" grand political designs for the Rest of the World.

To help us do this, let me attempt to use COL Maxwell's recent paper on unifying N. Korea with S. Korea, to wit: his: "Unification Options and Scenarios: Assisting A Resistance."… (Go to item no. 5.)

First, to establish -- as per our such "expansionist" designs described above -- that we must, indeed, and in order to obtain unification, achieve the "transformation" of N. Korea more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines:


Planning for peaceful unification is much harder than unification after war or collapse. It requires planning for the complete integration of the Koreans living in the north into a modern political, economic and cultural paradigm that has been virtually unknown by the people in the North and for which they have no experience. From a free market to free elections to integration and transition of existing bureaucracies as well as militaries to recovery and proper disposition of nuclear weapons (just to name a few) peaceful unification is going to be very challenging and it is the realization of this complexity that has caused paralysis among many who should be planning for this and instead, we plan for deterrence and defense, defense against regime provocations and possible regime collapse.


(See pages 133 and 134.)

Next, let us look to see, within this same publication and, again as per our "expansionist" designs for the outlying (non-western-oriented) states and societies of the world, what a "good" (pro-westernizing) and what a "bad" (anti-westernizing) resistance element might look like:

a. Good Resistance Elements:


We are seeing some evidence of internal resistance from the nascent but growing black market economy as well as the newly authorized markets in support of the byungjin policy (dual efforts to develop nuclear weapons and the economy), to the increasing access to outside information and people taking risks to hear the news from non-North Korean sources and watch South Korean dramas.


(See page 131 of COL Maxwell's paper.)

And, once unification efforts begin in earnest:

b. Bad Resistance Elements:


Because the Korean people living in the north have been indoctrinated with this “guerrilla ethos” remnants of the regime and the military, and as well as some of the population are likely to resist all outside intervention even from the ROK. We must not make the same erroneous assumption made in 2003 in Iraq: that the U.S. and coalition forces would be welcomed as liberators. In fact, although there was a positive welcome initially by many in Iraq, it is unlikely that there will be anything near that level in North Korea even after the collapse of the regime by whatever means. As I have written, I think resistance and insurgency in North Korea could make Iraq pale in comparison.


(See page 136)


In my reply-to-comment here today -- and my two replies-to-comment made below -- -- have I:

a. Made my case -- that the U.S./the West's "expansionist" grand political objective, today and going forward, does still appear to be transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines? (A job that cannot be avoided, as COL Maxwell's -- prophetic and indeed microcosmic -- N. Korea/S. Korea unification paper appears to suggest?) And that, accordingly,

b. Such things as "political warfare," "special warfare," "foreign internal defense," "unconventional warfare," "counterinsurgency," "good" resistance elements, "bad" resistance elements, etc., etc., etc.; these today, and going forward (as far as we can now see), must also be seen in this exact same context?

Bottom Line:

The manner in which the U.S./the West sees (a) S. Korean/N. Korean problems (to wit: via a westernized v. non-westernized lens) and (b) S. Korea/N. Korea problem solutions (transformation and incorporation of the non-westernized entity); this is the exact same manner in which the U.S./the West sees (1) the problems of the world at-large and (2) their solutions. (In the case of such nations as Russia and China, we might say that their problems stem from inadequate or incomplete westernization, some of this due to "backsliding?")

Recognizing this allow us to understand what "special warfare," "surgical strike," "good" resistance elements, "bad" resistance elements (etc., etc., etc.) will look like -- today and going forward?


You can't blame the guys on the ground for bad policy decisions. It isn't the first or the last time SF will be put in situations like this. Whoever advised the President that SF should conduct UW in this situation should be banned from providing advice in the future. Like you said repeatedly, SF does better when it is in a supporting role to the CIA.

As for the article, it is mostly accurate, but overly hubristic. SF didn't accomplish what a U.S. division would have accomplished if they were allowed to attack through Turkey, but since they weren't SF accomplished a useful role. As for SF being ready, there was plenty of time to prepare for Iraq, and SF needed that time. SF readiness was demonstrated after 9/11 when SF want into Afghanistan on short notice. Arguably in both cases, these missions resembled conventional coalition warfare fought with irregulars,more than UW. SF fell in on organized, semi trained militia on a FLOT, and directed CAS. Special warfare started in earnest afterwards, and SF had to get back to their roots. They were not as ready as portrayed in this article for UW.

Edited, changed and added to somewhat from my initial offering:

Given my suggestion below, that the employment of our special operations and other forces, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, is similar -- in its "expansionist" cause -- to the employment of the Soviets/the communists' special operations and other forces in the Old Cold War;

In this regard, and specifically from a Special Warfare perspective, consider the following from Appendix B (Internal Development and Defense Strategy), ATP 3-05.2 (Foreign Internal Defense), the introductory paragraph:

"The IDAD (Internal Development and Defense) strategy is the full range of measures taken by a nation to promote its growth and to protect itself from subversion, lawlessness, and insurgency. Every nation’s strategy is specific, but the end state is universal—a responsible and accountable local, state or provincial, and national government that ensures the personal safety of its citizens by providing a climate and institutions that demonstrate the ability to improve their material well-being. In addition, those governments must ensure the basic freedoms that the world community has come to regard as fundamental. For the Army planner who has been born in or naturalized into a nation founded on those principles, one of the fundamental truths he must remember is that the above end state is frequently contradictory to the government the HN has experienced in the past or even from its inception. In some cases, one of the objectives may be to help formulate an appropriate IDAD strategy. This may mean instilling values that heretofore have not been present."

(The item in parenthesis above is mine.)

Thus, clearly, the job of our special operations forces, in their "special warfare" and/or other modes, and as per the U.S./the West's New/Reverse Cold War "expansionist" requirements and designs, is to:

a. Help transform the outlying states and societies of world more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines. And to:

b. Prevent those states and societies -- who are in the process of such a favorable "transformation" -- or who have already been so properly "transformed" -- from (1) backsliding, from (2) being adversely effected by criminal or other internal and/or external elements and, specifically, from (3) being transformed along other, non-western, political, economic, social and value lines.

In this exact light, to see "U.S. Special Operations Forces -- if not at 9-11 -- then certainly Today and for the Future?"

("Good" actual or potential resistance movements seen in this context? Those whose purpose is to -- and/or those who can be purposed for -- the transformation of a subject state, and its societies, more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines? "Bad" actual or potential resistance movements seen in this context? Those who cannot be so purposed -- and/or those who can easily be, or who have already been -- purposed by our state, and/or our non-state enemies, for the hindering, undermining, undoing and/or reversing of our such desired favorable transformation processes?)


The conditions can be described as revolution, resistance, insurgency, and civil war, and countries and non-state actors are exploiting them to achieve their geostrategic objectives. They are practicing a modern form of what George Kennan described in 1948 as Political Warfare. This is the norm in the Gray Zone space between peace and war.


Here, I suggest, is another way of understanding these such matters (and, thus, a better, more-clear and concise way of understanding our past, present and future conflict environments?):

I. The Old Cold War of Yesterday:

a. From 1945 to approximately 1990, the context within which revolution, resistance, insurgency and civil wars occurred -- and countries and non-state actors exploiting them to achieve their strategic objectives -- was within the "gray zone" conflict environment/period known as the Old Cold War. (The Soviets/the communists then doing "expansion; with the Rest of the World, back then, doing "prevention;" "containment," "roll back," etc.)

b. During this time-frame, and re: political warfare, etc., we saw (a) the Soviets/the communists attempt to transform the Rest of World more along their alien and profane political, economic, social and value lines and (b) the Rest of the World fighting back to try to prevent these such Soviet/communist-desired "transformations" from being achieved.

(Should the Soviets/the communists be successful in their such "transformative" endeavors, then this would mean that the time-honored and preferred ways of life, the time-honored and preferred ways of governance and the time-honored and preferred values, attitudes and beliefs of various populations would be -- if not fully eliminated and replaced -- then certainly would be placed in the background and in a subordinate status.)

II: The New/Reverse Cold War -- of Today and the Future:

a. From approximately 1990 onward, the context within which revolution, resistance, insurgency and civil wars have occurred -- and countries and non-state actors exploiting them to achieve their strategic objectives -- is in the contemporary "gray zone" conflict environment/period best described as the New/Reverse Cold War. (The U.S./the West now doing "expansion" and, thus, now facing the "prevention," "containment," "roll back," etc., efforts of the Rest of the World.)

b. During this period, and re: political warfare, etc., what we have been witnessing is (a) the U.S./the West now attempting to transform the Rest of World more along, in our case, our alien and profane political, economic, social and value lines and (b) the Rest of the World fighting back to try to prevent these such U.S./Western-desired "transformations" from being realized.

(Should the U.S./the West, much like the Soviets/the communists before us, be successful in our such "transformative" endeavors then this, likewise, would mean that the time-honored and preferred ways of life, the time-honored and preferred ways of governance and the time-honored and preferred values, attitudes and beliefs of various populations would be -- if not fully eliminated and replaced -- then certainly placed in the background/in a subordinate status.)

III: Bottom Line:

Want to understand (a) "revolution, resistance, insurgency, and civil war," (b) "countries and non-state actors exploiting them to achieve their strategic objectives" and (c) the employment of special operations and other forces (ours and theirs) within these such conflict environments" -- yesterday, today and going forward?

Then, look no further than the "grey zone" conflict environments that I have described above, to wit: that of the Old Cold War of yesterday and, indeed, that of the New/Reverse Cold War of today.

(Note: In the Old Cold War of yesterday, "their" special operations and other forces were employed in the cause of "expansion," while "our" special operations and other forces, at that time, were employed in the cause of "containment" and "roll back." Today, the reverse is true.)

Outlaw 09

Thu, 09/15/2016 - 5:44am

So if this article is anywhere close to be accurate then SF does have some serious "new issues" especially if one SF soldier refers to the FSA Southern Front as JaN (AQ) now rebranded as JFS.

If SF soldiers do not fully and inherently understand the mission set and the ground players and have no earthly idea of the NCA strategic strategy when WHY not stand up and simply their own command what the hell is ongoing?…

US Special Forces sabotage White House policy gone disastrously wrong with covert ops in Syria
By Jack Murphy 09.14.2016
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“Nobody believes in it. You’re like, ‘Fuck this,’” a former Green Beret says of America’s covert and clandestine programs to train and arm Syrian militias. “Everyone on the ground knows they are jihadis. No one on the ground believes in this mission or this effort, and they know they are just training the next generation of jihadis, so they are sabotaging it by saying, ‘Fuck it, who cares?’”
“I don’t want to be responsible for Nusra guys saying they were trained by Americans,” the Green Beret added. A second Special Forces soldier commented that one Syrian militia they had trained recently crossed the border from Jordan on what had been pitched as a large-scale shaping operation that would change the course of the war. Watching the battle on a monitor while a drone flew overhead, “We literally watched them, with 30 guys in their force, run away from three or four ISIS guys.”

Something is very wrong inside SF if this is an accurate picture and report....

This does not include the CENTCOM support via SF for the YPG...just a fig leaf for the US named terroist group PKK....

NOTICE SF accompanies YPG/SDF/PKK But not FSA SF on operations....why is that?

Outlaw 09

Wed, 09/14/2016 - 5:52am

A single comment in this article caught my attention and it goes to the heart of just why the current SF cannot shift fully back to UW...."the old is the new" or better said...the "new is the new old"...... the years immediately after VN when BIG Army was out to destroy and let's be honest when we speak about......yes BIG Army wanted to kill SF.....which was run down from a high of 14K down to roughly 3.5K..SF had to use strat recon and DA to sell the BIG Army on the need to retain SF as no one else could it quite as well.

In those transition years strat recon, DA and sniping were sexy and it melted easily into JSOC with it's 24 hour targeting cycles....

BUT now in the drive to shift back to the "old"...the former "old structures" which supported that "old" are simply no longer direct ties to the CIA, no separate but tied to SF own "Psyops BNs" fleet of smaller insertion aircraft, no thorough training by experienced "old" trainers as all have retired and are dead....and more over the recruitment is 400% not tied to the "old".......

By say 1989/1990 this transition from "old" to strat recon and DA was fully completed....

Example....during the last Reforger Exercise held before the Wall came down the Commander of the 10th SFG "gave me actually told me"....the opportunity to fully exercise Warsaw Pact anti UW/SF doctrine taken straight out of Warsaw Pact classified documents in a key exercise area..key because we were literally overrun by multiple different US SF units and other SF nation teams....

I had at my disposal the exact opfor setup necessary under Warsaw Pact doctrine....a Ranger trained company commander, an infantry company, dog teams, psyop speaker teams and built out a 100 man/kid intel the area of operation.....exactly as the Soviets/Czechs/East Germans would have run it....

Then we went to work...virtually disrupting all SF teams thrown into our AO..we were highly successful simply because we were 500% CUW focused and all the US SF teams were 500% strat recon/DA focused....

We detected, tracked and harassed every team thrown at us on Humint gained from the intel network, tracked by the dog teams and harassed by the pysops speaker teams and then engaged by the infantry in key areas once the SF teams where pressured to move into areas we wanted them in....

Needless to say it was a eye opener for the 10th SFG Commander...but in the end nothing was ever done to really think through the lessons learned and now it is 2016 and we are talking again about the "old"....

The "old" has never is the "new" that needs to rethink it's recruitment, training, equipment and mindset.....AND especially who it works for BIG Army or the CIA.....

Because in the end BIG Army will never accept nor shift to the "old".... that culture war was fought and lost by SF after the BIG Army will have a tough time justifying itself in the "new world" of the 21st century.

What is actually interesting to see is that the at the height of SF in 1970/71 SF was deployed worldwide in UW constant and continuous US mission sets and still supported the 3.5K in the 5th in VN......with a manpower size of 14K....far less than SOF has these days....

Manning numbers is not the UW key.....the mindset is....but more importantly it is who one works for....that is the key.

It is also interesting that in the "old" SF had key SF Groups stationed in the geopolitical areas it worked in....8th in Panama, 1st in Okinawa, 10th in Germany, 5th VN.....and the rest of the Groups at where are they stationed?

That alone allowed for/drove language proficiency development and especially UW training and exercises. UW was part and parcel of every major NATO/US European or Asian exercise year after

Just MHO.....