SOF, COIN, and the Question of Host Nation Viability: An Interview with Dick Couch

Few writers have a better knowledge of special operations over the past 40 years than Dick Couch, who graduated from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S)  in 1969 and served in Vietnam with SEAL Team One.  Couch went on to work with the CIA, and following his government service, he has published some 17 fiction and nonfiction books including NY Times bestseller Act of Valor. More recently, Couch has been embedded with MARSOC and his book on MARSOC training, Always Faithful, Always Forward will be on the shelves in 2014.

The Sheriff of Ramadi was released in 2008 and charts Couch’s experience embedded with US Navy SEALs, Marines and soldiers during the battle for Iraq’s most contested town, where he witnessed firsthand the  transition to carefully orchestrated, population focused counterinsurgency, culminating with the “Anbar Awakening,” and the routing of al-Qaeda.

However, in the absence of national level political reconciliation (and with persisting violence in Syria) the Awakening movement is under immense pressure to resist the Iraqi government. Some tribal leaders remain loyal to Maliki. A number of others recently held a meeting to re-affirm their rejection of al-Qaeda, despite considerable anger at the government and sympathy for the Syrian rebels. For some the talk is now of a federal solution, or at most the right to defend themselves against what they see as an aggressive ISF, while others are already mobilised for war. This being Iraq, far more complex political and religious forces are also at play and a good overview of the shifting dynamic can be found here. What is clear is that a distinctly Sunni nationalism and a resurgent al-Qaeda are once again rocking the streets of Iraqi towns, and the fact that this is happening should bring attention back to the problem of strategy (or lack of it) in counterinsurgency campaigns.

As in Vietnam, the US had clearly achieved significant tactical success in Iraq by the time of withdrawal, but such success is all too often an orphan in the absence of  a realistic strategy.  As Iraq appears to unravel (this is contested by some experts) it is only right to continue the debate about counterinsurgency, the appropriate application of landpower and  the expanding role of Special Operations in the US military. For anyone interested in these questions, I highly recommend The Sheriff of Ramadi  as a thoroughly detailed, blow by blow account of  the dramatic events  in al-Anbar prior to “the surge.” Couch’s most recent published work is Sua Sponte: The Forging of a Modern American Ranger

RT:  We often hear about inter-service rivalry and challenges of getting different branches of the armed forces to work together efficiently. In The Sheriff of Ramadi what comes across is quite a deep level of cooperation and pulling together against the challenge. What do you think enabled this level of camaraderie in Ramadi? Perhaps it was the extent of the crisis before the 2006 Awakening...

DC: There are usually two elements that precede this kind of cooperation.  One is necessity.  When there's a need the troops on the ground will always share and help, especially in a joint environment.  The other is leadership.  Both were present in Ramadi.  The SEAL task unit commanders played their role well.

RT: Historically, the US (and most other countries) have been pretty bad at determining what the next war or security crisis will be, or how it will be fought. Perhaps even if we had a good notion of the threat, politicians would choose a different priority. A looming nightmare could involve regime collapse in North Korea. That could present the ultimate “hybrid war,” defined by defense analyst Frank Hoffman as a “blend of the lethality of state conflict with the fanatical and protracted fervor of irregular war." (Vietnam arguably presented such a multi dimensional challenge.) In some future scenario, aid is dropped to starving North Koreans as US and ROK forces scramble to secure North Korea's borders and secure WMDs. Fanatical North Koreans may thwart such efforts, fighting both conventionally and using insurgent tactics. South Koreans would no doubt be central (and invaluable) to the effort, but may find themselves strangers in the backward and isolated DPRK. Meanwhile, North Korean units may also rapidly defect or leave the fight, providing vital intelligence but also other challenges, so US/ROK forces would have to prepared for this as well. If this war happened any time prior to 6 years ago, the Marines would have been going in in the absence of MARSOC. What advantages would having MARSOC bring to such a multi faceted crisis?

DC: Not sure I can answer this question or that SOF could play a role if Korea begins to unravel.  With 28,000 US soldiers in play, there is little call for indirect action.  China has been and always will be the decider in this one.  There might be a role for the 75th Rangers to capture WMD sites, but the situation you described would be one of mass casualties.  The role of SOF/MARSOC going forward is to run in front of open conflict, and if Korea gets out of hand, it will be a US/China joint problem.

RT: At the end of The Sheriff of Ramadi, one of your conclusions is thus: “don’t forget, this was a bottom up victory, both politically and militarily.” Is there anything you think that, specifically, the SEALs brought to the process of a “bottom up” victory that the conventional forces really benefitted from?

DC: Ramadi was one of the few times that the SEALs went into the streets and fought side-by-side with conventional troops.  They played a role in setting up the combat outposts and they exposed themselves to danger time and again serving as a QRF when needed.  And when the SEALs were in trouble, the Army sent armor to support them.  This all made them brothers.  The Americans made the streets safe and the tribes/tribal police kept them safe.  Security became a tribal victory and an American victory, and with security on the streets, there was room for political stability.

RT:  In The Sheriff of Ramadi, you highlight the conclusion of numerous scholars of Iraqi history: attempts to obtain a strong localized understanding of the war in al-Anbar were not properly resourced early in the war and a conventional approach became dominant, before counterinsurgency skills had to be rediscovered, or thoroughly overhauled by adaptive and forward thinking men like Sean Macfarland. This seems relevant to your point about greater future coordination between embassies, country teams, geographic combatant commanders and TSOCs. A wider deployment of SOF around the world, working with local allies strikes me as having two key advantages for US policy: 1) Gradual build up of relevant regional knowledge and greater information about emerging/ongoing regional problems to meet emerging threats with the most appropriate response. 2) Greater understanding of the regional “human domain” to reduce chance of “strategic surprise.” Both of those points, and problems in Ramadi, relate to a lack of understanding of the “human domain.” Since SOF have a strong focus on UW, FID etc.their expanded role could actually help prevent the conventional quagmires seen in Ramadi, (or perhaps even Hue for that matter.) Do you agree?

DC: We’ll have to see how all his plays out after we’re out of Afghanistan—what our role and overseas posture will be.  One thing I hope will play out is how we choose to become involved in issues around the world.  We must first be able to understand what is going on.  Is this a tribal, al-Qaeda-influenced, religious, smuggling, banditry, or drug-related problem?  Do we have host-nation and popular support?  Is this in our national interest?  And if we do become involved, do we sufficiently understand the problem to fix it?  America has a knack for becoming involved in good causes that we simply do not understand or lack the ability to resolve.

SOF, working closely with the country teams, GCCs, and TSOCs may be able to help.  We may even be able to avert a crisis.  But we must move carefully and use our resources judiciously.  And there’s always the possibility that things will not go as planned.

RT:  In The Sheriff of Ramadi, you tell the story of the late Travis Patriquin, a crucial player in the war of tribal engagement in al-Anbar. Patriquin knew that the US needed to adapt to the environment, not simply target the enemy. He was highly culturally attuned, something he demonstrated in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. There is now greater emphasis on cultural training in the US armed forces, and MARSOC have this in Phase 4 of their training programme, in addition to language training.

In a perfect world, the future of small wars will be fought by armies of Patriquins, men who can engage with and adapt to the situation on the ground. We saw this approach in Vietnam with SEAL and Green Beret deployments very early on, until the war (as John Nagl highlighted) became largely “conventionalized,” going from Marine to conscript deployments, while trying to build the ARVN in a US army image. It gives me some hope that there is a greater will for future US overseas operations to have a major SOF component and be supportive of HN forces in largely “indirect” efforts. But that depends on the US not crumbling to mission creep and sending in large army units where they might do more harm than good. SOF will still of course need conventional force support, and we saw this in Ramadi where an impressive interoperability developed, but it strikes me that the future is keeping small wars “small” while preparing for another “big one,” while avoiding what you have called “medium sized” wars in developing countries (eg. Iraq, Vietnam.) Do you agree?

DC: That’s a big chunk of ground to cover—Vietnam to Ramadi—but yes, I believe that we must move to the indirect, choose those situations where there is host-nation, partner-force participation, and the requirements are manageable, ie, small.  If there’s not the buy in by the host nation to put their people in the field, then we should have no interest in deploying teams to train them.  I think we have to stand away from unilateral engagements unless there is a clear threat to our vital national interests or our security.  The training currently being done at MARSOC in the area of FID and UW training is essential to the future employment of SOF.

RT:  When you left Vietnam, the South Vietnamese army had recently launched a major offensive into Laos, inflicting heavy casualties on the Communists but also suffering heavy losses themselves (Lam Son 719.) The following spring the NVA launched a 14 division offensive so disastrous that Generals such as Tran Van Tra seriously doubted the wisdom of ever again launching a conventional attack on the south, worrying that the war was lost. By this point some RVNAF units were proving themselves to be quite combat proficient and willing to fight, while the VC insurgency was barely functional and little more than a nuisance in many parts of the country.  In some ways, it was a similar situation to Iraq as America prepared to depart: parts of the insurgency had been rallied to the government side, AQI were decimated and violence was at all time lows, with proficient ISF launching unilateral operations.

As in Vietnam, to some this looked like victory, or at least a face saving situation. In both wars, the Big Army went in, disaster was looming within a few years and then a change of command and a changed approach brought huge dividends. But crucially, in both wars America left the Host Nation afflicted with corruption, unrepresentative leadership (that were militarily incompetent) and political instability. Maliki is fumbling progress, like Thieu before him. In both wars the political part of the equation could not be sustained, despite the skill and foresight of US forces in turning the war around. So my point is: what’s the point in perfecting COIN if the Host Nation Govt. simply messes up the results? Perhaps these were just the wrong wars and we should really stick to what truly are “small wars,” as demonstrated by SF success in central and south America…

DC: I agree.  Our involvement has to be scalable but small, sustained, and well-resourced, but above all, there has to be a willing, reasonably stable government in place.  And when we go, we have to be prepared to stay for a while; there has to be the commitment and the resources to see it through.  Columbia and the southern Philippines are places where this approach has had some measured success.  But they have to be willing to do it; we can only help.  As for SOF going forward, they will have to work as closely with the embassy/country team as they will with the geographic combatant commanders and their T-SOCs.  That said, we’ll never have all the information and we may never understand what may and may not work.  And the results may not turn out to be what we had in mind when we first went there, as happened in Mali.

Dick Couch was born in Mississippi and raised in Southern Indiana. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy  in 1967. His first tour of duty was aboard the naval destroyer USS Mansfield DD728. He graduated from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) Class 45 in 1969, and was the class Honorman. He graduated first in his class at the Navy Underwater Swimmers School and the Army Free Fall (HALO) School. As Whiskey Platoon Commander with SEAL Team One inVietnam, he led one of the few successful prisoner of war rescue operations of that conflict.

Following his release from active duty in the U.S. Navy, he served as a maritime and paramilitary case officer with the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1997, he retired from the Naval Reserve with the rank of Captain. At that time, he held the senior command billet in the SEAL reserve community.

He and his wife, Julia, live in Idaho. He is a frequent lecturer at Special Operations Component Commands and at the service academies.

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