Small Wars Journal

Can General Linder’s Special Operations Forces Stop the Next Terrorist Threat?

Can General Linder’s Special Operations Forces Stop the Next Terrorist Threat? By Eliza Griswold, New York Times Magazine

… The shift in American military strategy from huge, expensive weaponry to a lighter, more flexible approach reflects a sharp decline in the American appetite for foreign engagement. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left nearly 7,000 Americans dead and carried an estimated price tag of $4 trillion to $6 trillion. Conventional warfare is viewed by many Americans as too costly. As a whole, the military has moved away from deploying large numbers of troops and now favors targeted action like drones and raids. Increasingly, it is looking for ways to deploy groups like Linder’s: small teams of men, in fleece jackets and sneakers, quietly fanning out across the African continent. On any given day, there are 700 Special Forces in Africa, part of a larger U.S. military presence that ranges from 5,000 to 8,000 people on the ground. These Special Operations teams, which can be as small as one commando, deliver aid to places where it has generally been too risky to dig wells or hand out eyeglasses, don ties to work at U.S. Embassies and train with African commandos. They also coordinate with the diplomatic corps of the U.S. government and Africom. They are adaptable enough to shift as the nature of the threat shifts, fighting the kind of asymmetrical warfare that special operators have been fighting since World War II. “This is what S.O.F. is trained to do,” Linder said. “This is why they built us.”…

Read on.

Comments

Bill M.

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 7:00pm

In reply to by Morgan

USSF has changed considerably over the years, but the essence of SF remains the same, and while naked with K-bar is not the desired way to fight, they'll make the most of it if put into that situation. I don't see a problem with SF soldiers desiring the best kit they can get, since it gives them an advantage over the adversary. We're talking war and conflict, not a boxing match with Queensbury's rules. On the other hand, I share your concern in some regards, because our technology takes further and further away from the basics that those we're advising must rely on. If we're training guys who fight with muskets, does that mean we should deploy with muskets (and train on an appropriate doctrine for fighting with muskets prior to deploying)? I think it is a question worth asking.

The six month rotations have been the norm for SF long before 9/11 based on TDY rules, and now based on SOCOM policy to better manage OPTEMPO. I think a lot of us agree with you that longer deployments for SF would be more effective in "some" situations, but at the same time most of our soldiers are married and have kids, and the command does try to respect that by finding a balance. Putting it in perspective, we're assisting those nations, we're not protecting vital national interests. So how much suck do the soldiers need to embrace?

As for high tech failing to find and kill LRA because they're so rudimentary, that might be an oversimplification. Some of the other articles I read indicated that the State Department is limiting what these SF advisors can do, and probably for good reason. We're assisting, not trying to win the fight for them. I think there is room to speculate that if they were allowed to operate in Africa like they were in Iraq in 2006-08 period they would have a much greater impact against the LRA, but to what end politically if Uganda isn't ready to govern and secure those areas after the LRA is defeated?

I really like your idea about allowing SF members to take a leave of absence for a year or so and work with some of these NGOs to learn about the countries they may be working in (Africa and beyond). They'll learn things about the people and their concerns they'll never learn working as a military advisors. While I think we should do everything possible to develop Global Scouts (SOF experts with regional expertise), I still fear that effort could ultimately be for naught, because decisions on where and how to engage will be made by politicians for political reasons and damn the experts who disagree. They can always find an expert who disagrees with the expert on the ground and push their agenda.

Some interesting comments throughout this article.

LTC Patrick says he (SF) can do something given a year but would mess things up given a few weeks. This seems to reinforce the notion that ODAs ought to spend more than a few weeks or even a typical 6-month deployment in a particular location in order to build, nurture, and exploit that all-important relationship with the host-nation elements. 12-18 months minimum may be a good start.

"What makes a Special Operator special, according to Linder, has nothing to do with high-tech gear....you can win buck naked with a butter knife."...interesting observation given the high-tech gear ODAs go out with, rely on, and seem less-than-enthused to operate without. Furthermore, what seems to make SOF special may have less to do with gear or butter knives and more to do with the immediately accessible amounts of money (& equipment) thrown at problems causing host-nation forces to become dependent on continual US support. This coupled with the comment from the Ugandan Colonel Kabango..."high-tech has failed because the LRA is so rudimentary..." might
be an indicator that SOF, and USSF in particular, ought to become more accustomed to operate using local equipment and techniques (or operate using 1940s equipment) in order to lessen the requirement for constant (& locally unsustainable) support from "The Big PX" across the pond.

Finally, a couple of NGOs were mentioned in the article....the Open Societies Foundation and The Rift Valley Institute. In an effort to afford US military personnel, conventional & SOF, greater insight & familiarity into the various African regions in which we will likely operate in the coming years, we should consider allowing US military members to take a "leave of absence", perhaps through temporary assignments in the Inactive Reserves, in order to work in these, and other similar, organizations, much like the "Train With Industry (TWI) program the Army currently has for certain branches/ functional areas. If Africa is "the battleground of the future" as BG Linder put it, this may help us get some expertise across the force that will come in handy in the near-future.

KingJaja

Sat, 07/12/2014 - 9:36pm

In reply to by Bill C.

I know a bit about "Usman Dan Fodio", he not only established the Sokoto Caliphate, he also established several Fulani emirs in Northern Nigeria. He was the most important Islamic figure in Nigerian history.

But this is where Americans fundamentally misread what is going on in Northern Nigeria - and this is not something that "special forces" or diplomacy can solve.

There's a class struggle going on there - and the resolution to this will not be "reconciliation with the political/religious establishment" (which is the limit of US engagement), but something much deeper.

That part of Nigeria has been Islamic for close to 1,000 years. In the 18th Century, Dan Fodio (an Islamic scholar), preached a message of "purification" & established an Islamic caliphate (headquartered in Sokoto).

A hundred years later, the British come - and change key parts of the system Dan Fodio left in place (the "almajiri school system is left unregulated", certain aspects of Islamic law are banned) - but the Fulani aristocracy is kept in place.

In addition, the British banned missionary activity - so you ended up with a region with about 5% literacy rates at independence - which couldn't (and still cannot compete) with the better educated Southern Nigeria.

There was a radical element to politics in Northern Nigeria - Mallam Aminu Kano railed against the "Family Compact System" (introduced by the Fulani aristocracy & the British) - because it excluded the "talakawa" (peasants/commoners) from Western education.

When all this happened the US wasn't paying attention. The British sold this nonsense to you guys as part of the "fight against socialism".

The problem is that "socialists" like Aminu Kano offered the best chance to modernize these societies (1950s - 1980s), but since they didn't fit the "Cold War politics" of that era - religious fundamentalists took advantage - the "Izala movement" started as far back as the 1970s.

So you have a "class struggle" in Northern Nigeria. On the one hand, you have the corrupt aristocracy which has almost totally lost legitimacy in the eyes of "Talakawa". On the other, you have religious fundamentalists who offer a return to purity.

What narrative can US special forces sell to these people? None, zero, nada, zilch, nil. They are already pissed off that you "support Israel" & there's nothing you do that won't be sanctioned by the same corrupt aristocracy they have a major beef with.

In addition to that, you have a non-Hausa/Fulani/Kanuri, non-Muslim population in Nigeria (at least 80 million) that will grow suspicious of US getting "too close" to a particular segment of the population (is US planning to govern Nigeria through these people?).

Africa is full of artificial states. These states are either failing or under extreme stress. If you couldn't fix Iraq with 150,000 troops, you can't fix anywhere in Africa.

Period - let history take its course.

Bill C.

Fri, 07/11/2014 - 12:52pm

In this important and seemingly comprehensive article, I found the understanding represented by these passages to be of particular interest:

"One of Linder’s most unconventional warriors is a Special Forces lieutenant colonel named Patrick ... Their job, Patrick said as the men sat around a conference table, was to determine “who’s at risk, who’s becoming more susceptible to the siren call of violent extremism.” ... It wasn’t simple poverty that made people susceptible to extremism, Patrick said ... “This is a war taking place in ungoverned spaces, where the people are facing a crisis of adapting to modern life.”

"So far, Patrick’s teams had mapped several tribes that were particularly vulnerable to the militants’ recent marketing campaign. Using sermons and songs embedded on SIM cards, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa was peddling its message in the name of Usman dan Fodio, a 19th-century Fulani hero and reformer who waged jihad across West Africa to purify Islam. More than 100 years later, his message resonates among people who find themselves marginalized by the modern world. The most vulnerable communities aren’t those of isolated mountain people, but those “squeezed in the middle” — caught between a traditional way of life and a failing contemporary landscape."

For me, this depiction of the "conflict environment," as understood by LTC "Patrick" and his teams, to wit:

a. "People facing a crisis of adapting to modern life,"

b. "People who find themselves marginalized by the modern world," and

c. "People caught between a traditional way of life and a failing contemporary landscape"

These depictions, in my view, are glaringly similar to and reminiscent of our own "conflict environment" of the 19th Century, to wit: that of the American West and the American South;

Where, then as now, the populations in these "outlying," "different" and/or "frontier" regions faced similar difficulties (see "a" - "c" above) in the "ungoverned" (or shall we acknowledge as simply "differently governed"?) spaces and places of these similarly trying and transitional times.

Thus, again in my opinion, much to be learned here.

It would appear that (one of) the job(s) of our special forces is to (1) threaten/undermine local governments/governors who will not do our bidding and to (2) shore-up local governments/governors who we need or who will do our bidding.

Thus, one job of SF would seem to be -- using BG Linder's and/or his teams terms -- to:

a. Re: threatening/undermining local governments/governors, to put disaffected/disgruntled individuals and groups "on to the battlefield." And

b. Re: shoring-up local governments/governors, to take disaffected/disgruntled individuals and groups "off of the battlefield."

In both of these cases, this job being significantly done, it would appear, by "building relationships" with local populations. ("You can 'win' naked and with a butter knife.")

With regard to threatening/undermining local governments/governors, by putting disaffected/disgruntled individuals and groups on to the battlefield, this would seem to be made more easy in those cases where the local governments/governors were attempting to rapidly transform the subject state and society more along alien and/or profane political, economic and social lines.

Why? Because, in these instances, the conservative elements of the population provide a "natural enemy asset pool" from which our forces might easily draw from. These elements, one might suggest, needing little motivation to be put "on to the battlefield."

Here, likewise, any "ungoverned spaces" are in our favor.

On the other hand, and with regard to shoring up local governments/governors attempting to transform their states and societies more along alien and/or profane political, economic and social lines; in these cases, each of the assets noted above (the conservative elements/natural enemy asset pool and the ungoverned spaces) become significant liabilities.

This, in turn, causing it to become much more difficult to "keep" off of the battlefield -- much less "take" off of the battlefield -- the populations which have been enflamed, mobilized and activated by their governments/governors unwanted, botched, stillborn and/or half-hearted "transformation" policies and actions.

Tough job indeed for our special forces in these circumstances.

The "invisibility" of Kony's forces seems impossible to me considering that when training in OIF, it seemed an impossible task just teaching basic rifle marksmanship.