Small Wars Journal

Obama Prefers Special Ops to Combat Forces in the War on Terrorism. It's Not Working.

Tue, 01/12/2016 - 1:01pm

Obama Prefers Special Ops to Combat Forces in the War on Terrorism. It's Not Working. By Max Boot, Los Angeles Times

… This may sound like Pentagon inside baseball, but it actually reflects an important trend: the extent to which President Obama depends on Special Operations forces, especially the joint command, which specializes in direct action missions: kicking down doors and killing or capturing terrorists. Army Special Forces, popularly known as Green Berets, by contrast, specialize in the less sexy mission of working “by, with and through” indigenous forces. No career Green Beret officer has ever been put in charge of SOCOM.

Having become president by strongly opposing the Iraq war, Obama is loath to commit ground forces to combat. But it's a different story with special operations forces. Wherever the president sees a terrorist threat, his preferred solution is to use drones or special ops troops to stage “surgical” strikes against “high-level targets.”

And how is this strategy working? Thomas told a West Point interviewer last spring that in the war on terrorism “we're losing across the board.” That's not because of any lack of valor or skill on the part of the troops Thomas commands. Special operators can eliminate individual terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden, but they cannot eliminate the organizations those leaders run…

Read on.


Bill C.

Wed, 01/20/2016 - 2:08pm

In reply to by Geoffrey Demarest

From the link provided by COL Maxwell immediately below:


a. The Twentieth-Century Normal: Cold War and Political Warfare

From our perspective today, the great twentieth-century struggle against communism appears quite different from the current condition. During the Cold War, “winning” was defined as a broad approach to limit, diminish or defeat Communism. No comparable definition of “winning” exists today, as the U.S. struggles to integrate responses to crises as diverse as Ukraine, ISIL, Iranian nuclearization, African Islamist militancy, and even Ebola into a coherent strategy.


If we disagree with the authors of the above-quoted paragraph, and suggest that there is, indeed, a comparable definition of "winning" today; one which is thought to be able to (a) increase U.S./Western power, influence and control throughout the world and (b) handle ALL the problems listed in the quoted paragraph above (Ukraine, ISIL, Iranian nuclearization, African Islamist Militancy, Ebola) and more,

This such definition of "winning" being the successful transformation of outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines. Which, it is believed, would (a) increase U.S./Western access to and utilization of the human and other resources contained within presently "denied" areas; this, providing that the U.S./the West (and the rest of the modern world) might, through investment, etc. be able to (b) address, alleviate, correct and/or otherwise rectify all the problems listed above, and more. (Evidence? No such problems emanate from -- or are, indeed, found in -- fully modern "western" accessed and fully modern "western" organized, oriented and ordered societies today?),

Then, I suggest, there is, indeed, -- much as in the Old Cold War -- a (logical, plausible and, indeed, similarly possible in the long-term?) basis for organizing all our instruments of power and persuasion -- so as to conduct "political warfare" in the 21st Century -- so as to achieve the "ends" set forth in the paragraph immediately above.

And this, I believe, is exactly what we are doing.

Question No. 1: Why did we not do this (move toward "political warfare" to promote our such "modernizing"/ "westernizing" agenda) immediately following the Cold War?

Answer No. 1: Look to those who suggested, then, such things as "the end of history," the "overwhelming appeal" of our way of life, our way of governance, etc., and to those who proposed such things as "universal values" (all now defunct ideas?) for such answers.

Question No. 2: Why can't we simply acknowledge and announce that -- by hook or by crook -- "transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines" is our post-Cold War political objective?

Answer No. 2: Because such would make us look too much like the similarly- expansionist communists of the Old Cold War who, likewise, (and for somewhat similar "power," "access," "utilization" and "control" reasons?) sought to impose a common political, economic and social model on the rest of the world.

Question No. 3: What about near-term "stability????"

Answer No. 3: A matter that, all acknowledge, must be sacrificed -- so as to achieve the more-important goal of long-term stability -- which is believed to be offered by the state and societal transformation process outlined above. Thus, the need for measures -- such as those suggested by the authors of the link provided by COL Maxwell below -- that accept and acknowledge that instability will be the near-term order-of-the-day.

Geoffrey Demarest

Tue, 01/26/2016 - 9:54am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Policy on Strategic Advantage and Unconventional War
(Geoff-suggested version, this is not real)

A. The federal government of the United States interprets its constitutional mandate to secure the common defense as an obligation to attain or maintain global strategic advantage for the people of the United States and to the constitutional republic to which they adhere. Ongoing foreign aggressive competition for dominion over territory, resources and people compels the government of the United States to fashion a comprehensive strategy to secure strategic advantage, including in the context of armed conflict short of declared war.

B. It is the purpose of this document to provide the responsible executive agencies of the U.S. Government with policy guidance for the employment of U.S. federal government assets to secure global strategic advantage, including as to competitions over foreign territory, access to global resources, global mobility and any rights that people of the United States consider among those the protection of which they consider a responsibility of the federal government.

C. This document is concerned with (1) hostile efforts by foreign states to gain dominion over territory, people and resources and (2) hostile resistance, revolution, subversion, secession, insurgency and other such organizations and movements inimical to the interests of the American people in all countries of the world, especially our allies.

D. The scope of this document embraces the range of U.S. measures to secure strategic advantage in the face of challenges described in (C1) and (C2) above. This includes captures on land and water, the punishment of piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the laws of nations as interpreted by American courts. However, the tactical employment of regular units of the U.S. Armed Forces in combat operations in direct support of foreign governments is beyond the scope of this document. Actions and activities inside the physical territory of the United States, including the suppression of insurrections or the repelling of invasion, is beyond the scope of this document.


Referred to variously as political warfare, irregular warfare, or as the combination of all forms of struggle, etc., violent competition short of unleashed state-on-state war has a long history. This armed struggle, often but not always clandestine, is prosecuted around the world through a variety of organizational types, and often features participation from countries recognized by the United States as sovereign entities. The security interests of the people of the United States, their freedoms and prosperity, are subject to the outcomes of this struggle. Recently…

1. Russia government occupied Crimea and its critical port facilities using mostly paramilitary and civilian organizations, thus yielding Russia a discernible military advantage. It then began waging a campaign to assert dominion over a large swath of Ukraine, using energy policy to help check effective European response by threatening to reduce critical fuel supplies.

2. China’s government has made unusual and expansive territorial claims in the Pacific Ocean. In support of these claims it even created new island territory that enhances its military and diplomatic positioning. It has also established new military presence on the African continent, enhancing position and access there.

3. Islamist forces continue to exert influence with the express intention to take control in Afghanistan, Chad, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, the rest of Islamic world and apparently countries beyond. These influence operations include spectacular ‘propaganda of the deed’ violence. One strain of these violent Islamist actors, known as ISIS or ISIL or Daesh has succeeded in forming a territorial proto-state, allowing them to tax and to aggregate war-making resources. External sponsors of various violent Islamist groups include select Sunni country governments and individuals, as well as Iran and Shia sympathizers, which at times participate directly with their own armed elements.

4. Member parties and armed wings of what can be collectively called the Forum of Sao Paolo (to include the participation of parts of several national governments) has supported and in some cases guided the take over and domination of both civil society organizations and several country governments in Latin America, including countries formerly friendly to the United States. This effort, in every case vocally anti-American, has included the use of organized armed violence and especially the use of clandestine armed organizations.

Whereas in some countries the vulnerability may not be apparent, the evidence is clear that we face continuing and growing armed aggression. While some of this armed aggression takes the form of open guerrilla warfare, much of the coercive activity is conducted by clandestine organizations including intelligence and covert operations elements of national governments. Maintaining American strategic advantage in this context depends on identifying and understanding the full nature of competition and answering with properly balanced action.

1. Much as during the Cold War, Chinese and Russian leaders may attempt to muffle or delimit violent confrontation, at least with the United States and its nuclear allies, so as to avoid escalation to the nuclear level.

2. Many countries that were formerly client states within the communist orbit are no longer as subject to those nuclear powers’ influence. Some of these non-nuclear countries apparently feel less constrained to employ military force both internally and internationally.

3. Some nuclear proliferation has occurred (Korea) and more may. It is reasonable to assume that newly acquired nuclear military power lends the new wielders of that power a sense of additional, highly coercive leverage over their neighbors. In some cases, Iran perhaps, the radical nature of an acquiring regime supports rational fear on the part of the American people that the nuclear weapons would be employed against America’s allies, perhaps Israel.

4. Criminal organizations that the United States does not recognize as having any level of sovereignty also employ coercive means directly and indirectly (often by influencing select groups toward conflictive stances) to gain their own strategic advantage, often in the form of fungible financial wealth. Divisive groups in at-risk countries are conversely able to enlist the support of one or more of these organizations.

5. A number of countries, recognized as sovereign entities by the United States, are for a variety of reasons especially vulnerable to foreign aggression. These reasons include their physical proximity to much stronger neighbors (Russia, China or Iran come to mind). Perhaps they are in possession of natural resources that invite higher risk of predation by stronger, aggressive neighbors, and perhaps they have weakened internal systems that can be easily exploited.

6. In addition to the handful of recognized states that recur to the aggressive use of violence within this struggle for strategic advantage, a number of recognized non-state organizations (NGOs), as well as international organizations (IOs) have sought and attained capabilities to exert influence within this armed struggle, often to the direct detriment of the interests of the American people.

Geoffrey Demarest

Mon, 01/25/2016 - 4:29pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Dave, yer killin’ me. Multiplying the reading at a stroke. I see, however, that the ‘POLICY’ is another white paper and I may confuse the two below. Anyhow, I just read the Votel et al piece on Unconventional Warfare. Some genealogical connection to the policy, white paper and testimony is apparent enough. So good on you, of course; I liked your congressional testimony. The Votel paper had within it a great essay on unconventional warfare, which was nice to find considering the article’s title. It was convincing, at least to those of us who are ripe for it. I loved that it actually mentioned liberty and the aspiration for freedom in its song. By comparison, the white paper (or the policy, dang) disconcerts by not using the words liberty, freedom, property or constitution (or for that matter dictator, tyrant or despot) in a long paper purporting narrative dominance as a feature. It generally made me worry I was entering some zone of progressive values, or at least the unwitting product of a tightened intellectual environment wherein progressive values had scared the good away. But back to the Votel article -- I know I’m always picking on people, hypocritically, for their semantic inconsistencies -- inconsistencies and equivocations that I know full well are necessitated by the variety of audiences and their rice bowls. It bemuses me nevertheless to see such exertions made to give the terms unconventional or political or irregular their own specific denotations or even connotations. The Votel article authors try to fineness all of those terms as though they are sorta kinda talking about different things, but, wink wink, at the same time saying they’re all the same thing. The Votel bunch is anything if not qualified, they’re trying to get something done, and who am I not to give them a pass on some semantic gymnastics. But the white paper, er, policy? Hmmm. One of those glossaries is just too painful. The texts seem to rest on the curiosity that we can slap the word ‘warfare’ onto any noun we want without that thing becoming war, but then we still get to say we’re involved in some kind of war. Then, with a little bit of glossary magic we can call one thing subversive and another insurgent and then poof have subversive insurgencies and insurgent subversions and wow. I know it’s a Rorschack world out there where we have to create these inkblots that appeal to all kinds of starting perceptions within a single audience, invite a favorable inference, etc. and blah blah. But, hey, we don’t have to make a visibly irreconcilable jumble of vocabulary sticks. I personally like the word ‘unconventional’ as it seems suitably close to ‘irregular’ as a matter of simplified English, and is ensconced in the manuals. Political, however, is to me a Rorschack minefield -- to me, placing the word political so close to warfare smells as though one is inviting our warriors to participate in the space of politicians. Might be so, but it ain’t showing anybody is good at rorschacking©.

Whereby I would like to address the ugly world beyond the words. But first -- I’m being made to read an article titled, “While We Can” on the ‘Third Offset Strategy’. An obvious lobbying ploy with which you are doubtless familiar, it is at least thought-provoking. I’m trying to reconcile it in my head with the Votel article. It seems to me that the offset folk leave out too much of the history it’s trying to invoke. No mention of Reagan and theatre nukes or of Star Wars or of SLBMs and a lot of other things. Too many long-term historical facts not graded, too, like tens of thousands of American combat deaths to foreign weapons, none of which were nukes or precision -- or for that matter, tanks. (I noted somewhere here on the SJW blog that someone, sadly, blamed Political Warfare for those deaths rather than foes, BTW) Also problematic is that when the article gets to the third offset strategy, there’s no strategy. Still, it raises a number of talkable issues. Among them the idea of quality as the offset for quantity. I get it, but I think we need a very high quality individual warrior on average, and more of them. I want them to have a nice ride, nice gear, nice scopes and unworldly fire support, of course. Not sure who the offset guys are, though.

And now to the world as I see it. A growing portion of lethal global competition is conducted by large, sophisticated, ruthless intelligence organizations, state run or state-sponsored, growing numerically and spreading geographically and becoming ever more empowered by the new technologies. Now that’s a phenomenon people need to be made to wrap their heads around. These same organizations skillfully build and manipulate ideological franchises and organizational fronts. And they destroy others. They are the conspiracies of the best theories. The white paper tries to say that, I guess. I wish it just up and said it. It is a reason we need more of the kind of ground force built on a much higher plane of average individual capability than what we have now, trained and equipped accordingly. I don’t care if we call the environment the gray area or the shadow war or the Planet Mongo. Political warfare is, to me, not the strongest term for the activity. As I see it, there exist extant, growing organizations trying to wrest power from the United States and its allies using ruthless coercive methods. Tanks, at least in the first instances of contact, are for us generally inappropriate to the task of closing with and destroying these organizations, or at least defanging them sufficiently to keep them at bay or making them concede territory in which we make it too hard for them to be safely present. Other noxious organizations need only be exposed and others defunded, but even these chores need to be backed up by effective credible force. I did not find the white or policy papers to be especially efficient expressions of either the threat or the appropriate response. The Votel article was definitely getting there.
Regarding the institutional, organizational response (and I’m sure I don’t have to repeat this to you, but anyhow) I don’t think synergizing in the interagency soup should be admired and formalized as a preferred behavioral norm. Yes, the interagency, but the needed participations can be hardened by stripping necessary parts out of some agencies and putting them permanently under one hierarchy to the extent possible. Rather than constantly advocate and practice more synergy we need to look for more singularity. Rather than form partnerships left and right, SOF should seek divorces, yoinking what it needs in the settlements. As for USAID, I want USAID to just give poor people stuff so my gentle friends can have their guilt assuaged. I don’t think it should touch the secrets or help with the logistics for some contra bunch. And the ‘combatant commands’? Most of them could and should be dismantled or radically reduced. It is time for the regular or conventional army to concede some major pieces to SOF and get out of the way to train for the big one, with its WP resolution and maneuver space. That would eliminate a huge set of frictiony coordinations. Again, as many of the needed resources and authorities as possible should be put under one organizational peak. Anyhow, white papers are pie-in-the-sky, amiright? But in the spirit of cooperation I re-wrote the first two pages of the policy to my liking, before I got bored. Following is what I have for you, so as to enliven the difference of tone: oops goota go will add the rest later...

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 01/20/2016 - 2:50pm

In reply to by Geoffrey Demarest


Geoffrey Demarest

Wed, 01/20/2016 - 1:22pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Dave, yes, the white paper, it is a point of departure and pride within the SOF futures community right now, I am aware. I don't share the enthusiasm. Something about it ain’t right. It’s hard for me to put my finger on, but let me try, you having thrown me off on this tangent, dang.

Over time, we’ve seen the accretion of bureaucratic barriers that SOF (really SF) personnel have had to overcome or negotiate (reflected in terms like authorities, stakeholders, partner building and such) in order to accomplish many missions. The reasons for this accretion are easy enough to observe and list. More players, more organizations, more regulations, more technological options, more people with ego-inspiring rank, competing ideologies on the same team, and ever more entangled sets of competing costs and benefits. So we see that a guy who was selected for resolve and initiative, trained to believe he has and should employ superior social skills as much as athleticism, senses that in order to go do something in the outside world he must apply all those social skills and all that resolve to negotiate the whole accretion of hurdles of the inside world -- he must ‘socialize’ the mission. So it has passed and so it is for the special operator. But it seems that the white papers (and this is a natural reaction to the environment, I’m not accusing of ill-will) now come to admire the bureaucratic tangle itself and make negotiation of it the mission of the special operator. It says loudly that ‘whole of government’ is a great thing and the only way to accomplish things. The paper says that the special operator is the perfect liaison officer. The paper glories unwittingly in the whole set of grinded gears, and turns the mission of special operators into being the lubricant. It turns who I want to be a warrior into the consummate intramural PowerPoint diplomat.

Ugly accusation I know, but look at the white paper’s problem statement. It diplomatically asserts that all is partnerships. That flips the story from successful competition toward ‘synchronizing’, as though synchronizing were the goal. Once the reader gets to the back end of the paragraph, it becomes apparent that the first sentence was not about competing, but only about a method of addressing the challenge, and the last sentence tells us that that method is to synchronize. To do what? Apparently, as we learn later on, the larger mission is to cause synergy so as to maybe positively affect some balance of legitimacy. It is, at least from the overall sense I get, that the ultimate prize for a SOF contribution is that all members of an expanding team are invited onto the same sheet of music, working together, everyone with a role, all bought in or appeased -- meanwhile, the competitive goal and what the special operator can uniquely do well to accomplish that goal are reduced to afterthought and abstraction.

As you are aware, I’m a big fan of the growth of SOF and SF. If I were king, I would trade divisions for more SOF and create a sixth service of it. I think a better answer to winning the wars would be to state more clearly that the SOF advantage is not internal diplomacy but the ability to get more places faster with discrete, effective force. I think the strategic play should be to reduce the institutional burdens leaning against that advantage, not buy into them, not glorify them.

The prosecution of war as we find it presented to us in the 21st century requires orchestration of many types of capability against many types of opposition efforts, and it has recently been almost exclusively the special operators who have been doing so successfully. They need to be empowered to do more, better, faster still. The white paper doesn’t say that -- or barely, as an afterthought or aside. It instead screams, “everyone must play, that’s the way it has to be,” and the goal becomes to coordinate and appreciate -- and that special ops is best suited to arbitrate the participation, cheerlead the appreciation, and we’ll all get along and stuff. It left me feeling as though I had found a bunch of Coldplay on the SGMs iPhone.

Preferably, that requirement to socialize missions should be presented instead as a painfully unfortunate strength-reducing friction. I think the actually ground-felt truth of the matter is that SOF personnel find the job of ‘lubricant’ as a frustrating intermediate chore, necessary because the SOF guys are often the only bunch with the vision, resolve, and capacity to get the actual mission (usually to close with and punish a foe)accomplished.

Do I exaggerate? Sure, I enjoy doing so, but I’m telling you what I tasted and doubt I’m the only one. “Whole of government” has become received wisdom as a presumptively good thing. It’s not. It's unattractive to the many of us who fancy ourselves somewhat libertarian. Dave, you might not be of that ilk, but if your brethren have social skills, they might not want to unwittingly or cavalierly off-put a large percentage of folk who may be on the political up-and-up. The sadness of Jade Helm was not that the rubes didn’t get what it was about, but that the SOF community didn’t appreciate its their own failure -- of not being the smooth communicator. Narrative? Ooof. I prefer our nation present its narrative free-form with bare bones participation from the government, and so, while I see the value of some carefully directed psyop here and there, the expression of that value (as it emanates from a military essay or a military exercise) needs to be understated, modest, that is, on the DL.

I’m not suggesting ‘political warfare’ be disposed of as a term, but there seems to be so little self-awareness in what is being written these days -- in the white papers as well as in the SOF conversation. Frankly the paper’s not bad, but something about it is just off.
But of course that’s just me.

Geoffrey Demarest

Tue, 01/19/2016 - 11:39am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

I address this to David Maxwell in particular, but anyone please feel free to snipe. Please consider the three assertions I make below as reflections of my opinion on things I need to have more facts about before allowed to posit anything. Dave, help me out here, I’ll adjust on the basis of your advice on the matter.

1. The Boot article finesses some confusion about what is the ‘true’ mission of SF versus SOF. SF, at or as the backbone of our SOF, has as core missions a range of engagement possibilities that includes direct action.

2. The distinction between ‘counterinsurgency’ and ‘counter-terror’ (that holds the latter as killing leaders and the prior as working with ideas and people) is itself a recent development and artificial. Counterinsurgency, or COIN, was an invented industry. A fundamental English definition under which 'counterinsurgency' includes all those things that counter insurgencies would be a more useful and less detouring semantic approach. In any case, ‘insurgency’ is a word that has itself become too easy a tool for equivocation and circular debate.

3. ‘Political warfare’ may mean something definite and apart; I don’t want to be painted as an enemy of a term I have not yet grasped. It appears to me, however, that we have a State Department, a USAID and a CIA all supposedly doing that, whatever it is. There exists, nevertheless, a battered community of COINsters or former COINsters who are seeking to save and grow space anywhere (within SOF? Inside SOCOM but still not ‘boots on the ground'?) for a redux or resurgence of units in charge of population-centricity. That is to say, they are not so much arguing that some mission types be favored (by accusing direct action as a failure), but wish to propagate a number of unit types somewhere within the military that are barely military at all.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 01/16/2016 - 11:08am

In reply to by Luddite4Change

There have been career SF officers who could have been selected for command of USSOCOM: 3 stars: Tangney, Kensinger, Fridovich, Mulholland, Cleveland, and now Tovo. There have been a number of SF officers who topped out at two stars who could have gone on to three and four stars, e.g., Lambert and others. SF has been a branch long enough to produce career officers (defined as those who have served in key leadership and command positions from A Team to Group Command and then TSOC and or 1st SF Command and or USASOC). But the path to USSOCOM command is more likely through JSOC.

Lindsey, Stiner, Shelton all had Vietnam era service is SF but none had been SF Bn, group, TSOC, or then when it existed in the 1980's 1st SOCOM. Schoomaker was SF qualified but never served in an SF group at any level and while Brown went to SFQC as an NCO then went to warrant officer flight school and the advanced through 160th and JSOC (and USASOC as well). This is not to disparage any of the commanders of USSOCOM but only to point out that the domiant special operations organization (by size of contribution and not by influence) has never produced a USSOCOM commander. Take that for what it is worth and for what that says about the relative importance of SF in the SOF community but more importantly within the conventional military leaders who nominate officers for the position and civilian leaders (E.g., SECDEF and President) who make the decision.

It does not matter that SF branch was only established in 1988. By 2000 career SF officers were senior enough to be considered for command of USSOCOM.


Fri, 01/15/2016 - 9:24pm

SF has only been a branch since '88, and "career SF officers are only now making 3 stars. There have been several (Lindsay, Steiner, Shelton, and Brown; 4 of 10 and 4 of 7 Army officers) who were Green Berets during their career prior to the establishment of the branch. The statement is a little inaccurate without understanding the whole context.


Fri, 01/15/2016 - 10:00am

For the next president:

*Back to Clausewitz (who himself knew Tuchydides, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, etc.) - if war is a continuation of politics by other means, war cannot solve a problem that cannot not be solved at political level. And terrorism is a political problem (involving security, defense, intelligence, policing, policy, etc.)

*There are no miracles or clear cut solutions for the current «war». And maybe our generation will not see any lasting outcome.

*So any power and alliance in the world has to count with uncertainty in this field. Uncertainty and the possibility of things getting worse before they get better, if they ever do.

*This terrorism threat is a cancer. And there is no known absolute cure for a cancer. We count with luck, palliatives, humane care, new treatments, hope and faith, but not more than that. In this field we have to construct or reconstruct a doctrine that makes these control damage mechanisms the tools of the trade. The use of SOF is one of those, provided the user understands the capabilities, limits (including timing) and nature of those forces. If we use them always in any scenario and for all purposes, including the more trivial ones, they cease to be «special».

*So if there could be a selection of keywords for the New Doctrine, some of them would surely be «flexibility», «pragmatism», «clandestinity», «political-military ops», «psyops», «infowar ops», «constant review», «lessons learned», «better intelligence», «adequate technological applications», «understanding the enemy», etc.

Nuno Rogeiro

Bill M.

Fri, 01/15/2016 - 3:05am

In reply to by Bill C.

You're partially correct in my opinion. The neocon ideology embraced by Bush and both Clintons has lost much of its appeal. We once again learn that removing regimes can result in greater risk to our interests, than pressuring regimes to change their behavior. If one of our national interests is enforcing the international order that has served our economic and security interests well, then we need to think twice about violating those international norms.

However, none of this invalidates special warfare, it simply points out that like any other military option there are a lot of considerations that need to be thought through. There Wii be times when conventional warfare is more desirable than special warfare when pursuing limited objectives, but the opposite is also true. More often than not it will be a blender or hybrid approach.

Back to the topic dujour, I think a special warfare will appropriately remain a viable military contribution in our war against Salifi extremists. I also think there will be times when a heavy conventional punch will be needed. As for surgical strike, that must remain a main effort to disrupt those trying to harm to our citizens and our national interests now. At the end of the day Max made an irrelevant argument. As Nuno wrote below the strategy is bigger than military, and within that military it is bigger than SOF. We have been trying to become a more integrated joint force for decades, and our best leaders embrace all the military capabilities, while our worst leaders embrace personal agendas that are capability centric. This creates distrust and limits our ability to compete in the hybrid warfare realm.

A thought and question for those who know much more about this than me:

If standing, governing regimes (however organized, ordered and oriented) are now no longer consider to be the problem but, instead, are seen more as the solution and, indeed, as something of a gift from god.

(This, given the debacles of Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, etc. recently; wherein, in the name of transformation more along modern western lines, the regimes of these listed nations were undermined/overthrown, with extremely negative and indeed catastrophic consequences for all concerned.)

Given these circumstances (regime change = catastrophe) and the understanding derived therefrom (regime change is not the way to go),

Then does this not suggest that the regime-coercion and regime-change threat/leverage -- that might have, in the past, been so effectively generated and used by our forces conducting special warfare and/or by our other instruments of power -- that these such threats/leverage have now actually been eliminated and/or been fatally withered away by these such catastrophic results/failures?

This making these such instruments of U.S./western power -- and the means, methods, approaches and personnel used for such purposes (regime coercion; regime change) -- to, accordingly:

a. Become much less useful to our combatant commanders? And, indeed,

b. Become much less useful to our commander-in-chief?

This such understanding helping to explain, likewise and for example, why "surgical strike" might now be seen as the only truly effective tool in our special operations tool box?

Thus to see, and specifically because of the catastrophic failures outlined above, such entities as Putin, Kim, Xi Jinping, Ali Khamenei, etc., (a) become emboldened and (b) literally laugh in our face should we suggest -- or imply -- that regime coercion/regime change, via our special warfare people or via some other venue, was what we had in mind?

Thus, not so much what Obama (and the next president) "prefers," as what Obama (and the next president) actually has left to work with?

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 01/14/2016 - 12:20pm

Given that there is no (acceptable) military solution to the "war on terrorism" it is well that we apply as little military as possible, and avoid large, expensive conventional approaches that are no more likely to do good, and far more likely to do harm.

Bill C.

Thu, 01/14/2016 - 12:41pm

The "not politically sustainable" reason why Obama prefers special operations to combat forces in the war on terrorism/the war to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines:



COIN is a badly flawed instrument of statecraft: Why?

- The locals ultimately own the country being fought over. If they do not want the "reforms" you desire, they will resist you as we have been resisted in Iraq and Afghanistan. McChrystal's strategy paper severely criticized Karzai's government. Will that disapproval harden into a decision to act to find a better government or will we simply undercut Afghan central government and become the actual government?

- Such COIN wars are expensive, long drawn out affairs that are deeply debilitating for the foreign counterinsurgent power. Reserves of money, soldiers and national will are not endless. Ultimately, the body politic of the counterinsurgent foreign power turns against the war and then all that has occurred has been a waste.

- COIN theory is predicated on the ability of the counterinsurgents to change the mentality of the "protected" (read controlled) population. The sad truth is that most people do not want to be deprived of their ancestral ways and will fight to protect them. "Hearts and Minds" is an empty propagandist's phrase.

- In the end the foreign counterinsurgent is embarked on a war that is not his own war. For him, the COIN war will always be a limited war, fought for a limited time with limited resources. For the insurgent, the war is total war. They have no where to escape to after a tour of duty. The psychological difference is massive.

- For the counterinsurgent the commitment of forces must necessarily be much larger than for the insurgents. The counterinsurgent seeks to protect massive areas, hundreds of built up areas and millions of people. The insurgent can pick his targets. The difference in force requirements is crippling to the counterinsurgents.

What should we do?

- Hold the cities as bases to prevent a recognized Taliban government until some satisfactory (to us) deal is made among the Afghans.

- Participate in international economic development projects for Afghanistan.

- Conduct effective clandestine HUMINT out of the city bases against international jihadi elements.

- Turn the tribes against the jihadi elements.

- Continue to hunt and kill/capture dangerous jihadis,

How long might you have to follow this program? It might be a long time but that would be sustainable. A full-blown

COIN campaign in Afghanistan is not politically sustainable.


Change the name of this "war:"

a. From "a war on terrorism."

b. To (as the above analysis acknowledges) "a war on those who do not want the reforms that we desire" -- and/or -- "a war on those who do not wish to be deprived of their ancestral ways."


a. The enormous (global; cultural?) scope and scale of this/these war(s) becomes apparent,

b. The exact nature of these wars (differing values; differing ways of life; differing ways of governance, etc.) is made clear and

c. The reason why "combat forces" cannot be expected to "win" such wars is, accordingly, more-easily understood?

Other "instruments of state-craft," it would seem, will be needed to "win" such "wars; "wars" designed to transform outlying states and societies (against their present will; as the state department document/item above so clearly acknowledges/spells-out) more along modern western political, economic and social lines.

(Thus to suggest, for example, that LTG Thomas' comment, re: "losing across the board," is best understood within [a] a global and cultural-conflict context and, thus, [b] not so much re: a "war on terrorism" as a war/an endeavor to transform outlying states and societies [against their present will] more along modern western political, economic and social lines?)

Bottom Line:

Re: the use of military forces, the primary use of "combat forces" -- to achieve such grand, contested and long-term projects as outlined above (outlying state and societal transformation) -- cannot (as the state department item above so clearly indicates) be politically and/or economically sustained.

Accordingly, other, more-sustainable ways and other, more-sustainable means (surgical strike?) must be found and employed to help us achieve our such objective.


Wed, 01/13/2016 - 10:32am

Where should I start?

The «war» against terrorism is not a conventional campaign requiring massive boot presence on the ground, but a multi-level, multi-disciplinary combat.

Military SF/SOF have their role, as have intelligence (including intel agencies paramilitary units), security, police and constabulary forces of several countries.

But as this is a «political» form of «war» (something we keep forgetting), there is also an enormous amount of work to be played at the cultural and ideological level, in social networks and media and PR, diplomacy and state pressure mechanisms, education and a large etc.

You have to be here in Europe to understand the enormity of this complex task.

So the LA article is seeing only the tree, not the forest.

And it ignores the fact that these kind of conflicts have the potential to last long, and not to end with totally satisfactory results.

Nuno Rogeiro
Lisbon, Portugal

Bill M.

Wed, 01/13/2016 - 12:43am

Another uninformed opinion piece that presents contradictions between the arguments it presents. First off there are multiple lines of effort at play, but of course some are more news worthy than others when your motivation is viewer ratings. An informed author would realize there is more at play. Max should be informed, so he must be pursuing an agenda.

The direct action role is a critical role, and one we can ill afford to let up on.
Max states SOF can kill leaders but not organizations. I could argue that point, but what we can't do is kill ideas. That doesn't mean targeted killing isn't achieving the limited objectives they're intended to.

Max suggests we pursue a comprehensive COIN campaign in Iraq and Syria. We certainly tried that approach in Iraq previously, and we are still at it in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, not every insurgency responds to the principles in our COIN doctrine. As Max accurately points out there are bigger issues at play. That issue is our proxies in these countries minus the Kurds don't believe they're fighting for a better future. They don't want fight for our security, but what they want. COIN won't change that Max, so while our current approach may be flawed, COIN isn't even feasible. UW for the same reason will have its limitations if our interests are not aligned with those we are supporting.

As Churchill said, we will get to the right solution after trying all the wrong ones.

Bill M.

Wed, 01/13/2016 - 11:15pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

There are a lot reasons for this, but the principal reason is SOCOM's no fail mission since its founding was to fix the shortfalls identified after the failed Iran hostage rescue operation. Commanders of SOCOM need to understand that mission set. SOF officers who refer to this mission as hyperconventional have no business leading SOCOM. Any SOCOOM commander must be an integrator who appreciates the wide range of skills throughout the SOF community. He also must have credibility with the President and Congress to protect the investment America has made in SOF, and lead change so we're ready for future challenges.

Those choosen since 9-11 to command SOCOM have a proven combat track record. They have been outstanding leaders, in high visiblity positions. It would be incorrect to argue that SF didn't benefit from their leadership. SF officers are also on point performing superbly, but based on the mission they get less visibility.

Certainly Special Forces has a number of dynamic leaders starting to move into senior ranks who will be credible command selects for SOCOM in the near future. However, it is a false claim that SF has been sidelined, and frankly insulting to the teams around the world doing important work. Furthermore, SF are well funded and equipped relative to anytime in their history. Operational employment of SF, CA, and MISO could be better if we had better special warfare campaigns.I do think having a good SF commander at SOCOM who understands the full spectrum of SOF could result in some worthwhile strategy adjustments for our current fights. However, the sky isn't falling.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 01/13/2016 - 1:26am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Why is that....especially when the US Army SF ODAs are the key to the whole game right now.

JSOC and co. are great door kickers for kill or capture BUT the USAF has been killing a strong average IS rate estimated to be 1.5-2K every month in Iraq and Syria BUT it is like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.....

The most important piece of the puzzle is in fact the IS information war being carried out 24 X 7 X 365....and the Obama answer is CT using Homeland Security and creating a large org not the agile, flexible and small footprint one actually needs...focusing on social media.

Dave Maxwell

Tue, 01/12/2016 - 3:24pm

There are no silver bullets. And of course the administration is only relying on one small part of special operations forces. Max gets it right in the last sentence below. (unlike the Washington Post)

QUOTE This may sound like Pentagon inside baseball, but it actually reflects an important trend: the extent to which President Obama depends on Special Operations forces, especially the joint command, which specializes in direct action missions: kicking down doors and killing or capturing terrorists. Army Special Forces, popularly known as Green Berets, by contrast, specialize in the less sexy mission of working “by, with and through” indigenous forces. No career Green Beret officer has ever been put in charge of SOCOM. END QUOTE