Small Wars Journal

Special Operations: What New Powers They Need

Tue, 04/16/2013 - 4:08pm

Special Operations: What New Powers They Need From Congress and the Pentagon by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., AOL Defense.

America's commandos have been darlings of the Congress, Pentagon, and the media since 9/11. Now, as Special Operations Forces reorient from Iraq and Afghanistan to lower-profile missions worldwide in places like Mali, they will need new sources of funding and new legal authorities -- changes that may rub both Congress and the four armed services the wrong way...

Read on.


Discussions regarding the direct v. the indirect approach seem to miss the point.

What causes the legitimacy of host nation governments to be undermined is the fact that these governments are often seen -- by their people -- as (1) pursuing the wants, needs and desires of a foreign entity in (2) direct contradiction with and/or at the expense of the very different wants, needs and desires of the local people.

(This being true whether or not there are U.S. military forces present in these countries.)

Governments that are viewed in this manner cannot expect to remain in power long, unless they are prepared to use force against their own people (to include capabilities that may have to be provided to them by their foreign allies/sponsors).

Regarding "strategy," as discussed by COL Maxwell below:

a. Is my explanation above re: legitimacy the true problem and obstacle that we must overcome?

b. Should and could this problem/obstacle be addressed, attacked and overcome in a manner that (1) eliminates the need for the host nation government to deploy forces against its own people and (2) eliminates our need to support such missions?

c. Or must we be "realistic" and understand that there is likely to be no way for us to achieve -- minus the use of force -- our objectives in certain foreign lands. This, because our wants, needs and desires are too opposed to and too different from those of the local people?

Dave Maxwell

Tue, 04/16/2013 - 11:00pm

I attended this event yesterday and from some of the questions it is now apparent to me how misunderstood is the "indirect approach" within the US. Based on the questions and much of the reporting I have read over the years and even the concepts coming out of DoD and the Services, the "indirect approach" means, to many people, simply "building partner capacity" or training foreign military and police forces. This results in what many in the SOF community call "random acts of touching" which is either training of foreign forces for SOF benefit (e.g., Joint Combined Exercises and Training (JCET)) or a hope that periodic training will provide the host nation with an ability to defend themselves or to conduct operations that are in US interests. All worthy goals of course but the real question is whether building partner capacity is the end in itself (for many people it seems that is so).

This leads to such comments that while Colombia and the Philippines are "successful" Mali has proved to be a "failure." First, I would say that despite Linda Robinson's touting of Colombia and the Philippines we should not construe that they are the models and if they typify the indirect approach then I do not think we are going to be conducting such an approach on a broad scale. While both Colombia and the Philippines offer great lessons and a relatively small footprints as compared to Afghanistan and iraq they are still much too large for employment in most other countries around the world. And to say that the example of Mali is a failure of the indirect approach (despite those words coming from both GEN Ham and Ambassador Sheehan) I think we really need to examine what failed in Mali. Was it a failure of the "indirect approach" or was it a failure of the strategy. I think that when we do the forensics on Mali we will find that our sole focus was on terrorism and the force that we focused on training was the Malian CT force (which by all accounts from those on the ground appears to be the most effective fighting force in the conflict). The focus of the strategy was on Counterterrorism and not taking a holistic approach to the entire scope of the problems that existed, such as lawlessness, subversion, terrorism and the potential for insurgency (and even coups). Again, I think when things are examined in some detail we will find that although the SOF elements in Mali were only there with a CT focus on training the CT force, they likely observed more complex problems and reported those problems that were likely overlooked and not acted upon. The failure in Mali is not one of the indirect approach but is really a failure of strategy, focus, and not employing the full range of tools available to support decision making.

The indirect approach is a "way" of strategy, it is not a strategy in and of itself. To be effective as a way it must support a comprehensive strategy and not be singularly focused (such as on CT only.) Although many want to employ the indirect approach as part of a Phase 0 of an overarching campaign I think the focus needs to change from solely supporting the Geographic Combatant Commanders Theater Campaign plan to focus the main effort on supporting the Chief of Mission's Mission Strategic Plan. If the Mission Strategic Plan is successful there will be no requirement for transition from Phase 0 to Phase 1 (and the remainder of the phases which is what operations in Phase 0 seems to imply). I think this is a source of a DOS and DOD divide. If the indirect approach can help DOS be successful that and means that there could be no Phase 1, 2,3, and 4, I think Chiefs of Mission will be more receptive to having the support of selected military forces providing the way of the indirect approach.

Furthermore, the indirect approach is so much more than simply providing training. It includes a continuous assessment of the conditions in a given country (from threats, to civli-military, infrastructure, host nation capabilities) in order to help the Chief of Mission and the Country Team to work with the host nation in order to help them with their internal development and internal defense programs to defend against lawless, subversion, insurgency and terrorism. It includes maintaining and sustaining long term relationship in order to provide a deep level of situational understanding. It requires operations in countries that are not currently on priority and high priority terrorism lists because the indirect approach as a way of strategy is best used to prevent future instability and conflict or to be in a position to support additional operations (from the interagency and military) should instability and conflict arise.

Lastly regarding authorities. I actually think that many "authorities" imposed by Congress are really "restrictions" imposed because of past mistakes. But the quest for "blanket authorities" is one that we will likely never succeed in obtaining from Congress. However, if we develop a comprehensive strategy with supporting Mission Strategic Plans that specific what specific tasks are to be conducted and what resources are required specific authorities can be provided. The problem with the myriad authorities and action officers searching for pots of funding is that it leads to a strategy of random acts of touching and support to "good ideas" for this fiscal year. But a comprehensive, long term strategy and supporting programs that can be sustain over fiscal years, while hard to develop initially, will provide long term flexibility and ease of administration so that all the agencies can focus on sustained execution. Strategy and planning is the key and necessary authorities and funding should flow from there. But instead we want blanket authorities and pots of money from which to choose and this method I think is contrary to effective strategy development and planning. Let's get the strategy and campaign and mission strategic plans right first and then go after the authorities and funding.

Apologies for the long rant but the bottom line is that the indirect approach is so much more than just building partner capacity but it must be employed as a way of a comprehensive strategy.