Small Wars Journal

Contemporary Need for Special Forces in United Nations Peace Operations

Thu, 01/05/2023 - 6:25pm

Contemporary Need for Special Forces in United Nations Peace Operations

By Ernest Bosompem Darkwah


Conflicts in the world have taken a complex dimension which has affected the traditional approach to Peace Operations. Violent conflicts around the world have mostly been intra-state conflict with few inter-states conflicts occurring occasionally. The regionalization of modern conflicts, which interlinks political, socio-economic and military issues across borders, has seen many conflicts become less responsive to traditional forms of resolution.[1] Time and again, civilians become the targets of violence in conflicts. In the last 30 years of internal armed conflicts, nearly one million civilians have been killed in deliberate attacks by armed groups.[2] These conflicts require the deployment of a robust intervention force by the international community to prevent genocides and also protect the populace from the scourge of war.

Traditional peace operations are characterized by unarmed or lightly armed troops with limited mandates. The regular peacekeepers encounter challenges that restrict them in the conduct of their duties. These challenges include; limited strength, operating in bad weather conditions, inadequate logistics, and lack of requisite skills for reconnaissance amongst others. The evolving nature of modern conflicts necessitate an intervention force with the requisite skill, and training that is capable of operating in difficult environments in support of regular peacekeepers.

The United Nations has so far deployed Special Forces to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Sudan and Mali. It is worth noting that, not all United Nations missions are deployed with Special Operations Forces. The deployment and use of robust peacekeepers in the form of Special Operations Forces will be able to limit harm and protect non-combatants. This will give the populace of war-torn areas protection and confidence to go about their daily activities without fear of being attacked.[3]


Mandate of Peace Operations

The mandate given to peacekeeping missions are mostly not robust enough to achieve the needed effect. Protection of civilians has become a prominent part of mandates given to peace operations by the United Nations Security Council. Providing strong enforcement mandate to peace operation missions could end violent conflict within a short time. Such mandate could best be carried out by Special Operations Forces. Patrols in most United Nation missions are conducted through a Joint Verification Monitoring Mechanism. This is practiced in missions such as United Nation Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), and United Nation Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA). Peacekeepers are often restricted by belligerent forces if patrols are conducted without the liaison officer from the warring factions. The peacekeepers are only required to send denial of access report through to United Nations Headquarters after negotiations have failed.

Peacekeepers are hence restricted from accessing certain parts of the conflict zone to assist civilians. Special Forces provide a highly accurate tool for special reconnaissance, special tasks and military assistance. Tasks such as Long range patrols by Special Forces will not hinge so much on road network as they can be inserted by air or move on foot to conduct successful operations. The small size of Special Forces and their unique capabilities, coupled with self-sufficiency can provide a Force Commander additional option for military response. Their use may not entail the risk of escalation normally associated with inherently larger or more visible regular peacekeepers.[4]

Reaction of Traditional Peacekeepers to Threats

Traditional peacekeepers are mostly deployed in cities and towns where they can have access to air or sea ports for resupply. Resources available to force headquarters in peace operations do not always allow wide deployment of units. Most of the atrocities in war torn countries however take place in the hinter lands and places with poor road network. Reactions to incidents are hence slow due to distance and inaccessibility to troubled areas. The traditional peacekeepers are therefore unable to provide the needed protection for civilians. Special Forces are best suited for such engagements as they are task organized for such operational environment. They are generally composed of land-based forces, air and maritime. Special task forces could also be deployed where the requirement for such capabilities are identified in the Statement of Force Requirement.

Inadequate Strength of Peacekeepers

The strength of forces in most United Nations Missions including missions in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan and, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) has been reduced in a drawdown program.[5] Even though the implications of these drawdown and withdrawals are context specific, the forces in these missions are however expected to undertake same tasks they were doing before the drawdown and withdrawal if not more. This creates a daunting challenge for the missions at a time that “violence against civilians had reached new levels of cruelty, marked by a rise in ethnic cleansing, genocide, rape, forced displacement and the use of chemical or other banned weapons.”[6]

United Nations missions hence need a force that is versatile and can be employed against the various threats faced by it. Special Operation Forces defies conventional wisdom by using a small force to defeat a much larger or well-entrenched opponent.[7] Special Forces will hence complement the regular peacekeepers in collecting information at national level and the theaters of operations. Special Operations Forces are trained to survive and operate in remote, undeveloped areas, and behind enemy lines. They are able to obtain information when there are constraints dictated by weather conditions, difficult terrain, and hostile countermeasures. They have the skills to provide timely analysis using their own method of evaluation in a way that other technical procedures are not possible. They can use advance techniques and equipment, which are sometimes supplemented by indigenous means to collect data and information.[8]

Likely hindrance to deployment of Special Operations Forces

Host nation consent solidifies the principle of legitimacy which is critical to the success of any Peacekeeping Missions. They are likely to question the deployment of Special Forces with the perception that its employment is excessive and exceed the United Nation Mandate.[9] UN Mission commanders must be aware of this challenge and be prepared to communicate the legitimate use of UN Special Operations both prior to and during UN Special Forces employment.[10]


The following recommendations are made:

  • The mandate for Peacekeeping missions should be robust enough to justify the inclusion of Special Operations Forces. This will clear the doubts of host nations on the use of the asset.
  • Missions Commanders must be prepared to justify the use of Special Forces prior to and during deployment. Care should be taken in the use of Special Forces for it not to appear as conducting espionage in the host country.
  • Conventional Forces should be used jointly with Special Forces in peacekeeping missions. Special Forces should not be made to perform tasks such as quick reaction or guard duties meant for Armored or the Infantry. The high-readiness asset should hence be controlled at the highest appropriate level to ensure employed in an optimal manner.


The dynamics in modern conflicts keep changing and require a corresponding response in peace operations. The type of forces deployed for peace operations needs to be looked at critically as atrocities continue to occur at areas where United Nation traditional peacekeepers have been deployed due to their limitations. The conventional military contingents are sometimes reluctant or incapable of performing certain tasks assigned them. The inclusion of Special Forces in all United Nations peacekeeping missions will fill the gap created by the conventional military contingents. A robust Special Forces unit that is well equipped and maintained will provide the needed protection and intervention to build a durable peace in conflict situations. Special Forces will provide the Force Commander a technologically advanced and high-readiness asset.



Dacin, Octavian. “Special Operations Forces in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations.” STRATEGIES XXI: The Complex and Dynamic Nature of the Security Environment, February 10, 2022, 240–48.

“Force Commanders Outline Challenges Facing United Nations Peacekeeping Efforts in Briefing to Security Council | UN Press.” Accessed November 3, 2022.

Hultman, Lisa, Jacob Kathman, and Megan Shannon. “United Nations Peacekeeping and Civilian Protection in Civil War.” American Journal of Political Science 57, no. 4 (2013): 875–91.

“Manual-UNMUM-Special-Forces-2015.Pdf.” Accessed November 3, 2022.

McRaven, William H., and William H. McRaven. Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1995.

Nations, United. “A New Era of Conflict and Violence.” United Nations. United Nations. Accessed November 5, 2022.

Pettersson, Therése, and Magnus Öberg. “Organized Violence, 1989–2019.” Journal of Peace Research 57, no. 4 (July 2020): 597–613.

“UN Transitions: Mission Drawdown or Withdrawal.” Accessed November 4, 2022.



[1] United Nations, “A New Era of Conflict and Violence,” United Nations (United Nations), accessed November 5, 2022,

[2] Therése Pettersson and Magnus Öberg, “Organized Violence, 1989–2019,” Journal of Peace Research 57, no. 4 (July 2020): 597–613,

[3] Lisa Hultman, Jacob Kathman, and Megan Shannon, “United Nations Peacekeeping and Civilian Protection in Civil War,” American Journal of Political Science 57, no. 4 (2013): 875–91.

[4] “Manual-UNMUM-Special-Forces-2015.Pdf,” accessed November 3, 2022,

[5] “UN Transitions: Mission Drawdown or Withdrawal,” accessed November 4, 2022,

[6] “Force Commanders Outline Challenges Facing United Nations Peacekeeping Efforts in Briefing to Security Council | UN Press,” accessed November 3, 2022,

[7] William H. McRaven and William H. McRaven, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1995).

[8] Octavian Dacin, “Special Operations Forces in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations,” STRATEGIES XXI: The Complex and Dynamic Nature of the Security Environment, February 10, 2022, 240–48,

[9] “Manual-UNMUM-Special-Forces-2015.Pdf.”

[10] “Manual-UNMUM-Special-Forces-2015.Pdf.”

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Bosompem Darkwah is a Ghanaian Military Officer who has participated in six different United Nation peacekeeping missions. He holds a postgraduate master’s degree in Defense and International Politics from the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration. He is currently pursuing a Master of Science Degree in Defense Analysis (Irregular Warfare) at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.



Mon, 01/09/2023 - 8:24pm

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