Revisiting Oman: A Model for Integrating Conventional and Special Operations Advisors in Security Force Assistance
As the United States military shifts its focus from low-intensity conflict to large scale combat operations against near-peer competitors, the time and resources necessary to train for the latter detract from those needed to train for the former. Unfortunately, history and current events alike show us that low-intensity conflict will continue to be the norm. The U.S. Army in recent years has sought to avoid this dilemma, standing up Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) to free up combat brigades to train for large scale combat operations. Born of frustration with previous ad-hoc attempts to train, advise, and assist Afghan and Iraqi security forces, the SFAB is a purpose-built conventional advisory force of officers and NCOs. However, the establishment of a purpose-built advisory force has some in an already established advisory force scratching their heads, wondering how SFABs will share the U.S. military’s portfolio of train, advise and assist missions with Army Special Forces. In looking toward the future of U.S. security force assistance, it may be useful to revisit a familiar scenario: a strategically important Middle Eastern country, poorly governed, threatened from within by insurgents backed by external global powers. While this narrative could be pulled from any number of recent headlines, the case in question takes place fifty years ago in the Sultanate of Oman. The United Kingdom’s military response to the Dhofar insurgency in the 1970s effectively integrated conventional and special operations advisory efforts into a security force assistance campaign. Conventional British officers and non-commissioned officers integrated into the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) as commanders, advisers, and trainers, while teams from the British Special Air Service (SAS) organized, trained, and advised irregular forces and supported civil development. These complementary efforts provide an excellent model for a security force assistance strategy that balances the capabilities of conventional and special operations advisors.
Before examining the military response to the Dhofar insurgency in Oman, it is critically important to understand that the counterinsurgency campaign was successful because combined British-Omani military effort played a supporting role, rather than a lead role. The British-supported Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said, was successful in defeating the insurgency primarily through civil reforms. Oman is strategically located at the confluence of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Central governments, in the forms of Imamates and Sultanates, have had varying degrees of control over the country’s regions. The Al Bu Sa’id Sultanate annexed Dhofar in the 19th century, but never truly integrated the region into the remainder of the Sultanate. Because of the Al Bu Sa’ids’ focus on the coast and the neighboring strategic waterways, Dhofar and the interior of the country suffered from benign neglect and alienation. Armed rebellion in Dhofar against the despotic and reactionary Sultan Sa’id began in the early 1960s, led by Sheikh Musallim bin Nufal bin Sharfan al-Kathiri. Musallim and his Bayt Kathir tribe began a campaign of sabotage and violence against the Sultanate and its British backers. Throughout the 1960s, the insurgency expanded and transformed, taking on Arab nationalist and Marxist ideologies as it grew. Regional and global communist regimes provided material support. Toward the end of the 1960s, the DLF had gained significant ground, and the Sultanate’s forces were on the defensive by 1970. The tide of the war changed after a bloodless coup d’etat, when Sa’id was replaced by his son Qaboos in 1970. The young, energetic, British-educated Sultan Qaboos undertook a campaign of political and social modernization across the country, with a particular focus on Dhofar.
Sultan Qaboos’ drastic social and political reforms provided the foundation for a sound counterinsurgency strategy. Once in power, Sultan Qaboos immediately commenced a sweeping modernization campaign that included improvements to infrastructure, education, medical services, agricultural practices, and the armed forces. Notably, Qaboos implemented an amnesty program that allowed Dhofari rebels to renounce the DLF and return to the side of the Sultanate – a key element of any counterinsurgency strategy. While the British government had always backed the Sultanate and taken a hand in Oman’s governance and security, the installation in 1970 of a reform-minded ruler prompted the United Kingdom to significantly increase its aid and assistance to the country and its new Sultan. As the British military and its Omani partners engaged in their counterinsurgency campaign in earnest, the aim of the armed forces was clear and unambiguous: to “secure Dhofar for civilian development.” Sultan Qaboos declared the rebels defeated and Dhofar secure for civil development in 1975, although isolated cells of fighters – perhaps not aware that their movement had collapsed – continued to resist until 1979. The British-advised Omani military effort, in support of political and social reforms that addressed the insurgents’ grievances, successfully defeated the Dhofari rebellion and set the stage for decades of peace and stability in Oman. The Sultanate defeated the insurgency primarily because of Qaboos’ efforts to improve civil governance, with the military campaign playing a supporting role. British military strategy employed security force assistance almost exclusively in bolstering the U.K.'s key regional partner.
The SAF grew throughout the Dhofar insurgency from a small, ineffective force incapable of mounting effective combat operations to a well-trained, professional fighting force. This was due in large part to the British officers and non-commissioned officers who served in the SAF as instructors and commanders. When hostilities first erupted in Dhofar, the SAF was poorly paid, lightly equipped, and undermanned. Sultan Sa’id, refusing to recognize the severity of the conflict, was unwilling to properly fund the SAF. Throughout the remainder of Sa’id’s reign, the DLF routinely defeated the hapless SAF in incidents such as the 1968 rout of a battalion of the Sultan’s forces in a matter of hours. Qaboos, seeking to turn the tide, immediately set out to expand and professionalize the SAF. This included increased pay, better equipment, and the addition to the ranks of British officers and non-commissioned officers on loan from the U.K.’s armed forces. Officers from the British Army and Royal Marines served tours as the commanders of Omani units, professionalizing the SAF and transforming it into a capable institution. Approximately 110 British loan officers were serving in the SAF at any given time throughout the 1970s, and British non-commissioned officers served as cadre and instructors with the SAF’s Training Regiment. With British leadership, training, and support, the Sultan’s Armed Forces were able to begin an effective military campaign against the DLF in the early 1970s.
The SAF’s conventional military campaign against the rebels in Dhofar relied on spatial and population control tactics reminiscent of the British counterinsurgency campaign during the Malayan Emergency. Led by a mix of British and Omani officers, newly expanded and better equipped Omani military units established a fortified line of obstacles to secure key terrain and interdict DLF supply lines. British officers from the Royal Engineers oversaw the emplacement of this obstacle belt, and infantry officers from the Army and Royal Marines led Omani patrols and ambushes from fortified positions along the line. Domination of this key terrain set the conditions for the SAF to defeat the DLF in western Dhofar and ultimately secure the province for civil development by 1975. British leaders from its conventional force, with their integration into the Sultan’s regular armed forces, were instrumental in transforming the SAF into a competent, professional fighting force capable of defeating an insurgency militarily. While British officers continued to serve in and command SAF units throughout the remainder of the 1970s and the 1980s, they gradually transitioned out of command positions and into purely advisory roles. Today, Oman’s armed forces are widely considered one of the most competent and best-trained in the region. The conventional advisor capacity that the U.S. Army is building in the SFAB is designed to advise, train, and professionalize a regular host nation military force, much as British Army and Royal Marine officers and NCOs did for the SAF. Most Omani units were still commanded by Omani officers, who benefitted from fighting alongside and learning from their British peers. Although these British officers were legally in command of Omani units, they also functioned as advisors to their fellow host nation commanders. This fundamental purpose of professionalizing and improving the host nation’s regular military is the one to which the U.S. Army SFAB is built.
The U.K.’s special operations forces led the other military line of effort in defeating the Dhofar insurgency. The SAS sent teams known as British Army Training Teams (BATTs) to recruit, organize, and train irregular Dhofari units known as firqats. These irregular forces were recruited from Dhofari tribesmen who chose to accept Sultan Qaboos’ offer of amnesty and abandon the DLF’s cause. The employment of these SAS-trained firqats added fighting manpower to the government’s side, provided local Dhofari knowledge and intelligence sources to the counterinsurgent campaign, and, crucially, offered a means of employment to former guerrillas who switched sides. Firqats and their SAS partners conducted patrols to disrupt and interdict DLF supply lines, often working in conjunction with SAF units. In addition to training and advising the firqats, BATTs were on the front lines of implementing the Sultan’s program of civil development in the region. BATTs, augmented with medical personnel and engineers, facilitated efforts to improve agricultural practices, establish medical facilities, and expand infrastructure. The SAS was also instrumental in psychological and information operations, enabling pro-government radio broadcasts and printing leaflets and newspapers for distribution to the Dhofari population. These improvements to the quality of life in Dhofar signaled to the populace that the Sultan was serious about civil reforms, and increasingly sapped the DLF of the local support necessary to maintain their insurgency. British SOF assisted the Sultanate in capitalizing on this momentum through their integration of civil development in Dhofar into their counterinsurgency campaign.
U.S. Special Forces, colloquially known as Green Berets, have a long history of recruiting, training, and fighting alongside irregular and paramilitary forces, from the Montagnards of Vietnam to the Afghan Northern Alliance. Just as the BATTs recruited and organized defecting Dhofari rebels into firqats to fight for the Sultan, so too are Green Berets trained to recruit, train, and advise local irregular fighters. Additionally, U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) contains the U.S. Army’s Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs elements. Civil Affairs soldiers are uniquely trained to work with local leaders and civilian organizations to establish or re-establish civil governance and essential services. As the Dhofar Rebellion makes clear, an effective counterinsurgency strategy requires swaying popular support to the government’s side while also providing a means for rebel fighters to reconcile. The BATTs’ two lines of effort in this mission – organizing and training defecting rebels, and supporting civil development projects – are tailor-made for U.S. Special Forces and their partner organizations within USASOC.
The security force assistance component to the U.K.’s strategy in Oman presents an excellent model for the U.S. to use when providing military assistance to an ally or partner confronting destabilizing threats. The U.S. Army’s establishment of an organization dedicated to conventional force advising enables it to professionalize and strengthen the regular militaries of foreign allies and partners, much like the British military’s system of loaning officers and NCOs to the SAF. Likewise, the capabilities that U.S. Army Special Forces provide mirror those of the SAS-led BATTs in organizing and training irregular forces while simultaneously facilitating civil development and influencing the local population. If the United States intends to assist its allies and partners by building military capacity, a blend of conventional and special operations support is ideal. The combined British-Omani counterinsurgency campaign in Dhofar provides an outstanding template for a balanced security force assistance strategy.