Small Wars Journal

SOF Mediators: The Application of Understanding-Based Mediation as a Nonlethal Effect

Mon, 09/07/2015 - 1:07pm

SOF Mediators: The Application of Understanding-Based Mediation as a Nonlethal Effect

Raffi Mnatzakanian


Throughout the history of conflict, people have employed the use or threat of violence to achieve their interests. As civilizations and collective knowledge evolved, the means used towards achieving interests have evolved well beyond our psychosomatic fight or flight response. Today, conflicts between adversaries still possess an ingredient of violence as one of many towards influencing the other. The nature of warfare has clearly progressed with the evolution of weapons, logistics, and communications. However, the tolerance of many civilizations for traditional military conflict towards achieving state interests has greatly diminished. Thus, Special Operations Forces (SOF) are now incorporated into what is called a “Whole of Government” approach towards dealing with irregular threats to national interests. SOF employ a variety of specialized training, personnel and equipment to meet the challenges of a world that is changing faster than the conventional conduct of warfare can adapt. Currently, the nature of many global conflicts are considered to be Irregular Wars, where there is a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population (US Department of Defense, 2012). Many of these struggles are born out of corruption, lack of governance, political disenfranchisement and poverty. If SOF considered the use of formal mediation in joint operations as a way of achieving nonlethal effects, then SOF minimize US footprint while maximizing influence between the parties in conflict.

In this paper I seek to address three questions regarding the use of mediation as a means for SOF to achieve desired effects and outcomes in support of US defense policy. First, how can SOF optimize non-lethal effects through engagement? I will specifically address current programs, doctrine, and potential shortfalls of the engagement plan. Second, what are the potential benefits and downsides of applying the Understanding-Based (UB) Model of Mediation? Third, how to train the force to effectively conduct engagement activities? Addressing these will provide a clearer picture as to how SOF should employ mediation techniques (traditionally the purview of diplomatic agencies) as a viable alternative solution towards security issues.  

SOF Persistent Engagement Optimizes Non-Lethal Effects

In February of 2014, The Army Functional Concept for Engagement AFC 525-8-5 established the development of the Engagement Warfighting function (WFF) to assist conventional forces at all levels with a framework towards actively communicating with the indigenous population when conducting military operations (TRADOC - US ARMY, 2014). Synonymous with OEF/OIF came the catch phrase “Hearts and Minds” signifying a shift in thinking for conventional forces who traditionally ignored or dismissed the immediate importance of addressing the human domain. Thus, the Army required a doctrinal warfighting function to capture the tasks and systems that provide lethal and nonlethal capabilities to assess, shape, deter, and influence the decisions and behavior of its security forces, government, and people (TRADOC - US ARMY, 2014). The development of the Engagement WFF in this functional concept are comprehensive solutions to address this requirement. Since publication of the Engagement WFF, the military continues to dedicate resources at National Training Centers (i.e. NTC, JMRC, JRTC, etc.), hiring hundreds of role players, interpreters, developing realistic environments to address commanders’ inability to adequately address indigenous populations during military operations. Among other tactical training support, the charge of these training centers is to create environments and situations where human interaction and planning for interactions can be observed, evaluated and coached on.

These situational encounters (aka training injects) are specifically designed to simulate the realities of a violent conflict. Role players demonstrate a full range of emotions, from hostile to friendly, while challenging soldiers to demonstrate understanding and a willingness to simply communicate. Most often, soldiers find themselves negotiating for information, resources, security, or grievances that the locals have. Most Soldiers stumble during these times simply because they either lack the personality or the training to effectively negotiate. Notably, SOF are often trained in advanced negotiations techniques due to their unique training and mission sets. Most interestingly, SOF usually dedicate training resources towards negotiation, yet little towards mediation. One could consider that mediation is nothing more than a neutral third party facilitating a negotiation between two parties. Many of the principles used are similar, and many professionals would argue that mediation is more difficult due to the nature of jumping into another’s fray rather than one of your own making. Incidentally, this position is where most SOF and conventional forces find themselves when the situation between the parties in conflict has deteriorated, where violence is now a significant part of the negotiation process.

Historically, SOF conduct a myriad of programs in countries long before security or governance in the country has degraded to the point where conventional forces would be considered as a viable remedy. In Joint Military Operations, this is known as Phase 0 or The Shaping Phase; the US footprint is minimal and seeks to support the sovereignty of nations to deal with their internal issues which present a security threat to US interests (US Department of Defense, 2011). SOF support US defense policy through activities of: Foreign Internal Defense (FID), Civil Affairs Operations (CAO), Psychological Operations (PSYOPS), Counterinsurgency Operations (COIN), and Counterterrorism (CT) Operations, which all employ SOF as the military instrument of power towards a balanced approach of supporting the host nation (US Department of Defense, 2012). SOF use their unique expertise of the culture, language training, minimal footprint and specialized skills towards supporting foreign governments or other US governmental agencies who are in the lead. SOF are uniquely poised to build rapport, develop shared understanding, and position themselves to hold both parties’ realities of a conflict. SOF has spent several decades developing and honing these skills due to the nature of irregular threats that seek to gain influence with relevant populations. Notably, Civil Military Engagement (CME) programs are formulated and executed for specific countries identified with significant security concerns. US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and embassy country teams set development parameters, coordination, and funding guidance of CME programs (USSOCOM, 2015). CME programs, at best, provide the US government with a means of maintaining its influence with key actors in particular countries by building partner capacity to handle internal issues. CME programs, at worst, maintain open lines of communication, build rapport with key actors, and foster greater situational awareness. CME programs offer one of the best opportunities to utilize mediation as a means to gain influence and build situational awareness by seeking to gain a fuller appreciation for the nature of the conflict.

SOF frequently employ both lethal (directly tied to a traditional tactical objective) and nonlethal (indirectly supporting a military objective) effects in support of military operations. In Irregular Warfare, the root causes of the conflict are rarely resolved through purely military means. Additionally, without a stable security apparatus, development and reconciliation efforts can be severely impaired. SOF employ both lethal and nonlethal effects, complementing each other in order to defeat adversaries that employ similar methods towards de-stabilizing governments. Examples of typical nonlethal solutions are: humanitarian aid, civil reconnaissance, civic assistance, developmental projects, and medical capabilities events (MEDCAP) (US Department of Defense, 2013). These all directly deal with the population and a significant amount of planning is dedicated towards supporting strategic security goals through these programs. Coordinating these missions takes skillful negotiation and human interaction in order to understand each other’s interests. SOF will utilize negotiation skills just like conventional forces during these situations. However, the unique position of SOF in these settings presents another option, mediation. Facilitating a mediation between parties in dispute has the potential to become a non-lethal solution, much like other traditionally used options towards achieving security goals. 

The Understanding-Based (UB) Model of Mediation and Potential Benefits and Downsides

The book, Challenging Conflict: Mediation through Understanding, outlines the framework for UB Mediation as an attempt to provide parties in conflict with a means to work together towards resolving their issues. Among many places, The UB Model of Mediation is taught at The Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, and is utilized by many mediators worldwide as a means of alternative dispute resolution. In the UB model Mediation is a voluntary process in which the parties make decisions together based on their understanding of their own views, each other’s and the reality they face (Friedman & Himmelstein, 2008). The name of the method is not just a clever title, but truly defines what is the most fundamental aspect of the process, understanding. This relates to SOF operations by directly supporting the first SOF Imperative, “Understand the Operational Environment” (US Department of Defense, 2012). The mediator seeks to expose core grievances that lie below the surface of the obvious conflict in order to demonstrate to the parties in conflict that someone can simultaneously hold both realities. In this section, I will elucidate the process of the UB Mediation within the context of violent conflict, potential benefits, and potential downsides towards using them in support of military objectives.

The UB model is based on the premise that the mediator’s role is non-coercive and neutral in order to help the parties by facilitating a negotiation between them that serves them better than their Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) (Harvard Program on Negotiations, 2015). This role underpins much of the process and must be clarified early and often to both parties in conflict in order to maintain influence with both. The foundational concepts for the mediator which guide his/her actions throughout the process are:

  • Develop Understanding – The mediator seeks to bring out core grievances from the parties without evaluation or agreement. The mediator demonstrates to both parties that they can simultaneously hold both parties’ understanding of the situation. Often, both parties fundamentally perceive the facts and situation differently.
  • The Parties Own the Conflict – The conflict started before the mediator arrived and the parties are directly in conflict. The mediator makes it clear that the best solution resides between the parties themselves since they must live with the long-term outcome.
  • Proceed by Agreement – The mediation can stop at any time and will only proceed by both parties agreement that their interests are better served by remaining in mediation.
  • Going Beneath the Problem – Mediators must delve deeper into the problems that exist. Diagnosing the disease is often more difficult than diagnosing the symptoms.
  • Allow Tension – Allow the parties to share tension that exists between them. This will help the mediator and the parties see more clearly the deeper issues where potential underlying interests lay. Strong emotions often reveal what is important to the parties; manage them and don’t seek to eliminate them entirely.  
  • Support Autonomy – The mediator attempts to not take sides by remaining neutral. The parties must feel as if they are able to share their core interests or positions without feeling that the other side is bullying them. In these situations, the mediator seeks to maintain the balance of power between the parties so they feel confident that they can negotiate.

These concepts remain consistent throughout the process and are foundations for the mindset of the mediator. The process itself is quite simple in design and built as such to provide the parties and the mediator instructions on facilitating the negotiation. This process is fluid and at any time the mediator can lead the parties back and forth in order to resolve an issue.

The Understanding Based Mediation Process

Contracting – During this phase, the mediator seeks to get the parties to understand the framework of the process and seeks to get the parties agreement to continue on a basis that is beneficial to them. It is here that the parties will negotiate the ground rules. This is often the most difficult part due to strong emotions that exist between the parties. Especially in violent conflict, this can often be the most dangerous part by simply getting the parties to the table who may see continuing the use of violence to be the only means of achieving their interests.

Defining the Problem – This is the most important part of the mediation process where parties must come to a shared understanding of the problem. It is the most important step towards developing solutions simply because when both parties can agree on the problem, they are more likely to work together towards a solution. Below illustrates a graphical depiction of The UB Model’s “Defining the Problem” step:

Figure 1. Defining the Problem; From L-R, Inputs feed into the problem. The mediator interjects into the problem by offering the process along with the role of law (In cases where the law is not relevant, it may be the role of coercion). The outcome is either a deal is made or the parties utilize their BATNA which may be a return to hostilities (Mnatzakanian, 2015).

Understanding Interests, Develop Options – In this phase, we must continue to elicit out of the parties their core interests in the dispute. Parties often are hesitant to reveal their intentions or strategy as it could be exploited upon failing to strike a deal. The mediator seeks to remind the parties of the realities they face during this phase if they were to walk away from the bargaining table. The mediator utilizes a technique of developing empathy called “Looping.” A simple process by where the mediator inquires about the issue, the other side responds, the mediator demonstrates understanding by rephrasing coupled with an emotion felt by the party, and party confirms or denies whether the mediator understands. During this process of “Looping,” the mediator is deliberately demonstrating empathy or understanding without agreement or judgement of the party. The mindset of the mediator at this point is critical towards building rapport and eliciting core interests from the party. Below is a graphical depiction of the process:

Figure 2. Understanding Interests through Looping (Mnatzakanian, 2015).

Once core interests are exposed, the parties can begin to brainstorm ideas or solutions that satisfy both of their interests. The mediator assists the parties and facilitates an environment where the parties can begin to see their conflict in terms of problem-solving instead of a fight where there is one victor and one loser. The mediator’s role now is to help the parties organize and visualize potential options generated from brainstorming. Next, the parties will prioritize specific positions that serve their interests. At this point, parties are able to visually see priorities for themselves and the other party in an attempt to begin negotiating. Parties will develop and propose packaged deals based on being able to visualize each other’s prioritized positions. It is at this point where the parties can negotiate with an array of options on the table with both parties understanding which options look more or less favorable to them. Convincing the parties to work together in a problem solving mindset will help to create value for solutions for what was previously perceived as a zero-sum game.

Figure 3. This model visualizes brainstorming options prioritized by parties and can be explained through steps: 1) Expose interests 2) Generate options 3) Evaluate options 4) Develop packages 5) Test against interests 6) Negotiate (Mnatzakanian, 2015).

Concluding Agreement, Looking to the FutureSuccessful mediation is when the parties can understand each other’s interests and strike a deal that better serves them than their BATNA. The mediator often has interests in seeking a brokered deal and should strive to make these interests clear from the onset. Based on the mediator’s established role, the mediator can often influence the deal by presenting the metaphorical carrots and sticks. Although this is not common in most mediations, violent conflict that affects 3rd party interests presumably will dictate using methods to ensure the parties in conflict reach an agreement.   

Potential Benefits of Mediation

Persistent Engagement – CME programs directly support theater campaign plans and their lines of effort through culturally attuned SOF who are best suited to work with foreign militaries and their populations. The cornerstone of UB Mediation, understanding, directly supports CME execution guidance for identifying potential sources of instability which may contribute to support for Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) and overall conflict in the country. Mediation offers various key actors, who are party to the conflict, a means of engaging their adversary through SOF intermediaries. In the process, SOF should be able to build rapport with both parties regardless of the outcome of mediation. Mediation also will elucidate priorities of relevant populations as it becomes clear what core interests exist. This information is vital towards developing and directing US efforts towards the country’s Internal Defense and Development (IDAD) strategy.

Best Chance at Long-Term Solution for Both Parties – UB Mediation differs from a traditional caucus model in that the solution comes from the parties in conflict. The caucus model places the onus on the mediator to resolve the conflict, often acting in a form of “Shuttle Diplomacy” (Harvard Program on Negotiations, 2015). The nature of the conflict, either amongst sections of the population or between the government and population, began prior to US intervention. The goal is to build partner capacity to deal with their own problems which UB Mediation directly supports. In November of 2014, a Loya Jirga, or grand council, was convened in order to determine the future of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan (AP in Kabul, 2013). This council and their decision brought together thousands of key actors in Afghanistan to decide its future relationship with the US. Although the US played a role, it was a decision left between the Afghans themselves. The role of SOF is to support the parties along the process, but understand that ultimately the parties must live with the long-term outcome.

Create Value Through Understanding – The concept of creating value is fundamental in UB Mediation and Interest-Based Negotiation. Having the parties explore and expound on their interests will yield a greater myriad of possible solutions. Parties that are more aware of their adversaries interests can begin to creatively think of options that become a part of the negotiation. SOF mediators are uniquely poised to assist in creating value by their involvement within the Joint Interagency Intergovernmental and Multinational (JIIM) environment and through established Unified Action Partners (UAP). Today, initiatives like the European Assurance Initiative (EAI) exist to provide NATO partners with additional resources for defense and development (Office of The Press Secretary, 2014). This initiative continues to create opportunities for NATO partners to problem solve and work together towards each other’s interests. Programs like this initiative could be broached during mediation as potential options which could help place more valuable options on the bargaining table. 

Minimal Footprint – Historically, SOF are selected for mission sets that dictate the need for specific capabilities instead of large formations of conventional forces. SOF trained to be more culturally attuned, linguistically capable, adept at negotiation, and aware of greater third order political effects of military operations are best suited to act as mediators. The more complicated the operational environment, the more precise solutions must be tailored to achieve desired effects. Meditation as a non-lethal effect, offers another tool towards effectively delivering an appropriate solution, minimizing collateral damage, and preventing a dramatic escalation of the conflict.

Parties Maintain Autonomy and Save Face – Mediation enables host nation participants to take full ownership of the process. SOF mediators empower key actors during mediation by placing the onus for success on the parties themselves. Culturally, this may be critical to allow the parties to save face because the constituents of the parties may reject any perceived manipulation by the mediator as a deal breaker. Long-term stability depends upon the ability of host nation governments to effectively address and cope with the population’s grievances.

Build the Network – US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) has already identified this as a priority by publishing ARSOF 2022, which prioritizes investing in human capital, strengthening the SOF Global Network, and enhancing relationships with JIIM partners (USASOC, 2012). SOF consistently utilize comprehensive approaches towards problem solving. Building rapport with the parties in conflict, assisting in creating value through understanding, and enhancing the common operational picture for UAPs all contribute to strengthening the global SOF network. Strong SOF networks directly contribute to local and regional expertise, supplemental resources, and more sustainable outcomes that support stability. Mediators not only place themselves in the middle of the conflict, they can help draw on their network of UAPs who have similar interests in supporting a resolution.

Potential Shortfalls of Mediation

Duration – UB Mediation is a fluid process whereby the mediator can lead the process backwards in steps in order to move forwards. Often times mediations can take a long time depending on how relevant the law or violence are during the process. Although the mediator does have some influence as to how the process proceeds, ultimately the onus lies with the parties. Their autonomy to make decisions and agree on the process must be respected and cultural considerations may dictate the need to dedicate more time. SOF should be mindful to address this concern prior to determining the effectiveness to mediate and what lines of effort it would support.

Security – SOF will always represent the military instrument of national power in supporting US interests. That being said, SOF must shape their missions to support achieving security objectives that compliment economic, developmental and diplomatic objectives. Parties that are in violent conflict, or potentially may resort to violent conflict, may be less likely to be receptive to mediation. Additionally, based on assessment, SOF may determine that the potential risks outweigh the benefits of mediation based on a party’s prior history of violence. If mediation were to be used during these situations, SOF are the best candidates due to their military training and survivability in less than permissive environments. SOF present a certain force of presence when communicating with parties in conflict simply due to the threat of military force to achieve stability. Political settlements almost always determine the end of conflicts and SOF should play somewhat of a role in helping parties in conflict determine how that ends.

Risking Neutrality – Pure UB Mediation typically places the mediator as completely neutral towards both parties. However, the USG typically becomes involved in conflicts at the host nation request. In these situations, one party may feel that mediation is not a likely route simply due to nature of the USG’s relationship in the process. SOF mediators should ensure that their interests in the dispute are clearly articulated to both sides and ensure that the parties themselves are responsible for the outcome.

Limitations of Dealing with Violent Extremist Organizations – Parties that typically promote violence as a means of exerting influence may be remiss to enter into negotiation or mediation. SOF mediators are not designed to convince everyone that they can lay down their weapons and make nice. Quite the contrary, SOF must be ready to conduct combat operations, as that is their primary role; however; SOF should remain flexible and adaptable to changing operational environments. Combat operations often set the conditions for political settlement during every conflict in history. For example, the US has been openly communicating with the Taliban in Afghanistan even during on-going combat operations, but only recently publicly admitted this (Hodge, 2015). Currently, the Afghan government has also begun to negotiate with the Taliban over reconciliation. All parties involved have had difficulty reaching substantial agreements, most likely due to the history of violence between them and competing interests for the outcome. In order to shape the operational environment as a means of preventing full blown combat operations, SOF should consider what actions can be accomplished to set the conditions for mediation or negotiation prior to full blown hostilities.

Reaching an Unfavorable Agreement Towards US Interests – On the surface, parties in conflict who reach an agreement that serves their interests would seem to promote US interests of stability. However, this may not always be the case. Consequently, by empowering the parties to resolve their dispute, the US risks loosing influence to shape the outcome of the negotiation by balancing the parties’ autonomy and the mediator’s assertiveness. Conflicts that possess elements of transnational crime, terrorism or human rights violations further complicate achieving US interests, potentially conceding one interest to advance another.

Training the Force to Effectively Conduct Mediation to Support Engagement

Mediation and negotiation are not unique skills to SOF, but skills SOF are uniquely trained on in the military. SOF train in these skills because interpersonal communication is vital towards SOF competencies to conduct engagement activities spanning all core SOF tasks. Currently, USSOCOM requires SOF units to undergo negotiations and mediation training prior to any CME mission set (USSOCOM, 2015). Most interestingly, to date there is no program of record for negotiation or mediation training within the military. This often leads to contracting training through agencies that specialize in mediation or attending seminars through academia. These institutions are usually highly qualified, but may not possess the scope or cultural context of teaching mediation to SOF. Institutions that teach mediation often teach the primacy of the legal system of dispute resolution. Notwithstanding, SOF mediators would mediate in the shadow of violence or coercion, representing the alternative to a resolution. SOF should approach developing its mediation program from the perspective of developing its own network of mediation experts as consultants and simultaneously develop its own program of instruction tailored towards SOF specific mission sets.

Numerous law schools and academic institutions across the US hold mediation seminars to train professionals on mediation. Participants’ professional backgrounds range from lawyers, judges, businessmen, administrators, journalists, psychologists, and diplomats. These programs serve to bring professionals together who seek to learn negotiation and mediation skills that are highly relevant towards their craft. Additionally, a majority of programs are keen on constructing highly diverse classroom demographics of various professional backgrounds and nationalities. It is imperative for SOF to be continuously represented in this demographic. SOF applies core negotiation and mediation skills that are as applicable during SOF missions as they are in multi-million dollar settlements. In particular, SOF stands to benefit greatly by enhancing its global network of professionals and intellectuals who attend these seminars. This is not at all different than what MG Nagata is trying to achieve in defining the problem with ISIS in Syria and Iraq (Schmitt, 2014). He has opened the doors to the intellectual community at large to help define the problem, which in turn supports the notion that the SOF network stands to benefit from outside intellectuals. The complex environment demands the need for dynamic planning and coordination, which inherently draws its strength from a network of various professional spheres.

Professional mediation and negotiation courses at academia uniquely provide expert instructors who have spent decades of research and practice in conflict resolution. The course material is often highly organized, professional, and designed to be applied to any background. Additionally, instructors may provide guidance and insight on how to teach skills learned in the seminar. Replicating these kinds of training programs are difficult for the military due to high personnel turnover and lethargic changes to doctrine, which makes attending these institutions so appealing. SOF who attend these courses can begin to develop programs of instruction through a SOF lense within their own formations.

Negotiation and mediation are fundamental skills towards building rapport, gaining influence, and overall interacting with other people. Not unlike basic rifle marksmanship, SOF utilize established standards in order to develop training to achieve a higher degree of proficiency. However, SOF does not have training programs within its formation for mediation training. It is imperative that SOF develop standards for mediation training if it intends to continue conducting its core mission sets. A consistent training standard provides SOF with clearer expectations as to the capabilities and limitations of mediation, the potential for mediation during non-lethal capabilities analysis, and an established training paradigm designed to continuously evolve through successive generations of SOF.


SOF exist to support the military fight and win the nation’s wars in ways that the conventional military are not equipped or trained to act. Almost all of SOF mission sets necessitate the need for proficiency in negotiation and mediation skills. In particular, mediation presents greater challenges because of the nature associated with placing the mediator directly into the center of the problem between parties. When considered, UB Mediation presents SOF with an effective construct of mediation that can achieve desired effects or outcomes. The model places SOF in the ideal position of understanding, building influence, and keeping the onus of the conflict between the parties. The benefits of mediation greatly outweigh the costs because the alternative may often be more costly and undesirable. Today, adversaries who employ irregular warfare as a means of achieving their ends won’t seek to engage on the battlefield, but in the minds of the population. Fighting and winning these kinds of wars demands precise analysis, patience, and ingenuity. A mediator seeks to provide an alternative way of helping the parties resolve their problem that best serves their interests. Given the adaptive nature of conflict, SOF should continue to seek alternative methods of achieving traditional objectives; SOF mediators present just that option.


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About the Author(s)

CPT Raffi Mnatzakanian currently serves as a Civil Affairs Team Leader in the 80th Civil Affairs Battalion, Fort Bliss, TX.