Small Wars Journal

Teaching Conflict Resolution: Building on the Strengths of Special Operations Forces

Thu, 03/12/2015 - 8:03pm

Teaching Conflict Resolution: Building on the Strengths of Special Operations Forces

Spencer B. Meredith III


As Special Operations Forces (SOF) are increasingly called upon to engage in the front lines against violent extremist organizations, they also have the potential to prevent and deescalate many conflicts before they become outright shooting wars. How they do that depends on their training as soldiers and time down-range, but equally important is what they learn about the options available to them through studying and applying conflict resolution practices. Combining elite military training with the best of civilian peace efforts can make SOF even more effective at defeating long-range VEO threats by doing more than killing their leaders; they can improve the lives of vulnerable people and empower them to reject the extremist path all together.

Scenario 1

US Special Operations soldiers met to discuss how to handle the growing crises they faced. A woman had been brutally murdered by her husband in a small village, and even though the community accepted the man’s right to beat his wife when she did not keep the dowry payments coming, no one anticipated the other women’s response to their friend’s death. They had fled to the wife’s village, which became enraged and exacted revenge on the murderer and his brother, burning the house to the ground and igniting inter-community battles that threatened to spread as more and more people saw footage broadcast on their phones. Within days, demonstrations in nearby cities and rallies across the border brought this crisis out of the village and into the attention of the capital and beyond. The US Ambassador had requested the Theater Special Operations Commander (TSOC) to assist by using SOF units in the country to try to stop the violence and start the processes of resolving the conflict for the long-term. They had more than the immediate bloodshed to overcome as long-standing norms about the treatment of wives and deep economic problems compounded to make one murder into a cry for justice throughout the society.

Scenario 2

Other SOF members had an equally daunting task as they had been redeployed from a Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) mission to intervene in a diplomatic nightmare. Local farmers had attacked food convoys transporting crops from corporately owned lands that the government had sold to a foreign country. There was not much arable land to begin with, and by giving nearly 2/3 of it away, the government had exacerbated growing food insecurity outside the capital. Even though local workers got paid well, far above the average wage for farm work, the need for survival overcame any financial incentives they had been given. During the attack on the food convoy, several foreign private security members had been killed, along with more than two dozen locals, with more than a hundred wounded. The government had demanded restitution and arrests, while several international powers began to use this as a way to assert their influence at the expense of the US and the host nation. Violence had also begun to spread with increasing attacks on ex-pats in the capital, and SOF needed to get a handle on things quickly…

Implications and Discussion

Both scenarios are part of an exercise in conflict resolution conducted with SOF graduate students enrolled at the National Defense University’s Joint Special Operations Master of Arts program. The program is housed in the US Army JFK Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, NC, and this exercise brought to bear SOF expertise in several areas, specifically Army Special Forces, Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations. These units serve as conflict resolution experts in places civilian peace practitioners cannot or will not go. While to some this may seem like a controversial claim given the potential recourse to violence as SOF engage in an area, and the fact that they are a forceful instrument of US foreign policy, several factors show an important similarity to traditional peace efforts, not least of which are the methods by which each group approaches their tasks. Comparisons indicate that SOF can perform peacemaking functions that seek to remove the longer-term causes of conflict, and thus operate in ways beyond more traditional military peacekeeping aimed primarily at the cessation of hostilities.

The obvious parallels to civilian peace practitioners are the Civil Affairs units that conduct humanitarian assistance missions building schools, providing medical care, and helping to develop good governance norms. Psychological Operations also have similar commonalities in that they aggregate public opinions and communicate messages upwards to the governing parties, and downward through grassroots information campaigns. Even Special Forces, the most “aggressive” of the three, has important similarities to peace practitioners. Working “by, with, and through” groups requires interpersonal team building, cultural awareness, and administrative oversight found in comparable civilian conflict resolution efforts. The inclusion of the security element adds depth rather than detracts from the comparison, as many of the places SOF go are the same places civilian organizations would go, but cannot enter for security reasons.

SOF have enormous potential to change specific aspects of the security environment for the better, but as neither an occupying force, nor with missions that can be easily handed over to regular military units or non-governmental organizations, SOF cannot sustain themselves for long periods of time without support, both in terms of warfighting capabilities and logistics. Neither can they endure without the support of the host nation and/or local population. Yet this dependence is also one of their greatest strengths in conflict resolution.

SOF are by nature joint operators requiring effective communication, coordination, and cooperation between allied and host nation counterparts, and equally importantly, US government agencies, notably the Department of State, for input on where to operate in-country and how those operations should mesh with larger political goals, and the Agency for International Development for long-term project support once SOF leave. That joint-ness can obviously hinder efficiency given the expected bureaucratic infighting over budget resources and policy priorities, but it can also make SOF effective cultural experts, analysts, and project managers. Inherent to those attributes are conflict resolution skills that are part of the “human domain”, a key element of USSOCOM Crisis Response and Limited Contingency Operations and the US Army Special Operations Command’s Campaign of Learning, which emphasizes the need for awareness of cultural norms, historical relationships, power dynamics across social levels, and language proficiency as central to success. As the area of interpersonal, communal, societal, and national identities and interests, understanding the human domain requires many of the same skills found in more traditional conflict resolution efforts.

Additionally, similarities exist between the stages of intervention found in Special Forces unconventional warfare and the ways peace practitioners break down conflict into several phases ranging from prevention when latent problems can still be addressed before they turn violent, peacekeeping when that has failed or violence has already begun before the introduction of resolution efforts, peacemaking to address the structural factors that led to violence, reconstruction after the dust has settled and disputants have had time and space to heal their immediate wounds and begin the process of engaging each other in non-violent ways, peacebuilding that moves the parties away from their previously entrenched and mutually opposed norms that defined their interests and identities, all so as to get them to reconciliation, the final stage of conflict prevention when the underlying causes have been resolved and the potential for the flame to ignite violence has been extinguished.

Recognizing that peace efforts often take place in hostile environments, traditional conflict resolution relies on some elements of security forces, depending on where it takes place in the continuum, and none of the stages are inherently fixed so that conflicts can move back and forth. The overall goal remains transformation though, and this requires several skills that SOF possess, in part due to their specialized training, but more so from their experiences “down-range” that they carry into their next missions. The processes of assessing goals, methods, and resources; implementing them under conditions of changing and complex uncertainty; evaluating during and after missions; and adapting as necessary - all correspond to practices taught in conflict resolution graduate programs. However, an interesting dichotomy exists between civilian peace practitioners who recognize a need for military force to be applied at times, even if only during the peacekeeping phase, and military experts who generally do not know that what they do ad hoc in the field is both similar to their civilian counterparts’ efforts, and can be enhanced with education in the study of conflict resolution.

The exercise referenced earlier presented real-world scenarios that many in the SOF community have faced at the local, national and international levels. The students proceeded with conflict mapping to identify the causes and courses of the immediate violence, and latent potential for conflict that allowed the event to escalate and expand. They evaluated contradictions between government policy and daily life, focusing on the breakdown of expectations, and examining them through the lenses of normative beliefs shaping personal and communal identities. Specific behaviors could then “make sense” in cultural, political, and economic contexts, enabling the students themselves to bridge the gap between self and other, which could then serve as a learning model for inculcating that kind of empathy among the disputants. The students then traced the conflict in terms of escalation and de-escalation potentials, looking at windows of vulnerability to sustain violence or restart it in the event of a cessation. They also identified and developed plans to utilize windows of opportunity for transforming the conflict, which is, moving it further along the process towards eventual reconciliation, by recognizing that these opportunities shared many similarities to the vulnerabilities threatening peace. The same approaches make up the SOF focus on civil centers of gravity, with its emphasis on social networks, the leaders with the most influence in them (hubs), and the people that connect networks to each other (bridges).

Dealing with the cessation of violence came easiest to the students, which ought not to surprise peace practitioners who rely on security forces to do just that. However, this part of the scenario also revealed the inherent joint-ness of SOF, both in terms of their relations with US government interagency and foreign counterparts, as well as among themselves as separate SF-CA-PsyOp units. Prior experience in the field demonstrated that an immediate resort to “cutting off the head of the snake” (direct action) would prove counter-productive as a first step. The SOF approach of using local assets for local problem solving allowed for information and humanitarian approaches to have a strong voice in the planning processes, in part because of the need for indigenous security personnel to do the heavy lifting of immediately stopping the violence, but also because of the need to train those same groups in effective peacekeeping. Identifying the overlapping requirements, both across efforts and over time, the students did not resort to wishful thinking either as they recognized the harm “spoilers” can play in conflict resolution, requiring an approach with an olive branch in one hand and a gun in the other.

That kind of pragmatic, self-constrained, other-empowering approach is a hallmark of traditional conflict resolution methods, and when combined with SOF expertise, it can produce successful peace efforts. To that end, the students developed plans of action that included 1) feasible economic programs sponsored by USAID, relying on examples from their real-world interagency cooperation experiences; 2) shared community security force development and implementation as a result of their work doing the same across geographic commands; and 3) cultural symbols of shared grief, forgiveness, and remembrance through the creation of public spaces and musical performances. In the latter area, the SOF students in each scenario relied on music, both to heal and to teach. One group used a local form of “flash-mob” theater to share the story of the abused wife, and then tie international human rights values to local religious and community beliefs about manhood that countered the existing violent norms. In a similar vein, the other group found a common instrument played in the folk music of both countries fighting over food supplies, and recruited pop singers from both countries to write and perform a song commemorating the loss and celebrating the potential for future cooperation together.

The role of government factored centrally in their efforts, recognizing the need for the state to create and maintain space for public voices, while also identifying the reality that states may be part of the problem as predatory, uninterested, or incapable participants. This governmental constraint conditions the efficacy of SOF conflict resolution as much as it does for non-governmental peace practitioners, although both parties may face different challenges – one as representatives of the US government, while the other lacks governmental weight to their counsel. In either case, even officially invited conflict resolution practitioners can easily slide between activism, advocacy, and mediation to become illegitimate outsiders depending on the perceptions of the disputants. As a result, the students in the exercise nested their efforts within the larger US government/NGO relationship, including examples of programs they had previously participated in with their non-SOF counterparts. The result of these efforts was a whole of government approach that had significance in changing the immediate, medium and long-term conditions, but equally importantly, was also feasible.


The strength of SOF shows itself in the creative and pragmatic skills they bring to bear in their missions. When combined with education in conflict resolution as a specific skill set, SOF gains more than an additional tool for the toolkit. They also become the synergy of two inter-related, but often inimical fields resulting in part from a lack of awareness of what SOF brings, but equally likely from an understandable reticence among civilians to engage with the practitioners of war when working with vulnerable, violated and victimized populations. This article seeks to challenge that lack of information and the perception of incompatibility by showing what SOF can do 1) in what can be considered traditional areas for non-violent conflict resolution, 2) with disputants that peace practitioners often do not have access to for security reasons, and 3) at the level of statecraft and policy analysis typically outside the reach of all but the most well-known conflict resolution specialists. Therefore, educating SOF in conflict resolution will enhance the value already present in this elite community so they can help more people, prevent violence in more places, and work to build lasting peace in places that desperately need it. In the end, that is the best any peace practitioner can hope to accomplish.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Spencer B. Meredith III is a professor of national security strategy at the National Defense University. With expertise on Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, he advises several Joint Staff, SOCOM and interagency efforts on SOF in great power competition. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect official NDU, DOD, or USG positions.