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Special Operations Forces Seek Clarity on Their Future Role
By Sandra I. Erwin

The nation’s most skilled terrorist killers want policymakers in Washington to acknowledge that a softer approach is needed in the war against extremist groups.

U.S. Special Operations Command leaders believe it is time to move beyond the Stanley McChrystal “speed of war” era, says Linda Robinson, a scholar who specializes in special operations forces and works closely with U.S. SOCOM officials.

Now retired, Army Gen. McChrystal was the former commander of Joint Special Operations Command and head of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. He is regarded as the chief architect of the contemporary U.S. approach to counterterrorism, which is based on drone strikes, and capturing and killing enemies in clandestine attacks.

The hunter-killer approach has worked for the past decade and reached its apex with the Osama Bin Laden raid in May 2011, Robinson argues in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs.

U.S. SOCOM Commander Adm. William McRaven is ready to move forward to a new era of fewer raids and more long-term partnerships with friendly nations’ militaries and civilian agencies, she says. The so-called “indirect” approach to combating terrorists, Robinson says, is more effective in the long term and will help U.S. special operations forces regain some balance after a stressful decade of nonstop fighting.

“Many people in the special operations community tell me there ought to be a pivot away from direct to indirect approach, relying on partnerships,” Robinson says in a Dec. 18 conference call with reporters. “This is a perfect moment in the post Bin Laden era to pivot away from the extreme focus on drones and unilateral raids to let the special operations community use an indirect approach.”

“McRaven is serious about this,” she says. He has become alarmed by U.S. overreliance on drone attacks, Robinson adds. “This is really the fork in the road that Washington faces. Will it take a more balanced approach or not?”

U.S. SOCOM officials are frustrated because they see official Washington becoming excessively infatuated with the kill-and-capture tactics, says Robinson. Many lawmakers and Obama administration officials view these tactics as the silver bullet that will eradicate extremist groups that threaten the United States. That thinking is misguided, says Robinson. Organizations such as al-Qaida replace their leaders after they are killed in U.S. raids, she says. “Networks can regenerate.” There is also political and diplomatic fallout from unilateral operations that will hurt U.S. efforts in the long run, she says.

The release of the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” is helping to heighten the devotion to SOF raids and drone strikes, says Robinson. “The movie perpetuates perceptions that all special operators do is go in, in the dead of night, and kill and capture people.”

Special operations leaders, says Robinson, “need some clarity in Washington on what the best use of special operations forces are.”

Dramatic forays and high-tech drone strikes “make for exciting headlines,” she writes in Foreign Affairs. “But this attention, along with policymakers' reliance on raids and drones, has encouraged a misperception of such actions as quick, easy solutions that allow Washington to avoid prolonged, messy wars. In fact, raids and drone strikes are tactics that are rarely decisive and often incur significant political and diplomatic costs for the United States. Although raids and drone strikes are necessary to disrupt dire and imminent threats to the United States, special operations leaders readily admit that they should not be the central pillar of U.S. military strategy.”

The indirect approach that McRaven and Robinson advocate is less glamorous and more difficult for outsiders to grasp. The hallmark is working through partner forces, Robinson says. U.S. SOF teams help train indigenous security forces — as they did with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance in 2001 to bring down the Taliban. “Special operations forces forge relationships that can last for decades with a diverse collection of groups: training, advising, and operating alongside other countries’ militaries, police forces, tribes, militias, or other informal groups,” Robinson says.

Indirect operations are the core mission of Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, who make up one-third of SOF uniformed ranks. But most people now associate SOF with Delta forces and Seal Team Six, which are fractional components of Special Operations Command.

Robinson touts the success of Special Forces in Colombia and The Philippines in driving out drug cartels and violent extremist groups. “This involved interagency and long-term partnerships,” she says.

SOCOM wants assurances from Congress and the administration that they will back the command’s push toward indirect operations. “The lion’s share of attention and resources has gone to building the hunter-killer aspect of SOF,” she says.

McRaven stirred controversy in Washington when it was revealed he was seeking expanded authority to oversee deployed special operations forces that would technically report to the regional combatant commander. Detractors saw McRaven’s move as a power grab. Robinson says the intent is not to intrude on combatant commanders’ turf but to ensure SOF units are properly trained, equipped and used to their full potential.

SOCOM officials also are concerned that the current pace of operations is taking a toll on troop morale and mental health. From a force of 66,000 — about half civilian, half military — there are currently 12,000 special operators deployed in 75 countries. More than half of them, about 7,000, are in Afghanistan. “You could still see a very substantial number of SOF in Afghanistan over the longer term,” says Robinson. “The mission there could take on a Colombia or Philippines like profile.”

The Obama administration’s strategic guidance to the Defense Department calls for further expansion of SOCOM ranks. But Robinson doubts that the command can grow much further. “This is the high water mark, would be my guess,” she says.

The recently passed National Defense Authorization Act approves nearly $11 billion for U.S. Special Operations Command in Fiscal Year 2013, which is about $160 million more than the president's budget request. The law also requires the secretary of defense to submit a plan on how to transition funds from the war budget to SOCOM’s base budget.

Photo Credit: Army


Re: Special Operations Forces Seek Clarity on Their Future Role

As the president of a boutique firm that helps facilitate "Smart Power" relationships between private sector, military and diplomatic communities, I can provide some helpful strategies on how SOCOM can pivot to a more indirect approach.  The DoD and DoS playbook already exists.

If there are any SOCOM decision makers and/or policymakers reading this, please feel free to connect with me and I will provide the blueprint.

Michael Bagley
Washington DC
Michael Bagley at 12/28/2012 2:06 PM

Re: Special Operations Forces Seek Clarity on Their Future Role

Ms. Robinson seeks more involved relationships; to enhance not replace current approaches.
Andrew Abolafia at 1/3/2013 7:55 PM

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