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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Special Ops Exploits in Afghanistan Offer Lessons for the Future
Special Ops Exploits in Afghanistan Offer Lessons for the Future
By Sandra I. Erwin



The leaders of U.S. special operations forces prefer to not draw sweeping conclusions from their 12 years of war in Afghanistan. One thing they do know is that the experience there will have far-reaching influence on commanders’ thinking about what it takes to win wars in the 21st Century, says Linda Robinson, an international policy analyst who followed SOF teams in Afghanistan over the course of two years.

She chronicled their exploits in a new book, titled, “One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare.”

In Afghanistan, SOF saw the largest deployment of forces since The Vietnam War. They achieved many tactical victories but, in hindsight, wished they had not strayed from their roots, Robinson tells National Defense.

Robinson has long argued that special operations forces can best fight terrorist groups in “indirect” roles, teaming up with local militaries, and providing advice and training.

Much of the fighting in Afghanistan, she says, did not apply what SOF commanders had learned for many years: Working behind the scenes building up the host-nation forces gets better results than direct search-and-destroy missions. “It’s the cardinal rule of SOF: It is not your country,” Robinson says. “Many years were lost in Afghanistan for failing to apply what operators had learned elsewhere: Respect sovereignty and be less unilateralist.”

The scale of the deployment of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan was exceptional: 13,700 troops and 17,000 support personnel, including 9,000 in aviation units.

“I highly doubt that we will be in the near future putting 52 special operations teams in one country,” says Robinson. “That was just a phenomenal scale. That is not going to happen again.”

Robinson insists that the terrorist killer Navy SEALs that have permeated pop culture do not represent the core of what SOF do most of the time, which is “indirect” operations building relationships with allies and empowering the local forces.

Like Robinson, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Adm. William McRaven has championed the idea that success in counterterrorism requires methodical, long-term coalition building.  

McRaven began a messaging campaign last year to try to convince Washington policy makers that special operations forces in the post-Afghanistan era should spend more time advising and training allies.

“We are so used to thinking that coalitions and task forces have to be led by the United States,” says Robinson. “I think it is going to become more common to see another country lead the coalition and we'll play a contributing role with our SOF,” he adds.

If McRaven has his way, she predicts, “What we will see shrinking is the commando style use of SOF. I think it will be used when needed. But most often they are going to be looking for a partner out there.”

Robinson believes SOCOM will be shifting more resources to Africa, where U.S. operators are increasingly being called upon to help local forces fight Islamist militant groups such as Somalia-based Al-Shabaab.

Navy SEAL team launched an amphibious raid Oct. 3 against an Al-Shabaab stronghold in Somalia but the operation reportedly failed and no group leaders were captured.

Analysts have argued that SOF would be most valuable in a campaign against Al-Shabaab in a less visible role. A first step toward weakening Al-Shabaab, is “implementing what I would call a ‘light footprint’ strategy that focuses on covert intelligences, law enforcement and clandestine special operations forces,” says Seth G. Jones, a former SOCOM official and now a military analyst at the RAND Corp., during a hearing of the House Foreign Relations Committee.

Navy Vice Adm. Charles J. “Joe” Leidig Jr., deputy commander for military operations at U.S. Africa Command, says small-footprint interventions can reap huge benefits. There are 800 special operations troops in 20 countries in Africa today. These teams often can turn around a local military force within a matter of months, Leidig says at a Washington, D.C., conference in July.

Some critics have maintained that the emphasis on kinetic raids and drone strikes has hurt SOF. Fighting by conventional warfare rules “puts SOF in a very vulnerable position when fighting an enemy with no borders or play book,” former Navy SEAL and best-selling author Brandon Webb says in a blog post. “We’ve become good at winning battles but terrible at winning wars in the 21st Century.”

What is missing in modern special operations warfare is the “strategy of prevention,” Webb says. “We can’t kill our way to peace. … Special operations and unconventional warfare is the way future wars will be fought on any scale. I only hope that the core values of SOF are not lost.”

About 11,000 SOF troops are deployed in 80 countries today. Most are in the Middle East and in Afghanistan.

Webb has cautioned that the pace of deployments has strained the force. “We are in a perpetual, self-declared war on terror, with no end in sight.” In conversations with Webb, junior and senior operators revealed that they are “worn out and not sure what they’re fighting for anymore,” he writes. Washington owes them a “coherent foreign policy strategy.”

Photo Credit: Defense Dept.

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