Diplomats Give U.S. SOCOM a Reality Check
Civilian members of the national security community are reacting with a mix of praise and doubt to a controversial proposal to expand the presence of U.S. special operations forces around the world.
The plan, called “Special Operations Forces 2020: The Global SOF Network,” is the brainchild of Adm. William McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command. He has been on an 18-month outreach campaign to persuade Washington policy makers that SOCOM forces should not be sent home after the war in Afghanistan ends, and instead, they should play a permanent role as trainers and advisers of foreign allies around the globe.
McRaven made a renewed pitch for his vision June 5 at a Washington conference hosted by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis and the Fletcher School of international studies at Tufts University. He iterated his belief that SOCOM resources in the coming years should shift from direct-combat operations to “soft power” roles such as training friendly nations’ troops and helping the
State Department deal with transnational crime and other foreign-policy challenges.
Of the command’s 67,000-strong force, about 11,000 are deployed in 80 countries. Most, however, are currently in the Middle East and in Afghanistan.
Although McRaven was speaking to a friendly audience of U.S. and foreign diplomats, academics and military contractors. some of them expressed concern that SOCOM’s grand strategy is being discussed in a policy and budgetary vacuum, and risks becoming another silo that competes for clout and dollars in the national security apparatus.
Former U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, who recently led a panel investigating the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, commended McRaven for planning thoughtfully for the future. He also cautioned that the United States faces complex security problems that cannot be addressed by individual agencies or branches of the military in the absence of a comprehensive national strategy. “We need to begin to discard the old stove pipes,” Pickering said during a panel discussion at the IFPA-Fletcher conference.
The much-vaunted “whole of government” approach to tackling national and global challenges has yet to materialize, Pickering noted. In Washington, for instance, decision makers work on energy policy, environmental issues and climate change concerns. But each is managed by separate fiefdoms that operate on different agendas even though those issues are all interrelated, Pickering said.
“You cannot make one change in one of these areas without affecting the other.” Same principle applies to areas that SOCOM is seeking to influence, such as the threats posed by failing states as safe havens for terrorist groups. At the bottom of this problem is a combination of problems such as poverty, crime, food and healthcare shortages, and other issues that “can’t be looked at in stove pipes,” he said. “The mission of special operations forces [in dealing with failed states] can be important. But root cause questions will require others in Washington” to become engaged, too, Pickering said.
Threats to U.S. national security now require responses that, in many cases, are nonmilitary. “We are seeing the growth of economics as a driving factor in security and stability,” Pickering said. The current U.S. policy dilemmas concerning Yemen, Syria and Mali get at these very questions, he said. “There are issues that involve the military but also require economic development and political astuteness.”
Another example is the role of religion as a catalyst of armed conflict. “Theology is not a comfortable subject for U.S. government officials,” he said. “In some ways we need to decide how we understand and talk about those questions without entering the field of advocacy.”
McRaven’s suggestion that small teams of special operations forces can provide valuable assistance without over-militarizing U.S. policy is on the right track, Pickering said. “I have the greatest respect for the military. But it is important to say that, particularly the conventional military, has been relied on too often, too much, as the resolution of trenchant diplomatic problems.”
SOCOM’s plan presents a “new opportunity for a military role of small footprint, of discretion, of careful understanding” of how military activities can, or cannot, help, Pickering said.
Another concern for SOCOM as it considers its future missions is the nation’s broken intelligence gathering process, said U.S. Ambassador Frederick “Rick” Barton, assistant secretary of State and coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization operations.
To make the best use of limited resources across the U.S. government, “We need to have joint, but independent analysis,” Barton said at the conference. Decision makers have a hard time obtaining credible intelligence because each stove pipe sees the world from its narrow, and often self-serving perspective, he said. That applies to the intelligence community, embassies and professional diplomats, and the military. They all have limitations, Barton said. “We all tend to bring our bureaucratic view,” he said. “If I send out a team of analysts who have a predilection to look for terrorism, they are very likely to come back and tell me there is a terrorist problem.” That is not a good way to go about solving the nation’s security problems, he said. “We are trained to stay in our lanes” and agencies are not as good at team playing, he said. “Without a sense of reality, we are not going to be successful.”
Additional words of advice to SOCOM came from Michele A. Fluornoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy. McRaven has the right idea in seeking to chart a future for SOCOM as current wars come to an end, she said. But the strategy is still a bit fuzzy, she added. “I don’t think we have a fully articulated vision of what that model is.” McRaven’s vision is a good start, said Fluornoy, “but there are lots of questions about the details and how it will be resourced.”
Such caveat echoes the concerns of many politicians and outside experts who question the notion that the military should spend considerable time and treasure propping up foreign governments at a time when the United States is financially strained.
Navy Vice Adm. Charles J. “Joe” Leidig Jr., deputy commander for military operations at U.S. Africa Command, defended the idea that small-footprint interventions can reap huge benefits. He cited recent developments in Somalia, where local forces have been able to push back extremist groups with minimal U.S. participation. “Michele [Flournoy] mentioned we need a model. Somalia would be a good model,” Leidig said.
There are 800 special operations troops in 20 countries in Africa today, he said. “I see the effects of a three-man team.” These teams often can turn around a local military force within a matter of months, he said.
Navy Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus, commander of U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command, argued that the investment SOCOM made in training NATO allies has paid off in their performance in Afghanistan. “The demand for SOF is huge and we can only meet a small part,” he said. Whether SOF responsibilities will grow, however, depends on decisions by the Defense Department and the “nation’s security priority filters,” Pybus said.
SOCOM “parternship capacity” engagements are undervalued, he said. That is largely because, to be successful, it takes persistent presence over five, 10, up to 20 years,” he said. “This nation is not patient.”
McRaven agreed. “One of the reasons we are having forums like this is to educate the broader academic world, the think thanks and others out there on what SOF can do,” he said. “We are 1.5 percent of the defense budget.” Under a business case model, SOCOM’s efforts are relative low cost and deliver bigger strategic value, McRaven said. That is the narrative that he will continue to articulate “anywhere where people will listen.”