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Recently I’ve been reading some articles about the United States Special Operations Forces and their lack of strategic successes as the authors spin their own yarns in trying to tell the story. While certainly entertaining, and no doubt bolstered by countless FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, the results are myopic and in many cases, just not true.
But first, to get the cat out of the bag, Special Operations Forces are not a panacea for every security issue facing the country. Yes, it is true. The USSOCOM Commander said so himself at the recent SOFIC (Special Operations Forces Industry Conference) about six weeks ago in Tampa.
The use of Special Operations Forces (SOF) itself, “by, with, and through” indigenous allies are always limited by the need to manage the interests of all parties involved. That takes a total effort by the US. Military, political and economic elements all have to be working in concert for strategic success of any kind to be realized.
SOF success, strategic success, relies on a total commitment to US policy, not just the deployment of Navy SEALs or Green Berets to advise the local military or police units in the country. And no one understands this more than SOF. SOF Truths were published when the command was in its infancy and one those reads. “Most Special Operations will require non-SOF Support.”
But to say that there have been no strategic successes ignores the truth. El Salvador was a country on the brink in the early 1980s. The FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) controlled vast areas of the Morazán and Chalatenango Departments of the country during the civil war.
The US, fresh off of the Vietnam experience, limited the SOF to just 55 permanent advisors for the military although other SOF units could enter the country on very short TDY (Temporary Duty) deployments. After the FMLN’s failed attempt at overthrowing the government during a 1989 offensive designed to take the capital of San Salvador, the US’ initiative at finding a peaceful solution worked. The FMLN was forced to negotiate a peace treaty and a deal was struck just three years later.
The US helped rebuild a shattered US economy and the US Ambassadors to the country deserve a tremendous amount of credit in negotiating a very tricky situation there.
The successful Salvadoran example also helped stabilize and secure what was a shaky Honduran government of the time. They were dealing with a latent insurgency of its own that was brewing just under the surface. And US SOF involvement with a solid political and economic effort was enough to stop it in its tracks.
Colombia was another nation in chaos in the 1980s and 1990s. Civil war with the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, along with narco-terrorism rampant in the streets, had the Colombian government also teetering on the edge of collapse.
The US government sunk billions of dollars into the military and police as well as the infrastructure to the country. It was a long drawn out civil war there but the government was ultimately successful. The FARC laid down their arms and have disarmed themselves.
As for the illegal drug trade? SOF troops have been involved for over 30 years with the Colombian (and other nations) forces trying to eradicate the production of illegal drugs (Cocaine) in the country. It is a tricky proposition as the growing of coca plant in many areas of the Andean Ridge countries (Colombian, Bolivia, and Peru) is not illegal as there is a legitimate market for the crop. Finding the illegal precursor chemicals that are used in the production of cocaine as well as the illegal drug labs was a difficult proposition as anyone who ever worked in the jungles there will attest.
While one can argue the success or failure of the policies governing the eradication programs, they’ve certainly done their jobs in helping the Colombians in taking down countless illegal drug labs that dotted the landscape.
It was with amusement I read that in the same article that drug use in the United States, particularly cocaine is rising. As if the SOF operators were at fault for the people of the US wanting to use that and other illegal drugs. That is a failure at home and has zero to do with the troops trying to stop the flow. A common complaint among the Colombians during the 1990s was as true then as it is now.
“You say WE don’t do enough to stop the flow of cocaine to your country,” a Colombian general told me in Bogota. “And yet most of the cocaine from Colombia goes straight to the United States. I watched the Mayor of Washington D.C. smoke cocaine (crack) with a hooker on CNN. You people need to get your own house in order.”
And it was true. Blaming rising drug use on SOF’s lack of success in eradicating all of the drug labs is laughable. As long as there is a demand on the streets of the US, someone will take the place of every Colombian drug lord. And now the illegal drug use of choice has swung back to heroin and opiates. These are issues which need to be solved at home by Washington and not by SOF operators.
Another strategic success was in Peru. During the 1980s the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas controlled vast areas of the southern and central areas of Peru, especially in the Upper Huallaga Valley. Under the command of leader Abimael Guzman (aka Comrade Gonzalo) they waged a brutal civil war that took an enormous toll on the civilians.
Through a long and concerted effort by SOF, the Peruvian SOF units were able to capture or kill most of the Sendero Luminoso leadership, including Guzman in 1992. In this case, the loss of their senior leaders caused the fracture and disintegration of the organization. They are no longer a viable threat to the country and have been nearly totally defeated.
Likewise, the SOF operations in the Philippines with low-visibility and total government cooperation took 13 years to see success. Now, the government of the Philippines is facing a new threat with the Islamic State terrorists and the use of foreign fighters. The threat is being addressed with US support.
The threat in Afghanistan is more of a political failure at the policy level in Washington than that of the SOF operators that continue to put themselves in harm’s way. The country removed the Taliban from power with just a handful of SOF and CIA personnel along with US air support. But just as with the earlier failed US involvement with the mujahideen and the efforts of US Congressman Charlie Wilson, the US quickly tired of it and left. Wilson stated after the US helped oust the Russians and then lacked the foresight to see it thru, “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the end game.”
Therein lies the crux of the issue. Patience and the ability to see things through even when US control is not what it could be has always been the major failure of US foreign policy. We as a people want a solution, today, right now, yesterday to the problems facing the country.
As a result, Washington has grown increasingly in love with its SOF units as if they can magically transform all of the problems in one swing of the axe. Then they grow frustrated by the limitations that SOF has. While SOF will generate the tactical and operational successes on the battlefield, the overall strategic success requires that our leaders in Washington be educated on what SOF can, should, and should not be doing.
America’s SOF units are doing tremendous work in all corners of the globe. Strategic success will come from a combined effort however and not just from our operators. And you don’t need a FOIA request to see that.
Photos courtesy DOD