The United States has arrived at a critical inflection point in the development and employment of its special operations forces. (Robinson 3)

When I heard about Linda Robinson’s Council on Foreign Relations sponsored white paper I was expecting another abstract academic work which was frighteningly detached from anything resembling reality but was pleasantly surprised at Robinson’s down to earth recommendations. Her outline of SOF and policy recommendations are impressively on target, especially for someone on the outside looking in, without getting into classified aspects of the Special Operations community.  You can read Robinson’s paper, The Future of US Special Operations Forces on the CFR website.

As someone who was an insider, I felt that I had a bit of an opportunity to expand on a few of her points from a soldier’s perspective. I should note up front that what you will read here are my personal opinions and in no way represent official statements from SOCOM or for that matter the unofficial opinion of the Special Operations community as a whole.

Direct vs. Indirect Approaches

Much have been made over the last ten years about Special Operations Forces, in particular Special Forces, getting fixated on Direct Action operations. While units such as SEALs and Rangers are designed for Direct Action, Special Forces is designed for Unconventional Warfare. Unconventional Warfare emphasizes a long term approach to influencing the battle space by developing host nation military forces (Foreign Internal Defense) and engaging with the local community on various civil projects among other activities. The accusation has been made that SOF has gotten obsessed with conducting Direct Action High Value Target raids at the expense of keeping an eye on the long game.

Afghan and coalition forces patrol Shah Joy district
Special Forces in Afghanistan

While this claim has merit we should also look at the flip side of this issue. Iraq was spiraling into chaos by 2005 as the country imploded on itself. The gloves had to come off and dismantling terrorist networks with non-stop Direct Action operations was the only tangible tool at SOF’s disposal in order to keep the country at least somewhat intact. What we would have been looking at without using this tool would have been a clear decisive defeat in Iraq. The consequence which this would have had on America domestically and on the world stage would have been absolutely devastating. We should have played the long game from the beginning, Special Forces really should have been the main effort for the duration of the War on Terror but when push came to shove we did what we had to do.

However, Direct Action enabled America to save face. As bad as that sounds, a face saving withdrawal was preferable to a bitter defeat but this strategy was never a real long term solution to the problem. If you need further evidence of this examine exhibit A: Iraq and exhibit B: Afghanistan. Direct Action of course has its place and is always a tool that Special Operations soldiers should have at their disposal but unilateral combat operations are not always the preferred method.

Operator vs. Assaulter

And the indirect approach languishes more as a bumper sticker or a random engagement tool than an overarching game-changing approach that effectively addresses conflicts or emerging threats. (Robinson 14)

Part of the problem is that building long term relationships and being cultural experts is largely lip service within the Special Forces community and SOCOM. While there are some Special Forces soldiers who thrive on FID, the vast, vast, majority are only interested in conducting Direct Action. Everyone wants to pull triggers. Very few want to concern themselves with the relatively mundane FID mission. Behind the curtain, there is a fair amount of xenophobia within the ranks. A lot of guys don’t want to work that closely with Arabs. On one hand this is understandable, this author must concede that there are aspects of Arab culture that are difficult to reconcile with American values. How many of you have had an Arab want to hold your hand as gesture of friendship? Kisses on the cheek? Does that make you feel gay? However, if you cannot interact with the local culture than perhaps the Special Forces mission is not for you.