In a recent interview with West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, Mark E. Mitchell, the current Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict, offered some great insight on the past and future of America’s SOF. Mitchell had commanded the 5th Special Forces Group and a Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq. He has also received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSO), the Army’s second highest award for valour, for his actions during a battle in Afghanistan in November 2001.

With regard to what would be the more desirable outcome in the Afghan conflict, Mitchell said that it must be some sort of a political agreement between all three main parties (the U.S., Afghan Government, and the Taliban) that would bring an honourable end to the fighting. He stressed the need to do be realistic and aim at a sustainable outcome, but also to do service to the American, coalition, and Afghan servicemen who have been killed or wounded.

Mitchell also provided some interesting insight to the two different sides of Unconventional Warfare (overthrowing a government or regime and stabilising a government or regime), which is the bread-and-butter of the Army’s Special Forces Groups. He argued that toppling a regime is a much easier process than standing up an effective, sustainable government. With regard to the case of Afghanistan, he said that it was wrong to try and establish a central government in a country that had never before had a central government.

It is important to note that Afghanistan is highly fragmented in ethnic and religious lines — and this was one of the primary reasons why the initial Special Forces and CIA teams were able to topple the Taliban regime so quickly: if it weren’t for the ethnically different Northern Alliance, it would have probably taken longer. Moreover, he said that the successive administrations have underestimated the Taliban’s resilience and commitment to regain power — the Taliban aren’t a single organisation but comprised of different groups with slightly different backgrounds and objectives.

When it comes to hostage rescue scenarios, Mitchell said that three main improvements have been made: first, the official national policy on hostage rescue is largely unclassified, thus informing family members of potential hostages and deterring hostage takers. Second, the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell (HRFC) was created. The FBI-hosted cell integrates interagency intelligence and efforts to better respond to hostage rescue scenarios. And third, an organisation was created that would coordinate and update the families of hostages.

Before the creation of the HRFC, in a typical hostage scenario, the U.S. ambassador in the country where the event was happening would lead the negotiations and rescue efforts. But cases in Syria brought up some challenges. The U.S. Embassy in Damascus had been closed at the beginning of the Civil War. And when ISIS began taking American hostages (James Foley and Steven Sotloff), it was unclear who would be responsible. In the end, despite an attempt by Delta Force to rescue the two Americans, they were beheaded by ISIS.

Mitchell also discussed the introduction of women to special operations units. He said that there’s a big difficulty in attracting candidates. More specifically, he said that in three years, only nine women have volunteered for the Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) programme, with only one recent graduate — she still has to pass the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) to become a Green Beret. His solution to this issue was enlightening: instead of trying to recruit women to do become Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Rangers, of MARSOC Raiders, SOCOM should be focusing on creating different jobs, with different standards, that would build upon the strengths of women. He referenced the Second World War’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the predecessor of the CIA and Special Forces. Outfits responsible for Close Target Reconnaissance, such as Delta’s G Squadron and the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), have been using women in frontline roles.