“Unconventional Warfare”, BKA “Development Work” by mattsteinglass
May 19, 2007, 9:13 am
Filed under: Development, War

Kevin Drum notes a William Arkin column reporting that congressional Democrats are moving to force “unconventional missions” to the top of the priority list for Special Forces. Arkin: “Unconventional warfare, the new top mission, includes the “softer side” of special operations, from training to engaging local populations in the battle for hearts and minds.” The reflexive liberal reaction is to hail such a change. But I’ve always wondered about this: what evidence is there that Special Forces operatives are actually any good at “engaging local populations in the battle for hearts and minds”? If we’re talking about training teachers and civil servants, building clean water systems, and so forth, then why on earth should we have Special Forces guys doing that, rather than professional educators and development workers? Arkin cites Air Force “special operator” Col. Wray R. Johnson: “We should emphasize ameliorating if not eliminating the conditions that generate support for the bad guys.” But once you’ve acknowledged this, doesn’t that move the ballgame to a whole different court? The Pentagon is not a development agency; this is a job it stinks at. If we’re trying to “ameliorate the conditions” (poverty, lack of rule of law, etc.), then doesn’t this dictate massively shifting efforts to a re-professionalized and re-energized USAID — rather than directing military forces to do jobs at which they are, at best, amateurs? If it’s about building water systems rather than killing bad guys…maybe we should be thinking about this in a paradigm other than “war”?

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crossposted from Washington Monthly


I’ve gone back and forth on how to structure my response. I may jump around a bit. Also, this is down in the weeds enough that I’m going to disclaim it again – I’m NOT part of the Special Forces (or Special Operations) community. I’m not even much of a historian about it.

I think the primary divergence in our views is that you’re approaching Special Forces primarily as aid workers. To be sure, delivering aid can serve American interests, but that’s NOT primarily a Special Forces job. I’ll refer you to the wikipedia article on “US Army Special Forces” (I don’t feel like dealing with the link, but it’s easy to find). It doesn’t strike me as a great entry, but it does list the seven primary missions of SF. These are periodically regrouped, relisted, renumbered, etc (see Kevin’s original post) – but the gist of it is the same.

There is nothing about those missions that is warm and fuzzy. I would argue that when Special Forces delivers humanitarian aid, however honorable it is and good it may feel – it’s primarily in support of a military objective, maybe a fairly near term tactical one, maybe a longer term one. Winning over some Afghan/Kurdish/Montegnard tribe or Columbian village to the cause may take a whole range of approaches. Keep in mind that if the Special Forces are involved, it’s probably a fairly nasty violent place, and the conditions are such that

a)protection or open combat is a primary concern, rather than an add on – Trashhauler’s point about not being able to predict which way a situation will go or when it will turn is a very, very good one. This isn’t just an SF thing – the whole force is having to come to grips with the implications of what’s sometimes called “full-spectrum operations” or the “three block war”, where units have to deal with high intensity combat, humanitarian relief, and everything in between simultaneously and in a small area

b)given the rock bottom conditions, a little livestock veterinary care or some vaccinations from an SF medic or well digging from an SF engineer means as much or more as what a team of DVMs, MDs, or hydrological engineers could provide

c)a principal point of the SF soldiers being there in the first place is some sort of military mission – perhaps involving training of the locals – and the military purpose of a) and b) is to buy credibility and good will

Though Special Forces may have seven doctrinal missions, it’s seemed to me (as an outsider) that historically, their “image” has largely focused on unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense. This was a lot of what they did in Vietnam, and what they seem to be best at. In that role, they’re not aid workers, they’re partners, maybe even friends. That’s part of the reason the recent focus on direct action was so troubling – not because direct action isn’t a piece of the puzzle, but because if you’re using your smartest, most mature, most culturally aware soldiers to focus on kicking in doors, you’re probably dropping the ball, or at least doing less well, at other things.

You asked for examples of where SF had done a good job – it’s hard to give a great answer, because much of what they do is classified, down in the weeds (it might be easier to understand D-Day than it is the subtle winning over of some band of Pashtuns) or too recent (since the 60s) to fully understand. If you’re interested, though, some areas to look at would SF operations in Vietnam (I saw you’re based there, Matt), US support of the Kurds, SF work in Afghanistan (numerous open accounts), and SF work in Columbia, particularly as part of the Bushies Plan Columbia (I know there have been open accounts, I think in Newsweek, might have been US News).

Again, delivering aid can, in and of itself, serve our interests. I would strongly agree that in a safer environment, particularly if time permits – civilian aid agencies are the best way to go. I strongly approve of the idea of a reinvigorated USAID. Moreover, I think that in general the US Armed Forces would very much approve of this. That said, what USAID, the Peace Corps, or any civilian agency, can do outside Kandahar is different than what they can do in Kabul, which is different than what they can do in Ramadi, which is differnt then the Balkans, or Indonesia, or Dijibouti, or wherever. There’s not going to be a one size fits all answer. We could probably craft some sort of doctrinal formula (“strategic goals in a permissive environment vs operational goals in a hostile environment”). That might even be a worthwhile exercise, if it hasn’t been done already, but it will still come down to someone having to make a decision. One caveat – you mentioned the example of Indonesia – even a very robust humanitarian agency operating in a fairly safe enviroment will probably require military support for a massive operation early on – because no one else has alot of logistical capability just lying around. Congress isn’t going to buy C-17s and amphibious assault ships for USAID, not matter how much of a priority we make them.

Taking it one step further – we need some sort of expeditionary police capability as well. Right now we have to cobble together advisory missions, staffed largely with contractors ( ), mix in some MPs, and push them out to help a nation build a police force. has a discussion on this. The Diplomatic Security Service is in the right spot on the org chart, but they’re not really set up for it as an institution. Bears thinking about, though.

As for why the military has taken over alot of these functions, Dana Priest (of the WaPo) had a good book on it, which I can’t remember the name of now. One issue – it’s probably time to start wondering if Goldwater-Nichols hasn’t had some unintended consequences with the unified commands. If I’m the President, and I want input on what to do about something going on in, say, East Timor, I can get one stop shopping on the military side of the house by calling Pacific Command in Hawaii. Over with civilian agencies, although there are NSC coordinators, State Dept. desks, etc, there are inherently more voices to sort out, policitcal appointee ambassadors, professional diplomats, civilian intelligence agencies, and on, and on, and on. This is true even with a strong inter-agency process, which even the Bushies best friends wouldn’t accuse them of having. When Goldwater-Nichols set up what in some ways resemble regional proconsuls (I hate the Roman terminology, but it’s late and I’m tired), more civilian voices were probably called for. There does seem to be some thought going into that for the new African Command, so maybe they’re learning.

Comment by hotrod

Hey hotrod,

this is a very logical response. But if Special Forces are operating in situations where it’s too dangerous to do more than provide a couple of vaccinations or dig a well, then I really question whether it’s possible to “eliminate the conditions” which cause people to become insurgents, or even to accomplish anything meaningful in that direction. US forces dug a lot of wells and vaccinated a lot of kids in South Vietnam, with no noticeable effect on VC recruitment. That’s because handing people stuff they haven’t asked for and haven’t participated in creating doesn’t really accomplish anything; usually those kinds of projects end up quickly becoming abandoned hulks. It drives me crazy to see US soldiers talk about handing out toys to Iraqi kids and saying “they all seemed friendly,” and then being surprised that they’re still getting mortared by the same villages. You thought you could dig them a well, and that would completely shift their social and political affiliations?

The key words in development work are “sustainable” and “participatory”. You march in and build a school — did they ask you to build a school? Who participated in the meetings about what the community’s needs were? Do they really not have a school building, or could they just not think of anything else to ask for? Try an open-ended process of discussing what the pressing needs in the community are, and helping them analyze their problems. Get them to put in some of their own money or labor to build it, and see if they show up; if not, maybe a school building isn’t what they really wanted. Once the school is built, who will pay the teacher’s salary? Is there even a teacher available? Do the locals value education? Does it enhance their income potential?

If the situation is too dangerous to do this kind of work, then I’m not really sure there’s much point in trying to “eliminate the conditions”. Reading George Packer’s account of H.R. McMaster’s temporarily successful efforts in Tal Afar, it sounds as though in a relatively peaceful area, soldiers can be productively involved in the processes of justice, dispute resolution and policing. That sounds logical to me; soldiers’ jobs are about security, and being involved in the mediation of disputes seems close to their core function. Also, involvement in that stuff gives soldiers a sense of how local society operates, of who people are and what they want, which will lead soldiers to behave better and be more effective. But development work is a different kettle of fish, and if people think that Special Forces officers can vaccinate some kids or dig a well and thereby make a meaningful dent in Taliban or AQ in Iraq recruitment rates, I think they’re kidding themselves.

Comment by mattsteinglass

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