The Foreign Service Journal - June 2017
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JUNE 2017


countries. Admiral WilliamH. McRaven, the visionary

SOCOM commander from 2011 to 2014, placed the

highest emphasis on developing what has come to be

called the “Global SOF Network” to link together the

capabilities, expertise and collaborative efforts of the

special operations forces of dozens of like-minded

nations. An essential feature of this strategy is building

trust through a wide range of “indirect” activities.

Today, U.S. special operators are engaged in this

indirect approach on a daily basis in more than 100

countries. (The exact number of countries with an SOF

presence is classified, but some reports assert that it is

considerably greater than 100; 138 is the number cited

in a Jan. 5 article in The Nation , “American Special Operations Forces Are Deployed to 70 Percent of the World’s Countries.”) Training SOF partners to build

their capacity and fostering long-term relationships

with them remains a central feature of the indirect

approach. U.S. special operations expertise is unpar-

alleled and highly sought after by foreign militaries,

police forces and internal security organizations. Our elite special

operators possess skills, tactics, specially designed equipment,

and intelligence gathering know-how that can transform a for-

eign government’s own capabilities.

SOF training missions take place on a frequent basis, with

the aim of creating friendly foreign partner SOF forces that can

acquire the capacity to deal with regional threats themselves,

without directly involving U.S. forces. Although much of this “sus-

tained engagement” remains outside the public spotlight, there is

no doubt that in places like Colombia, the Philippines, the Sahel

countries of Central Africa and certain Middle Eastern states,

training and assistance fromU.S. personnel has made a decisive

difference in the fight against extremist networks.

Like the ethos of career diplomats, the SOF philosophy recog-

nizes the value of nurturing ties to foreign cultures, and acknowl-

edges the stability value of addressing the critical needs of civil-

ians. As a result, U.S. special operations units around the world

carry out a much broader civil affairs mission, which can include

providing medical and public health services in underserved

areas, assisting with agricultural and economic development at

the village level, delivering disaster relief and furnishing humani-

tarian aid. Substantial assistance efforts by U.S. special operations

were particularly noteworthy in Haiti and Nepal following major

earthquakes in 2010 and 2015, respectively, and even in Japan

after the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

SOF teams deployed to various countries include doctors,

veterinarians, engineers and logistics experts. There are numer-

ous recent examples. In 2016, a team of SOF veterinarians con-

ducted a seminar for local herders in Niger during which some

674 cattle, 464 goats, 52 camels and five donkeys received pre-

ventive treatment. In Georgia last year, SOF medical personnel

conducted an assessment of health facilities to determine ser-

vices available to refugees. In other countries, SOF teams carried

out vaccinations and helped with rural development projects.

Diplomatic Courier

describes it this way in a 2013 article: “It is

useful to think of SOF as the hard edge to soft power; their skills

are the yin to the yang, and their activities regularly demonstrate

that troops cannot be there solely to train and teach, or only to

pursue kinetic solutions.”

Acquiring a sufficiently comprehensive picture of the “operat-

ing environment” on the ground to be able to anticipate changes

that might favor extremism, as well as to enhance stability, win

the hearts and minds of local leaders and local communities, and

thereby reduce the conditions in which terrorist networks can

thrive, are equally vital goals of the SOF’s soft-power activities.

National security expert Linda Robinson explains it this way in


Nov.-Dec. 2012 Foreign Affairs

: “The long-term relationships

fostered by the indirect approach are conduits for understand-

ing and influence. They are the basis for partnerships through

which the United States can help other countries solve their own

problems and contribute to increased security in their regions.

In some cases, the partnerships grow into alliances, as other


Afghan National Army soldiers watch as a Special Forces soldier kicks in

the door to a home before clearing the house during a village search in

Zabul province in September 2004. Afghan National Army soldiers assisted

the Special Forces soldiers in the search for Taliban fighters in the remote