The Foreign Service Journal - June 2017
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JUNE 2017



countries become willing to assist the United States in security

missions elsewhere.”

Testifying before a congressional committee in 2013, Admiral

McRaven stated: “The direct approach alone is not the solution to

the challenges our nation faces today, as it ultimately only buys

time and space for the indirect approach. … In the end, it will be

such continuous indirect operations that will prove decisive in

the global security arena.”

Embassies and SOF: Bound Together

This wide range of activity, usually implemented by small SOF

units with a light footprint, has expanded the U.S. special opera-

tions presence throughout virtually every region of the world,

in many cases into countries where we have no conventional

military forces. In the age of “Chief-of-Mission Authority”—the

golden rule that since the 1950s has required all U.S. government

personnel and activities in a foreign country to be approved by

the ambassador—SOF operations inevitably necessitate close

coordination with U.S. embassies. With few exceptions, for

both direct action and indirect activities, SOF commanders are

required to get the ambassador’s concurrence, seek the embas-

sy’s clearance for the entry of SOF personnel and then keep the

country team briefed on the status of the mission. Enforcing this

rule is becoming a major task for embassies.

Direct action missions overseas take

place only in exceptional circumstances

outside of established war zones, but the

campaign to disrupt violent extremist

networks in critical threat countries has

made them useful in recent years in places

like Yemen, Mali, Libya, Somalia and Syria.

It has also become quite commonplace for

American military personnel to provide

advice, intelligence and logistical support

for strikes conducted by host-country SOF

elements. In such instances, coordina-

tion with the State Department and the

local U.S. embassy is vital because of the

potential for public fallout and impact on

the bilateral relationship.

Numerous cases highlight the need

for close diplomatic-military coordina-

tion on kinetic actions that will take place

on foreign soil, as well as the potential

for serious friction and adverse effects on

U.S. foreign policy objectives. Operation

Neptune Spear, the 2011 SOF raid in which Osama bin Laden was

killed, accomplished its purpose but sparked a protracted crisis

in U.S.-Pakistan relations. An operation by a Navy SEAL team

targeting the Islamic State group in Yemen late last year caused a


Public knowledge that the United States is involved with direct

action missions by foreign partner special operations forces in an

undeclared conflict zone—whether in the form of advice, intel-

ligence sharing or actual combat support—can lead to negative

repercussions within the country and the region. Many foreign

partners prefer to keep their relationship with U.S. special opera-

tions out of public view for this reason, which helps explain why

the details of so many of these partnerships remain classified.

The State Department and its embassies have a strong incentive,

therefore, to be kept fully in the loop and to retain the ultimate

decision-making authority over these activities.

Even the choice of which foreign SOF partners to cultivate

is subject to political sensitivities and foreign policy consider-

ations. Throughout Latin America in recent decades, U.S. special

operations engagement with partner forces in countries with

poor human rights records deepened historical suspicion and

distrust of the United States, sparking concern that those regimes

were using what they learned fromU.S. commando training

against internal political opponents. In the minds of some critics,


U.S. Army soldiers from the 3rd Special Forces Group help inspect Malian army soldiers’

weapons at their garrison in Tombouctou, Mali, in September 2007, during an exercise

to foster relationships of peace, security and cooperation among the trans-Sahara

nations. The exercise was part of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, an

integrated, multiagency effort of the U.S. State Department, U.S. Agency for

International Development and the U.S. Defense Department.