The Foreign Service Journal - June 2017
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JUNE 2017



be to embrace the indirect

activities of U.S. special

operations forces. Both

sides need to recognize

the importance of coordi-

nating and deconflicting

their respective activi-

ties. Our special opera-

tions leadership is keenly

aware that, as one recent

State POLAD to SOCOM put it, they “could be whacking moles

from now to eternity if we don’t address the root causes and

fertile ground from which violent extremism emerges”—and

that there can be little progress in this effort without State and

USAID. This is why SOF leaders are among the most compel- ling advocates for State and USAID appropriations. Given

that the SOF budget is likely to far outstrip civilian agencies’

funding under the current administration, however, there can

be little doubt that developmental and humanitarian projects

by special operations units will take on greater prominence as a

tool of U.S. foreign policy.

Special Operations: Wave of the Future?

At a time when the most pressing danger to U.S. national

security comes from international terrorism and asymmetric

threats from extremist networks spread across

multiple countries—and when so much of our

diplomacy revolves around building coalitions

to combat these threats—special operations will

inevitably have an increasingly central role in U.S.

foreign policy. SOF have the primary mission of

countering terrorism and violent extremism, as

well as preventing the spread of nuclear, chemical

and biological weapons. And this places it front

and center in so much of what our diplomats are

doing these days. Furthermore, foreign govern-

ments place enormous value on the assistance

that elite U.S. special operators can provide in

countering these threats. The offer of U.S. SOF

support has frequently become a “deliverable” in

negotiations with allies and even adversaries; in

some instances, it is the most valuable asset we

can offer.

By contrast with the conventional military,

SOF often function in a dimension that shadows

traditional diplomacy and provides additional

By contrast with the

conventional military,

SOF often function in a

dimension that shadows

traditional diplomacy.

options for dealing with

thorny problems. General

Joseph Votel, who served as

SOCOM commander from

2014 to 2016, set forth this

thinking in a January 2016 essay in JFQ: Joint Force Quarterly , “Unconvention


Warfare in the Gray Zone.”

Gen. Votel articulates

the role of SOF this way: “While ‘Gray Zone’ refers to a space in

the peace-conflict continuum, the methods for engaging our

adversaries in that environment have much in common with

the political warfare that was predominant during the Cold War

years. Political warfare is played out in that space between diplo-

macy and open warfare, where traditional statecraft is inadequate

or ineffective and large-scale conventional military options are

not suitable or are deemed inappropriate for a variety of reasons.

… SOF are optimized to provide the pre-eminent military contri-

bution to a national political warfare capability because of their

inherent proficiency in low-visibility, small-footprint and politi-

cally sensitive operations. SOF provide national decision-makers

strategic options for protecting and advancing U.S. national inter-

ests without committing major combat forces to costly, long-term

contingency operations.”

A U.S. Special Forces soldier distributes toothbrushes to a group of children as

part of a public health campaign.