The Foreign Service Journal - June 2017
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JUNE 2017


Numerous cases highlight

the need for close diplomatic-

military coordination on kinetic

actions that will take place

on foreign soil.

Adversaries increasingly operate in this

“gray zone.” Examples include Russia’s

aggressive dissemination of disinformation

through social media and other means, Chi-

na’s deployment of military vessels disguised

as civilian fishing boats and Iran’s harass-

ment activities in the Strait of Hormuz that

fall short of overt military provocations. All

of these countries try to hide their recruit-

ment of proxy forces in conflicts around

the world. Significantly, General Votel was

invited as a special guest to address SOF

efforts in the “gray zone”

and SOF-embassy relations

at last year’s State Depart-

ment chief-of-mission con-

ference. A fellow speaker,

the U.S. ambassador to

Ukraine, praised the effec-

tiveness of special opera-

tions activities in counter-

ing Russian propaganda in

that country.

Because of its speed, flexibility, and specialized skills and

weapons—distinctive capabilities for addressing the “gray

zone” and subnational threats that have been pre-eminent

since the beginning of the 21st century—it can be argued that

special operations represents the wave of the future. While the

conventional, general purpose forces of the U.S. military still

have a number of important missions in preserving the peace

around the world, a full-blown conventional war against the

conventional military of a foreign power seems unlikely. Special

operations played a far greater role in the wars in Afghanistan

and Iraq than in any previous war, and the SOF “tip of the spear”

raids and other pinpoint strikes were the keys to many of the

successes that took place.

As Gen. Votel has observed: “In the autumn of 2001, a small

SOF element and interagency team, supported by carrier- and

land-based airstrikes, brought down the illegitimate Taliban

government in Afghanistan that had been providing sanctuary

for al-Qaida. This strikingly successful unconventional warfare

operation was carried out with a U.S. ‘boots on the ground’

presence of roughly 350 SOF and 110 interagency operatives,

working alongside an indigenous force of some 15,000 Afghan


Against this backdrop, it is logical for U.S. diplomats to see the

special operations commu-

nity as a highly adaptable,

singularly capable natural

ally—and as a primary part-

ner in the civilian-military

diplomacy of the future.

There are undeniably many

risks and potential pitfalls

ahead. It will be a challenge

for the State Department and its career officers to retain primacy

over the formulation and implementation of foreign policy in

an era when quasi-autonomous military SOF teams are present

in more than 100 countries and possess far greater operating

resources. The personnel numbers alone are daunting: there

are some 70,000 U.S. special operators worldwide, compared to

fewer than 10,000 Foreign Service officers.

Some fear that the expansion of well-funded U.S. special

operations activities into nearly 70 percent of the countries of

the world will somehow overwhelm traditional civilian diplo-

macy and render it obsolete. This concern overlooks the fact

that SOF is ill-equipped to replace many of the key functions of

embassies: maintaining a high-level dialogue with host govern-

ments on vital bilateral issues, reporting and analyzing political-

economic developments, providing assistance to U.S. citizens

abroad, and conducting the public outreach and educational

and cultural exchanges that embody U.S. public diplomacy.

Special operations teams will not usurp these roles.

But in a world where asymmetric, non-state extremist net-

works and unconventional “gray zone” warfare represent the

greatest threat to international security, SOF will have a growing

role to play as a foreign policy instrument alongside traditional




Marines from a Special Operations Company of the 1st Marine Special Operations

Battalion meet with local leaders in the town of Qal’eh-ye Gaz in Afghanistan’s Helmand

province to assist with medical needs and discuss their issues with anti-coalition forces

operating in the area in August 2007.