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The Trouble with

Special Operations

The June


on “Diplomats and Sol-

diers” was an important contribution to

professional diplomatic discussion. The

focus rubric, “Perspectives on Diplo-

macy and Defense,” was just right.

Particularly noteworthy is the article

“Special Operations and Diplomacy: A Unique Nexus” by FSO and former

foreign policy adviser (POLAD) Steve

Kashkett. His detailed description of

special operations forces (SOF) and the

work they do is an important

contribution to the education

of FSOs.

This is especially so because

of the recent prominence of

SOF in both the military and

civilian worlds. For many, SOF

has become the weapon of

choice in a long and unsatisfac-

tory war where the traditional

tools just don’t seem to work.

For civilians, including those

in politics and government as

well as the general public, special opera-

tions forces have become today’s heroes,

today’s “Greatest Generation.” They are

pretty much the military image on TV,

in the movies and in the media. Fit and

grungy young men are seen everywhere.

They have become so fashionable that

even the CIA has gone into the business.

This rise to prominence is potentially

dangerous, however. SOF is seen too

quickly as the solution to today’s security

challenge. In fact, the SOF instrument is

not new, and has been overplayed in the

past. President John F. Kennedy thought

that the Army’s Green Berets could solve

the problem of pajama-clad guerrillas,

but it proved to be more complicated.

The problem with the current SOF

buzz is that it tends to lead to inflated

expectations. It also leads to some confu-

sion about what SOF is. As Mr. Kashkett

points out, there are in fact two versions

of SOF: the indirect, or engagement,

operations (think Army Special Forces)

and the direct, or kinetic, operations

(think SEAL Team 6 and the killing of

Osama bin Laden). These are sometimes

colloquially referred to as white and

black ops by the military.

The two are very different, but the line

dividing them is fuzzy, and they tend

to become intermixed in the minds of

many civilians and even some military.

This distinction is impor-

tant when considering

the current trend toward

extensive and regular

global deployment of

SOF units.

As Mr. Kashkett notes,

“numerous cases high-

light the need for close


coordination on kinetic

actions that will take

place on foreign soil,” but such action can

too easily be seen as aggressive or even

neocolonial. The small numbers involved

make such deployments seem almost

innocuous, and the recent dramatic

expansion in the size of the SOF commu-

nity means that capability abounds.

We not only go to war with the Army

we have, but the type of war we fight can

be determined by the Army we have.

Indirect SOF should be seen as providing

military assistance subject to traditional

criteria, while direct SOF should be seen

as making war; and there should be no

confusion about it.

Another conceptual danger lies in

separating SOF from other military per-

sonnel attached to embassies. Military

officers have long been stationed at U.S.

embassies as attachés. Military assis-

tance programs, on the other hand, are

a relatively new addition to the embassy

family and are deployed only under

specific, policy-driven conditions. They

are not a standard component of every

U.S. embassy. SOF elements should be

treated the same way—used sparingly

and carefully.

But SOF is relatively cheap, semi-

clandestine and in large supply, so the

temptation to over-employ appears

irresistible. The SOF operation in the

Philippines is now in its 17th year and

counting. (In fact, if you count their ear-

lier involvement in the Philippine insur-

rection, it is 117 years and counting.)

Certainly the current indiscriminate

spread of SOF programs in Africa—where

the local military are generally part of the

problem, not part of the solution—should

be subject to serious review.

The key quality of special operations

forces, after all, is that they are tactical.

SOF doesn’t win wars, even small ones,

by itself. The military knows this, but

too many civilians don’t, because media

coverage is about battles covered on the

evening news and not about wars.

The bottom line is that SOF is useful

when part of an effective military strat-

egy. And a military strategy is effective

only when part of an effective political-

diplomatic strategy.

Clausewitz taught us that long ago,

and recent years have made it clear that

his insight still stands.

Edward Marks

Ambassador, retired

Washington, D.C.

A Pitch for

Military Exercises

I appreciated your June issue’s focus

on the nexus between diplomacy and

defense, and would like to add my own

perspective. Military exercises are a

unique way to test and teach foreign