Special Forces Are Not The Answer

The Trump administration is casting about Europe in an, as of yet, un-successful attempt to find more troops to deploy in Afghanistan. As they ponder future force levels in that country the one idea that never dies is adding more special forces to the mix. That will not work; in fact what they should do is remove the remaining Special Operations Forces (SOF) units from the fight entirely.

FRI favorite Herschel Smith at The Captains Journal recently posted on the over-use of special operators where he contends the repeated use of SOF is a symptom of the loss of fighting capacity in the general purpose force. Long time readers of FRI know I’m a big fan of the Captains Journal; Hershel has a no-nonsense, direct style of writing that appeals to me and the thousands of loyal followers he has accumulated over the years.

One of the big selling points of Special Forces is their alleged competence in unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense. These are two of the five missions (the remaining being special reconnaissance, direct action and counter-terrorism) that require specialized language skills and deep understanding of the host nations culture. The performance of our special forces in Afghanistan over the past 16 years have proven these alleged core competencies are marketing hype designed to attract money from Congress and talent from the segment of our population who can qualify to serve in the armed forces.

Example #1 for my case is this screen grab from the TV series Profiles From The Front Line (episode 5). Here it is:

What you are looking at is an SF A team commander who is wearing his body armor over a cut off tee shirt. He is going into a village he doesn’t know searching for an alleged high value target (HVT) who is known to these soldiers as ‘Red Beard’. He is operating in Khost province where every village elder dies his beard with henna; which is red….are you getting the picture?

The only way you could offend Afghans more than showing up bare chested and forcing your way into their compounds is to walk around naked. The level of cultural tone deafness on display (from an SF guy who is supposed to understand the culture) in the linked video is beyond my ability to explain. If I had showed up in any Afghan village (especially a remote mountain village) without wearing a long sleeved shirt and long trousers I would have never returned. Failure to respect the local culture is the first step in mission failure and SOF guys like this one have a 16 year (and counting) run of mission failure.

Now look at the picture I lifted from the Captains Journal post Abolish Socom:

Same guy; proof that great minds think alike. Here is what Herschel had to say about the photograph:

If he is SOF performing direction action operations along with other SOF operators, then with the backwards ball cap, sleeveless shirt and lack of a uniform, he simply looks like an undisciplined thug.  Nothing more.  He doesn’t need to look like he does.  He has no compelling reason to appear thuggish and silly.

He does indeed appear thuggish and silly and while doing that he is sending a message to every Afghan he comes in contact with. That message consists of two words starting with the letter F and ending with the word you.

Around the same time that Herschel wrote the post linked above I wrote one on a 60 minutes segment called the Quiet Professionals. The post was titled Laura Does Special Forces and it was one of the more popular posts I ever wrote. This is from that post:

Want to know something our ‘elite’ SF guys don’t seem to know? Afghans don’t cuss. To call an Afghan a motherfucker (a word used frequently in every conversation by the American military) is a grave insult that would, in the local context, need to be atoned by blood. I cannot stress this point enough and if, during my frequent forays into the tribal bad lands, I used that word even in jest I would have been killed long ago. One of the secrets that I and my fellow outside the wire expats use in the contested areas is respect for local culture coupled with big confident smiles;  that’s why we are able to do what every USG expert contends cannot be done.

The way the SOF team in that 60 minutes video treated the Afghan Commando’s they were supposed to be training was deplorable. The soldiers displayed a complete lack of cultural understanding and were dismal failures at training their Afghan charges on the most rudimentary soldiering skills. Worse yet during one of the missions they conducted with their poorly trained Afghans one of the SF team members shot two children for reasons I found to be questionable. Read the post and you’ll see what I mean.

Last March I wrote about the introduction of SF teams into the Helmand province back in 2003. In a stunning display of cultural unawareness the first thing they did was offer bounties for ‘Taliban’ which resulted in the arrest and deportation to Gitmo of street orphans who had no family or tribe to protect them. This misguided policy was followed by the introduction of nighttime raids; a tactic that never resulted in any metric of success which is obvious as the Taliban grew stronger each year despite the constant loss of ‘High Value Targets’ to these raids. If your enemy continues to get stronger and take more ground while you take more and more of their leaders in dubious night raids how would you consider the tactic successful? I don’t know but we never stopped doing them which is a symptom of linear thinking in a nonlinear world.

Night raids enraged the Afghan population for what they considered a gross, cowardly, violation of their people which resulted in an unknown number of dead innocent Afghans. A grade school level of cultural understanding would have allowed SOF to predict the negative consequences of their night raid policy but they either didn’t know or didn’t care.

The Village Stability Operations (VSO) introduced late in the war were a joke. Only one SF officer (Jim Gant) had the balls and ability to do it correctly and he was done in by a chain of command who resented his success. Mimicking his methods was something his fellow SF officers refused to do because that meant no DFAC with it’s hot chow, unlimited ice cream and pecan pie; no cushy FOB with central air and nice bunks, no gyms to work out in, no internet and no crappy AFN TV to watch. I’m not making that up. The lack of amenities was sited the book American Spartan and several news articles as the reason Jim’s qalat in Chowkay was abandoned by the team that replaced him.

It turns out everything the SOF community said they could do they couldn’t do with the exception of night raids. And, of course, they can fight like demons; decimating any formation foolish enough to stand and fight them. That’s a good skill that should be directed at the other threats that have developed after 8 years of leading from behind. Marine and army infantry can do the same thing which was the point of the posts in The Captains Journal.

With an unending list of commitments that grows by the day in places like Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Iraq it is time to for the SOF teams to leave Afghanistan. Without SOF in-country the Afghans will not be able to launch operations into the countryside and thus will be forced to pull back into important towns and cities to guard them as well as the roads that are vital to the Afghan economy.

That would mean the Afghan government would control only the provincial administrative centers, the main roads and Kabul which, historically, is all the central government has ever controlled. Afghanistan is a complex problem that will never be solved by the American military who has always solved both tactical and strategic problems using linear thinking. If we remove our SOF units the Afghan government will be forced to do more talking and  less fighting with the various insurgent factions it faces today. That is the only rational way forward and although it will be painful in the short run it will result in an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem.

24 Replies to “Special Forces Are Not The Answer”

  1. SOF combat units have never been needed less than today. Technology and a peacetime AVF had made them unnecessary while empire building have caused them to expand relentlessly.

    With the exception of DA missions such as storming an airliner or ship or via some exotic insertion method- HAHO, locking out of a sub etc. the infantry should be able to conduct raids and ambushes in a professional manner with minimal preparation. They’ve had 16 years of CQB, mountain and urban combat. How to storm a compound should be something the infantry and most combat engineers can do reflexively.

    Most sabotage and assassination missions can be done with PGMs. The ones that can’t ( i.e. you want to make look like an accident) should be left to locals employed by the CIA.

    Special recon. Most of this can be done remotely via Elint means, satellites and aircraft. If you need people to “go undercover” then again it should be left to locals employed by the CIA.

    SOF are perhaps the last people who should be training foreign forces. They operate at too low a level. Usually ignore CS and CSS. They are usually deficient in artillery and armor skills. They usually provide bad examples for armies trying to instill professionalism and discipline in their recruits. There’s no evidence that they’re better at building local militias than the infantry.

    What should SOF do? Hostage rescue and naval special warfare. About 600 people- world wide. SEALs should be amalgamated with Delta in this 600 man joint unit. MARSOC and USSF should be disbanded. The conventional force should include either Rangers or Airborne but not both.

    For large scale DA missions (i.e. St, Nazaire) the force should be drawn for the mission from normal combat forces i.e USMC infantry battalions. For missions requiring infiltration of a hostile area ( i.e. Norsk Hydro or SR) then locals should be recruited and trained. The army and air force should conduct the FID mission.

    If you read this and say “no way I saw the XYth infantry in Konar and they were rubbish” then the answer is to fix the regular force not weaken it with a steady stream of good soldiers going to SOF looking for greener pastures.

    I suggest reading Stephen Ambroses” Pegasus Bridge” to see what happens when a rifle company commander is serious and given leeway to train his company properly.

  2. I am not, nor have I ever been part of what is being discussed, but I have been around since the early days of the Vietnam war and, since it was “my” war, tho’ I was in Med School at the time, have read a huge number of accounts by Vets on the ground, there. We have had a lot of problems and what seems to be the most agregious is not recognizing the Sociology of those we were trying to win through hearts and minds. That coupled with the idea that money and force would do as well did not serve our Fighters on the ground. We have a tendency to look at all ethnic/cultural group as Western European. Our troops have known that as did a Med School classmate that was early SF and in Vietnam before we were “Officially” at war there. Correct use and training are vital or we are throwing away a lot of very good and valuable lives overseas.

  3. Afghanistan is the problem. It is an entanglement which can only be gone around. There is no overcoming it.

  4. When a special class of individuals is created through a right of passage and initiated into an exclusive group with its own vernacular (not only language, but also, dress, behavior, etc.) and rituals, that special class will take on a life of its own. Non-initiates will want to be a part of the special class, and the special class will do things to affirm and perpetuate its specialness, which includes access to the best gear and the most exciting activities.

    With Special Forces, we get wars that never end, and because the wars never end, we get Special Forces. Such is the nature of modern armed conflict.

    We may always need Special Forces, but, we will never win a war with Special Forces, because that’s just not how it works.

  5. Once upon a time we were humble. The louder and more aggressive of the newly minted kept in check by the old team members who had been trained by those from the beginning to be quiet professionals. Everything you learned in the Q you had to learn to be able to teach. All the DA missions, few and as far between as they were, went to the Varsity, no matter how much you trained up for it. We carried the same gear as regular Joe and tried as much as possible to blend in with him when we were away from home. I dont know when it happened, but at some point everyone got too cool for school and wearing the head sock became more about pulling a trigger than learning to say, “how can I help you” in some other language.

    1. Back in the early 90’s (maybe a bit before .. I forget) .. before the RIF (reduction in forces) the SOF community was small.

      I was on sub’s in the late 80’s thru the RIF .. and I recall the submarine community also unmasked its code of silence to get in the spotlight .. you see .. Congress needs a reason (hmmm .. right .. sure) to spend our money.

      If you are a invisible program and you want more money you’ve got to get noticed.

      I recall the USMC Force Recon being very small and realized how everyone else was getting BIG funding and followed suit .. the USAF PJ’s did the same thing.

      BOOKS .. TV .. MOVIES .. etc

      It’s big business .. and if you think anyone can stop it now .. short of complete bankrupt US of A .. you are mistaken.

      1. I concur JG. The comments coming in on this post are not the push-back I was expecting indicating we are not the only ones concerned about appearances trumping effectiveness.

  6. Though I agree .. it will never happen .. There is WAY TO MUCH money at stake.

    Just like HLS (Home Land Security) .. something un-necessary if all the agency’s did their jobs right .. but due to protecting the keys to their (each agency’s) kingdom we now have HLS .. much like TSA .. we seem to get more government and spent national treasure for better return than before.

    The DEEP STATE demands you comply with its decisions with a consenting yes .. otherwise you are not a patriot or worse yet .. one of the enemy.

    It’s to late to drain the swamp. The virus is fully in control.

    1. I agree completely — it is too late for any remediation — what we are about to experience in this country will be unlike anything the current crop of twats (citizens and politiacian-criminals) has ever seen, visualized or possibly contemplated — this country will be a faction of warring tribes… as will the world – as if it never were

  7. “Night raids enraged the Afghan population for what they considered a gross, cowardly”

    Yes instead of using those nice taxpayer funded BNVD’s and DBALS they should commence day time attacks with nothing but sticks and stones.

    Barbarian liberals getting pissy about the application of force multipliers.

    Seriously, what kind of logically impaired troglodyte would be issued a pair of NOD’s and think “wow these $10000 optics are totally gay and stupid, fuck using these things”?

    1. Not my point Oppie, I’d be all for night raids if that tactic produced anything resembling positive results. They never did and one could argue that they cost American lives because the regular units who were working the ground were left to clean up the mess caused by these raids (which they had no idea were coming). Year in and year out we had night raids that were supposed to decapitate Taliban leadership yet each year the Taliban grew stronger, killed more ISAF members, and took over more land. If that indicates positive results from night raids what would indicate failure?

  8. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 90s, and before that invokes any ‘tree-hugger liberal pansy’ b.s., I want to say that Kennedy created the Special Forces and the Peace Corps as organizations with similar goals. The idea was to train Americans in technically-appropriate, culturally-appropriate and language-appropriate skills and send them into places where small groups of trained personnel could make a difference. Much of the four months of training I was given, one month stateside and three months in country, was focused on being respectful of the culture I was entering, using the language and local dialect appropriately and being especially tolerant of the local way of doing things, even if they were matters you would otherwise find repugnant. “Don’t just do something, stand there,” we were told. Don’t come off as the arrogant white American dropped into the village to show these yahoos how to do something right for a change. Where Peace Corps has been most successful, in my experience, has been where they did exactly as they were trained, building and earning respect incrementally.
    It seems that Special Forces has also been successful when they did the same.
    Just wanted to put this out there to give you something different to chew on, and I’ll take my answers off-air. Thank you.

    1. I think the problem is that not every person can be good at Special Ops or Peace Corps ops. In my time as a Marine officer I saw that only a very few had the traits, physical ability and aptitude to truly lead men in battle. My observation of the aid community is that they too have about the same percentage of workers in the field who are truly effective. I would peg that percentage to be 10% and stipulate the remaining 90% were trying to do the best they could but did not have the ability to do it. The Peace Corps and the Marine Corps could not function if they rejected 90% of their qualified applicants. I would add that I am not part of the 10% – it took me years to understand how to operate in Afghanistan and the only reason I had years to spend there was that my second marriage was a disaster and I ran away from it which is not the mark of a man with character. I was blessed to find I had character by taking what, at the time, was considered abnormally high risks. My saving grace was I was smart enough to understand that everything I had been told about working in conflict zones was wrong. My team and I accomplished what we did because the Afghan people accepted and protected us but it takes years in country to get to that level of trust. I had years to spend there because I was an idiot.

      Thanks for the comment my friend.

  9. That these conversations are even taking place, is a step in the right direction. Learning and implementing learned items is a slow process. I spent a while at Camp Leatherneck and observed that within the visible war, there were probably 50 different types of invisible war. The conflict arises in the individuals vs groups dilemma. So while the vast majority of military, of all hat styles, are predisposed to get on the same sheet of music, as long as you have useful idiot politicians, each on a different sheet of music, working in collusion with useless idiots in the U.N. and world bank, there will never be a same sheet of music. Keep communicatin’ guys, it’s our only hope.

  10. So your solution is to give up the tactical advantage of low visibility operations and to pull back into towns and cities, leaving the bulk of the country to be taken over by Al Qaida and the Taliban which in turn would allow those town and cities to be surrounded by the opposition… I have no doubt that if you were alive during the revolutionary war you would of composed a well written castigation of Gen Washington’s crossing of the Delaware river based off of how that operation adversely interfered with the Hessian’s Christmas celebrations and the cargo boats used to cross the river were not commissioned military vessels . A glaring omission from your flawed presentation is the fact, that SOF units operate under “conventional” forces combatant commanders and almost every operation has to be blessed off by someone whose breadth of unconventional warfare is usually based off of 1-2 books and several hours of instruction at the “War College”. Having conventional commanders in charge of an unconventional war makes less sense than a Quartermaster Lt. leading an Infantry platoon based off of his/her ROTC advanced camp experience. I wanted to simply respond with a Happy Gilmore quote, “What you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul”, but that would be too easy. As a former Marine officer your knowledge and tactical awareness leads me to believe that reviving “Hey diddle diddle straight up the middle” would be an improvement over let’s not upset everyone and pull back.

    1. Your argumentum ad hominem is misplaced and indicates a lack of ability to understand complex situations for what they are. When I say the government should pull back into the towns and cities I say that because it is what they are going to do anyway. They have no choice because they can’t control the interior portions of the country now. A Kabul based central government has never controlled those spaces in the history of Afghanistan. That does not mean that the Taliban will control them and al Qaeda is no longer a factor in Afghanistan and hasn’t been since we allowed bin Laden to escape. Something that wouldn’t have happened had the Marines been allowed to close the back door as they were begging to do. Risk aversion doomed our efforts from the start and was compounded by fuzzy thinking about things like night raids, Taliban bounties and leadership decapitation strategies. I don’t blame you for being emotional – the truth hurts when talking about Afghanistan and the truth is we were grossly incompetent. When I say we I include me. It took years of living outside the wire before I understood how bad we are at this sort of endeavor and how to operate in the contested provinces. You can shoot the messenger all you want; I’m in the unique position of not having to prove myself to anyone, special or not. What I said we should do is exactly what we are going to do. It cannot end any other way so the only question now is how many more men are we going to lose in pursuit of an endstate that is exactly what I told you it is going to be.

      For the record I hope I’m wrong and that Afghanistan emerges as a functioning state with control of its borders and all the people living inside them. But that is pipe dream my friend; it will never happen, I know it, you probably know it and the Taliban knows it. The sooner reality enters into this equation the better.

      1. The Talibans threats that they would out last us were never hollow, they were born from experience.

        Has there ever been an attempt to buy off the Taliban commanders like the successive British kings have done throughout history? Has there ever been headway on creating a LEGAL opiode market for export? We could take the taliban commanders that are now growing opium and flip them to business men?

  11. A long time ago, an SF ODA was supposed to be able to train, equip, lead & sustain an Infantry Battalion sized organization of approximately 600 (+/-) indigenous personnel. In Afghanistan, I personally witnessed multiple ODA’s that couldn’t lead a Boy Scout Troop on their best day.

    SOCOM & the rest of those “Clown Brothers” had better get their shit together and get back to the basics.

  12. Hi there!

    I am a British Masters student currently working on a project about Private Military Security Companies and masculinity. I am interested in how contractors understand their masculinity; how it shapes (or doesn’t shape) their identity; how masculinity affects the work of PMSCs and what masculinity means to you, today, in the areas of conflict in which you work. I would happily tell you about the project in more detail should you be interested.

    I would love to ask you some questions about your experiences working as a security contractor in Afghanisatan. It would help me more than you know and of course you could give me as much or as little detail as you wished. You would simply be cited as an anonymous source, or by the name of your blog, whichever you rather. I leave my email address in the hope that you may be able to help!

    1. Now that is an interesting question. When I started in the PMC business it was with a British company, Global Risk and most of the guys on the contract were British and South African. All of the men were former military and it seemed to me that most of the companies in the business then won contracts and then filled them with a bunch of military guys knowing that military men are good at figuring out the details and making do with whatever is provided. When I arrived in Baghdad in October 2004 the first thing the team on the ground did was take me to a press coordination office that had two retired Marine officers working in it to see if they knew me and could vouch for me. Nobody checked my CV or asked for my DD 214 (That is a American military discharge certificate that lists your rank, awards, deployments, and character of discharge) or my shot record and there was no pre-deployment training at all. In my case one of the retired Marines in the press center was my first company commander and I was thus vetted and welcomed onto the contract.

      The thing about having former military guys on a large contract is that it will become self policing. The men might drink a bit much at night and it is easy to get into trouble in places like the Green Zone circa 2004 – 2005 but most of the guys were all about being professional. Nobody wanted the reputation as one who drinks too much, is not good physical shape or one of talks too much bullshit – which is any talk about your own performance under fire or in past firefights. When military guys talk war stories they are inevitably talking about things that got so fucked up they were funny. Most guys never talked about their performance but would mention how their friends were total studs – because that’s what you do in military too. We would joke about guys doing the craziest damn things under fire but never joke about being under fire.

      When I think of masculinity today I envision competence with weapons, fitness, coolness under all extenuating circumstances, a good work ethic, the empathy and compassion that are the foundation of western military leadership along with the ability to shoot somebody in the face. Being a military man, to me, means being an active man who develops both body and mind for the rigors of war. And the rigors of war, in the case of PMC’s, require the mental flexibility to work with different peoples from alien cultures effectively. That flexibility comes from reading and experience and although diplomacy is not the sole province of men we seem to do better at it then women. For instance you’ll never hear of a male CIA officer allowing a Arab source he doesn’t know well to drive onto FOB Chapman (in Afghanistan) without being searched first – that is not a guy move – it’s an “intuition” move borne of placing “feelings” ahead of facts.

  13. I know this thread is old, but I want to say something about your cultural sensitivity remarks
    You make a lot of sense until we get to repulsive cultural habits.
    The “chai boys” are the young boys used as sexual toys by Afghan commanders.
    Army Seargent Maitland interfered in the kidnapping and rape of an Afghan child after the mother complained.
    I think that rape is to condemned and stopped even if it leads to green on blue attacks by our angry Afghan allies

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