An Albanian man carries a child to a US Marine CH53 Super Stallion helicopter as it lands at Golame beach near the port of Durres, in this March 16, 1997 file picture.
An Albanian man carries a child to a US Marine CH53 Super Stallion helicopter as it lands at Golame beach near the port of Durres, in this March 16, 1997 file picture. 
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

Over the past decade, the United States' military and the country's national security strategy have come to rely on special operations to an unprecedented degree. As identifying and neutralizing terrorists and insurgents has become one of the Pentagon's most crucial tasks, special operations forces have honed their ability to conduct manhunts, adopting a new targeting system known as "find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, and disseminate." They have adopted a flatter organizational structure and collaborated more closely with intelligence agencies, allowing special operations to move at "the speed of war," in the words of the retired army general Stanley McChrystal, the chief architect of the contemporary U.S. approach to counterterrorism. 

Implementing McChrystal's vision has been costly. Spending on sophisticated communications, stealth helicopters, and intelligence technology; building several high-tech special operations headquarters; and transforming a C-130 cargo plane into a state-of-the-art flying hospital have consumed a large (and classified) portion of the total special operations budget, which has increased from $2.3 billion in 2001 to $10.5 billion in 2012. The investment has paid clear dividends, however, most dramatically in May 2011, when U.S. Navy SEALs, operating in coordination with the CIA, raided a compound in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden. 

The target and location of that raid made it exceptional. But similar operations, which in earlier eras would have been considered extraordinary, have become commonplace: during the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. special operations units sometimes conducted as many as 14 raids a night, with each successive raid made possible by intelligence scooped up during the previous one and then rapidly processed. When decision-makers deem raids too risky or politically untenable, they sometimes opt for strikes by armed drones, another form of what special operators refer to as "the direct approach." (The CIA conducts the majority of drone strikes, but special operations forces are also authorized to employ them in specific cases, including on the battlefields of Afghanistan.) 

Dramatic raids and high-tech drone strikes make for exciting headlines, so the media naturally focus on them. But this attention, along with policymakers' reliance on raids and drones, has encouraged a misperception of such actions as quick, easy solutions that allow Washington to avoid prolonged, messy wars. In fact, raids and drone strikes are tactics that are rarely decisive and often incur significant political and diplomatic costs for the United States. Although raids and drone strikes are necessary to disrupt dire and imminent threats to the United States, special operations leaders readily admit that they should not be the central pillar of U.S. military strategy. 

Instead, special operations commanders say the direct approach must be coupled with "the indirect approach," a cryptic term used to describe working with and through non-U.S. partners to accomplish security objectives, often in unorthodox ways. Special operations forces forge relationships that can last for decades with a diverse collection of groups: training, advising, and operating alongside other countries' militaries, police forces, tribes, militias, or other informal groups. They also conduct civil-affairs operations that provide medical, veterinary, or agricultural assistance to civilians, improving the standing of local governments and gaining access to and a greater understanding of local conditions and populations. 

It is time for special operations forces to prioritize indirect operations. That approach -- also called "special warfare," the preferred term of its advocates in the U.S. Army -- offers the prospect of lasting benefits with a smaller footprint and lower cost than the hugely expensive wars of the last decade. The indirect approach is not without its pitfalls, and the special operations community will need to reconfigure itself to execute it more skillfully. But it holds great potential for advancing security objectives, especially in a time of fiscal austerity.


In testimony delivered to the U.S. Congress last March, Admiral William McRaven, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, said that "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," arguing that "in the end, it will be such continuous indirect operations that will prove decisive in the global security arena."

Yet despite such high-level rhetorical support for the indirect approach, when it comes to funding and staffing, the special operations community and two presidential administrations have prioritized the direct approach for the past decade. The resulting unilateral actions have sometimes disrupted imminent threats. But their positive effects have rarely proved permanent, and they have often complicated longer-term efforts. 

These are never easy calls, to be sure, as illustrated by the case of Pakistan, where bin Laden and much of the al Qaeda network hid for the past decade and where the United States has opted for a heavy application of the direct approach. In the aftermath of Operation Neptune Spear, the raid that killed bin Laden, the Pakistani public's anger at the raid, along with the embarrassment of Pakistani officials over the violation of the country's sovereignty, plunged the already tense U.S.-Pakistani relationship into crisis -- with a specific cost to U.S. special operations forces. Among several retaliatory actions, Pakistan aborted a carefully cultivated, multifaceted American presence in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, both of which are dominated by Pashtuns and where U.S. special operations forces were distributing wheat seeds to civilians while also training, advising, and equipping the paramilitary Pakistani Frontier Corps and Pakistani special forces. Pakistan also terminated a U.S. special operations advisory mission with the Pakistani navy along the strategically important Makran coast in the restive province of Baluchistan, which borders Iran.

Unilateral strikes, mostly in the form of night raids, have also caused significant problems in Afghanistan, where they have enraged civilians and Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, who has complained loudly about the tactic. After ten years of strife between the putative allies over this issue, the United States agreed last year to Afghanistan's demand that all raids must be authorized by the Afghan government and conducted jointly with Afghan forces. The long-term solution for most of Afghanistan's problems is for the Afghan government to provide reliable security for its own civilians, and in fact, the majority of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan have been working toward that goal. U.S. special operators have built an Afghan special operations command consisting of 11,000 Afghan commandos and special forces, and they are now adding a mobile ground strike force and an airborne unit. U.S. and NATO special operators are also training and advising emergency-response police units in Kabul and around the country. And the largest contingent of U.S. special operators is spread out in 52 districts across the country, conducting stability operations and training villagers to serve in local police forces comprised of more than 16,000 police officers who report to the Afghan Ministry of the Interior.

Of course, like the direct approach, indirect operations also pose risks, as demonstrated by a recent rash of "insider attacks" on U.S. personnel, some portion of which were carried out by Taliban operatives or sympathizers who had infiltrated the Afghan security forces. Although special operators have not been disproportionately targeted in such attacks, in September, the commander of U.S. special operations in Afghanistan suspended his forces' training of Afghan recruits so that the Afghans could be vetted again for any potential security risks. Such caution reflects the high premium on mutual confidence required by the fact that special operators live and work in close quarters with their Afghan partners and plan to stay in Afghanistan after the rest of U.S. forces are withdrawn in 2014.


The long-term relationships fostered by the indirect approach are conduits for understanding and influence. They are the basis for partnerships through which the United States can help other countries solve their own problems and contribute to increased security in their regions. In some cases, the partnerships grow into alliances, as other countries become willing to assist the United States in security missions elsewhere. But such results come only after years of hard work, and success is often partial. Other countries' interests rarely coincide entirely with those of the United States. Moreover, by definition, these are troubled countries, under threat, with flawed governments and often incompetent or abusive security forces. Still, the partnership option frequently represents the only realistic course for U.S. security policy between doing nothing and a unilateral military intervention.

Two of the most successful recent U.S. special operations partnerships took place in Colombia and the Philippines. In both cases, over the course of a decade, and with relatively modest investments, a few hundred U.S. special operators were able to strengthen those countries' security forces and dramatically reduce threats from insurgents, terrorists, criminals, and armed separatists and thus stabilize regions important to U.S. interests. 

Owing in large part to assistance from U.S. special operations forces included in the Plan Colombia policy that U.S. President Bill Clinton launched in 1998, Colombia's military and police have all but vanquished the narcoguerrillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), who once controlled large segments of territory in the country's jungles. For years, the United States had focused narrowly on Colombia's ballooning drug trade even as the country was increasingly besieged by a growing insurgency and a governance crisis. Under the $7.5 billion Plan Colombia, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development worked in conjunction with a security assistance program in which U.S. special operations forces helped build and train a large and capable Colombian special operations command and a highly proficient special police unit. 

In 2008, after a prolonged manhunt across the country's southern wilderness, Colombian commandos rescued three American contractors who were being held hostage by FARC guerrillas. U.S. technology and training helped, but it was the Colombians who devised and carried out an elaborate deception operation that rescued the hostages. The achievement served as a very public demonstration that Colombia's special operators were ready for prime time.

Today, Colombia is a dramatically different place: violence is down, cocaine production has declined by 72 percent since 2001, and the guerrillas have forsworn kidnapping, released their prisoners, and begun peace talks with the government. Although right-wing paramilitary groups still wield influence in some parts of the country, most have demobilized. And although Colombia's military does occasionally commit human rights abuses, it is on the whole a much more professional organization than it was prior to receiving the U.S. training. And as drug violence and organized crime wash over Central America, Colombia's security forces are helping train police units in every Central American country (except Nicaragua) and helicopter pilots in Mexico. Colombian special operators act as valuable force multipliers since they speak the language and understand the culture of these places in ways that U.S. forces might not. These Colombians are part of an expanding network of U.S.-trained special operators that also includes forces from Middle Eastern and eastern European countries and whose members are now participating in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere alongside traditional U.S. partners from western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

Beginning in 2001, meanwhile, U.S. special operations forces began training and sharing intelligence with Philippine military units combating jihadist militants in the country's south. After conducting an extensive assessment of the local conditions and actors, U.S. special operations units reached out to the neglected Muslim population in the Sulu Archipelago, offering health care and building wells and roads. They also conducted training exercises to build relationships with the most trustworthy Philippine units, which took the lead in combat missions. Sensitivities over Philippine sovereignty prevented U.S. special operators from taking any combat role, but they were permitted to supply intelligence, advice, and logistical support.

One of the most significant successes of the U.S.-Philippine partnership was the 2002 rescue of a group of hostages, including an American missionary, who had been kidnapped a year earlier by members of Abu Sayyaf, a Philippine-based jihadist organization affiliated with al Qaeda. According to one of the U.S. commanders involved in the mission, a U.S. special operator came up with an ingenious scheme that relied on Philippine human intelligence sources and American technology to discover the Abu Sayyaf hideout where the hostages were being held. A man suspected of acting as a courier for the militants was followed through a market in the city of Zamboanga and persuaded to add a hot chicken to a shipment that the U.S. and Philippine forces believed the courier planned to immediately deliver to the hideout. Thermal sensors aboard an unarmed U.S. drone flying overhead tracked the shipment's heat signature as the courier headed north to a dock and loaded the shipment onto a boat. Surveillance conducted from the drone followed the boat's movements until it unloaded at a location that the U.S. operators correctly surmised was the hideout. In a subsequent operation, Philippine troops rescued the hostages, although two were killed.

One of the kidnappers, the Abu Sayyaf leader known as Abu Sabaya, managed to escape in a boat. The Philippine units, backed up by two boats full of U.S. Navy SEALs and guided by the drone, pursued Abu Sabaya and killed him in an attack on his boat. Had U.S. personnel killed Abu Sabaya, it might well have sparked anti-American protests among Filipinos, many of whom still resent the American occupation of their country a century ago. Since Filipinos killed him instead, there was no backlash. Indeed, a key to the overall success of the decadelong partnership is that U.S. special operators scrupulously observed Philippine sovereignty and the rules of engagement that banned any U.S. combat role. "We established a relationship of trust and made it succeed," said the now-retired air force commander Lieutenant General Donald Wurster, who led the special operations task force in the Philippines at the time of the rescue operation. Wurster readily concedes that the Philippines still struggles with religious and ethnic separatism, insurgencies, and corruption, but he claims definitive success in a more focused objective: "There is no al Qaeda nexus. We eliminated that." 

The U.S.-Philippine partnership may lead to further security cooperation between the two countries. During a visit to Manila by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta this past summer, the Philippine government expressed interest in expanding security ties as the United States shifts its attention to Asia -- a remarkable turnaround considering that just 20 years ago, the United States vacated two large military bases in the Philippines in response to anti-American protests. 


Navigating the failings of partner governments, as well as civil strife and complex sectarian, ideological, or tribal conflicts, is extraordinarily difficult, and given the high risk of blowback, the United States must constantly assess whether special operations partnerships with non-U.S. forces are, on balance, advancing or compromising U.S. interests. In forging relationships, U.S. special operators must not become accomplices to abusive practices or policies. Early in the war in Afghanistan, special operations forces partnered with a number of Afghan warlords with reputations for brutality. These alliances of convenience were arguably justified by the pressing need to topple the Taliban and uproot al Qaeda. But this path can become a slippery slope, and some special operators now acknowledge that the relationships they forged with some warlords were ultimately counterproductive.

The case of Yemen is also instructive in this regard. Although the headlines about Yemen have predictably been dominated by U.S. drone strikes aimed at leaders of the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, since 2005, U.S. special operators have also been training, advising, and assisting the Yemeni presidential guard and special units within the Interior Ministry and the Republican Guard. These forces were once all led by relatives of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country's longtime strongman, who violently repressed dissidence throughout his three-decade-long reign and clung to power during the Arab Spring revolt against him. Saleh finally relinquished his position in February -- but he handed off power to his vice president, and two of the units training with U.S. forces remain under the command of Saleh's relatives.

Familial, tribal, sectarian, and secessionist rifts make Yemen a treacherous place, one where the United States risks being tainted by the bad acts of its partners. In such situations, congressional oversight, independent evaluations, and restrictions such as the so-called Leahy amendment, which prohibits U.S. training of or assistance to any foreign security unit found to be violating human rights, are all useful forms of leverage. Conditionality is a stick to match the carrot of aid, and sometimes the right answer is to wield the stick. As part of the pressure campaign to oust Saleh, Washington suspended U.S. advisory assistance to Yemen for a time. But because al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has directly targeted the United States, has continued to grow, and has formed links to groups in Somalia, just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, the case for more assistance has won out. Although reform measures are still being pushed on Saleh's successor, it is not clear that the United States has figured out the right mix of cooperation and pressure. Nonetheless, ignoring a strategically important country such as Yemen would probably be even more risky than is engaging with it. 


For partnerships in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere to produce positive results over the long term, four significant changes are required in how special operations campaigns are conceived, funded, and executed. These changes will allow special operators to deploy in an integrated fashion with other elements of the U.S. government, including conventional military forces, in well-thought-out campaigns that will last not days but years and achieve durable positive effects.

First, the special operations community needs to create templates for standard procedures based on its successes in Colombia and the Philippines. Military leaders also need to communicate clearly the lessons of those experiences to others in the U.S. government who will ultimately decide on and assist in the execution of any new plans. 

Second, Congress and the Pentagon need to end the practice of funding special operations in a piecemeal fashion. Currently, special operations are funded by numerous different authorities, with budgets that expire each year. Much of the funding -- for example, money that comes from defense-authorization bills -- is restricted to certain purposes or types of forces, which makes it difficult to plan and conduct comprehensive campaigns. For broader stabilization missions, other funding sources can be tapped, but they often require State Department approval, which can take up to two years to obtain. Special operations forces need a faster and more straightforward budgetary process. State Department oversight is crucial, but it currently moves far too slowly, owing to the U.S. government's complex procedures for approving foreign assistance.

Third, the military must improve the way it plans and coordinates with other government agencies for long-term special operations campaigns. Currently, these responsibilities fall to theater special operations commands (TSOCs), which are supposed to lead special operations in a given regional theater and to advise the regional combatant commander (also known as the geographic combatant commander), who is in charge of all U.S. military forces in that area. But unlike the well-equipped headquarters built to oversee special operations manhunts, TSOCs are thinly resourced and poorly staffed. "TSOC staffs are where special operators' careers go to die," one senior special operations officer told me. But ensuring that regional combatant commanders understand special operations forces and how to use them for maximum lasting impact is a crucial job. So rather than being regarded as backwaters, the TSOCs should attract the best talent and become central nodes for regional expertise. 

Finally, the special operations community must make a more concerted effort to enlist the support of interagency country teams in U.S. embassies around the world and of Washington-based national security agencies. Diplomatic, development, and law enforcement agencies often play critical roles in special operations missions; the U.S. ambassadors in Colombia and the Philippines, for example, proved to be strong advocates of the value of special operations. But due to a lack of outreach to those agencies on the part of the special operations leadership, that is still the exception rather than the rule.


The likelihood that the U.S. military will take these crucial steps depends to a large extent on one man: Admiral William McRaven, the current commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). McRaven took the helm at SOCOM's Tampa headquarters in the summer of 2011, fresh from overseeing the celebrated raid that killed bin Laden. McRaven, who had led the special operations unit in charge of manhunts from 2008 to 2011, was riding a crest of enormous credibility inside the Obama administration, which he had earned by his careful planning and unflappable leadership. He put his considerable credibility behind a number of proposals for reform. The ideas were bold, but if implemented, their net effect would be to concentrate power within SOCOM. As a result, McRaven's plans were not popular in other parts of the military.

McRaven's package of proposals ignited a fierce debate inside the Pentagon and the regional commands, as some officials feared that his plans would diminish or eliminate their voices and votes when it came to the use of special operations. One source of controversy was McRaven's proposal that the TSOCs be assigned to SOCOM instead of to the regional commands, a step that would effectively give McRaven command authority over the TSOCs. McRaven assured the regional combatant commanders that they would retain operational control over missions. Some remained unconvinced, however. 

McRaven also proposed broadening SOCOM's operational purview by giving it a global responsibility and the authority to move forces around worldwide, so long as the regional combatant commands concurred. (If they did not, the matter would go to the Pentagon for adjudication.) Such changes would push SOCOM into a far larger operational role than it has traditionally played; indeed, the law that establishes SOCOM's responsibilities makes clear that the command will have an operational role only when directed to assume one by the president or the secretary of defense.

In introducing these proposals, McRaven was reviving the argument -- made frequently but unsuccessfully ever since the 9/11 attacks -- that a single entity needs to be solely responsible for prosecuting special operations against threats that crisscross the boundaries of the regional commands. Turning SOCOM into a global combatant command, however, would create constant friction with the regional commands. And in fact, it soon became apparent that McRaven had overestimated his clout and that important constituencies interpreted his proposals as a power grab. 

But this past spring and summer, McRaven traveled repeatedly to the regional combatant commands and to Washington to hammer out a tentative compromise. According to officials involved in those negotiations, they agreed to a decision memorandum that guarantees that operational control of the TSOCs will remain with the regional combatant commanders, as McRaven had pledged. McRaven agreed to a modified version of his initial proposal to make SOCOM a global combatant command; instead, it will be designated a "functional command with global responsibilities." But it remains unclear whether McRaven will secure for SOCOM the ability to deploy forces globally.

In McRaven's defense, SOCOM should have a voice in how and where special operations forces are employed. But the more urgent reforms are the ones that foster greater integration, not greater stovepiping, both within the U.S. military and between the military and its civilian counterparts. His initial missteps notwithstanding, McRaven has begun to reorient the Tampa headquarters to provide more support to the TSOCs and for the indirect approach. He plans to reinforce the TSOCs by assigning more than 300 of his own SOCOM staffers to them. McRaven seems to understand the importance of the TSOCs from firsthand experience: he himself led a TSOC in Europe from 2006 to 2008. 

In May, in his first press conference since taking command of SOCOM, McRaven explained that his proposed changes were intended to provide the regional commanders with "the best special operations capability we can." But, he added, those commanders are "generally focused on their region -- not solely, but generally focused on their region."

It remains to be seen whether McRaven's peers within the military will believe that the SOCOM commander is trying to help them rather than trying to expand his own authority. Creating a culture of collaboration within the U.S. military, which is an inherently hierarchical institution, is a difficult task. McRaven appears to recognize this. According to an officer on his staff, McRaven gave his staff a reading list when he arrived in Tampa, and the first title on it was a book by the management guru Stephen Covey, The Speed of Trust -- trust being what McRaven seems to think is necessary in order to go beyond McChrystal's "speed of war" and so allow special operations to realize their full potential.

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  • LINDA ROBINSON is Adjunct Senior Fellow for U.S. National Security and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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