The Foreign Service Journal, September 2017

10 SEPTEMBER 2017 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL LETTERS The Trouble with Special Operations The June FSJ 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 diplomatic-military 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