Beyond Hollywood, 'Call Of Duty': Why Special Forces Are The Future Of The U.S. Military

Jul 10, 2014

The so-called “light footprint strategy” has been a hallmark of President Obama’s military engagement strategy as he pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq and winds down the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. That drawdown of massive units of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and civilian support staff means a stronger reliance on smaller, more elite military groups.

RAND Corporation senior international policy analyst Linda Robinson focuses on national security strategy and these types of units in her latest book One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare. It covers the two years she spent embedded in Afghanistan.

Before the Middle East, she started her career focusing on insurgencies in Latin America. She studied and wrote about the role of U.S. Special Forces in a counter narcotics effort that eventually evolved into a true counterinsurgency against FARC rebels in Colombia.

“One officer had said, ‘Nothing has been written about us since Vietnam. Much of what was written in that era wasn’t good, so let’s take a chance on this reporter and see if she’s willing to give some in-depth research on us.’,” Robinson says.

According to Robinson, U.S. special operations have doubled in size since the September 11, 2001 attacks and the subsequent October invasion of Afghanistan. But they still operate in small numbers, and Robinson calls that the model of the future.

“About 12,000 people can be deployed around the world at any one time as a sustainable number,” Robinson says. “And some people may say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a lot.’ Well, if you consider it compared to 100,000-plus [the 2006 counterinsurgency] in Iraq, it’s not.”

In Afghanistan, these small units worked among indigenous populations by going into villages and seeing if residents wanted to form self-defense groups and a local government.

“They had done this in the Vietnam era, but they had gotten away from that in the years after 9/11,” Robinson says. “And that is a more long-term solution while recognizing they still do the direct action raids, but that is more of a temporary piece of the puzzle.”

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Linda Robinson, welcome to World Views.

LINDA ROBINSON: Thank you Suzette, I'm delighted to be here.

GRILLOT: I have to start by asking what drew you to that topic, why focus on Special Forces and Special Operations?

ROBINSON: Well I did get that question a lot and I actually started my career focused on insurgencies down in Latin America. First in Central America but also in Peru, Colombia, Mexico, and elsewhere. And also the democratization issue was something I covered heavily there. But the insurgency, or small wars, issue led kind of naturally to the flip side which is counterinsurgency, what the people do when they're trying to combat an insurgency. Since that is one of the main missions for the Special Forces, I gained some entree, really first in Colombia, down in Latin America, where the Special Forces were ramping up a counterinsurgency support effort. So, the Colombians were in the lead, but US Special Forces were helping them and training them what had originally been a counter narcotics effort, morphed into a counterinsurgency effort because there were two very strong insurgencies. 40 years the FARC was the larger of the two groups in Colombia that had really grown in strength to control half of the country. So it was a good, real, first lesson for me in what Special Forces could do to help a country. And, right now, flash forward a decade or so later, Colombia is engaged in very serious peace talks with the remnants of the FARC and there is quite a strong expectation that they will be able to wrap up their war, with the negotiated accord. So, of course the Special Forces weren't solely responsible for that progress but it gave me a window into the various things that they do and I had to go through a lot of hoops to gain that access. So I spend a lot of time on doing research and attending exercises and briefings. They had really not let anyone inside to see what they do, and one officer had said, "Nothing has been written about us since Vietnam, much of what was written in that era wasn't good, so let's take a chance on this reporter and see if she's willing to really give some in depth research on us." 

GRILLOT: Well I want to get back to that issue of your access, and specifically what it is you did on the ground, you know, what that was like, spending time with the Special Forces. But, I want to get to this issue of the actual Special Operations themselves; you're most recent book talks about how Special Ops are the future of American warfare. And, we've been hearing this for some time that this really is the way in which we're going to be fighting our wars in the future. But you begin your story in this most recent book, at a time when you say that Special Forces were at a crossroads, that they were very unclear about their goals that they were unsure of their procedures and the effectiveness of those procedures. So, when was it, that it became more clear that Special Forces were going to be the way that we were going to fight wars, and what's the reason for that?

ROBINSON: Well, there are multiple uses of Special Operations forces, that's the important thing; we can peel that apart a bit. A lot of people, they may have watched some Hollywood movies or seen through video games that Call of Duty, this kind of thing, and gotten a very narrow view of what Special Ops do. And that really is the commando raid, the guys coming in the dead of night, jumping out of helicopters to grab some people. And that is certainly part of what they do and they call that "direct action." When I say they're the wave of the future, what I'm referring to is really working among populations and with indigenous groups. And that's what I covered extensively in this book and in Afghanistan going to and from for about two and a half years to watch as they were going into the villages, where the insurgency was strong, the Taliban case of Afghanistan, and seeing whether the villagers have the desire to form self-defense groups, whether their village elders were ready to stand up and try to pull the village, rally the village together and form a local government in effect. So they went out into the most God forsaken places frankly, very remote areas where there weren't any other troops. And they did have a fair amount of success, today there are 26,000 local defenders, people defending their villages out there. And that was something that they'd really, they had done this in the Vietnam era, but they had gotten away from that in the years after 9/11. Their focus had really been on these direct action raids. So what I viewed, what was happening in Afghanistan was they were kind of recovering their roots, and going back to working with populations and also working with indigenous military forces. For example, in Afghanistan, they have mentored an Afghan Special Ops organization that includes commandos, Special Forces, a Ranger type unit, a nascent helicopter wing. So it’s all under this rubric of getting those countries able to defend and secure themselves. And that is a more long term solution while recognizing they still do the direct action raids, but that is more of a temporary piece of the puzzle than the whole enchilada. 

GRILLOT: So the day to day operations of Special Forces, this is really what you're focusing on, and would you say that your work is kind of looking at the evolution of this organization itself and how it's evolved from Vietnam, to then later Latin America and now the Middle East and how its changed as an organization?

ROBINSON: Yes, absolutely that is really what I've delved into pretty deeply and the organization since 9/11 has grown, over doubled in size. There are now 33,000 badged uniformed Special Operators, and they have all different specialties, support dimensions, civil affairs, psychological operations. They have their own helicopter pilots; they have their own fixed wing airplane pilot. So they really form a community that draws from Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force and they come together in a joint command. But their hallmark is really operating in small numbers, so unlike the large footprint counterinsurgency model that Iraq represented, this is really looking at putting the small numbers, 100s or low 1000s, on the ground to help a country be able to defend itself. And they've done this in places. Colombia is one of those case studies that is considered a success. Philippines is another one. They've been doing some of this work in East Africa as well. So it is what I see as part of this model of the future. Being able to use them in small numbers and there growth has permitted them to be out and deploy about 12,000 people can be deployed around the world at any one time as a sustainable number. And some people may say, "Oh my gosh, that's a lot." Well if you consider it compared to 100,000 plus in Iraq, it’s not. That's what they mean by a small footprint approach.

GRILLOT:  So the small footprint approach then, I was about to ask you about this. So, operating in the 100s or low 1000s, this is what allows these types of forces to be able to be more effective, and get to what you were talking about earlier, building partner capacity to be able to protect themselves, defend themselves. It’s better than the larger show of course, make that distinction for us. How it is that this small number is much more capable of getting us down that path as opposed to this larger show of force?

ROBINSON:  Right. Well I'll just do the math quickly for the village stability operations in Afghanistan. There were 72 teams and these are 12 to 16 man teams, the SEALS are in platoons that are 16 and the Army Green Berets are in 12. That's small teams going out to a village or a district, 72 of those spread around, mostly in the conflict area. But they were in the low 1000s if you even consider their support, command structure around them. The low 1000s produced almost 30,000 Afghan local police. So that's a huge multiplier effect. And those 30,000 Afghan local police, assuming the Afghan government chooses to continue with them, they will be there providing village security. Already, I just made my last trip out there last month, the Special Forces have left most of those villages and they’re carrying on. So the idea is set them up, train them, you get them connected to their local police chief, the provincial police chief, and then you pull back. There's still overseeing some of the institution building aspects and the training centers providing some oversight. But the idea really is, in some number of years, you can fill in the blank, sometimes it takes a number of years, that you're eventually moving off of that, so it’s not a permanent commitment of even those few thousand. And that's I think a model for post 2014 in Afghanistan, to continue on the sum of these missions in very small numbers. 

GRILLOT: Well I, as promised, I had to get back to your access. You're being able to tell this story is really remarkable. The fact that you spent, two and a half years with the Special Forces in Afghanistan and that you're able to give us this kind of detail. How do you go about getting that kind of access to this kind of activity? By nature, we think of Special Forces and Special Operations as something that's highly secretive, it’s not very transparent, why is it that they would want you to tell this story?

ROBINSON: Yes, well and it did go back initially to that one major that said to his boss "Nobody's ever written anything about us and certainly nothing good. Why don't we see what you take to get someone to really understand what we do?" So it was that step by step process. I did nothing in my career to know what the next step was going to be. I really did devote, I had a year at Harvard on the fellowship, and I spend a lot of time reading a lot of the literature and getting myself really informed about military doctrine in general, because I wasn't a military expert, I've never served in the military. But this gave me a really solid grounding in the professional aspects of what they do and how they're deployed. It's fairly complicated stuff, so then they started bringing me down to exercises, because they also wanted to see could I handle myself in situations. Because going out, especially with a 12 man unit in a very hostile area, I could jeopardize those people as well as myself as well as their mission. So there was a certain amount of vetting that was going on. And it was something that I really had to prove myself with each unit, when I arrived; I did this in Iraq, in the beginning of the Iraq War. I was dumped of in Bozra with these Special Forces teams and they really didn't want to have to deal with me, they were in the middle of some heavy operations. So I just, I got on the back of the Humvee and I just stayed there. And I knew they were busy, so I waited until I had time to interview them. And I think that kind of approach really does pay off. You do your homework, you stay out of the way and then you eventually get your access and your interviews. And gradually that built on itself so they recognized that I had the degree of expertise. They became more willing to share with me, more and more of what they were doing and allow me to go to more places and have more access. So, I think it has provided some of the most in depth coverage that in turn allows people to see what Special Ops do because were not a secretive society. And I think ultimately it benefits them for more people to understand what they do. Now that said, there's certain operations they don't want anybody on and for example they will not take an embedded journalist out to the bin Laden raid. But I do think they are remarkably open now compared to when I began this 12 years ago they are much more willing to share including things that haven't gone right and I think there's a recognition that if you can share your mistakes as well, that makes you a little more credible, if you're willing to be honest about things that haven't gone right. And there certainly have been things that have gone very wrong. And war is a very unpredictable and violent business. So, I'm not going to stand here and say it’s all been good. I've seen plenty of things that didn't work. Including in this book there are lots of episodes of things that didn't work, places where they didn't manage to understand the population, places where they were at odds with the conventional forces or with coalition partners, or the Afghan government. So there's nothing easy about the stuff that they did.

GRILLOT: Definitely nothing easy. And certainly nothing easy about reporting on it either, I'm sure. Well Linda thank you so much for being with us today to tell us your fascinating story and to provide us some insight into something that we don't normally get to see, thank you.

ROBINSON: Thanks Suzette.

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