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Sat. June 15, 2024
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IA Forum Interview: Linda Robinson
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IA-FORUM How did you get interested in doing this kind of a topic, the special operators and the future of American warfare? What appealed to you about that? LINDA ROBINSON I started early in my career with a focus on insurgencies, small wars, political transitions. So, if you will, the “problem side” of the equation. Then around 2000, I started getting some access into this Special Operations community, really drawn together over the topic of the war in Colombia, in South America. And at some of the conferences around the Colombian topic, I’d met some Special Operators, so I began getting invited to get some time with them. And, if I was willing to do a certain amount of studying, to receive some further access. In the last ten years, they have been so heavily relied upon for a whole range of things. They’ve been deployed more often and for longer – famously, in the counterterrorism hunt for Bin Laden, but for a whole range of purposes. So that just strikes me as a really fundamental shift in how the military as a whole is going to approach the application of force in the future. They’ve also had a great deal more contact with the conventional side of the military. So a lot of new kinds of combinations have come up. I focus in my book on one aspect of their work which is “village stability” operations, which was quite unusual. They’d never before attached infantry battalions to the Special Ops command. IA-FORUM One of your recommendations is to have the military create a way to combine Special Operators with conventional forces. How would this combination provide an advantage? L. ROBINSON The main limitation of Special Operators is that there are very few of them, certainly compared to the conventional forces. So when you want to do some type of activity that is country-wide, or even region-wide, and in the case of Afghanistan, the village stability operations, and the raising of a local volunteer defense force was a country-wide initiative. Even with the massive deployment of Special Operators that they undertook there, it was not enough for them to cover all the territory they wanted to, and to defend themselves in these very small formations they were deploying in. So that’s where this idea came about, to attach first one, and then two, conventional infantry battalions to their command. And they didn’t deploy out as a whole battalion, but they chopped these regular conventional infantry battalions up into squads, and attached a squad to a 12, 14, 16-man team, depending on whether it was a Green Beret, Navy Seal, or Marine team. And they helped them do a whole range of their tasks. They did provide force protection, helped guard their small compounds, these mud-walled compounds where they lived. But in many cases, they were also pulled into doing some of the engagement with the villagers and some other tasks. IA-FORUM Since 9/11, in Iraq and Afghanistan specifically, there’s been this tension regarding the use of the military. Is it for nation-building and counterinsurgency, or is it more for counterterrorism? And given that the U.S. budget has competing constraints, and the goal going forward is for a small military footprint, doesn’t this give the Special Operators some advantage as being a prime tool of choice to achieve our national security goals? L. ROBINSON Yes. And I would say even in that mode I was just discussing, that’s still a small footprint, relative to the 100,000-plus size forces deployed in the conventional mode in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that’s what’s not, I think, entirely clear to the American public right now – that you can do a nation-building or stability operations type of campaign without deploying 100,000 Americans. The reason that is possible, and what the Special Operators are really expert at, is putting out only a small number of their forces and figuring out different ways to leverage the locals – for instance, to get the locals trained up more quickly to take on the heavy lifting of the security tasks. Where I think we got a little bit turned around in our thinking was on two counts: 1 that only the U.S. forces could be the counterinsurgents. And that’s really diametrically opposed to the Special Ops way of thinking. Because they’re first going to rely on the locals as the primary counterinsurgents, because they know their villages, they can go out and get the best human intelligence. It’s really about enabling and empowering them. -It kind of flips the paradigm of the big COIN counterinsurgency fight on its head, and says, “guess what? The host nation is going to carry out the bulk of the counterinsurgency, and we’re going to help them. IA-FORUM You talked about the two modes of Special Operations. First, the “direct approach” of the manhunt, which is the more popular in the public perception. And the second, the “indirect approach”. I’ll quote a piece that came out of your report, “Developing and working alongside indigenous forces to combat terrorists, insurgents, and criminal networks through an orchestrated set of defense, information, and civil affairs programs”. My question is, how does the State Department and USAID come into this equation? L. ROBINSON Yes, I’ll go back to the book for a couple of quick examples. My favorite part of the civilian side of this is on the Office of Transition Initiatives, USAID agency for international development. They have recruited civilians who have an affinity for, want to work in conflict zones, and are very intrepid, and in many cases, very seasoned. I focused on one such person, Mary Kettman, in my book, in the chapter on Paktika. And she has been everywhere, all over Africa, repeat times. In fact, she’s back now in Afghanistan. She’s gone back several times since I finished writing the book. She’s just very committed and very experienced. So she has a lot of knowledge that, frankly, in the development side, and in community organizing and these kinds of techniques, she has an expertise that the Special Operators don’t. So you really get the power from combining those two. For them to be comfortable working together, and you understand that there’ll be a military chain of command. Mary of course, and her colleagues, report to the U.S. Embassy. But, they work out a common approach so they’re not at cross-purposes. And that’s one of the most promising things. I think there are some elements in the State Department that do that. There’s a police training program at the Department of Justice. Some people, I think, have the mistaken impression that you need to have 14 different civilian agencies involved. I frankly don’t. I think you need a handful of the right people. And again, the emphasis here isn’t on many U.S. numbers. It’s people who know what they’re doing that go out there in very small numbers. And I’d like to just go back to an earlier question you raised. Some people have been interpreting this small footprint as meaning only a unilateral counterterrorism, direct-action approach. And it doesn’t, that is not how I interpret that phrase in the defense strategic guidance. You can have the application of force in both modes, direct or indirect. But I frankly don’t know any of the direct actions specialists that think that is the sum total of a successful approach. They pretty much all agree that you need a combined approach with both of these if you’re going to have a permanent effect. I’m sure you’ve probably heard this phrase, direct action, or the direct approach buys time for the indirect approach to work. It’s one of these mantras they’ve developed. But as I point out in the book, two of the three commanders I followed, Scott Miller was Delta Force, Tony Thomas was a Ranger, Chris Haas was Special Forces. They all understood this wasn’t going to be won just by unilateral commando action. It’s a fallacy that has its greatest proponent in the White House, not in the uniformed forces. IA-FORUM You heard from several special operators during your time in Afghanistan, “we’re not going to have enough time to make this work”. Can you elaborate a bit on that? What does that mean? L. ROBINSON It was really a reflection that they wish they had been doing village stability ops and raising local defenders from the first days, right after they set foot there in late 2001. It’s really one of the great tragedies that it took until 2009 to really get a serious and well-designed program like this in place. Now, they have been training Afghan security forces to include Afghan Special Operations and commandos, but to really be using that village incentive and motivation to defend itself, they had not done that until very late in the game. So they were really criticizing themselves and recognizing that they had finally gone back to their roots and picked up this technique, but very late. It was pretty clear that there was the surge which General McChrystal began his term presiding over out there. I’ve also been critical of that because I think it was a misplaced emphasis to put forces in Helmand. If you just had a short while of increased forces, they needed to be in different places. But at any rate, I don’t believe numbers matter. I think it’s how you use them. So these special operators were really acknowledging that they were starting too late to do the right things over there. IA-FORUM One of the things that you mentioned in the book about this, starting in late 2001, you concluded that if they’d had a fully-staffed theater-level command there, things would have been different. You think that that would be a key element in making it work better going forward? L. ROBINSON Yes. And it’s too bad. I think this is a complex topic that a lot of people probably glaze over, so I’m glad you raised it. Because previously, we’ll just say pre-9/11, really only deployed to do tactical missions and tactical sized formations in their forward tactical commands. When you’re really talking about orchestrating a country-wide, multi-year, decade-long effort, you need an operational level command. You need a command that has authority over all of the different elements of the SOF Special Operations Forces communities, so you can get that synergy and synchronize those elements. And that did not happen until General Tony Thomas came in. And so it’s another one of those brilliant ideas that gets implemented very late in the Afghan War, and that’s why my whole emphasis is – let’s not lose these good practices and let’s apply them in the future. That’s something that the command, Admiral McRaven is intent upon. So he is applying this approach elsewhere and with what are called the “theater special operations command” that have responsibility for the different geographic regions of the world. And even if they’re not going to deploy and be out there in the size force that they were in Afghanistan, they’re still going to apply the same method. IA-FORUM In the future, in the chain of command, when there’s a multinational force, where do you see Special Operators fitting in, outside of Afghanistan? L. ROBINSON The theater special operations commands are the commands that have two-star or one-star generals, or flag officers at their helm. They are, in Admiral McRaven’s vision, they are the ones who will be orchestrating the efforts out in different parts of the world. They have right now, I’ll just use SOCCENT Special Operations Command Central, they have a two-start commander, General Nagata. And he, of course, has a very big and active area of operations that he’s sending out Colonels, 0-6s, to different countries where they’re most active. And they oversee the Special Operators deployed there. SOCPAC Special Operations Center, Pacific Command, out in the Pacific, has been very focused on the Philippines, and they’ve had an 0-6 command there continuously since 9/11. So these are the kinds of entities that will be out there in a persistent way. Again, not the 1,400 Special Operations coalition, giant numbers that you had in Afghanistan, but it’s a very similar model. What is new – he fully intends to bring all the elements of the Special Ops community together under those commands, whether they are doing direct action or “advise and assist” missions. IA-FORUM Looking beyond Afghanistan and toward Yemen and Somalia, how might Special Operators be best used in those areas? L. ROBINSON This is I think a little-known fact that they actually have been for some time in the Horn of Africa training high-end forces that are contributing to the peace enforcement mission in Somalia, and bringing that new government into a secure position, driving out al-Shabaab, which they’ve succeed in doing, from the cities. And particularly Ugandan and Kenyan units have been trained by Special Operators, and they are in both guises, I will say. They do the direct, they do the indirect. Yemen is another case of that. So they’re already applying this, but they haven’t yet got the unified command structure in place. So it is very much where Admiral McRaven intends to go. IA-FORUM From your perspective, when you’ve been talking with some of the Special Operators in the field and in your time as a fellow at the Joint Special Ops University, how does the military feel about taking over the drone programs the CIA has had responsibility for? L. ROBINSON I think that you’re going to see the drones are already being deemphasized. I think there’s a lot of focus on them because, quite rightly, there’s been a big and healthy debate over their use – the extent and circumstances of their use. But they are being increasingly confined to a small set of circumstance. Now, that said, drones will always be with us, I think. And the CIA will maintain some covert action capability, and drones may be used in a covert capability. But the primary mission of the CIA is to develop intelligence, for which they need some operational capacity. But if you look at John Brennan’s confirmation hearings, he signaled a great interest in getting the CIA back to its core mission, which is intelligence. So I think you won’t have it entirely move over, you just will have the preponderance of the effort will move to Department of Defense. But in this hierarchy of drones, raids, and partnering with other forces, I think you’ll see it flipped on its head: the drones will become the minority tactic, the raids when you need to get that individual and get that intelligence from the ground, and the partners that you find willing and capable, and make capable partners. That’s going to be the default position. And it’s already the stated position of the command. IA-FORUM You had mentioned the public perception in terms of what the special forces do, and their main tasks of direct and indirect work. Do you think, though, that there’s too much information getting out about what special ops do, and some of the operations that they’ve been doing? Should there be more information getting out? How do you find that balance? L. ROBINSON I think that there are rightly things known as secrets that need to remain secret, whether they’re tactics that if widely published are no longer useful, what they call “sources and methods”. So I recognize the need for some secrecy. I think what has really gone on, though, with the publicity, has gone to feed the fascination with, and the overemphasis on, drones and direct action. And I get that we’re a society that wants the quick fix, and we’re also a society that’s infatuated with Hollywood. The reason I wrote the book, was to try to educate the public on the wider array of things called Special Operations that frankly I think are more important, more difficult, and to my mind just as interesting. So I’m trying to broaden the lens of understanding. We’re an open society, and I think we need to know what our military’s doing. That’s my justification for why I write what I write. IA-FORUM When you were embedded with these forces, can you share one experience that you had where you felt it was a really wonderful example of what the special forces could do? L. ROBINSON A general comment first. I think all of these guys have terrific skills, and they absolutely risk their lives pretty much every day. But the things that they tended to talk about was when they tended to a sick or wounded Afghan. And I guess it’s just that human thing of rescuing and tending to someone. There was a little girl who fell off a tractor. But they did everything that they could. The father mistakenly ran over her. Unfortunately, she did die. The Special Ops guys there did everything they could to revive her and treat her. And the father was absolutely heartbroken. All the guys chipped in to buy a sheep for the family, and celebrating the upcoming festival. That turned the whole village into friends of the Special Ops team. It’s the kind of thing I saw play out over and over, where they just became like sons or relatives of these people, because they were willing to do anything to help them. IA-FORUM Thanks for your time and sharing some of your experiences and insights. Linda L. Robinson is a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. Her areas of expertise include national security strategy, U.S. foreign policy, security force assistance, joint force development, special operations forces, irregular warfare and stability operations. She has worked in South Asia, Iraq, the Middle East, and Latin America. She was senior adviser to the AFPAK Center at USCENTCOM 2010-11 and is the author of a new book on village stability operations in Afghanistan 2013, One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of Warfare. She is on the board of the National Defense University, chair of the Army War College board, and a senior fellow at Joint Special Operations University.

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