Nation Building with Special Forces

Nada Bakos tees up Jackson Diehl’s failed Iraq justification to fail again in Syria post and points out something very basic. Military intervention does not equate with nation-building.

It would be a plausible argument if Diehl had not clearly missed many of the most basic lessons of the Iraq War. For example, he writes that “in the absence of U.S. intervention, Syria is looking like it could produce a much worse humanitarian disaster and a far more serious strategic reverse for the United States.” It is certainly true that Syria is a humanitarian disaster on a regional scale, and that the lack of a clear strategy by the United States for the past two years has limited our ability to shape the nature and trajectory of the conflict today. But the phrase “in the absence of U.S. intervention” suggests a degree of American agency that Iraq showed we simply don’t possess.

Military intervention by the United States cannot spawn democratic governments at will, and it cannot save the local population from violence and chaos. “Shock and awe” do not automatically lead to nation-building or even to regime change without a considerable commitment. To realize those objectives, you need to engage in a clearly articulated strategy of nation-building — a strategy that must encompass the State Department; regional actors such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon (some of which are grappling with their own internal issues); and international, regional, and local non-governmental organizations.


The argument that unleashing the U.S. military industrial complex can bring about desired results during a conflict should have been deflated, beaten, and buried by now. The winner of the Iraq War was humility, and it is a prerequisite for a wiser foreign policy.

Bakos’ retort is useful not just for those hawks who want more hot war in Syria, but also against plans to use the Special Forces as our primary tool against the scourge of instability, as promised in this NYT piece today …

Army Special Operations forces can be out there looking at instability, and looking at how to build capabilities.”

General Cleveland said he envisioned preparing his soldiers for two broad missions. “When I am at war, I have to campaign to win,” he said. “When I am not at war, I am campaigning to either shape the environment or I am campaigning to prevent war.”

And even more explicitly in this David Ignatius piece from last week.

The underlying idea is that special forces have proved themselves America’s best weapon against extremists in a turbulent, increasingly borderless world. After the grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States won’t be sending big expeditionary armies abroad anytime soon. America’s heavyweight commands, such as U.S. Central Command in the Middle East and U.S. Pacific Command in Asia, will now focus on potentially adversarial nations such as Iran, China and North Korea.

To fight the small wars, McRaven offers his agile, stealthy and highly lethal network of commandos. Often their missions will involve training and partnering with other nations, rather than shooting. Sometimes, their activities may look like USAID development assistance or CIA political action.

Here’s the logic: Our existing means of exerting influence and building nations aren’t all that effective, so we must have SOF take over those roles.

The existing tool kit hasn’t been very effective: USAID is more of a development contractor than an operational agency; the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations is too small to lead even its own department’s efforts, let alone the government’s; the U.S. Institute of Peace likes its status as an independent adviser, rather than an instrument of national power. And the CIA wants to do less covert action, not more.

Enter the Special Operations Forces.

Ignatius doesn’t apparently consider what Micah Zenko tweeted while watching a Chuck Hagel press conference and DOD cutbacks.

Pentagon will receive $633B this year. State+USAID: $51B. Internal DOD reforms don’t change the USG-wide imbalance.

You’d think someone (besides Zenko) would figure out that turning SOF warriors into development specialists would look at this math and propose more obvious solutions first.

To Ignatius’ credit, he ultimately — in the last lines of the piece — notes that having SOF play soft power roles has some inherent problems.

The idea of filling the power gap with special forces is appealing, but I come away with this caution: The world is wary of forward-deployed U.S. commandos, no matter how important the mission.


A global SOF network will be a powerful tool, but it can’t fill the vacuum by itself. SOF power and soft power aren’t the same thing.

SOF managed to kill Osama bin Laden. It seems that has convinced the Administration that they can do everything else as well.

So, great, we won’t occupy countries anymore. What will we call these groups of sometimes non-uniformed cells of military personnel operating around the globe?

19 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    Are they planning to spend several years training SOF in diplomacy and working with the residents of the area without starting civil wars? Because that’s what the State Department and Peace Corps are trained to do.
    Preventing wars means sending the diplomats in first, not sending in Special Forces. (After their fuck-ups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I don’t want them doing diplomacy anywhere.)

  2. What Constitution? says:

    Me! Me! I know! Let’s call “these groups of sometimes non-uniformed cells of military personnel operating around the globe” INVADERS.

    Too blunt?

  3. Ben Franklin says:

    No SOF mentioned, but Hagel is flipping some whigs.

    “Without getting specific in a speech that mostly was about broadcasting intent, Hagel skewered a few sacred Pentagon cows. He worried that the military’s expensive benefits system was crowding out core missions to prepare for, deter and wage conflict. He said the Pentagon’s bureaucratic acquisitions system was ensuring that new programs “take longer, cost more and deliver less than initially planned and promised.” He said he would take “another hard look at personnel,”….snip

    hinting that he’s willing to cut the size of the services and their civilian supporters. “Reducing layers of upper and middle management,” particularly from headquarters staffs,

    will also be part of Hagel’s new review, he said, pointedly noting that the Pentagon had not restructured its institutions since before the Berlin Wall fell.”

  4. eh says:

    What will we call these groups of sometimes non-uniformed cells of military personnel operating around the globe?

    Off the top of my head, how about “state-sponsored terrorist cells?”

  5. joanneleon says:

    “What will we call these groups of sometimes non-uniformed cells of military personnel operating around the globe?”

    The good guys, of course! We’ll call them “the good guys”.

    I wonder about going around the world training armies. Presumably those armies will come to know a lot of our techniques and culture, and our SOF will probably act as a sales team for our biggest export. Weapons. Doesn’t this come back to bite us eventually?

  6. Well Whaddya Know says:

    anybody see the recent wave of TERRORISM sweeping the usa???

    sheriffs and prosecuting attorneys and assistant prosecuting attorneys gunned down in broad daylight and in their homes and now prosecuting attorneys are resigning due to security concerns and OMG IT’S THE MOOS-LUMS I TELLS YA!!! ARM YOUR WOMINS FOLK!!! BETTER INVADE IRAK AGAIN !!!

    oh, wait. you tell me it’s a bunch of WHITE guys known as WHITE SUPREMACISTS?!?!?

    never mind, then.

  7. What Constitution? says:

    @joanneleon: Ding! That’s perfect. The other guys are bahd guys, else we wouldn’t need to be going there. And, after all, they’re “either with us or against us”, so there’s that.

  8. Gimme Shelter says:

    you all know that this was just a matter of time (NOT if) before this type of nazi gestapo sh*t surfaced.

    New Documents Reveal: DHS spying on Peaceful Demonstrations and Activists

    Monitoring Peaceful Demonstrations and Activists as a Matter of Policy

    Government documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) reveal that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an agency created after the September 11 attacks under the rubric of combating terrorism, conducts daily monitoring of peaceful, lawful protests as a matter of policy.

    Functioning as a secret political police force against people participating in lawful, peaceful free speech activity, the heavily redacted documents show that the DHS “Threat Management Division” directed Regional Intelligence Analysts to provide a “Daily Intelligence Briefing” that includes a category of reporting on “Peaceful Activist Demonstrations” along with “Domestic Terrorist Activity.” (p. 68)

    The newly obtained documents show coordination and intelligence monitoring by the DHS, the FBI, the NYPD and other law enforcement agencies of “Occupy-type” protests.

    The documents show the routine use of Fusion Centers for intelligence gathering on peaceful demonstrations as well as the use of DHS’ “Mega Centers” for collection of surveillance information on demonstrations.

    more vile, evil sh*t at >>>

    just so gd predictable.

    and we are gonna have to live with that 911 sh*t for the rest of our gd lives. geebus. how gd depressing and infuriating.

  9. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    OT: Greenwald states: “Indeed, much of that US violence is grounded in if not expressly justified by religion, including the aggressive attack on Iraq and steadfast support for Israeli aggression (to say nothing of the role Judaism plays in the decades-long oppression by the Israelis of Palestinians and all sorts of attacks on neighboring Arab and Muslim countries).”

  10. janinsanfran says:

    This stuff is perennial. Remember when they were going to solve the problem that nations weren’t organizing themselves the way we wanted with Green Berets?

  11. Phil Perspective says:

    What will we call these groups of sometimes non-uniformed cells of military personnel operating around the globe?

    Didn’t Warren Zevon sing a song that’s vaguely related?

  12. klynn says:

    This does not surprise me. Ever since the closure of USIA, hundreds of former Foreign Service officers knew this would be the outcome…we use to do diplomacy and nation building so much better. Everyone insisted we would save money closing USIA and folding some of their function into State and DOD. BTW your header makes a nice oxymoron.

  13. Awaiting Moderation says:

    Chuck Hagel gave his first major policy address as secretary of defense and devoted a good amount of space to a fundamental issue: the parameters of conventional military power.

    What the secretary seems to understand is that — basically — we can’t bomb or “shock and awe” our way out of every conflict, and that our whole military structure is out of date.

    What he didn’t mention — but which I hope is also on his mind — is that in addition to structural and strategic issues, we need to reconsider our legal approach to national security.

    A thorough “re-thinking” of American defense will have to include a push to clear away the post-9/11 detritus: the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the Patriot Act, the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, military tribunals… the list goes on.


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