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SOCOM: Navigating the Gray Zone

When U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Commander Gen. Joseph L. Votel testified before the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) in March 2015, he described the nation’s special operations forces (SOF) as deeply engaged across the globe and achieving notable successes, but also, because of that very success, increasingly in demand. Far from seeing the expected drawdown of forces and missions as troops have been pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation’s special operations forces are being called upon to take up new commitments in addition to ongoing missions and operations.

The demand signal for SOF has, if anything, increased as the security environment has changed. Certainly there has been some steady progress, enough so that in the Philippines, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) is being stood down and replaced with a smaller U.S. commitment, since the threat of Abu Sayyaf has significantly degraded. The commitment in Afghanistan is winding down through Operation Resolute Support. The successful partnership with Colombia and other Latin American partners has nearly eliminated the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and is helping tamp down transnational organized crime in the region.

SOCOM-Votel

U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, speaks with Staff Sgt. Dustin Gorski, a pararescueman from the 320th Special Tactics Squadron, during a visit to the Human Performance Center at Kadena Air Base, Japan Dec. 15, 2014. General and Mrs. Votel toured the facilities and met with staff members to see the program’s efforts in support of the Preservation of the Force and Family initiative. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zade Vadnais

On the other hand, the rise of the Islamic State (ISIL), especially in Syria and Iraq, has meant new demands on SOF forces, as in Iraq, the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), trained by U.S. Special Forces, are leading the fight. While U.S. SOF have been authorized to train and advise local forces in the fight against ISIL, President Barack Obama is trying to expand their missions on the ground. In Europe, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has annexed the Crimea and is supporting proxies striving to take the eastern provinces of the Ukraine. In Africa, Boko Haram continues to bomb, kidnap, and kill civilians as well as its government opponents. In strategically important Yemen, Sunni, Shia, al Qaeda, and Islamic State forces are vying with each other for control of a country on the brink of civil war. Important ongoing training and partnership commitments in countries worldwide must continue as well.

Unconventional strategies are becoming more prevalent, requiring new approaches to counter them. Such strategies seek to destabilize a government or accomplish an adversary’s goal while not crossing a line that would lead to conventional military retaliation.

Today’s security environment is characterized not only by the violent religious extremism, resurgent nationalism, hybrid conflict, and non-state actors with which we have become familiar, but also by the variety of powerful and destructive tools that are readily available to a range of actors who had not previously had that sort of power or influence, for good or ill. Witness the rise and fall of expectations associated with the “Arab Spring.”

“Within states, it is becoming much easier for aggrieved populations to network, organize, and demand change to the status quo; we have seen this in a number of locations across the world,” Votel told Congress.

“Across state boundaries, violent non-state actors such as ISIL are exploiting local grievances among populations to advance their own horrific ends. Their methods routinely violate international norms and challenge regional governments’ capabilities to respond. These groups rely upon their ability to build common identities with sub-sets of disaffected populations and magnify the potential for violence. Other non-state actors have more criminal inclinations and avoid law enforcement while building their power and influence.

“Between states, technological advancement is providing rising powers more options to pursue their interests. In some cases, countries are seeking to expand their claims of sovereignty outside of recognized borders. In other cases, they are sponsoring and relying upon non-state actors to act on their behalf abroad. Traditional approaches to deterrence are increasingly inadequate – particularly as some states are becoming adept at avoiding conventional military responses while advancing their interests through a combination of coercion, targeted violence, and exploitation of local issues. Russia is taking this approach and is systematically undermining neighboring governments and complicating international responses to its aggressive actions.”

Unconventional strategies are becoming more prevalent, requiring new approaches to counter them. Such strategies seek to destabilize a government or accomplish an adversary’s goal while not crossing a line that would lead to conventional military retaliation. Social media are playing an increasing role in motivating and organizing protests or other action. Cyber attacks are another unconventional threat that can do great harm in a networked society and are also hard to trace back to the perpetrators.

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