Defense Media Network

Fighting Global War on Terror Indirectly

With the prospect of grand scale nation-building projects like Afghanistan and Iraq unlikely in the near future, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the United States should narrow its focus to smaller projects geared toward training indigenous troops and foreign security sectors to maintain their own national defense concerns.

“I believe our ability to help other countries better provide for their own security will be a key and enduring test of America’s global leadership in the 21st century, and a critical part of protecting our own security.”

– Associated Press, Feb. 27, 2010.

The main effort of the campaign against violent extremist networks (formerly known as the Global War on Terror or GWOT), has become the “indirect approach.” At the time of its definition, the indirect approach had few supporters, mostly because only those few people understood what it was. The idea of acting against terrorist insurgencies by, with, and through indigenous militaries and law enforcement organizations had to be explained to many. To deny the terrorist groups environments where they can exist, recruit, and train requires long-term planning and even longer-term execution in order to succeed. For now, it also remains somewhat offstage, while the direct action, combat phase continues in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, to a limited extent, in Iraq.

In a little more than a year, however, the indirect approach will be center stage and the only overt method of conducting the campaign against terrorist organizations. By then, the United States will have largely completed drawing down in Iraq and will begin the drawdown in Afghanistan. Ironically, after that, the war, or campaign, will also become more of a global activity. As more emphasis will be placed on finding ways to act indirectly and simultaneously in several areas of the world, the mission of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) to synchronize counterterrorism (CT) planning across the Department of Defense (DoD) will also move to center stage.

The “three ball diagram” or “GWOT slide” depicting the JCS CONPLAN 7500 Campaign Plan.

USSOCOM has long been the advocate of coordinating and synchronizing counterterrorism plans because most of those plans entail use of SOCOM forces to either conduct operations or to train partner nation forces. Because SOCOM provides the Green Berets, whose core competence is foreign internal defense (FID), the mission of training other militaries to fight terrorist groups naturally belongs to SOCOM. But SOCOM’s mission to provide these forces to the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs) requires a collateral mission to manage anticipated shortages and to work with the GCCs to set priorities. The Unified Command Plan formalized these responsibilities by assigning SOCOM the job of synchronizing plans for counterterrorism across DoD.

To perform the new mission, SOCOM created the Global Synchronization Conference (GSC) in 2005-2006 and since then, has held such a conference every six months. Seeking participation from the Geographic Combatant Commanders, SOCOM invited participation from the J3 and J5 staffs and various entities in the Office of the Secretary of Defense Staff, to include the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. Other participants from the U.S. government interagency include the State Department (DoS), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the National Center for Counterterrorism (NCTC). Over the five years, participation grew to well over 1,000 people cramming into SOCOM meeting rooms to discuss ways to conduct CT around the world. It was three years ago, in fact, that one of the conclusions of the GSC recommended that the indirect approach become accepted as the main effort in what was then called GWOT.

A key fear is that as AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) expands, its criminal and insurgent operations will continue to destabilize the fragile governments of heavily Islamic North Africa, much as it has in Mali. The Maghreb includes the North African nations of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania. As a result, the United States has been working to boost poverty-stricken Mali’s defenses. Last year, the United States gave $5 million in new trucks and other equipment to its security forces, and Pentagon funds also have been approved to provide training.

To depict the overall campaign plan contained in JCS CONPLAN 7500, counterterrorism, along with the importance and the effectiveness of both the direct and the indirect approaches, SOCOM planners built a single slide. This slide is often called “the three ball diagram,” or the “GWOT slide.” This unclassified chart appears in almost every briefing at SOCOM or given by SOCOM to explain necessary actions in GWOT or what is now called “the worldwide campaign against violent extremist organizations (VEOs).”

In its essence, the slide describes the lines of action moving from the friendly side required to attack terrorist organizations from two angles. The top lines of action in green depict the indirect approach, where acting on the environments, the indigenous government and its population. These lines act indirectly “by, with, and through” the country involved to strengthen its government, and its ability to provide a secure environment for its people; and to make its territory inhospitable for terrorist group recruiting, training, or safe haven.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces Convoy Security Course graduates respond to a simulated improvised explosive device during one of the four demonstrations performed at the graduation ceremony in Baghdad, Iraq. The course trained the soldiers in weapons-handling procedures for close fire, quick reaction to ambushes and improvised explosive devices and vehicle maneuvering. U.S. Army photo by Specialist Eric Haupt.

Adm. Eric Olson, the commander of USSOCOM, spoke of the green and red lines of action on the chart at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., on April 1. He noted that the actions in red, denoting direct action and counter WMD (weapons of mass destruction), are the “necessary” things we do to buy time with offensive operations to defend against near-term attack and to disrupt our enemies’ ability to attack us. Further, he said the actions depicted by the green lines “are decisive” in the struggle against terrorist groups. “When we perform these indirect missions successfully, we’re winning.” He presents an easy metric to understand, but perhaps a difficult one to maintain over an extended period of time.

It’s worth noting that when Olson took command, the three ball diagram was inverted from its present version. The red, direct lines of action were on top and the green lines below. Olson ordered the chart flipped to emphasize that the green lines are primary and more important to defeat violent extremist movements. He also has said that to complete the mission will require many things, chief among them to develop experts in other cultures, similar to (T.E.) Lawrence of Arabia. “We need a Lawrence of Pakistan, and a Lawrence of Afghanistan, of the Philippines, of Yemen, and of Mauritania.”

Reuters reported that:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates in February authorized $150 million in security assistance for Yemen for fiscal year 2010, up from $67 million last year, but the Pentagon has offered few details about the highly sensitive program. Officials briefed on the matter said the Pentagon informed Congress that it would provide $34 million in “tactical assistance” to Yemen’s special operations forces and $38 million to provide Yemen with a military transport aircraft. Additional funding to boost Yemen’s air transport capabilities will be announced later, the officials said.

At the recent Global Synchronization Conference (GSC) in mid-April, Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, SOCOM’s deputy commander, welcomed participants with a challenge that they should make recommendations for definitive actions (within DoD) that the United States should take in various regions of the world to make them less hospitable to terrorist groups. As he welcomed the representatives of non-DoD government agencies, he made reference to the need for a “whole of government approach which uses all elements of U.S. national power.” He said that real success of the conference could be seen if another department, perhaps the State Department, accepted responsibility for holding a similar conference to synchronize the actions of all agencies.

Also welcoming particpants, Brig. Gen. Mark Clark, the SOCOM director of operations, stated that this 10th Global Synchronization Conference had been scaled down from the 1,400 people attending the last couple of conferences to less than 600 participants. This was done so the group would be more likely to produce actionable recommendations that could be presented to the three- and four-star levels for decisions, resource allocation, and execution. He added that without such solid results, SOCOM would have to consider that hosting future conferences would be of doubtful value.

As the representatives from other agencies presented briefings, the seemingly simple lines of action in green on the chart became more and more complex. The simplicity of the CONPLAN 7500 campaign slide does not show the level of difficulty and time-consuming nature of the indirect approach compared to the direct action lines of action seen in red.

As direct action implies, the lines of action are simple and emotionally satisfying. To identify targets, break things, and kill people can be more appealing to those who approach the war against terrorism impatiently or with a need to avenge 9/11. Direct actions can be easily understood, and body counts are easy metrics to convince leaders, the public, and Congress that progress is made and to gain the nation’s continued support. Indeed for the first four or five years after 9/11, to capture and kill our terrorist enemies constituted the main effort.

An Afghan national army truck conquers a small mountain during a route recon patrol through the hills of Farah province, Feb. 26. ANA from the 2/2/207th Kandak, Italian Army Operational Mentoring Liaison Team and Marines from the U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command were conducting a combat reconnaissance patrol through a mountainous region. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Pilch

Indirect action, conversely, requires patient perseverance. To change the environments by strengthening local governance, to convince people that terrorism is an illegimate method of political action, and to separate populations from the insurgencies will all take time, and positive changes are hard to measure. Indirect action transforms the targeted government and the views of many of its population in order to end the ability of terrorist groups to win followers or gain financial support. How to measure these changes and how to maintain popular support and congressional funding support occupied much of the discussions at the 10th GSC. The pros and cons of the direct and indirect methods were also much on the minds of the participants.

The indirect approach removes the U.S. from kinetic, lethal operations in the affected country. Because of this aspect, an indirect campaign often draws criticism, commonly called nation-building or “winning hearts and minds.” It isn’t the United States that needs to win the hearts and minds, however; it’s the indigenous government that must do that by providing security and improving standards of living for its people. For these governments to win their people over stabilizes their domestic situations, and it encourages their populations to take the government’s side, helping their countries defeat insurgents. The United States, in these cases, must remain far in the background to enhance further the sovereignty and legitimacy of the host government.

The overall method of the indirect approach and building the capacity of partner governments is sometimes called “Phase Zero” in contrast to direct combat operations, which are usually divided into four operational phases. Phase 3 usually encompasses combat operation while Phase 4 has become better known in Iraq and Afghanistan as the exit strategy of standing up indigenous security capability so that U.S. and coalition forces can withdraw. The indirect approach and Phase Zero intend to make Phases 1 – 4 unnecessary and can make future nation-to-nation conflicts less likely for the United States as terrorist insurgents are countered and less likely to gain control of their targeted nation-states.

GSC participants agreed there are many positives if the indigenous militaries perform the kinetics of disruption of extremist organizations. Getting the U.S. military out of the business of patrolling Islamic countries will have positives as well. Bluntly put, Islamic countries must do the necessary killing of terrorists, and that will help combat the perception of an American war on a religion. Therefore, even though the indirect approach will take longer to get the targets, it will result in less popular support for extremist ideologies, perceived legitimacy of indigenous governments by their populations, and a lessening of international terrorism support.

Discussions at the GSC also revealed many of the pitfalls of executing the indirect approach as seen from the seat of government in Washington, D.C. For instance, it’s difficult to maintain funding for years to improve the military of another country as the threat in that country becomes less apparent or when the government of that country makes very slow progress. In one country that was fighting narco-terrorism, as an example, it took eight years of U.S.-sponsored training and operations before its air arm became fully capable of planning and conducting night air assaults using airplanes and helicopters. The long process won congressional support, but it was not always easy, and some funds were earmarked for other U.S. domestic purposes during several of the budget cycles, part of the reason things took as long as they did.

Additionally, problems persist in the execution of the indirect approach in that a number of countries have poor records or poor reputations with respect to protecting the human rights of their own citizens. For the U.S. military to provide training or financing to buy military equipment to fight a terrorist inspired insurgency in such a country is a sure way to get some serious criticism from Congress, the State Department, liberal watch-dog groups, or from the media. In this area, the indirect approach will have to survive “The Washington Post test,” a crucial determinant of whether such programs can maintain popular support.

Synchronization across DoD also includes consideration of the general purpose forces, the services, and what they are doing to conduct training and equipping of partner nations as well. Recently, the conventional services have improved their ability to train and equip partners in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Indeed, building partner capacity is the exit strategy, and the services must accomplish it in order to conduct an orderly withdrawal. They have also developed programs that will facilitate partner training and equipping, such as the Air Force’s Light Armed Air Reconnaissance Aircraft (LAAR) or the Light Mobility Aircraft (LiMA). GSC discussions of these programs centered on which countries best could use the aircraft that result, and whether those countries will need financial help with acquisitions. In general, these programs will arrive at about the time the need for the aircraft becomes more apparent. Here again, sustaining U.S. public support for such expenditures could be problematic.

Restrictions on the export of advanced technologies will likewise require modernization. There’s movement on this in that during the week of the GSC at SOCOM, Gates spoke on the subject of export restrictions. His words exhibit a strong influence on the coming need of working by, with, and through our partner nation militaries:

“America’s decades-old, bureaucratically labyrinthine system does not serve our 21st century security needs or our economic interests. It is clear that our current limitations in this area undermine America’s ability to work with and through partners to confront shared threats and challenges, from terrorism to rogue states to rising powers,” he said in a New York Times article published April 21, 2010.

Coordinated changes in export restrictions will clear the way for the kind of partner nation equipping strategies many of the GSC participants recommend. Such actions usually remain classified until deliveries occur, but coordinating the arrival of equipment to the time of training requirements and prospective operations in up to 40 different countries discussed at the GSC will require robust ability across the GCCs, the conventional services, and the whole of government. The relaxation of restrictions is the beginning of a process of equipping partners that looks to last long into the future and encompassing many adjustments to facilitate the campaign against extremism.

Clearly, the same can be said in fully synchronizing counterterrorism efforts just in DoD, and much further to go in achieving a whole-of-government approach. SOCOM began this process somewhat alone five years ago, and has now achieved an organizational enterprise that has gained the attention, and qualified support, of the DoD and other U.S. government departments.

The knowledge that the GSC process itself exists means SOCOM is prepared for the next phase of the war. Clark indicated that the GSC did meet its overall goals and made recommendations to the “O-10 level” or 4-star level. These recommendations concerned governmental policies that need adjustment in the areas of counterterrorist finance and in tracking illicit networks. One working group recommended actions needed to improve partner training in non-standard rotary wing or NSRW. In simpler language, this means training partners in flying helicopters that are not in the U.S. military inventory, as is necessary when the partner country already has helicopters and needs help in maintenance or tactical night flying. There were also recommendations for senior-leader coordination on several crosscutting, interagency issues that will get attention from NCTC, the National Security Council, and other governmental departments in Washington.

When asked whether the Global Synchronization Conference will continue to meet at SOCOM every six months, the answer came back as a statement of qualifiers. There is a possibility that another agency would offer to host the conference and set up the issues from that agency’s point of view, or that senior leaders may determine that meeting less often will meet the needs of such a forum. That decision will come at a later date. What’s probably most important to know is that indirect methods of fighting terrorist networks are getting serious attention, and the process of prioritization of requirements for aid to key partner nations is already evolving in the interagency and in the DoD. When the indirect approach takes center stage, its actors will be well-rehearsed and ready to take their starring roles.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2010-2011 Edition.


Maj. Gen. Richard Comer (USAF-Ret) spent 32 years on active duty, 17 of which were...