Eight Years of Combat FID: A Retrospective on Special Forces in Iraq

Eight Years of Combat FID

A Retrospective on Special Forces in Iraq

By Chief Warrant Officer 3 Kevin Wells
Originally published in the January-March 2012 edition of Special Warfare

Operation Iraqi Freedom, or OIF, began March 19, 2003. On Dec. 31, 2011, the final day of the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, with the government of Iraq, the war ended. Iraqis wanted United States forces to leave. Any Soldiers staying to train Iraqi Security Forces will not have immunity. That condition alone is a deal-breaker for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

While opinions differ on the pull-out, one thing is certain: An elected Iraqi parliament made the decision. When a new SOFA is reached, the government of Iraq, or GoI, will join the ranks of Middle Eastern countries that have security-cooperation agreements with the U.S. The decision to ask U.S. forces to leave and to return as partners is a successful mark of a functioning democracy in the Middle East.

Internal and external threats still exist in Iraq, but incidents have dropped sharply since their peak in 2007, signaling a semblance of stability. A senior adviser to three U.S. ambassadors compared the numbers, “Iraq is averaging between zero and seven security incidents a day nationwide — compared to 180 per day four years ago.” Many believe a malignant Iranian shadow is at the root of these incidents. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq will test the real effect of the last eight years of reconstruction and efforts of foreign internal defense, or FID.

The next Special Forces operational detachment-alpha, or ODA, traveling to Iraq will support the theater security-cooperation plan of the geographic combatant command, or GCC. The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, and his country team are working on the new SOFA. The country team’s office of security cooperation will focus on several military-to-military relationships (e.g., F-16 support and M-1 Abrams support). Joint combined exchange training, or JCET, exercises should be anticipated for SF ODAs, which signals a return to business as usual for Special Forces Soldiers.

What did SF accomplish?

During OIF, a generation of SF Soldiers came of age. At the outset of the effort, their mission was both unconventional warfare, or UW, and other special operations, or SO. When Saddam Hussein’s regime fell on April 9, 2003, the SF mission switched to FID in support of stability operations.

With the fall of Baghdad came the rise of resilient armed factions who fought U.S. troops for legitimacy and influence over the population of Iraq. SF ODAs played critical roles in OIF from the invasion in March 2003 through the final security operations of Operation New Dawn, having been tasked to help secure the movement of the last 44,000 U.S. forces and their materiel out of Iraq before Jan. 1, 2012.

With unrest increasing in the Middle East and in Africa, SF must capitalize on the past eight years in Iraq. Using the collective knowledge gained, SF will be prepared to serve as this nation’s premier authority for what has been termed “uncomfortable wars.”

Pub 1, the new capstone doctrine of the U.S. Special Operations Command, or USSOCOM, specifically identifies SF as the experts in UW and FID. Pairing UW and FID reflects the synergystic capabilities that allow SF ODAs to disrupt and destroy irregular threats, which by their nature can defeat a conventional approach. No other element of special-operations forces, or SOF, is linked to UW and FID in Pub 1. The U.S. Army Special Operations Command, or USASOC, also identifies UW as the core mission of SF. With the end of operations in Iraq, SF ODAs are better positioned than ever before to successfully engage in irregular warfare. Enemies of the U.S. and her allies will continue to challenge conventional forces with unconventional tactics. Subversion, sabotage and guerrilla warfare are best confronted by a force familiar with the tactics, stages and objectives of insurgencies.

The possession of a UW capability adds an invaluable dimension to the combat FID mission. On the surface, UW might seem to be almost the opposite of FID, but the FID mission is enhanced by UW training and mentality. What disrupts and terrifies the insurgent most are other insurgents hunting him, disrupting his plans and turning the populace against him. Large conventional forces on large bases will not be the insurgents’ principal threat; it will be someone who operates in their backyard.

In Iraq, ODAs conducted FID and too often left most of their UW skills out of the fight. Suffice it to say that in UW, you stay alive by having better intel than your opponent. You surprise him, he never surprises you. Your security lies in the population, not in having a fixed base. Using the UW mentality is the trick to staying on the offensive and keeping the insurgent on the run, thus giving stability operations a chance to succeed.

Opening successes

Where did SF succeed in Iraq? Measuring effectiveness is always challenging when many factors play significant roles.  To win a population, though, a case must be made that you offer them a better future.  Insurgents will make the case clearly, profoundly and personally.  To compete, the United States must deliver the message personally and will need to leave behind a security deposit.    Money will not suffice.  Putting boots on the ground is the unambiguous pledge that the U.S. is all in.  Putting SF teams on the ground in northern Iraq before decisive operations made the case to the Iraqi Kurds that the U.S. would stand with them.

A decisive win: TF Viking. The original plan for a northern front in OIF called for SF to support the ground movement of the 4th Infantry Division. But after Turkey denied the U.S. the use of its airspace and refused to let the U.S. launch an offensive from its territory, the job of holding a 1,200-mile northern front fell to a force of fewer than 1,000 SF Soldiers. The three battalions of Task Force Viking, consisting of Soldiers from the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 10th SF Group and the 3rd Battalion, 3rd SF Group, were given the mission to conduct UW and SO. The plan was to link up with 60,000 Kurdish Peshmerga forces and drive toward Kirkuk, Mosul and Tikrit. The intent was to prevent 13 Iraqi divisions from moving south to support the defense of Baghdad and to prevent the Kurds from taking Kirkuk. In another sensitive mission, Viking Hammer, the 3rd Battalion, 10th SF Group, assaulted the town of Sargat in eastern Iraq, on the Iranian border. Ansar al Islam, a terrorist group associated with al-Qaeda, was the target, along with the prospect of uncovering a weapons factory.

The battle for Debecka crossroads illustrates the combat power of ODAs during the northern invasion. ODAs 044, 391 and 392, with 80 Peshmerga, moved south on April 6, 2003, to control an intersection of the north-south highway between Mosul and Kirkuk and the east-west highway from Erbil. The combined force ran into a minefield, breached it and took the high ground overlooking the crossroads. Soon they were engaged by an armor column of four T-55 tanks and motorized infantry consisting of 150 Iraqi soldiers in eight armored personnel carriers and three trucks. At the height of the battle, friendly fire hit the Kurds’ position, killing 18 and wounding 45. Half of the SF Soldiers went back to treat the wounded, while the rest continued to engage the armor column with M-2 machine guns, M-19 grenade launchers and Javelin antitank weapons. The ODAs held the crossroads, destroyed the reinforced mechanized-infantry company and were instrumental in saving many lives among the wounded Kurds.

At the same time, ODAs from the 5th SF Group were performing missions in the south and west. Forward Operating Base 51, or FOB 51, was tasked to find SCUD missiles and prevent their being launched against Israel. FOB 52 seized terrain and provided intelligence in support of the 5th Corps and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force as they moved north toward Baghdad. ODA 551’s reconnaissance of the Karbala gap supported the advance of the 3rd Infantry Division.

The variety of special operations conducted at the onset of hostilities set a precedent for using SF’s unique talents in a hostile and politically sensitive environment. SF’s close and historic relationship with the Kurds helped control their aspirations while making use of all that the Kurds brought to the fight. Assigning the Kurds to take Kirkuk and its oil fields risked two terrible consequences: There might be no unified Iraq, and perception of a “Kurdistan” could draw Turkey into the fight. SF Soldiers helped restrain the Kurds while maintaining a friendship with them that would provide critical intelligence assets and dependable security forces during the first chaotic years after the fall of Baghdad. SF’s mobility, spearheaded by the 5th SF Group’s well-developed tactics, techniques and procedures, set SF apart on the battlefield as the lightest, most agile and deepest-penetrating armed element. That mobility was sustained throughout OIF.

Advantage lost

OIF was to be accomplished in four phases: Phase I, preparation, would set conditions for neutralizing Iraqi forces; Phase II, shape the battlespace, would require posturing coalition forces to conduct combat operations, degrading Iraqi command-and-control systems and border-security forces, seizing key terrain and countering the threat of theater ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction; Phase III, decisive operations, would include the coalition air campaign, preparatory ground operations and the conventional attack north to Baghdad; Phase IV, post-hostility or stability operations, would cover the transition from major combat to security and stability operations, including humanitarian assistance and reconstruction.1

Although the war was expected to last 90 days, U.S. forces found themselves in Baghdad on April 5, and the regime fell April 9. The war would prove to be far from over, but events moved as if peace was assured. With the war declared over, SF’s mission turned to its familiar peacetime role, FID.  To most, FID meant indirect or direct support.  In Iraq, it would be combat FID.  OIF II was a stability mission but without a unified plan.  ODAs surveyed their terrain, quickly trained-up the closest Iraqi Security Forces, or ISF, and started pushing back against the growing threats.

And what were the threats to stability? The headliners were former regime personalities like Saddam Fedayeen and elements like al-Qaeda affiliates. In truth, the opposing elements of the post-hostility phase would prove to be far tougher to defeat than Saddam’s regular forces. Sunni insurgents, Shiite extremists, criminal opportunists and foreign jihadists answering the call were a part of the early violent mix. Iranian influences with malicious intent were also present from the beginning. There were many other threats to peace: Kurdish encroachment south toward the oil fields around Kirkuk and Kurdish PKK on the border with Turkey represented regional threats to stability. An aging infrastructure, further deteriorated by a decade of embargo, made the populace vulnerable to the idea that they had been better off under Saddam. The insurgent recruiting pool was wide and deep, and the message was the same for all: Infidels are in the land of Islam.

Without a unified plan for Phase IV operations, the force laydown of SF ODAs for OIF II remained fluid as commanders tried to figure out where best to position their forces. Major cities were at the top of the list. Lines of communication and ISF bases were also priorities for receiving ODA protection. The challenge at that point was to develop an ISF from unvetted, inexperienced and generally leaderless personnel. The mantra would soon become “through and with.” Unilateral operations required justification. Iraqis had to take responsibility, but when Ambassador Paul Bremer dissolved the Iraqi army, the ISF had to be started from scratch, and Iraqi troops were highly dependent on ODAs for all phases of their operation.

Sharing battlespace

SF teams soon partnered with newly created units of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, or ICDC, and determined how to operate in coalition force, or CF, battlespace. Relationships were strained, sometimes broken, because there was no agreed-to relationship. Fortunately, someone came up the concept of mutual support vs. operational control or tactical control. That solution created a simple starting place for CF commanders and gave ODAs some breathing room in a CF operational environment. Every battlespace owner was different, and coordination required a “Robin Sage” mentality, meaning earning trust by displaying competence and building rapport.

ODAs became valuable to CF in three areas: transitions, targeting and covering dead space. When victory was declared, the forces that had been exceptionally prepared to win a ground war were told to pack up. For the follow-on forces, ODAs became a helpful guide through the chaos as the war plan fell apart.

Transitions are notorious points of failure in military history. In a mutual-support environment, ODAs naturally ramped-up operations in an attempt to keep enemy elements on the defensive while CF forces conducted a relief-in-place. Living among the populace gave ODAs insight into their area of responsibility, or AOR, that cannot be duplicated by Soldiers living in compounds. Mutual support soon developed into intel fusion and a cooperative relationship. CF often provided quick-reaction support, attached security personnel, sustainment and training facilities that allowed ODAs to push out much further than they could have otherwise. ODAs acted as reception parties for incoming units and the eyes and ears for the AOR and neighboring areas of operations, or AOs. For a new unit on the ground, SF provided a lighthouse in the fog.

The ODAs’ targeting did two things for CF. For CF units that came in with an inexperienced intel shop, the ODA’s aggressive targeting methodology showcased what it takes to conduct successful direct-action operations. Early skepticism evaporated when SF teams were consistently getting a jackpot (right place, right time, right guy). Because ODAs ran with the locals (partner forces, key-leader engagements, presence patrols), their human-intelligence, or HUMINT, networks filled the target intel packets with enough information to produce decisive, discriminate operations. Good intel produced the jackpot with less negative impact on the populace and more impact on enemy cells and networks. So the second benefit of effective, HUMINT-driven, targeting was to keep insurgents on the defensive, allowing CF to retake the initiative.

Building ISF from scratch

A Special Forces Soldier briefs members of the Iraq Special Operations Force Commandos for joint mission training near Baghdad. As a part of the training, the ISOF maintained communications with Iraqi ISR throughout the event. The ISOF and the Soldiers train together to prepare for real missions together in the future. (Photo by Petty Officer Third Class Thomas L. Rosprim)The FID mission would become increasingly important to the Multinational Force-Iraq, or MNF-I, and the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Penninsula, or CJSOTF-AP, as ISF development slowed during the first two years of OIF. The ICDC changed to the Iraqi National Guard and then to the Iraqi Army, or IA. Everyone had their own way of handling it. Development of the Iraqi Police, or IP, lagged. Contractors were used with uneven results. They tended to be advisers, but they would not patrol with the IP the way the ODAs patrolled with their partner forces. From the ODA’s viewpoint, ISF development was ad hoc and relied completely on the expertise and vision of local MNF-I units. Capacity was growing steadily, but not capability. To say the Iraqi fighting force was 50-percent effective would be generous. Again, quality was sacrificed for speed.

The initial plan was to develop an Iraqi army consisting of three light, motorized divisions. Their role, border defense, would be developed over a period of years. The IP would develop separately along a Western model. The Facilities Protection Service was developed to handle threats against infrastructure, but it was too poorly trained and equipped to handle criminal activity, much less an insurgency, and the effort was abandoned. Because the threat of an insurgency was not taken seriously, efforts to develop strong Iraqi security forces did not have the needed priority. Regional MNF-I commands took various approaches and generally considered counterinsurgency to be a low-priority mission. As a result,  it took years for the CF to bring the IA and IP capabilities to handle internal threats. Iraqi special units were the first ISF elements capable of fighting the full array of threats facing the country.

Until 2005, Iraq lacked a comprehensive approach to develop ISF capacity for combating an insurgency. Military units were initially dissolved with little attention paid to the consequences. The IA was getting the attention, not the IP, contrary to the principles of counterinsurgency. Implementers noted no overall plan for ISF development and the lack of unified effort afforded destabilizing forces time to organize and become operational.  People were plugging holes where they found them, and each transfer of authority brought different priorities.

The early strategy was not designed to defeat a Sunni-based insurgency; it was a rush to turn the problem over to the Iraqis as soon as possible. The lack of a COIN strategy might have been due to the search for an exit strategy rather than for a comprehensive approach to security problems. Letting the Iraqis handle their problems became a popular sentiment inside the military and back home. Military training was naturally given priority because police training takes a different skill set. ODAs conducting FID were generally paired with an IA unit, but ODAs instinctively knew that a weak police force provided insurgents and other destabilizing forces freedom of movement. IP elements receiving training and advice from SF were usually SWAT teams. Constant attacks against IP recruiting efforts signaled that the insurgents understood the threat of effective police forces and training. Effective policing is the first line of defense in COIN, special police are the second line, with the military being brought in on large-scale operations. The critical missing piece was a conventional police force.

Iraqi SOF: Enduring contribution

In early 2003, an initiative began to build a national counterterrorism capability called the Iraqi Counterterrorism Force, or ICTF. Billed as a unique Iraqi element that could handle the toughest assignments, the ICTF would train under SF doctrine using SF weapons, and the training became a new mission for select SF companies. SF culled volunteers from different parts of the country, including Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, to train in Jordan for national CT missions. Company B, 2nd Battalion, 3rd SF Group, was the first company assigned to the task. An SF master sergeant who served in that company eight years ago as an SF communications sergeant remembers the soldiers in the multiethnic Iraqi unit as cohesive, and that their abilities after training were comparable to his own after he completed SF’s most challenging shooting school, the Special Forces Advanced Reconnaissance, Target Analysis and Exploitation Techniques Course.

ICTF would become a part of the 1st Iraqi Special Operations Force, or ISOF, a brigade that also included the 36th Commando Battalion, a reconnaissance company and a support company. The Iraqi Special Warfare School, called ISWCS, is fully operational and taking responsibility for the training mission. A second ISOF brigade now contains regional Iraqi SOF battalions. Currently ISOF works apart from the Ministry of Defense, or MoD, under the Counterterrorism Service, which reports to the Iraqi prime minister.

At the same time, the Emergency Response Brigade, or ERB, absorbed Iraqi SWAT elements and became the national asset for handling law-enforcement emergencies. The CJSOTFs paid close attention to the ISOF and the ERB, tasking their staff sections with ensuring that both elements had the best resources in vehicles, radios, weapons and ammo, and helping the Iraqis to identify the most capable Iraqi officers for command of the elite units. Those efforts quickly produced a capable Iraqi CT capability whose elements eventually became regionally oriented to get closer to the population.

The ISOF and ERB, combat-advised by select ODAs and SEAL platoons, were taking the fight to terror cells, foreign fighters and the key leaders and facilitators of the insurgency, regardless of ethnicity. Commanders of both units were reliable and capable leaders, but in early 2011, the ERB commander was arrested for corruption. His replacement removed the most experienced commanders, reducing the ERB’s effectiveness. Now seemingly unwilling to go after Shia targets, the ERB is less likely to be a partner force in the future.

ISOF will likely be the most enduring FID success story for SF. It has had the most consistent attention of any Iraqi military unit. While changes in its leadership could be as problematic as those for the ERB, SF advisers consider sustainment to be the unit’s most likely failure point. It is still the force most capable of striking hard and fast. It is fully capable of unilateral operations, and while outsiders fear the unit could devolve into a secret-police force, eight years of integration with SF has passed on a culture of military professionalism and shown members the need for operating as a legitimate security force in a democracy.

What is next for SF in Iraq? Without a SOFA, the mission will not be one of advising ISOF. The Iraqi government already plans to use contractors to train its air force; it has proposed doing the same for its land forces. Assuming that negotiations eventually allow U.S military trainers, what should SF do next?  The Office of Security Cooperation – Iraq was given the reins as of Oct. 1, 2011.   The future for SF in Iraq will hinge on understanding and supporting the U.S. Embassy security plan. 

Military leaders often speak of key enablers. At this point of the discussion, the key enabler is the seasoned staff officer who can understand and help influence the process. The staff officer can help shape the diplomatic environment and smooth the way for effective use of SF personnel and capabilities in Iraq 2012. The ODA must be positioned to provide the ambassador with options that empower diplomacy and are not restricted to a small glass case with instructions “break in case of emergency.”

Evaluating eight years of effort

As the combat FID mission in Iraq comes to an end, it’s time to evaluate what happened.  There are currently pressing situations that call for seasoned soldiers who can address unconventional threats.  Every foreign engagement should be considered a left-of-zero opportunity to develop the security situation.  Lessons learned in Iraq must be translated into training that will prepare an ODA to conduct appropriate shaping operations in a complex, interagency environment.

The criteria for judging the ODA’s effectiveness will not be metrics.  Metrics can be speculative when attempting to determine causality between SF activities and the level of violent incidents.  Instead, the criteria are based on classic principles of irregular warfare.  Why?  Progress usually comes from working on time-tested fundamentals.

Principles for defeating an insurgency

Sir Robert Thompson’s 1966 study of the basic principles of communist insurgencies and of counterinsurgency, Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experiences from Malaya and Vietnam,2 is predictive of what happened in Iraq. In the book, Thompson asks, “How do communist guerrilla forces survive, and even threaten to prevail over large-scale conventional forces supported by countries whose power, wealth and good intentions are seemingly invincible? And how can they be defeated except at enormous costs in men, money, material and time and without risk of general war?” The reasons for insurgencies always exist when governments fail to protect the populace. Thompson gives six principles of governance that must be followed to defeat an insurgency:

· A government must have a clear political aim: to establish and maintain a free, independent and united country that is politically and economically stable and viable.
· The government must function in accordance with law. That tends to make more sense to common people than the idea of democracy = legitimacy. Security before democracy.
· The government must have an overall plan.
· The government must give priority to defeating the political subversion, not the guerrillas.
· In the guerrilla phase of an insurgency, a government must secure its base areas first.
· Government must demonstrate the determination and capacity to win.

Baghdad would not be like Paris in 1944; it would be more like Mogadishu: no cheering crowds, just people waiting to see which way the wind would blow. U.S. policy in Iraq was not informed by the harsh reality of irregular warfare — it was informed by conventional military doctrine and conventional civilian constructs for government and human rights. It operated under an unrealistic timetable with the most optimistic forecasts. No one should doubt the capability of the Department of Defense, State Department or U.N. agencies. But taking a pragmatic view rather than an idealistic one may cause us to question the merit of speed over security or of human rights over population control. The military wanted to recreate Desert Storm, and the civilian authorities wanted to usher in Western idealism. The doors of freedom swung both ways and thus were wide open to the insurgency. A successful COIN plan requires military and civilian elements to implement one game plan. COIN relies on measured, enduring and often indirect military responses that have an indigenous face.

Evaluating SF on principle

A Special Forces Soldier conducts drills with Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. (U.S. Army photo by CW4 Bob Pennington)Evaluating SF’s FID mission in Iraq based on principles of UW may be the more practical guide for the discussion. The relevant principles listed here were adapted from Thompson’s book.

Balance of forces is one of the most vital issues both for the political stability of the country and for ensuring the full coordination of civilian measures and military operations. “The requirement is for a small, elite, highly disciplined, lightly equipped and aggressive army with supporting air force to make the army highly mobile,” to support the civil government, according to Thompson’s six principles of governance. Unilateral operations against insurgents, especially large ones, will have the benefits of attrition. They will have the drawbacks of providing the enemy with motives and causes to resist. Observers noted that CF units arriving during Phase IV operations were not interested in stability operations. They wanted to fight, not train troops.

Those sentiments existed in a percentage of SF Soldiers who wanted to conduct elite, high-profile and unilateral direct action. However, SF generally acted in the manner in which it was designed to act: as a small, disciplined, aggressive force. With the aid of special-operations air assets, and using ISOF, SF was always highly mobile and able to react quickly with appropriate force. Using SF in an overall FID mission will keep the balance of forces in line with COIN principles.

Seizing and keeping the initiative was the reason for speed in war planning. The areas of the country bypassed created pockets of resistance that quickly seized the initiative as CF transitioned to a nebulous post-hostility mission. Each ODA hit the ground, picked up whatever ISF they could find, simultaneously trained them while developing and prosecuting targets.. During transitions, however, a wide divergence of methods and objectives between two ODAs in the same AOR could be counterproductive. (The creation of the Coalition Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan smoothed out transitions between the two SF groups running the CJSOTF-AP.) Otherwise, SF ODAs performed as advertised. They sought out the enemy and kept pressure on him for eight years.

COIN has little chance of success without a systematic intelligence effort. It is no hyperbole to say that there wasn’t a more productive gatherer of HUMINT in Iraq than the 12-man ODA. SF’s freedom of movement was envied by other intel collectors who needed high-profile security support to get outside the wire. Living with the population, combined with an organic intel-processing capability, provided a reliable, constant stream for U.S. consumers of intelligence. SF contributions to intel-collection and -dissemination were a linchpin that allowed SF and CF to work well together in OIF and Operation New Dawn. To an ODA, “mutual support” always meant getting ground truth to their CF partners. SF also contributed to a common intel picture by maintaining communications across AORs and between units. Lateral dissemination of time-sensitive intelligence, something difficult between large units, is structurally easier for an ODA, and it showed. An outsider may point to SF’s intel-collection efforts as its main achievement in OIF.

Practical action at the lowest level is always a part of successful COIN, because the enemy will thrive on the bureaucratic inefficiencies. The population will respect (or fear) small-unit activity, whether it supports or subverts the government. As should be expected, a small, free-roaming SF element will only expand CF’s ability to stay on top of problems. Whether it was nonlethal aid to a village or a quick response to an attack on an Iraqi police station, ODAs routinely would take action rather than simply play the observer.  They were sometimes imperfect but never inert.  Because they conduct their own mission analysis and are inherently risk-takers, ODAs are the match for of an aggressive and well-trained insurgent cell. As such, they are the smallest element that understands and counteracts the effect of enemy activity on a population. This was especially true where ODAs assumed responsibility for an Iraqi population.

ODAs were also particularly good at cultural sensitivity. Living with Iraqis, hiring Iraqi guards and using local translators and cooks brought firsthand experience with Iraqis of all faiths and socio-economic levels. ODAs conducted key-leader engagements with tribal, military, police and government leaders, expanding their understanding of the Iraqi ways of thinking vs. a generic Middle Eastern mindset. That understanding helped build many cooperative relationships and developed Iraqi solutions rather than American ones.

Police vs. army. Police are better than the army at developing internal security intelligence. One weakness in the evolving SF approach to building security capacity was the tendency to focus on SWAT teams rather than on ordinary police officers. There are levels of policing needed to fight an insurgency. The national force is the least important. The local SWAT teams are the second least important. The most critical element of policing, and the one insurgents cannot bear, is a local beat cop. He knows his neighborhood. When possible, he should conduct the arrest, with special units in the wings.

Circumstances made training police difficult. The police had been infiltrated. SF was not trained to build a police force, and contractors were being paid to do it. Working combined operations with a police lead had many problems. Typically they were compromised. It was common to find contracted trainers who were too risk-averse to accompany their police on patrols or missions. It’s also a problem for SF to accompany police in gun trucks and full kit. You don’t want a military signature with the police.

Insurgency grows naturally; COIN does not. COIN requires a methodical clear-and-hold strategy.  Clear and hold requires an effective local constabulary and local support of the government before expanding.  Village-stability operations in Afghanistan are an example of a clear-and-hold strategy.  The key is protecting the population and getting them invested in their government (and not a U.S. program).  No one should underestimate the difficulty of implementing this kind of strategy.  Search-and-destroy missions are preferred because they produce measurable results and require little adaptation of conventional military units.  Clear-and-hold relies on small units with civilian counterparts and police as the first line of defense — all unorthodox structures for the military.  ODAs in small towns had the freedom to pursue a clear-and-hold strategy, but their efforts were isolated.  CF and other government agencies operating in the same area could have completely different agendas.  As time passed, SF units moved more toward a search-and-destroy strategy against enemy networks. At the end, SF ODAs were partnered with Iraqi National SOF, living on bases and  distant from the Iraqi populace. 

Targeting priorities are subject to local politics. The principle states that guerrillas are second to the subversives. Was SF better than 50/50 on following that principle? SF worked diligently to pressure nets and cells, targeting identified leaders and enablers, not just the low-hanging fruit. When it came to attacking the enemy’s lethal activities (high-profile attacks or assassinations), SF did well. Against nonlethal enemy efforts to subvert, SF’s performance was uneven. Two facts work against SF countering subversion and sabotage well: One, we do not train for it. UW involves running a guerrilla force and conducting subversion and sabotage. SF trains on guerrilla activities (what Thompson argues is the least critical element). SF thinks of sabotage as simply blowing up lines of communication. How do you counter subversion if you cannot do it yourself?

Another reason targeting will tend toward lethal activities is that water flows downhill. Raids are simple (almost a battle drill) and measurable, and they win lots of “attaboys.” How do you successfully impugn an insurgent leader’s reputation? How do you measure that effect? It is doable, but it is challenging, and success demands ultimate secrecy. That’s all very hard to manage, but our opponent does it every day. Failing to train to some level of proficiency in these black arts translates to giving the opposition free reign.

Securing the people is the key, rather than territory or body counts. At the start of OIF, ODAs were heavily engaged with Kurds, Shias and Arab Sunnis. Key-leader engagements focused on all aspects of culture, from the small-town police chief to the heads of the dominant tribes in Iraq. Few constraints existed, and an ODA could easily use a full-spectrum approach. A raid one evening could easily be followed by a Civil Affairs engagement the next day in the same village.

As the insurgency grew in organization and lethality, ODAs were brought into FOBs, giving them a safe and significant distance from the population. As FID evolved into working only with ISOF, the mission lost the flexibility to get close to the populace. SF garnered a whack-a-mole reputation and fell into a war of attrition in its primary mission of pressuring enemy networks. Ancillary activities did build working relationships with Iraqis, but those were generally off the radar if they did not produce actionable intelligence. Creating a safe distance from the populace has the unwanted second-order effect of allowing insurgents access to that key base.


Special Forces went back to its roots in Iraq. Members of the 1st Special Forces Group serve as advisers to Iraqi commandos. (Photo by MC3 Thomas L. Rosprim)Thompson said, “Experience shows that legitimacy is the most important single dimension in a war against subversion.”4 There is a need to establish the legitimacy of the threatened government. Factors of legitimacy are the populace’s acceptance (tribe, ethnic group, community) of government’s policies and actions. Are they moral? Are they just? Al-Qaeda in Iraq lost its legitimacy in Anbar because it considered the Islamic movement more important than the community. It was willing to assassinate the ruling elite without understanding the effect. They didn’t understand because they were not local, but transnational. “Through and with” is critical for keeping the U.S. from supplying second- or third-order effects that undermine the legitimacy of the government.

While building a national SOF provides the Iraqis with a potent DA capability, it must work in coordination with the local constabulary to ensure that targets are legitimate and that the right message is delivered to the community. Whenever you have a national asset, a stay-behind element is critical to judge the effect of operations, specifically, whether the action improved the situation or played into the hands of the insurgents. In Iraq, that element could be a CA element or a local commander providing funds from the Commander’s Emergency Relief Program to pay for damages. It should be an Iraqi policeman or local government official who can judge the reaction and manage consequences while reinforcing confidence in the government’s ability to protect that community.


Iraq exists, and the soldiers of the Iraqi Special Operations are key to its continued stability. (U.S. Army photo)The ODA compares well with other small SOF units when it comes to direct-action and special-reconnaissance missions. The ODA’s core mission, UW, and the associated skill sets needed to conduct special operations in the context of irregular warfare, makes the ODA a uniquely qualified force. Considering the fact that there are 360 active-duty ODAs to provide GCC with a force that can provide the persistent presence needed to counter irregular threats worldwide, it seems that the ODA should be the most qualified force. Is it?

UW may be defined as a spectrum of operations that by nature have long duration and are conducted through an irregular force. So it is different from FID. To define it as the opposite of FID, though, is counterproductive, because it leads to the attitude that the two missions are mutually exclusive. They are interrelated.  On the cusp of many FID missions is a denied, hostile area that require UW-skilled personnel to penetrate.It may require the most delicate, indirect approach. It will require imagination. So, while we are conducting FID in country X, an unconventional mentality with an array of UW skills will set up opportunities for left-of-zero activities. Until zero hour comes, it may be difficult to produce the metrics to prove that SF activities prevent conflict, but zero hour will come someday and somewhere. Being unprepared would be costly.

UW must be more than a collection of operations; it must be the way SF thinks, behaves and trains. When a team returns from a JCET, one of its gold standards should be a thorough assessment. The country team should be pouring coffee for Green Berets late at night to ensure that the assessment is done before the team gets on the plane. That assessment should reflect the limits of that team’s capability. If the team is properly trained, it will, because ODAs will have the skills, imagination and vision to live in the enemy’s domain.

Vision must be informed by national policy. UW operations require great discernment, unity of effort and patience. That kind of operational maturity is underwritten by a thorough understanding of current security strategies as well as a persistent presence in a region. Without authorities, a team will not know its limits and could easily exceed them, or it might operate well below what is allowed and miss critical opportunities to interdict a problem.

The combat FID mission in Iraq is over. ODAs aggressively attacked enemies of the U.S. and the GoI, anytime, anyplace. How do you measure their effectiveness? Iraq exists. There were some terrible losses and incredible frustrations with circumstances seemingly outside of SF’s control. While it would be easy to blame circumstances in OIF for what SF did not accomplish, SF Soldiers should refrain from criticism toward outsiders. Keep the party line. Iraq exists. Now, SF should keep moving and strive to be one step ahead of the enemy, never forgeting our roots and working always to be in the right place at the right time, wherever threats to our national security can develop. The right time is pre-conflict, the further left-of-zero the better. To accomplish that, the FID mission will continue to be the peacetime mission that turns a 12-man ODA into a strategic asset. A UW mentality, which is back in ascendancy, needs development and risk-takers. Training and thinking UW all along the way will stage an ODA on a potential battlefield long before the threat develops, at best preventing a costly conflict, at least setting the conditions to prevail.


This article argues that keeping to our roots and truly being the nation’s experts at UW will produce a higher magnitude of operational success in support of the country’s worldwide security objectives. At this moment, there is a concerted effort to get back on track with UW as the core mission of SF. After years of focusing on special reconnaissance and direct action; after recruiting a generation of Green Berets who found their best moment in kit, in a stack, waiting for the breach; after working since Vietnam to get back into the good graces of the conventional Army, SF has much to do to become the unquestioned UW experts.

We must expend effort on many different levels, from the nation’s capitol to Camp Mackall. Values must change. Failure of imagination must receive the same feedback as shooting the hostage in a training shoot-house scenario.  We must be able to appreciate the Green Beret, not some cookie-cutout operator. We have the talent. Retooling is happening. Leaders need to continue to shape the picture of what it means to be the experts in UW, because it is a complex concept.

A joint-pub definition does not sell to a country team that perceives its country as peaceful. A broad UW skillset has abundant peacetime applications for a GCC and a country team.  Those applications need to be explained up front to avoid the perception that UW is simply about sabotage, subversion, and guerrilla warfare.

Ask 10 Green Berets to explain UW. Ask them how they would employ it in their region. Ask them for the mission-essential task list. The answers will point to holes in our program that need filling quickly. Ask 10 members of Congress to explain the value of UW to this nation’s security interests. Better yet, ask 10 ambassadors how UW can help them. When we get to a 70-percent pass rate for those questions, we’ll be well on our way to developing a left-of-zero capability that puts Green Berets where they are meant to be, working though and with indigenous people, their security forces and their government to prevent oppression, or in places of conflict, to operate in the denied areas to disrupt, dislocate and drain the enemy’s will to fight.  

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Kevin Wells recently visited Iraq, assessing Special Forces elements conducting foreign internal defense. He served four combat tours in Iraq with the 10th Special Forces Group and currently works in Special Forces Doctrine Development at the United States Army JFK Special Warfare Center and School.


Dr. Charles Briscoe, et al., All Roads Lead to Baghdad: Army Special Operations Forces in Iraq (Fort Bragg, N.C.: USASOC History Office, 2006), 455.

Sir Robert G.K. Thompson, Defeating a Communist Insurgency: Experiences in Malaya and Vietnam (London: Chatto & Windus, 2nd edition, 1966).

Max G. Manwaring, ed., Uncomfortable Wars: Toward a New Paradigm of Low Intensity Conflict (Boulder Colo.: Westview Press, 1991), 20.

THIS issue

January-March 2012
Volume 25 | Issue 1

Special Warfare cover, January-March 2012

Special Warfare

Special Warfare is an authorized, official quarterly publication of the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, N.C. Its mission is to promote the professional development of special-operations forces by providing a forum for the examination of established doctrine and new ideas.

Views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect official Army position. This publication does not supersede any information presented in other official Army publications.