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Regional Understanding and 
Unity of Effort 

Applying the Global SOF Network 
in Future Operating Environments 
Communications 

BY CHRISTOPHER VARHOLA 

T he convergence of popular wars, ethnic and religious conflict, ideological extremism, and 
competition over diminishing resources are "messy" scenarios that defy prescriptive solu¬ 
tions. Yet this messiness is what increasingly defines today's operating environment, requir¬ 
ing adaptive combinations of knowledge and action within a unified interagency framework. In 
this context, Special Operations Forces (SOF), to include Information Operations and Civil Affairs, 
plays an increasingly active and necessary role. To this end, "the global SOF network vision con¬ 
sists of a globally networked force of SOF, interagency allies and partners able to rapidly respond 
to, and persistently address, regional contingencies and threats to stability." 1 The success of both 
the conventional military and the global SOF network requires sustained regional expertise for 
success in future operating environments, as well as institutionalized relationships with inter¬ 
agency partners born from mutual respect, common interests, and a shared understanding of the 
operating environment. This article proposes an increased emphasis on understanding both the 
institutional and geo-cultural operating environments. In theory, this is nothing new, but in real¬ 
ity, it requires a shift in the ways we look at military education, senior leaders, and strategic 
expectations. 

Overseas military operations in today's operating environment are frequently coordinated 
and conducted in U.S. embassies, each of which represents an interagency task force that seeks 
to gather information, promote development, empower allies, and disrupt terrorist networks 

COL Christopher Varhola, USAR has a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology and is a Joint Special 
Operations University Senior Fellow. In addition to multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan 
as a Civil Affairs officer, he is an African Foreign Area Officer who has lived and worked throughout 
Africa for the past fifteen years. 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


FEATURES | 49 


VARHOLA 


through both direct and indirect activities. It is 
accepted that the U.S. military, to include SOF, 
needs to operate in joint, interagency, intergov¬ 
ernmental, and multinational (JIIM) environ¬ 
ments, as well as in volatile, uncertain, and 
ambiguous (VUCA) situations. These concepts 
join the dustbin of hollow buzzwords, how¬ 
ever, if they are not realized through institu¬ 
tionalized emphasis and mechanisms for 
operational application. It is not enough to say 
something is "complex." There must be efforts 
to understand the elements of that complexity. 
This is particularly the case with SOF, which 
must possess the dual capability of interacting 
with conventional counterparts and operating 
effectively out of U.S. embassies throughout 
the world. With this in mind, no matter how 
proficient SOF is in direct action, SOF will ulti¬ 
mately be unsuccessful without the participa¬ 
tion of other entities, to include U.S. embassy 
country teams, Geographic Combatant 
Commands (GCCs), and in most cases, part¬ 
ner nations. 

Interagency 

Military success in dealing with other govern¬ 
ment agencies must go beyond tired cliches of 
different institutional cultures. Like any objec¬ 
tification of culture, there will exist certain 
simplistic elements of truth in such character¬ 
izations. Even where broad ends are compati¬ 
ble, different ways and means result in inter¬ 
agency approaches that may seem to favor 
some and marginalize others. However, inter¬ 
agency relations are obscured by a more com¬ 
plex reality in which geopolitical context, per¬ 
sonality, and variable levels of experience and 
competence carry a heavy influence. While 
interagency accommodation and integration 
is incumbent on all agencies, some types of 
military activities, such as training of host 


nation military forces contribute to the gradual 
transformation that the Department of State is 
often trying to promote. Other activities may 
be seen as undermining it. 

State Department efforts at transforma¬ 
tional diplomacy seek to change governments 
through a stimulation of civil society and dem¬ 
ocratic processes, not armed conflict. 2 Defense 
institution building (DIB) is an important ele¬ 
ment of these efforts. Here the military pro¬ 
vides sought after expertise. The use of U.S. 
embassies as nodes in other than declared the¬ 
aters of conflict (ODTAC), however, represents 
a new paradigm that is contrary to the tradi¬ 
tional steady-state mission of the U.S. State 
Department (DOS), and can cause friction 
with foreign partner nations. In these situa¬ 
tions, military forces must have authorities and 
a clear mission. Authorities give actions legiti¬ 
macy and legal standing. Absent relevant 
authorities, interagency integration will be 
challenging regardless of the skills and prepa¬ 
ration of military members. Even with clear 
authorities, uncertainty about how to accom¬ 
plish mission sets without undesirable unin¬ 
tended consequences demands interagency 
effectiveness. This is not an intuitive process, 
but rather one that requires multiple institu¬ 
tional perspectives and the balancing of diplo¬ 
matic risk in relation to military objectives. 

A lack of authorities, competition, or lack 
of clarity between DOS and Department of 
Defense (DOD) results in predictable and 
avoidable entrenchment in perceived institu¬ 
tional imperatives. This is particularly the case 
for interagency dynamics at U.S. embassies, 
where the U.S. military risks a reputation for 
attempting to implement plans that do not 
take host nation government structures and 
long-term U.S. interests into account. Along 
these lines, polarized tension between DOD, 


50 | FEATURES 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


REGIONAL UNDERSTANDING AND UNITY OF EFFORT 


to include SOF, and chiefs of mission has been 
common in the last twenty years. It is common 
to hear DOD personnel talk of anti-military 
ambassadors, as well as State Department per¬ 
sonnel talking of military personnel who cre¬ 
ate problems and then leave. Areas of conten- 
tion include Chief of Mission versus 
Combatant Commander authorities concern¬ 
ing security and force protection requirements, 
reporting chains, and limiting DOD assets on 
where they can go, who they can interact with, 
and what they can do. This tension is good 
when based on clear understandings and hon¬ 
est communication; however, the tension is 
destructive and cyclical when based on inher¬ 
ited personality conflicts and dogmatic posi¬ 
tions. 

In this respect, success in JIIM needs to 
begin with recognizing, understanding, utiliz¬ 
ing, and empowering the structures that are 
already in existence. Every country that has a 
U.S. embassy already has a functioning inter¬ 
agency structure in the form of a country team. 
A failure by DOD elements to understand its 
role and functions in turn undermines the 
interagency process. The Senior Defense 
Official/Defense Attache (SDO/DATT) repre¬ 
sents DOD on the country team and provides 
a conduit for all other DOD elements, to 
include Special Operations Forces Liaison 
Elements (SOFLEs) and senior leaders. In the¬ 
ory, no DOD activity should be planned with¬ 
out close coordination with the SDO/DATT. 
Both at embassies and the GCCs, Foreign Area 
Officers (FAOs) are the lynchpin between SOF, 
the GCC, the host nation, and the country 
team. The simplistic antagonisms that some¬ 
times exist between GCC staffs, the Theater 
Special Operations Command (TSOC), and 
ambassadors are all too frequently a failure to 
adequately empower and understand the role 


of the SDO/DATTs, who, more often than not, 
have the experience and knowledge of the 
operational context as well as knowledge of 
the multiple personalities involved. This places 
the burden on defense attaches to understand 
military campaign plans and embassy 
Integrated Country Strategies (ICS) and inte¬ 
grate these with the nuances and challenges 
inherent to distinct countries within the con¬ 
text of international and regional dynamics 
and implications. Choreographed meetings 
and rigid office calls do little to overcome 
interagency tensions. Rather, it takes sustained 
trust and confidence-building through regular 
and meaningful interactions. 

For instance, a senior leader, staff officer, 
or operator who has inherited a mission set 
with little preparation or regional understand¬ 
ing will not be able to effectively "sell it'' to an 
ambassador or country team, thus inviting 
time consuming micromanagement and over¬ 
sight. In the same regard, operators who have 
had specialized training in various forms of 
tradecraft and informational skillsets cannot 
expect to be equally adept in multiple regions. 
This has proven problematic in the United 
States Africa Command (AFRICOM) area of 
responsibility (AOR), where individuals fresh 
from the Middle East or Afghanistan are faced 
with entirely new institutional and social oper¬ 
ating environments. This places them in an 
unequal role with interagency counterparts, 
with the added pressure to achieve results in a 
four, six, or nine month rotation, causing per¬ 
sonal frustration and exacerbating interagency 
tension. 

This is aggravated by unclear military 
command and control structures and the dif¬ 
ferent operating approaches and mandates of 
different SOF elements and GCCs. If the U.S. 
military is unable to achieve internal unity of 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


FEATURES | 51 


VARHOLA 


effort, it is unrealistic to expect that military 
units and activities can be efficiently integrated 
into interagency dynamics. SOF activities often 
require the approval and support of both the 
U.S. ambassador and the host nation, which 
in turn requires that their activities be synchro¬ 
nized with both Theater Campaign Plans 
(TCPs) and embassy ICSs. Even for SOF ele¬ 
ments operating outside of the TCP, coordina¬ 
tion and synchronization of efforts within an 
interagency framework is still necessary. In 
both cases, SOF needs to bring regional exper¬ 
tise and credible plans that further the TCP 
and make it into a credible operational blue¬ 
print as opposed to a remote, wordy document 
with little real world application that does not 
reflect the richness of diverse operating envi¬ 
ronments. 

Such richness can also be lost when com¬ 
plexity is reduced to "lines of effort" that uti¬ 
lize critical events and decisive points to reflect 
multifaceted and converging events. Whereas 
these are useful in mapping out a command¬ 
er's intent, such approaches run the risk of 
portraying decontextualized and irrelevant 
indicators as opposed to a meaningful progres¬ 
sion towards national security objectives. 
Military agreements between the U.S. and 
various African countries provide a case in 
point. In a recent example, a "partner nation" 
in Africa agreed to host an American military 
training team to conduct training on intelli¬ 
gence sharing and collection. However, three 
days before the event was scheduled to start, 
the host nation stated it would cancel the 
training if the Americans did not pay a particu¬ 
lar caterer thousands of dollars to provide 
meals for the students. This presented a chal¬ 
lenge in that the United States did not have the 
authorities to pay for subsistence. Creative 
interagency funding was nonetheless patched 


together and the training was executed. The 
fact that the training was secondary to the 
bribe is a sound indicator that this did not 
reflect an advanced military to military rela¬ 
tionship between the United States and this 
country. This, however, was lost on both senior 
U.S. military and State Department leadership, 
which both insisted that the training was too 
important to cancel. 

On the contrary, this indicated the low 
esteem that the particular host nation placed 
on the training and on relations with the 
United States. As leadership and staff officers 
rotate out of embassies and AFRICOM, this 
training event nonetheless will likely be 
reduced to a historical data point inaccurately 
reflecting a growing and enhanced partnership. 
Rather, the event reflected the manner in which 
the United States was seen more as a source of 
revenue that could be manipulated, than as a 
strategic partner. Nevertheless, this was a "crit¬ 
ical event" that needed to be accomplished to 
give the impression of close military to mili¬ 
tary relations and to accomplish the tasks asso¬ 
ciated with a particular line of effort. 

In this regard, "one size fits all" 
approaches to multiple countries are inade¬ 
quate. Even seemingly straightforward under¬ 
takings such as military assistance and training 
will differ significantly from country to coun¬ 
try based on civil military relations and atti¬ 
tudes towards the U.S. The stark contrast 
between Kenya and Ethiopia provides an 
example. 

The complexities become magnified for 
activities such as disarmament, demobiliza¬ 
tion, and reintegration (DDR), which most 
often involve multiple zones of contention 
along ethnic, religious, political, and economic 
lines. Techniques that were successful in 
Liberia, for example, will not necessarily be 


52 I FEATURES 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


REGIONAL UNDERSTANDING AND UNITY OF EFFORT 


successful in larger heterogeneous conflicts 
such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo 
(DRC) and South Sudan. Similarly, techniques 
that garnered success ten years ago in a specific 
operating environment are unlikely to still be 
applicable. The better approach is to stress the 
lessons from previous experience (both suc¬ 
cesses and failures) in a manner that is tailored 
to the specificities of new and changing operat¬ 
ing environments. While this may seem like a 
splitting of hairs, it is not. On the contrary, it 
reflects a level of maturity and capability that 
directly impacts the degree of autonomy that 
will be afforded by the country team and 
ambassador. Here the SDO/DATT must play 
the role of enabler and honest broker (and 
must be empowered to do so). Every country 
is unique and success rests on adapting exist¬ 
ing means in a way that matches unique socio¬ 
political dynamics. 

Moreover, in conflict, action bereft of 
regional understanding is more likely to have 
cascading negative results. Iraq and 


Afghanistan are cases in point, as is Somalia. 
In 1993, for example, the targeting of a meet¬ 
ing of elders from Mohammed Farah Aidid's 
ITabr Gidr clan seemed logical from a simplis¬ 
tic link analysis point of view. However, some 
of the individuals killed in the strike were 
opposed to Aideed and were engaged in peace 
discussions with the United Nations. 3 The net 
result of the strike, rather than removing 
sources of instability, was to exacerbate and 
polarize the conflict between the United States 
and a broader Somali society as well as remov¬ 
ing a social structure that could have contrib¬ 
uted to a cessation of hostilities. In the wake 
of the chaos that followed, the rise of the 
Union of Islamic Courts contributed to some 
degree of stability, albeit one that mixed grass¬ 
roots support with links to international ter¬ 
rorism. Yet the removal of the Union of Islamic 
Courts by Ethiopia with U.S. support resulted 
in the rise of the even more extreme al-Sha- 
baab. 4 



An abandoned Mogadishu Street known as the Green Line, Jan 1993. In conflict action bereft of regional 
understanding is more likely to have cascading negative effects. 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


FEATURES | 53 


PHI R. Oriez 




VARHOLA 


Ongoing efforts against al-Shabaab have 
resulted in a multipolar conflict in which U.S. 
interests and regional stability are intertwined 
with an increasingly fragile and tense coalition 
of African states that is bolstered by U.S. SOF 
and supported with security cooperation 
efforts by Combined Joint Task Force - Horn 
of Africa (CJTF-HOA) and U.S. Africa 
Command. The military defeat of al-Shabaab 
is certainly attainable, but again, it is uncertain 
how the vacuum they leave will be filled. 
Herein lies the importance of aligning multi¬ 
national military, diplomatic, and develop¬ 
ment efforts in a manner that meets the inter¬ 
ests of the Somali people, neighboring 
countries, the international community, and 
the United States. That is a far more uncertain 
proposition than the destruction of a terrorist 
network. 

Regional 

Despite its importance, the military has been 
stymied in efforts to institutionalize and apply 
regional expertise. The U.S. military's need for 
regional understanding became readily appar¬ 
ent in World War II, when the Army found 
itself fighting in diverse locations that included 
Western Europe, North Africa, China, and mul- 
tiple distinct Pacific island settings. 
Miscalculations in Korea, Vietnam, 
Afghanistan, and Iraq later reinforced this 
need. As the world's population approaches 
eight billion people, there is no strategically 
relevant land area that does not possess mul¬ 
tiple complex and changing population 
groups. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cre¬ 
ated a newfound but short-lived and rudimen¬ 
tary emphasis on studying the culture of for¬ 
eign operating environments, but these were 
largely limited to specific campaigns or generic 
examinations of culture. 


Like Somalia in the 1990s and at present, 
Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s proved to 
be exceedingly complex battlegrounds and 
polities, overlaid with difficult languages and 
unfamiliar cultures. As such, operationally 
sound regional understanding needs to go 
beyond broad discussions of "culture" that 
objectify other peoples. They also need to go 
beyond basic forms of cross-cultural compe¬ 
tence, abstract learning about "culture," and 
superficial social understandings. Culture, 
although important, is a challenging and often 
inappropriate unit of analysis for military 
plans and operations. To be effective, the cur¬ 
rent U.S. military mindset that anyone can go 
anywhere to do anything having only read a 
book or two and gotten a 30-minute cultural 
briefing needs to be discarded. 

Regional expertise must also go beyond 
individual knowledge. It must include institu¬ 
tional knowledge that maintains continuity 
between rotational forces. Even where a base¬ 
line of regional knowledge does exist, this 
must be constantly updated through method¬ 
ologically sound approaches that are woven 
into the tactical, operational, and strategic 
fabrics. Although the conventional military 
may earmark certain units for a particular 
AOR, this is in a manner that lacks personnel 
continuity or institutionalized training. It 
seems unlikely that the broader conventional 
force has the will to change this, despite con¬ 
versations concerning the role and importance 
of regionally aligned forces. Rotations of field 
grade officers in and out of the GCCs, compo¬ 
nent commands, and sub-unified commands, 
assures that the personnel system will continue 
to staff the regionally aligned headquarters 
with exceptional soldiers, pilots, and surface 
warfare officers who have had no training or 
appreciable experience in a given region. 


54 | FEATURES 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


REGIONAL UNDERSTANDING AND UNITY OF EFFORT 


Moreover, in AFRICOM, which is based in 
Germany, continuity is undermined by the 
five-year rotation of civilian workers. This all 
but guarantees that an already limited supply 
of Africa specialists will not be able to entrench 
itself in a GCC that is still maturing. This lin¬ 
gering gap in U.S. military capability and the 
ongoing U.S. Army belief that the use of force, 
common sense, and solid planning are suffi¬ 
cient for success anywhere in the world can be 
likened to the U.S. unwillingness to create a 
separate Armor corps until 1940, France's reli¬ 
ance on the Maginot Line, and the notion that 
French elan could achieve success in 1914. 

Herein lies a key comparative advantage 
of SOF within the U.S. military. SOF has the 
advantage of regionally aligning forces and 
thus plays a valuable role in comprehending 
multifaceted social settings. SOF has empha¬ 
sized the importance of the human domain of 
warfare, which SOCOM defines as "the totality 
of the physical, cultural, and social environ¬ 
ment that influence human behavior in a pop¬ 
ulation-centric conflict." 5 However, even 
within SOF, the ongoing campaigns in Iraq 
and Afghanistan have diluted the emphasis on 
regional expertise. SOF does not have enough 
trained operators to be everywhere at once. As 
a result, the campaigns in Afghanistan and 
Iraq required a surge of all SOF. This came at 
the expense of building a generation of SOF 
regional expertise in other parts of the world. 
Crises in places as diverse as the Horn of 
Africa, Syria, and Afghanistan require special¬ 
ized approaches and languages that account 
for the socio-economic structural underpin¬ 
nings and motivations for conflict. This has 
renewed relevance in an increasingly multipo¬ 
lar world and in the midst of seemingly persis¬ 
tent conflict, where building relations and 
empowering regional states and organizations 


are logical remedies and are rightly a key ele¬ 
ment of U.S. diplomatic efforts and SOF activ¬ 
ities. 

Regional expertise and the ability to work 
with interagency partners have gained 
increased importance in what Fareed Zakaria 
refers to as the "post-American world." Zakaria 
posits an international domain in which U.S. 
supremacy is relatively less in the face of grow¬ 
ing regional powers and organizations. 6 As a 
result, U.S. freedom of action is reduced and 
requires coordination and permission from 
partner/host nations and regional organiza¬ 
tions. Paradoxically, SOF will increasingly find 
itself in regional or institutional situations 
where there is a greater need for freedom of 
action, but their actions will be under tenuous 
control by foreign governments that do not 
necessarily welcome an open and armed U.S. 
presence. In such situations, seamless inter¬ 
agency integration becomes a practical require¬ 
ment, as opposed to a lofty objective or topic 
of instruction. 

Despite the relative decline of U.S. influ¬ 
ence, strategic access and combatting violent 
extremism remain cornerstones of our national 
security interests. With political limitations on 
"boots on the ground," furthering these inter¬ 
ests requires strategic partnerships and the 
empowerment of regional actors. The use of 
strategic partners, though, cannot assume that 
these partners have the same interests, and to 
some extent, values, as us. This has proved 
troublesome in situations as diverse as the 
Diem government in Vietnam, Ethiopia, El 
Salvador, the former Zaire, Somalia, and 
Pakistan, as well as with opium-dealing war- 
lord police chiefs and governors in 
Afghanistan. These approaches have often 
deteriorated into overly obvious forms of 
transactional diplomacy, rife with corruption 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


FEATURES | 55 


VARHOLA 


and often resulting in divisiveness, despite U.S. 
intentions of fostering inclusive civil societies. 
Transactional diplomacy accordingly goes only 
as far as we are willing to pay. As we have come 
to realize in places such as Djibouti, Pakistan, 
and Kyrgyzstan, the amount to maintain the 
transaction is by no means fixed. After the ini¬ 
tial investment, proxies have a stronger bar¬ 
gaining position to demand more resources, 
such as payment for basing rights, and to 
diverge significantly from U.S. interests. 

Whereas this falls primarily in the realm 
of diplomacy and is a strategic problem with 
no readily apparent solution, senior military 
leaders must still be aware of the larger context 
and be able to question inappropriate or one¬ 
sided military-to-military relationships. 
Although the United States might have had 
little choice but to provide continued military 
support in places such as Vietnam, Iraq, and 
Afghanistan, caution should be exercised in 
blindly acquiescing to host nation demands, 
especially where they involve a lack of recipro¬ 
cal commitment to sustainability, defense 
institution building, and confidence-building. 
Military agreements and assistance packages 
may seem like logical metrics to reflect close 
security cooperation, but this is likewise obvi¬ 
ous to host nations, which in turn are in an 
advantageous position to drive a lopsided bar¬ 
gain while not adhering to the spirit of the 
agreements. This harms the United States in its 
ability to exert future influence and under¬ 
mines its moral credibility with oppressed 
population groups. 

The use of proxies and the maintenance of 
transactional diplomacy may reduce, but does 
not obviate, the need for unified action in haz- 
ardous areas. The 2010 Quadrennial 
Diplomacy and Development Review 
(QDDR), for example, stressed the importance 


of increased civilian control and proposed that 
the State Department should operate more 
effectively in dangerous environments and to 
expand these efforts "despite the heightened 
risks." 7 Similarly, USAID brings money to a 
fight and often sends development specialists 
with an admirable knowledge of a given 
region. Economic development, humanitarian 
aid, and promoting civil society are indispens¬ 
able elements in conflict resolution and stabi¬ 
lization. However, these activities can only go 
so far, especially if they do not seamlessly 
blend with military and security consider¬ 
ations. The U.S. Department of State is not the 
British Colonial Service, but rather an agency 
charged with maintaining diplomatic relations 
with a host nation's ministry of foreign affairs. 
Foreign Service Officers in DOS and USAID are 
not recruited, trained, or prepared to operate 
in combat zones, much less to piece societies 
back together in the midst of conflict. 

The 2012 Benghazi attack clarified for the 
State Department that an acceptance of height¬ 
ened risk equates to an acceptance of casual¬ 
ties. In the aftermath of Benghazi, the State 
Department has largely backtracked on this 
approach and has increased restrictions in haz¬ 
ardous environments, with Somalia being a 
case in point. Civilian control will still exist, 
but it will be less likely to be physically present 
in hazardous areas. The 2015 QDDR, while 
acknowledging that operating in dangerous 
areas is an integral element of diplomacy and 
development efforts throughout the world, 
nonetheless stresses managing and mitigating 
risk. 8 This creates space for enhanced inter¬ 
agency cooperation, particularly with SOF, 
which can provide conflict expertise, security, 
and access in hazardous regions that would 
otherwise be denied to diplomats and devel¬ 
opment specialists. This includes both SOF 


56 I FEATURES 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


REGIONAL UNDERSTANDING AND UNITY OF EFFORT 


and conventional Civil Affairs forces, which 
have overlapping missions with both DOS and 
USAID in areas such as governance, humani¬ 
tarian assistance, and public health. In this 
regard, the military plays a valuable and singu¬ 
lar role within interagency processes. 

This role is likely to be in greater demand 
in a world facing increased population and 
competition over diminishing resources. As 
the world's population steadily increases, mas¬ 
sive concentrations of individuals in the devel¬ 
oping world are faced with a tenuous exis¬ 
tence. In this vacuum, violence and extremist 
ideology will continue to gain a foothold as an 
expression of discontent. This convergence of 
factors makes it insufficient for SOF and the 
broader U.S. military to simply understand 


religion, ideology, and extremism in an iso¬ 
lated manner. 9 There must also be an under¬ 
standing of the social, political, and economic 
underpinnings that breed extremism and 
socio-political action. Gerald Hickey's 1967 
anthropological analysis of the highlands of 
Vietnam, for example, highlighted the eco¬ 
nomic needs, political aspirations, and mili¬ 
tary realities of peoples marginalized by the 
South Vietnamese government. 

This proved a prescient analysis for future 
military and political developments in that 
country and became a focal point for U.S. 
irregular warfare efforts in Vietnam. 10 
Unfortunately, it did not sufficiently resonate 
with senior U.S. and South Vietnamese 



American troops destroying enemy bunkers in the highlands of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


FEATURES | 57 


ailuv s n 







VARHOLA 


government leaders to influence the overall 
strategy or outcome in Vietnam. 

Senior Leaders 

In his analysis of the congressional involve¬ 
ment with the U.S. military in the Korean con¬ 
flict, T.R. Fehrenbach notes that while con¬ 
gressmen are hesitant to involve themselves in 
"specialized" matters concerning ships and 
aircraft, "almost any fool has felt in his heart 
he could command a regiment." 11 A similar 
observation can be made concerning today's 
senior military leaders regarding regional spe¬ 
cialization. While generals have staffs that are 
designed to provide them with this type of 
specialized knowledge, this presumes that the 
staffs themselves are sufficiently capable. This 
will not necessarily be the case, especially in 
areas in which the military does not habitually 
operate and when leaders surround themselves 
with staff officers whom they trust, but who 
have inappropriate experiences and back¬ 
grounds. Inadequate knowledge can also be 
exacerbated by force protection measures 
which geographically place individuals in a 
region but limit their outside interactions; and 
noncombat environments where staffs are less 
inclined to provide clear recommendations to 
convergent problems with no clear answers. 
This can place senior leaders in a position 
where they feel a need to act even if they do 
not have a clear vision on how or why, leading 
to an attitude that Brigadier General Kimberly 
Field characterizes as "an attitude of winning 
plus combat arms commander-centric focus 
equals full spectrum success." 12 

Major Jason Warren expands on this 
theme with his contention that the U.S. Army 
has shifted from a focus on capable strategic 
leaders to what he refers to as centurions: tacti¬ 
cally sound senior leaders who are not 


necessarily prepared or have the mindset to 
operate in complex interagency settings. 13 The 
combat arms, to include surface warfare and 
aviation, do indeed provide a clear path for 
progression, but they do not automatically 
equip senior leaders and their staffs to face the 
challenges and social diversity characteristic of 
today's global operating environment. In con¬ 
trast, FAOs often lack tactical experience rela¬ 
tive to their peers, despite having significant 
training and experience in particular regions. 
In this respect, FAOs are not often viewed as 
upwardly mobile centurions and, ironically, 
are in a structurally inferior position to more 
tactically-experienced peers and senior leaders 
who are often new to, and unfamiliar with the 
region they are overseeing. The transference of 
tactical acumen to strategic and interagency 
settings, however, has not proven a sound 
method. 

In a candid self-critique, for example, a 
former commander of Combined Joint Task 
Force Horn of Africa introduced an article on 
his experiences in CJTF-HOA by recognizing 
the complexity of the region, but saying that 
he was given three weeks' notice for his assign¬ 
ment and that he "would have been hard 
pressed to identify Djibouti on a map, let 
alone appreciate the scope and challenge of 
my assignment.'' 14 Combined with a con¬ 
stantly rotating staff with little experience in 
Africa and little institutional memory, this 
continued CJTF-HOA's unbalanced relation¬ 
ships with interagency counterparts in the 
region. Although not ideal, CJTF-HOA's lim¬ 
ited base of regional knowledge and experi¬ 
ence was offset by a cadre of experienced mili¬ 
tary attaches and country teams at embassies 
in the CJTF-HOA AOR, as well as guidance and 
restraint by ambassadors. This, however, is a 
luxury that will not always exist, especially for 


58 I FEATURES 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


REGIONAL UNDERSTANDING AND UNITY OF EFFORT 


ad hoc task forces in contingency operations 
as well as SOF elements operating in more 
remote settings. In such circumstances, such a 
lack of experience and preparation is both 
reckless and dangerous. 

Recognizing the limitations of many 
senior leaders, SDO/DATTs, as the diplomati¬ 
cally accredited senior defense officials in their 
assigned countries, are designed to be the pri¬ 
mary tool with which senior military leaders 
interact with the embassy country team, to 
include the ambassador. Protocol require¬ 
ments and social niceties aside, there should 
not be any aura of prestige in interacting 
directly with ambassadors. A newly assigned 
general officer who insists on flying in for a 
meeting with an ambassador with scripted 
talking points and without first sitting down 
with the SDO/DATT in a one-on-one discus¬ 
sion displays a destructive misunderstanding 
of the role of the SDO/DATT, and their daily 
interactions and trust with the ambassador 
and country team. Ambassadors are not action 
officers and should not be placed in that posi¬ 
tion. Like general officers, ambassadors should 
be decision makers who reach conclusions and 
resolve conflicts based on the combined prod¬ 
ucts of multiple parties that are born from 
solid staff work. Here staff work can be charac¬ 
terized as a synthesis of coordination, perspec¬ 
tives of multiple parties, knowledge of the 
operating context, and a decided absence of 
dogmatism that can hinder negotiation and 
compromise. 

Similar caution should be exercised in 
dealing with host nation counterparts. Within 
a U.S. embassy, relationship building is a 
methodology that is executed through a con¬ 
tinuous effort to obtain mutual understanding 
of respective intents, desired endstates, and 
policy constraints. This is not to say that senior 


leaders should not meet with key host nation 
leaders, but that meetings should be con¬ 
ducted with a recognition that the SDO/DATT 
and country team should be the ones empow¬ 
ered to maintain relations, and not be rele¬ 
gated to a disempowered administrative facili¬ 
tator for general officer visits that are often 
vague of purpose, full of optimism, and short 
on duration, knowledge and content. Like an 
effective reserve, visiting senior leaders must be 
guided to the Schwerrpunkt of an interagency 
battlefield and committed to reinforce success 
or offset failure. They cannot always position 
themselves as the main effort. 

Attempting to reproduce the system of 
perfunctory key leader engagements (KLEs) 
from Iraq and Afghanistan elsewhere in the 
world may give an outward appearance of 
relationship-building, but may also under¬ 
mine nuanced and continuous efforts that are 
born from a deeper understanding of the oper¬ 
ating environment than most general officers 
are able to attain. Absent concerted U.S. mili¬ 
tary efforts to develop a reproducing and verti¬ 
cally aligned base of expertise, senior military 
leaders' intentions of building trust and long 
term relationships with host nations are often 
unrealistic. For such reasons, it is sometimes 
common for ambassadors to insist on accom¬ 
panying senior military leaders to meetings 
with host nation counterparts. While this may 
be perceived as micromanaging in a manner 
that undermines U.S. military credibility, it is 
suggestive of the manner in which interagency 
counterparts often perceive the military as well 
as the intricate hybrid political-military con¬ 
text that exists in many non-Western militaries. 

The Way Ahead 

Develop Relevant Knowledge : The understand¬ 
ing of an operating environment must go 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


FEATURES | 59 



VARHOLA 


beyond simplistic notions of culture, thinking 
that if we do not show the soles of our feet, we 
will gain respect. So too must knowledge go 
beyond simplistic surveys and assessments that 
are prone to reduce intangibles into quantified 
tangibles. So too must generic methodologies 
be tailored to specific operating environments. 

Breadth must be replaced with Depth : 

Regional overviews do not provide a sufficient 
knowledge base for complex operations. The 
Army War College, Air War College, and 
National War College, for example, provide 
senior officer students with regional instruc¬ 
tion, but students are encouraged to select a 
region in which they have little or no familiar¬ 
ity. An African FAO, for example, is discour¬ 
aged from taking electives on Africa. This 
approach provides a travel guide level of 
knowledge that gives familiarity with strategic 
issues, but not necessarily understanding. In 
short, in the present system, it prepares some¬ 
one to go to a GCC, but it does not provide the 
GCC with the level of knowledge necessary to 
formulate optimally effective plans or to oper¬ 
ate on an equal footing with interagency coun¬ 
terparts. 

War colleges should instead focus on 
advanced studies of geo-strategic issues, not 
introductory level studies for students who do 
not have a foundation of first-hand experience. 
These would ideally start in intermediate level 
education and influence assignments for the 
duration of that officer's career, to include 
more advanced studies at war colleges. 
Command emphasis should also be placed on 
attendance at the existing regional programs at 
the Army's Special Warfare Center and the Air 
Force's Special Operations School. 
Furthermore, as the U.S. military continues its 
self-hypnosis about being a learning 


organization, this must extend to regional 
studies. As such, regional positions as instruc¬ 
tors/professors at military academic institu¬ 
tions should be viewed as dynamic platforms 
for promising leaders. 

Empower SDO/DATTs : There must be recogni¬ 
tion that the rapport between SDO/DATTs and 
senior leaders should transcend purely hierar¬ 
chical relationships. A general officer would be 
loath to give medical advice to a doctor or 
technical advice to a pilot, regardless of their 
rank. In a similar vein, that same general offi¬ 
cer needs to recognize the specialist nature of 
being a Foreign Area Officer and Defense 
Attache. This requires a departure from a cog¬ 
nitive paradigm of favoring tactical prowess 
over regional understanding. This does not 
relieve FAOs from being tactically sound and 
understanding both conventional and SOF 
operations, but rather recognizes their critical 
enabler function, particularly in embassy set¬ 
tings. 

SOF Liaison Elements fSOFLEl : Especially in 
the absence of military attaches with a back¬ 
ground in special operations, SOFLEs play an 
invaluable role in coordinating SOF activities 
and advising the ambassador and country 
team. The effectiveness of SOFLEs, however, is 
diminished as a result of their high turnover 
rates and short-duration missions. All too 
often, they are also new to a region. Optimally, 
SOFLE tenure in an embassy should exceed 
one year. 15 Furthermore, offering these officers 
the opportunity to bring their families to some 
embassy environments on extended rotations 
would enhance familiarization with both for¬ 
eign and interagency cultures, and provide for 
more sustainable staffing. 


60 I FEATURES 


PRISM 6, no. 3 





REGIONAL UNDERSTANDING AND UNITY OF EFFORT 


Understand Budgets and Authorities : In the 
modern interagency battlefield, the under¬ 
standing of resources and authorities can be 
more important than knowledge of weapon 
systems or the enemy order of battle, especially 
where funds are approved by one agency and 
executed by another. Lines of effort, critical 
events, and decisive points that are not syn¬ 
chronized with specific authorities, resources, 
and timelines for budget allocation are not 
only command approved fictions, they are dis- 
tractors from the longer term approaches most 
characteristic of U.S. embassy country teams. 
This is no longer the exclusive purview of secu¬ 
rity cooperation officers and SOF; this knowl¬ 
edge must extend to senior leaders and staffs 
throughout the military. 

Partnerships with the Host Nation : 

Partnerships with a host nation can proffer sig¬ 
nificant gains, but they often require long-term 
relationships built on trust, not short-term 
imperatives. A SOF captain who goes to a 
country for a short-duration mission will likely 
develop relationships with foreign counter¬ 
parts. If that same officer returns as a major 
and again as a lieutenant colonel, he then has 
the opportunity to expand upon those rela¬ 
tionships and levels of trust in a manner that 
will have military benefit. If he later has the 
opportunity to be assigned to the U.S. Embassy 
as a SOFLE or military attache in that country, 
he will have a level of credibility, network of 
senior contacts, and expertise highly valued 
and utilized by country team counterparts. 

Institutional memory rests with people, not 

with databases : By definition, databases reduce 
the richness of knowledge into storable and 
accessible data. This, however, presumes that 
the people drawing on that data have a 


sufficient base of knowledge to understand, 
contextualize, and apply it. Furthermore, inter¬ 
agency partners cannot always be relied upon 
to provide relevant and accurate regional 
understanding or to have the access to attain 
such knowledge. This is a capability that must 
be firmly rooted in both SOF and the larger 
military. 

Balance SOF Roles : Prowess in direct action 
cannot come at the expense of emphasis on 
being able to understand operating environ¬ 
ments and the consequences of direct action. 
An understanding of basic socio-economic 
dynamics, for example, can be more important 
than the names of individual insurgents, who 
perhaps should be viewed less as the sources 
of conflict and more as symptoms of larger 
issues. Their removal may in turn exacerbate 
instability rather than promote it. 

Critical Thinking Cannot Replace Actual 

Knowledge : Approaches such as operational 
design and critical thinking must be method¬ 
ologically sound complements to a strong base 
of knowledge, not a substitute. "Critical 
Thinking" and operational design models, in 
addition to providing fresh and unbiased 
insights, can also be crutches used to compen¬ 
sate for inadequate preparation and experi¬ 
ence. There is an inherent contradiction in 
"questioning assumptions" when a staff does 
not have the base of knowledge to adequately 
understand those assumptions or the likely 
unintended consequences of action. This lack 
of knowledge diminishes the staff role of 
advising commanders and can result in 
increased command-influenced groupthink, 
potentially placing the military in a subservi¬ 
ent and/or confrontational role with inter¬ 
agency partners 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


FEATURES | 61 









VARHOLA 


With this in mind, it is interesting that the 
same former CJTF-HOA commander recounts 
in his article that his lack of regional knowl¬ 
edge was actually an asset because it allowed 
him to approach the challenges he faced with 
an open mind. 16 The article concludes with the 
ultimate success of his tenure as a commander 
and the knowledge he attained. While in no 
way disputing this finding, it is interesting to 
conjecture how much more successful he 
would have been had he had any sort of back¬ 
ground or experience in the region or experi¬ 
ence working in a U.S. embassy. 

Conclusion 

In Afghanistan and Iraq the U.S. military oper¬ 
ated so long without credible regional under¬ 
standing, expertise, and continuity that these 
elements have largely lost value in leadership 


and decisionmaking structures. In both cases 
a failure to understand and operationally 
account for basic social factors played a sig¬ 
nificant role in the challenges faced by the U.S. 
military and its interagency partners. Even with 
the benefit of hindsight, many in the U.S. mil¬ 
itary still do not fully comprehend the com¬ 
plexity and nuance that the United States and 
its coalition partners faced in those settings. 
Attempting to repeat the performance of Iraq 
and Afghanistan in newly relevant operating 
environments is to invite failure. 

In today's globalized world, clear dividing 
lines between stability operations and combat 
operations no longer exist. These terms are but 
categorizations of convenience imposed by the 
U.S. military. Populations can no longer be 
segregated from conflict, and understanding 
the socio-economic drivers of conflict is some¬ 
thing that SOF must have the same proficiency 



U.S. Soldiers transport and unpack humanitarian aid to an Afghani town. 


62 | FEATURES 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


Tech. Sgt. Francisco V. Govea II, U.S. Air Force 





REGIONAL UNDERSTANDING AND UNITY OF EFFORT 


in as direct action. DOD Instruction 3000.5 
(Stability Operations) rightly blurs the lines 
between combat and stability, which are often 
overlapping and concurrent. Both types of 
operations require ongoing efforts to under¬ 
stand changing social structures and attitudes. 
This requires not just regionally knowledge¬ 
able field operators, but also complementary 
higher staffs. If it is unrealistic for the conven¬ 
tional military to gain and maintain these 
skills due to personnel shortfalls and world¬ 
wide rotational requirements, it is increasingly 
incumbent on SOF to make up for these short¬ 
falls. 

While SOF is on the forefront of many of 
these undertakings, it is by no means alone, 
nor is it a guarantor of its own success. 
Interagency partners such as the State 
Department and USAID play a valuable role in 
gaining approval for action, as well as adding 
to a broader comprehension of the operating 
environment. In turn, there must be a recipro¬ 
cal willingness to understand and systemati¬ 
cally incorporate these perspectives into plans 
and operations, especially in other than 
declared theaters of conflict scenarios. This 
requires more than common sense, campaign 
plan rhetoric, and force of will by senior offi¬ 
cers. It requires in-depth knowledge of the fac¬ 
tors underlying social systems, and methods to 
incorporate changing conditions into plans 
and operations. 

It is too late to attempt to gain such 
knowledge in compressed crisis action time¬ 
lines. Military education, combined with 
Phase Zero operations and partnering with 
interagency counterparts in U.S. embassies, 
provides the opportunity to enhance U.S. mil¬ 
itary capability. However, these experiences 
must be meaningful. If they are not utilized as 
a means to invest in people and capture 


complex social analysis, they will produce 
superficial long-term benefits. In Iraq, Fallujah 
and Baghdad were complex scenarios, but their 
scale pales in comparison to megacities and 
imploded societies throughout much of the 
developing world. Major urban areas, ethnic 
wars, and resource-driven conflict are indeed 
complex to a degree that might appear incom¬ 
prehensible. However, now is the time to fac¬ 
tor that complexity (and the limitations it will 
engender) into our plans and capabilities so 
we can properly assess realistic and achievable 
goals and endstates. prism 


PRISM 6, no. 3 


FEATURES 


63 


VARHOLA 


Notes 


1 Thomas S. Szayna and William Welser IV, 
"Developing and Assessing Options for the Global 
SOF Network," (2013), <http://www.rand.org/pubs/ 
research_reports/RR340.html>. 

2 The term "transformational diplomacy" was 
first used while DOS was under Condoleezza Rice. Its 
basic elements have been continued by the DOS 
under Secretaries Clinton and Kerry. 

3 Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa: A History 
ofFifity Years of Independence (New York: Public Affairs 
Publishers, 2005), p. 481; Mark Bowden, Blackhawk 
Down: A Story of Modern War (New York: Signet 
Books, 2001):. 84. 

4 Mary Harper, Getting Somalia Wrong: Faith, 
Hope, and War in a Shattered Stated (London: Zed 
Books, 2012): 4. 

5 SOCOM 2020: Forging the Tip of the Spear 
(MacDill AFB: Special Operations Command, May 
2013). 

6 Fareed Zakariah, The Post-American World 
(New York: Norton, 2009). 

7 Hillary Clinton, Quadrennial Diplomacy and 
Development Review (Washington, D.C., U.S. State 
Department, 2010): 71. 

8 Hillary Clinton, Quadrennial Diplomacy and 
Development Review (Washington, D.C., U.S. State 
Department, 2015): 60. 

9 MG Patrick Hughes, "Convergence, 

Emergence, and Complexity," Military Review 96, no.2 
(March-April 2016): 43. 

10 Gerald Hickey, The Highland People of South 
Vietnam: Social and Economic Development (Santa 
Monica, Rand Advanced Projects Research Agency, 
1967) 

11 T.R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War: The Classic 
Military History of the Korean War (New York: Open 
Road Integrated Media, 1963), Kindle e-book, 
location 3848. 

12 BG Kimberly Field, "Whose Breach, Whose 
Trust?" Parameters 44, no. 3 (Autumn 2014): 126. 

13 Jason Warren, " The Centurion Mindset and 
the Army's Strategic Leader Paradigm," Parameters 45, 
no. 3 (Autumn 2015): 27-38 

14 Wayne W. Grigsby Jr., Cheryl Sim and Matt 
Dabkowski, "Twelve Lessons from Sixteen Months: 
Reflections of a CJTF-HOA Commander," Small Wars 
Journal (May 2015), <http://smallwarsjournal.com/ 
jrnl/art/twelve-lessons-from-sixteen-months-reflec- 
tions-of-a-cjtf-hoa-commander>. 


15 COL Eric P. Wendt, "The Green Beret 
Volckman Strategy: Maximizing the Prevent Strategy," 
Special Warfare (July-Sept. 2011). 

16 Wayne W. Grigsby Jr., Cheryl Sim and Matt 
Dabkowski, 2015. 


64 | FEATURES 


PRISM 6, no. 3