Small Wars Journal

The Test Case in Afghanistan for Special Operating Forces

Obama's plan for some time now has been to bring home most of the conventional forces from Afghanistan and replace them with a much smaller Special Operating Force (SOF).  Recent success in Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) coupled with the Afghanistan war becoming increasingly unpopular domestically has prompted this move.  The task would have been daunting enough but recent events obviously make it more so.

The two most visible events are the inadvertent but highly unwise burning of Korans and the murderous spree of a U. S. Army soldier.  Many a "conservative" pundit would like to explain away the Koran burning because the Korans in question were being used by prisoners to pass notes back and forth and to foment radicalism.  The writing inside the Korans does indeed violate Islamic law but one has to develop a little more nuanced understanding of the situation before extolling the virtues of burning Korans in a foreign, Islamic state and before deriding apologies from the U. S. head of state.

The simple fact is that Americans can never burn Korans in a foreign state they are occupying.  Too many western, especially coalition soliders', lives are put at stake.  Note that two American soldiers already lost their lives over this incident.  It is not about western interpretation of the letter of Islamic law (for the defaced Korans did indeed need to be destroyed under Islamic law).  Instead, it is a question of following proper local customs in order not to inflame the local populace.  The proper practice would have been to approach a local Imam and give him the Korans for disposal in a proper religious ceremony but ignorance of the human terrain prevented this.

In a counterinsurgency fight, the last thing one wishes to do is push the people, especially neutrals, toward supporting the insurgents, in this case, the Taliban.  This error was egregious and people should be severely reprimanded for participating in this event and for failing to stop or provide proper training to the participants.  The whole counterinsurgency system failed on this point and the whole system needs to be re-examined so events like this do not occur in the future.

Given this, the timing of the house to house murder spree by an apparently mentally distraught U. S. soldier could not have occurred at a worse time.  Compounding the Koran burning incident by at least ten-fold, this incident has set back U. S. counterinsurgency efforts months if not years.  The danger coalition troops and civilians are in is magnificent now.  Such a tinderbox could easily lead to more mishaps as frightened individuals on both sides develop itchier trigger fingers and the likelihood of more civilians getting caught in the crossfire goes up exponentially.  In fact, the Taliban might revive an old saw by killing innocent civilians only to blame it on coalition forces, a practice they used somewhat effectively in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan when the Taliban apparently attempted to blame drone strikes for deaths which they seem to have inflicted on a wedding party.

This is the complex tinderbox that SOF inherits and the stakes could not be higher.  As almost no one has paid attention to SOF success in the Philippines and as the counterinsurgency fights wind down in both Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a real possibility that David Ucko’s warning that we will soon forget all of our counterinsurgency lessons will come true.  One of the absolutely worst possible outcomes would be that the interdependence lessons learned and synergy between SOF and Conventional Forces will be lost.

Thus, Afghanistan becomes an almost impossible situation for U. S. SOF to prove their enduring value.  That is why, ultimately, Afghanistan will be the proving ground for SOF for the foreseeable future.  We would all do well to wish them luck in a nearly impossible situation.

SWJ Editors’ Note: Dan blogs at Blast Shields Up.