Eliza Griswold wrote this story in the 16 June issue of The New York Times Magazine. She is a poet, reporter and author, who has done serious field research across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. She does seem to understand the difference between special operations forces and the Special Forces. In an interview about her article, Griswold was asked if there was anything about seeing U.S. Special Operations forces on the ground that surprised her. She responded:
Well, their degree of ingenuity was fun to watch. They built picnic tables and Adirondack chairs, and magazine racks in latrines, in order to enhance their forward positions. What did impress me deeply, though, was the level of expertise that some have on local subgroups of subgroups, commands of history, language capabilities.
And our Hollywood image of them is of door-kickers. These are the guys who do the Bin Laden raid, knock down doors, come in the night and unilaterally do what they are doing to seize people. That’s how Hollywood has sold them to us. That is a major distortion. What’s going on in Africa has been going on since World War II. It’s really what the Green Berets, in particular, were built for, and that is training indigenous militaries — either helping “freedom fighters” rise up against undemocratic governments or training the indigenous forces of what the U.S. deems “legitimate governments.” I had one operator say to me, “We are teachers before we are door-kickers.” (NYTimes Blog)
Brigadier General James B. Linder is the current commander of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA). He obviously knows the difference between the operators and the Green Berets. He was both. He refers to all his troops as Special Operations Forces which is technically correct and, probably more importantly, politically correct in today’s DOD. We Green Berets have always been treated like red headed step children. Griswold tells this story of Linder’s time in the Philippines were she first met him.
In 2005 and 2006, Linder served as the commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force - Philippines. His job was to root out the militant group Abu Sayyaf from the islands in the nation’s south. Linder, then a colonel, set up operations on an Abu Sayyaf-controlled island called Jolo. There was no how-to manual; he fought the enemy however he saw fit. Linder thrived in this jungle environment. He employed the methods he learned and taught at Fort Bragg. The emphasis, as it would later be in Africa, was on building relationships with local people. “This isn’t something that we learned in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “That’s S.O.F. 101.”
Abu Sayyaf occupied a strategic ridge above the small town where the commandos were based. Linder’s men set up medical and veterinary clinics. They built roads to help isolated farmers bring their goods to market. They installed solar panels and an Internet connection at a local school. They created and distributed a comic book in which a heroic merchant marine came home from his travels and defeated the kidnapping thugs who’d taken over his home. These methods helped draw the local population away from the militants, Linder said, but the bad guys were still on the ridge. One day, a visitor asked him what success would look like. He replied: When the Abu Sayyaf guy up on the ridge looks down and sees the new school, store and road and decides to leave the fight and come home, then we know we’ve succeeded.
“I thought it was a metaphor,” Linder said. Two weeks later, he received a phone call that an Abu Sayyaf defector had just come down off the mountain. “When you mature,” Linder said, “you see it’s a far better way to get people off the battlefield.”
To Linder, the art of special warfare is exactly that: an art. “Nobody is born with the natural skill for this art. It comes from years of study.” At Fort Bragg during the qualification course, operators are thrown into an exercise called Robin Sage. Their “survival” depends on their ability to influence a guerrilla chief who controls when and whether they eat, sleep and succeed at their objective. What makes special operators special, according to Linder, has nothing to do with high-tech gear. Linder tells his men, “You can win buck naked with a butter knife.” (NYTimes Magazine)
The first time I was called an operator was shortly after Colonel Potter took command of Tenth Group. He came to us straight from Delta where they’re all called operators. We just got a chuckle out of it. I still find it odd. Linder is definitely right about Robin Sage and the nature of a Special Forces soldier. Gaining the confidence of the guerrilla chief was the most challenging part of the Special Forces Qualification Course.
Linder says his” job is to look at Africa and where the threat to the United States is. I see Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Libyan problem set, Al Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, Benghazi and Darna.” His primary tool in addressing these problems is the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) exercise, in which SF teams teach indigenous forces a range of military and intelligence-gathering techniques usually over several months. He also has the annual FLINTLOCK exercise. This was once the Special Forces version of REFORGER where 10th Group and special operation units from most NATO countries exercised from Norway to Italy and Turkey. FLINTLOCK is now a SOCAFRICA exercise which includes humanitarian and civic action projects along with military training.
In spite of an increased focus on Africa and an influx of resources, Linder realizes that “we can’t afford to fix everyone’s problems. They have to be fixed to their standards, not our own.” He is also aware that if security forces abuse the local population, they alienate their best source of intelligence. That’s a serious problem with most African military forces. Linder notes that, “One of the first lessons that Special Operations teaches in Africa and other places is that a good soldier serves the population, not the leader.” He clearly has a tall order.
I think Linder faces another threat that is not mentioned in this piece. Too much focus from Washington and too many resources are bound to screw things up in Africa… probably more that too little focus and resources. For example, in the hunt for Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a team of four Green Berets and 22 Ugandans flew within three miles of their objective by V-22 Osprey and then moved by foot through the bush. The enemy was long gone by the time they reached the objective. I hear Ospreys quite often flying in support of The Basic School at Quantico. You are not sneaking up on anybody in an Osprey. We should learn to live in the bush and the jungle for extended periods of time like the locals. Learn from local hunters how to track. Hell, use the hunters to track. The Ugandans were on missions in the bush for 30 to 60 days at a time. The Americans had to be resupplied every four days. With patience, Linder can change this. Patience and no more #Kony2012 and #Bringbackourgirls twitter campaigns.