Jul 4, 2007

Black Vs White: Special Operations Dialectic

Winning hearts and minds is quite another thing when you're coming in to appropriate the essential resources and assets of a country from its cognizant population. White Ops/Indirect Warfare in all honor, even the most resourceful of such soft efforts can't convince a pillaged victim to lean back and enjoy being taken for a shifty ride. Bigger plays than SOFs can dream up are needed to truncate the lethal fallout of such covetous raids.

Army Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown cut his teeth in special operations when U.S. troops were still slogging through Vietnam and catchphrases like "winning the hearts and minds" first entered public consciousness.

The phrase, not always popular in current military circles, lives on in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a debate that's as old as the military, Brown and special operations generals like him are today fending off critics who say they are too enamored of simply shooting bad guys and not winning over enemies through other, less dramatic means.

Brown, chief of Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, said recently that he doesn't think those critics fully understand his command's mission.

"We're working hard on winning the hearts and minds, " Brown said. "I don't know if 'hearts and minds' is the right phrase to use for what we're trying to do. But we're certainly working hard on the indirect form of warfare."

The debate is gaining renewed urgency as Brown retires later this month and hands the SOCom reins to his deputy, Vice Adm. Eric Olson, who some think will more fully embrace the concept of indirect warfare.

Direct warfare, so-called "black" operations, involve the commando raids favored in Hollywood movies. Critics of direct warfare say the less flashy indirect warfare, or "white" operations, can be more effective in eliminating terrorist breeding grounds and winning over a populace.

Those missions might involve anything from providing humanitarian aid to building roads and schools and convincing a population that U.S. forces have good intentions at heart.

SOCom is "overly focused on ... direct action, on rappelling out of helicopters, kicking down doors, and capturing or killing bad guys, " military historian Max Boot told Congress last year.

"Making real progress, " he said, "will require accomplishing much more difficult, less glamorous tasks such as establishing security, furthering economic and political development, and spreading the right information to win over the populace."

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld turned special operations forces into a "giant killing machine, " Douglas Macgregor, a former Army colonel and defense critic, recently said.

Macgregor anticipates a return to fundamentals under Olson.

"The emphasis will be on, 'If you have to kill someone, then for God's sakes, kill the right people, ' " Macgregor said. "In most cases, you're not going to have to kill people and that's the great virtue of special operations. That's been lost over the last several years."

But Brown and other generals bristle at the notion they neglect "white" operations. Inside SOCom, Brown said, everybody is on the same page.

"Most of the friction I hear about I read in the press, " Brown said. "In reality, I think ... sometimes there's some confusion with some people who aren't paying attention (who think) special ops forces are doing only direct action."

Brown said almost every special operations mission involves some element of indirect action, especially when special forces act as combat advisers to the Iraqi or Afghan army.

"It takes long patience, " Brown said. "It's about changing people's minds. ... And those out there who say you do too much direct action need to step back and take a look at it. It's a balance of them both. Direct action protects the homeland and buys time for the indirect piece to work."

Brig. Gen. John Mulholland Jr., who recently took the helm at Special Operations Command Central, also based at MacDill, said too much is made of the distinction between black and white operations.

Often, there is a combination between the two, he said, that is lost to outsiders.

"It's almost a false analogy, " Mulholland said recently. "It's not one or the other. It's how you blend all of our nation's capabilities to achieve a certain effect on the battlefield. The discussion is much more nuanced than people like to make it."

Some lawmakers have floated the idea of creating an unconventional warfare command within SOCom that would presumably allow military leaders to better direct resources to indirect missions.

Brown said his staff is still studying the notion. But he sounded less than enthusiastic.

"I would warn folks not to put all of our forces in little boxes and limit their capability, " Brown said. "I would hate to do anything with any of our forces that drew a box around them and limited their flexibility."

The phrase "winning the hearts and minds" is commonly used in the political debate about Iraq's future. But with the phrase's historical ties to what some saw as a hapless policy in Vietnam, not all military leaders like it.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.
, chair of the House Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism and unconventional threats, questions whether indirect warfare would work in the Middle East.

"Winning hearts and minds is one thing when you're coming into a relatively stable place where there's a minor insurgent problem, " he said. "It's very hard to do those things in the environment that exists in Iraq."
-St. Petersburg Times

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