During his speech at West Point, President Barack Obama announced his goal to create a Counterterrorism Partnership Fund of up to $5 billion to “train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.”
If that sounds familiar, it should.
Those are essentially the missions of U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.
“Augmenting the capability of local forces equates to perhaps the most cost-effective way of deterring adversaries worldwide and protecting American citizens abroad,” Adm. William McRaven, Socom commander, wrote to Congress earlier this year. Special operations forces “are “uniquely suited for operations that win population-centric conflicts, oftentimes, and preferably, before they start.”
“Building partner-nation capacity is a Special Operations Forces mission and it is a mission SOF is involved in daily,” said Socom spokesman Ken McGraw.
With the fund still in the aspirational phase, McGraw couldn’t comment on specifics, of which there are few.
The White House declined comment about who would be in charge of the fund or what role, if any, Socom and its Theater Special Operations Commands, which have regional command and control of special operations forces, will play. A White House spokesman pushed calls for information off to the Pentagon, which also declined comment.
Experts familiar with special operations say if approved, the fund would be a big win for Socom. But the scant outline for the fund presented by Obama in his speech also raises questions and concerns about how it would work, especially considering that much of what was proposed is already being done by Socom.
In his West Point commencement speech laying out his foreign policy vision, Obama called on Congress, which has to authorize funding, to support the concept.
The “resources will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al Qaeda; supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia; working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya; and facilitating French operations in Mali,” said Obama, who also said a big focus would be on Syria, where the U.S. would step support to “Jordan and Lebanon; Turkey and Iraq — as they contend with refugees and confront terrorists working across Syria’s borders.”
The money would be not be used for CIA operations and would come from the savings engendered by the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, where the United States spent about $10 billion to $15 billion a month at the peak of operations there, according to the White House.
By comparison, Socom’s total annual budget is about $10 billion.
With about a third of Socom’s budget coming from war funding that is drying up, the President’s plan sounds like a way to redirect money to continue special operations missions around the world, says RAND’s Seth Jones.
Though it is unknown at this point who will get the funds, they are clearly needed, says Jones.
“Based on the number of jihadist and other terrorist groups in South Asia, Middle East and North Africa today, there is a desperate need to fund the effort to build partner capacity of a number of countries,” he says.
“I think it is a positive for Special Operations Command, because the President has endorsed and the interagency is supportive of (Socom’s) vision for engagement in the world,” says Derek Harvey, former senior defense officials who is now the director of the University of South Florida’s Citizenship Initiative, which studies international conflict.
“This looks like stuff Socom is already doing,” says David Kilcullen, a former State Department official who served as chief strategist in the Counterterrorism Bureau and as Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to General David Petraeus in Iraq, and then Senior Advisor for Counterinsurgency to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “I actually expect this is something Socom ends up being in charge of.”
Socom, he said, is “well-placed to execute this kind of thing through its building of global special forces partnerships. Adm. McRaven has built the ideal instrument at Socom to execute this strategy. It generally would be more power to Socom to carry out what seems to be the President’s key foreign policy initiative with respect to defense.”
John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in both Iraq wars and helped write the Army Counterinsurgency Manual, says the fund “is a boost for American (counterterrorism) efforts. There is no doubt that demand for Socom forces exceeds supply, and will likely continue to; these funds will allow them to be employed in more places, more effectively.”
Like others, Nagl said this is not a new concept.
“I applaud this decision, having written a paper five years ago titled ‘Beyond Bullets’ that argued for just such a policy,” says Nagl.
Two years ago, however, the White House turned down a similar, though far less costly proposal from Socom, says Mark Holten, an Air Force Reserve colonel who served on active duty at the command for eight years and was the principal author and advocate for that legislative proposal.
The plan’s success depends on who is in charge, says Stuart Bradin, a recently retired Army colonel who headed up McRaven’s Global SOF OPT efforts at Socom.
“We were trying to foster exactly what the President put out,” says Bradin, now president of the Global SOF Foundation, a Tampa-based nonprofit organization advocating “for all aspects of Special Operations Forces (SOF) development, employment, and sustainment in the fight to defeat globally networked threats.
While Obama “is saying the right stuff,” Bradin says far more detail is needed to determine if words will flow into effective action,
“This is potentially everything Socom asked for and needs in security force assistance, but it is going to get politicized and Socom won’t have a voice in that Executive branch and Congressional posturing,” says Bradin.
Another concern is how the fund will be implemented if it is enacted.
“At the macro level this sounds like the right approach,” says Scott Mann, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who helped implement the Village Stability Operations program in Afghanistan where U.S. troops helped Afghans create a local police force as a bulwark against the Taliban. “My sense is that this will fall short, and that units we will train won’t be capable of living among people and helping them stand up on their own.”
Mann, who recently returned from Afghanistan where he was working with his Tampa-based Stability Institute, says success depends on working at the local level.
“The reality is that most of the areas, Nigeria, or Somalia or Afghanistan or Pakistan, the strategic safe havens terror groups go to are clan and tribal areas,” he says. “We need to work on the grievances that are the drivers of instability.”