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Special Ops Forces May Need To Change Mentality


That raid is one of a number of recent examples of U.S. special operations taking the direct approach, conducting a targeted military strike. This is what special operators are best known for. It's the reason the special ops budget has more than quadrupled since 9/11, and it's the kind of approach that killed Osama bin Laden.


But the direct approach can have negative long-term consequences. In a new article in Foreign Affairs, Linda Robinson argues that U.S. special operations must move beyond this kill-and-capture mentality and prioritize what she calls the indirect approach. Case in point, she told us, are the downsides of the bin Laden raid in Pakistan.

LINDA ROBINSON: In particular, a low-profile effort by special operations forces to work with populations out in that northwest frontier province and in the federally administered territorial areas has run aground of Pakistan government opposition in the wake of that bin Laden raid.

CORNISH: And these are efforts to work with the community.

ROBINSON: Work with the community, work with the frontier corps, work with the Pakistani special forces. So all of this partnered kind of special operations activity was a casualty of the bin Laden raid.

CORNISH: Talk a little bit about what the indirect approach would be, this alternative to more violent surgical strikes, what's the difference there?

ROBINSON: The difference and the terminology, let me say, that the U.S. Army has just adopted is special warfare. And that is a range of partnered activities that could include civil affairs, preparation of the environment, intelligence activity and very critically, training and operating with a variety of foreign forces.

CORNISH: So for people who don't understand those terms, is that working with local police? Is that working with local farmers?

ROBINSON: Yes. Those local partners can be anything from ordinary population civilians. In the case of Afghanistan, they're out there now recruiting and training local villagers to form village defense forces, but they also work with police forces and with military forces. After 9/11, they were partnered with the militia force of the Northern Alliance to help take down the Taliban. So it really is a very wide variety of partnerships.

CORNISH: So, Linda, give us an example of where what you've called the indirect approach works?

ROBINSON: Well, the case I am most familiar with is in Colombia where U.S. special operations forces partnered with and indeed developed from the ground up Columbian special operations forces. They also partnered with their counter-narcotics special police. And over a number of years in training and working together, they were able to really push back the guerilla and narco-terrorist groups that had taken over as much as half of Colombia's territory. That is probably the most prominent unsung success.

CORNISH: When it comes to the indirect approach, what are the concerns about your local partners that they either turn on you or engage in activities that are not what the U.S. wants to be involved in?

ROBINSON: Yes, well, if the promise of this way of using special operations forces is you get an enduring or permanent solution, the peril of this is that you have to deal with countries and governments and forces that are, by definition, troubled, right? They wouldn't have a conflict within their borders if they didn't have some serious issues of poor governance, grievances among the population and at times - in many cases, abusive security forces. So people recommending this approach as I do have to acknowledge and go into this with open eyes that you're going to have to mitigate all of those downsides, and one has to be willing to accept gradual improvement. Countries don't transform overnight.

CORNISH: Well, Linda Robinson, thank you so much for speaking with me.

ROBINSON: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: Linda Robinson of the Council on Foreign Relations. Her article, "The Future of Special Operations: Beyond Kill and Capture," appears in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.