SOF in 2016 – The Year That Was . . .

2016 - The Year in Review

2016 – “The Year That Was”. A collection of articles that look back at 2016 in terms of national security, defense, Middle East, Afghanistan, India, Africa, books, war, conflict, and . . . of course . . . special operations.

Middle East in 2016

The Middle East . . .  Read more in “The Year that Was in the Middle East”Lawfare, December 21, 2016. See also “Brookings expert’s takes on the biggest Middle East stores of 2016”Brookings, December 28, 2016.

Syria. Russia (as well as Iran) embraced Syria and saved the Assad regime – one of its (Russia) best achievements was using its SOF and airpower to help capture Aleppo. The U.S. has been sidelined, a peace treaty negotiated in late December, and the Syrian Kurds are wondering when the U.S. will sell them out (as has happened many times before).

Iraq. ISOF has taken a leading role in the capture of Mosul (and previously other cities as well) but suffered 50% casualties in the 1st phase of the Mosul campaign. The tide has turned against the Islamic State as it suffers from territorial losses but the conflict with ISIS is far from over. The Kurds of Iraq are looking at a more autonomous future but it isn’t assured.

Turkey. A failed-coup, purging of many of its senior military officers, intervention in Syria (a defense against Kurdish gains), and a drift from the U.S. and NATO.

Yemen. If there was a conflict off the radar it is the one in Yemen. Activity of U.S. SOF in Yemen seems on again and off again. Our national interest, military and political objectives, and commitment seems to be either unknown or misunderstood by many. However, the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Penisula (AQAP) organization is considered extremely dangerous (in terms of striking the homeland) and U.S. drone strikes in Yemen against al-Qaida continue. To that end (it seems) the U.S. is supporting the Saudi coalition fighting the Houthi rebels (who are supported by Iran).

Jordan. Three Green Berets lost their lives in an armed attack by a gunmen in November. They were members of 5th Special Forces Group from Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Jordan is a close ally and one of the more stable Middle East countries.

South Asia in 2016

South Asia. Things don’t seem to be getting better in this part of the world. Afghanistan is still a mess and the India-Pakistan conflict may be heating up again.

Afghanistan – 2016 and Upcoming Challenges. For Afghanistan, 2016 was another year of good and bad. On a good note the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) have stayed loyal to the government, have not collapsed with the withdrawal of most of the Coalition forces from Afghanistan, and continue to improve in some functional areas. The government revenue – strangely – went up from taxes and other revenue sources. However, there is lots that has gone sour. The National Unity Government of Ghani and Abdullah can be counted as a failure and the Afghan security forces made no headway in degrading or defeating the Taliban. The Taliban control more territory since 2001. The Taliban mounted offensives in several areas of the country including Kunduz, Uruzgan, Farah, and Helmand province. Read “Challenges and Opportunities for Afghanistan in 2017”The Diplomat, December 29, 2016.

Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF). The one bright spot about the conflict in Afghanistan has been the performance of the special operations kandaks of the Ministry of Defense and the special police units of the Ministry of Interior like the Crisis Response Unit (CRU). The Afghan government is seeking U.S. funding to expand the Afghan Local Police (ALP) from 30,000 to 40,000 – if the Afghans can institute the needed ALP reforms this could happen (a positive thing). There is something to be said about having competent Train, Advise, and Assist (TAA) teams working on a daily basis with tactical units. Unfortunately, the U.S. special forces community was hit hard with SF casualties this year in Afghanistan. Killed were Green Berets from 1st, 3rd, 7th, 10th, and 19th Special Forces Group.

India – Year in Review. India’s SOF units were busy and the military forces (including SOF) saw steps toward modernization. Read “From surgical strike to 80 martyred personnel, 2016 a mixed year for Army”Business Standard, December 29, 2016.

Pakistan. A continuing thorn in the side of India (Kashmir) and a direct threat to Afghanistan (support of Haqqani Network and Taliban) – Pakistan also suffers from terrorism. Some would say a ‘self-inflicted wound’. Read more in “Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Failures”Gandhara Blog (Radio Free Europe), December 29, 2016.

Africa in 2016

AFRICOM’s Top Stories in 2016. The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) has had a busy year. Read more in “Year in Review – AFRICOM’s tops stories in 2016”United States Africa Command, December 28, 2016. Poaching has emerged as a big issue – this problem never seems to go away and the U.S. is taking (perhaps half-hearted) some efforts to assist in the anti-poaching effort. China seems intent on continuing its presence in Africa and its military base in Djibouti (next to the French and U.S. base) should assist it in this objective. But what has AFRICOM’s attention is the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabaab . . . and to a lesser extent . . . the LRA. AFRICOM has big plans for the next year – see “New in 2017: Bigger exercises, more engagements in Africa”Army Times, December 29, 2016.

SOCAFRICA Spread Thin. AFRICOM’s special operations component that handles SOF missions and operations for the African continent has been extremely busy. With 54 countries on the continent there is a lot of area to cover. There is lots of terrorist activity, security training and cooperation, and JCETs to occupy SOCAFRICA.

Everyone is in the Fight. MARSOC FID teams and 3rd Special Forces Group teams have had a leading role in SOCAFRICA’s operations, exercises, JCETs, and training events. 10th Special Forces Group has a piece of North Africa (heads up the FLINTLOCK annual exercise, which is a far cry from the FLINTLOCKs of old that took place in Germany in the 60s and 70s). 19th Special Forces Group stays busy with JCETs and exercises in Africa as well. 20th Special Forces Group heads up the effort against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as they fill the ranks of SOCFWD-CA. NSW and AFSOC are also spread across the continent. Lots of former SOF have found some meaningful contract work in Somalia, Kenya, and other African locations working for SOCAFRICA, AFRICOM, or other governmental agencies.

Somalia. There is a U.S. SOF presence in Somalia – sort of a ‘shadow war’. In 2016 the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) made progress in its operations against al Shabaab. However, Ethiopia (a member of AMISOM) has been withdrawing its troops and the AMISOM mission may come to a close. Some former SOF are working in a contract basis there and the State Department may be stepping up its involvement soon.

Libya. The U.S. (and other European allies) have quietly assisted various factions in Libya to defeat the Islamic State enclave in Sirte with airpower (Navy fix-wing and Marine Cobras took part), ISR, and SOF on the ground. A big question is what happens next in Libya. Can a strong central government (Government of National Accord in Libya) emerge that can reconcile the various political entities and militias? In order to do that a strong security force has to be built that is professional, non-political, and competent. Certainly a classic Security Force Assistance (SFA) mission ideal for European nations like Britain and Italy (with a little help from U.S. SOF).

Nigeria & Lake Chad Basin. SOCAFRICA has been in the fight against Boko Haram – probably one of the most dangerous groups in the world at this time. U.S. SOF and conventional units as well have provided assistance to Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Chad to develop a unified effort against this terrorist and insurgent group. Exercises like FLINTLOCK continue to improve the regional cooperation among various African military organizations in this part of Africa. Nigeria’s attempt to buy the A-29 Super Tucano counterinsurgency aircraft from the United States failed and it is now in talks with Russia and Pakistan for a viable close air support fixed wing aircraft. While AFRICOM says Boko Haram is weakened it is still a threat.

Uganda Region. SOCFWD-CA’s mission continues against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Although its ranks have been severely diminished it still has managed to survive. In October 2011 a 100-man U.S. Army Special Forces contingent deployed to help defeat Joseph Kony and his vicious band. A good information operations campaign (MISO folks can count this as a success) encouraging LRA fighters to defect (“come home”) has helped reduce the ranks of the LRA.

Other Spots. We won’t go into Ethiopia, Kenya and other locations.

Terrorism in 2016

The Big Two. The two biggest terrorist organizations currently posing a threat to U.S interests are the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Both have done well in mastering the information domain or terrorist use of social media. In addition they continue to pose a long-term threat to the U.S. homeland as well as to our allies on the European continent. A big part of the U.S. strategy is to target the leaders of these groups and to deny them sanctuary where they can plan, prepare, and launch attacks against U.S. interests.

A Resurgent al-Qaeda. The Islamic State is getting a lot of press. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, seems content with staying off the radar screen. Publicity draws counter terrorism resources. The terrorist organization was severely hurt during the post-9/11 decade and, in part, replaced by the Islamic State in many areas of the world. But al-Qaeda is making a come-back. Read more in “A more dangerous long-term threat: Al-Aaida grows as ISIS retreats”The Guardian, December 29, 2016. See also Bruce Hoffman’s (Georgetown University) article “Al Qaeda: Quietly and Patiently Rebuilding”The Cipher Brief, December 30, 2016.

Islamic State in Decline? ISIS has seen its territory in Iraq reduced significantly. It has taken some losses in Syria as well (thanks to the Syrian Kurds). Libyan government and militia factions have chased ISIS out of Sirte, Libya (wonder where they went to?), and the ISIS footholds in Afghanistan have been reduced (by U.S. drones, U.S. SOF, ANASF, and the Taliban). But ISIS is adaptive and will still be around for a long time. While progress has been made some critics are hesitant to declare victory. See Rita Katz’s article “2016 in Review: Barack Obama’s War on the Islamic State has Failed”, INSITE Blog on Terrorism & Extremism, December 30, 2016.

How to Fight Terrorism in 2017? Matthew Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, was recently (Dec 30) interviewed by The Cipher Brief on how to confront terrorism over the next year.

Defense Topics in 2016

DoD’s Top 10 Issues in 2016. The U.S. Department of Defense published a report that highlighted the Defense Department’s top ten issues for 2016. They included delivering ISIL a lasting defeat, building the force of the future, rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region, standing with our European allies, thinking outside the five-sided box, Resolute Support for Afghan security forces, investing for the future, recognizing our best, a new generation of defense leaders, and taking care of our people. See 2016 Year in Review, Department of Defense, December 22, 2016.

Gender Integration. Putting women into combat training and combat units and the integration of females into SOF has had mixed results. While three women graduated from the demanding Ranger School in 2015 – it appears that none have achieved the coveted Green Beret or SEAL Trident. The Marines gender integration plan seems uncertain as well.

Navy. According to one observer NAVSPECWARCOM continues to wield a disproportionate amount of influence within the SOF community – especially at USSOCOM. On a positive note the Sailors no longer have to wear those ‘blueberry’ uniforms that so effectively camouflage those who venture overboard. Former SEALs continue their leading role in the entertainment business with more movies, TV documentaries, books, and speaking engagements as a result of their past successful exploits like the Bin Ladin operation.

2016 is Another Big Year for SOF. The nature of conflict over the past several years and most likely into the foreseeable future has seen an increased use of special operations forces in the ‘Gray Zone’. Using SOF and drones helped keep the Obama administration from putting ‘boots on the ground’ in many of the overseas conflicts. Read more in SOF, Obama, and the Light Footprint. Of course, the U.S. isn’t the only nation to use special operations forces effectively. Our SOF allies can be found fighting alongside U.S. SOF in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and a few other places. And, of course, Russia has its SOF units working hard in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria as a component of their strategy of political warfare.

NATO: Aghanistan, Russia, and Immigration. NATO reaffirmed its support for Afghanistan with positive outcomes from the Brussels Conference (fall) and Warsaw Summit (summer). The Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan will continue until 2020. In addition, NATO has been occupied with the potential threat of Russia to the Ukraine, Poland, and Baltic States. Finland, Norway, and Sweden are feeling the pressure. NATO is responding with an increase of NATO exercises in Eastern Europe and positioning of NATO units forward into Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Conventional forces stationed forward may help but NATO needs to increase its ability to stem the use of hybrid warfare by Russia. Immigration is a side issue with implications for maritime assets of NATO.

Intelligence in 2016

Biggest Spy Stories of the Year. Intelnews.org brings us the “Year in review: The 10 biggest spy-related stories of 2016”, December 29, 2016. Russia’s military intelligence organization is making a comeback – see “The GRU: Putin’s No-Longer-So-Secret Weapon”The Daily Beast, 31 Dec 2016.

Other Topics in 2016

“War on the Rocks” and 13 Defining Developments of 2016. #1 – Taliban comeback, #2 – North Korea and nuclear development, #3 – chaos in Venezuela, #4 – Britain exit from EU, #5 – COP21 agreement, #6 – Boko Haram in Nigeria and humanitarian crisis, #7 – Philippines shift away from U.S. and towards China, #8 – Yemen’s forgotten war, #9 – Trump victory over Clinton, #10 – TPP failure, #11 – chance of peace in Colombia, #12 – South Korean politics, #13 – advantage to Assad regime. Read more on these topics in an end of year article by Ali Wyne – a fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Center on International Security in “Thirteen Developments That Defined 2016”War on the Rocks, December 30, 2016.

Best Books of 2016. Foreign Affairs “The Best Books of 2016” lists their best academic and non-fiction books of the past year, posted December 9, 2016.

FRONTLINE. A documentary channel of Public Broadcasting System (PBS) has listed its ten most popular documentaries of 2016. A few of them are worth mentioning – #2 – “Saudi Arabia Uncovered”, #3 – “The Secret History of ISIS”, #7 – “Netanyahu at War”, and #9 – “Confronting ISIS”.

Did I Slight Anyone? Probably. SOF is busy all over the world. One only has to take a glance at the 2016 Fact Book published by the United States Special Operations Command to realize the extent of SOF’s commitment world wide. Not mentioned in this article are the contributions by Special Forces ODAs (from 1st, 7th, 19th and 20th SFGA), CA, PSYOP (or perhaps MISO is a more modern term), Rangers, Army SOF aviation, MARSOC, NSW, and AFSOC to SOCSOUTH and SOCPAC. Equally important ‘indirect SOF missions’ that achieve strategic national objectives in the western hemisphere and Pacific region.

2017? Should be another interesting year. U.S. Special Operations Forces will continue to be engaged around the world in conflicts and training events. A new administration is taking charge and it will soon develop its approach to the use of hybrid warfare by Russia (someones playing chess while we play checkers), the persistent terrorist threat, and expansion of Chinese influence in the Pacific.

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