Cover: Building Special Operations Partnerships in Afghanistan and Beyond

Building Special Operations Partnerships in Afghanistan and Beyond

Challenges and Best Practices from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Colombia

Published Jul 31, 2015

by Austin Long, Todd C. Helmus, S. Rebecca Zimmerman, Christopher M. Schnaubelt, Peter Chalk


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إبرام شراكات في مجال العمليات الخاصة في أفغانستان وغيرها: التحديات وأفضل الممارسات من أفغانستان والعراق وكولومبيا

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Research Questions

  1. What are the key challenges confronting special operations partnering missions?
  2. What best practices exist for partnering with special operations forces?

Building the capacity of Afghan special operations forces (SOF) is a key goal of the United States and its coalition partners. In February and March of 2013, RAND analysts conducted extensive battlefield circulations in Afghanistan and visited multiple training sites for Afghan SOF. The mentors at these sites hailed from a variety of International Security Assistance Force contributing nations, including the United States, Lithuania, Romania, Australia, Norway, and the United Kingdom. This report summarizes key partnering practices across these international partners and presents findings from SOF partnership case studies in Iraq and Colombia. The goal is to identify best practices for SOF partnership that can benefit the development of the Afghan special operations capability. These best practices also have broader applicability for special operations partnerships beyond Afghanistan.

Key Findings

Operations Should Be Subordinated to Capability Development

  • A focus on achieving operational effects with Afghan SOF has superseded the development of Afghan SOF capability.

Focus on Sustainable Operations

  • Many coalition assets, such as rotary air and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, that have supported Afghan SOF will be very scarce or unavailable after 2014. In light of this coming shortfall, planners need to consider the Afghan capability to replace coalition enablers and to begin preparations in present-day operations.

Deliberately Wean Afghan SOF from Unsustainable Support

  • There is a need to develop more sustainable operations and operational tempo early in the development phase of partner SOF, rather than trying to do so later.

Link SOF to Existing Intelligence Infrastructure

  • Intelligence is the lynchpin of special operations, yet in Afghanistan, many units lacked an organic intelligence capability and were thus highly dependent on coalition forces for intelligence.
  • Fostering these types of connections will be critically important across all Afghan SOF units, though the challenges are significant as intelligence sharing is not the norm in Afghanistan.

Promote Deep Partnership Through Extensive Rapport Building

  • Virtually every individual interviewed as part of this report noted that rapport was the critical ingredient to partnership success.

Use Mentorship Networks and the Chain of Command to Your Benefit

  • Logistics is a perennial problem among Afghan SOF units. A commonly referenced story involves unit S-4s sending resupply requests to higher channels only to never receive the requested materials, sometimes not even a confirmation that the request was received.
  • To address this problem, several units have been able to effectively exploit their own mentorship networks, which span the Afghan unit's chains of command -- i.e., contacting a mentor at a higher level who then ensures the request reaches his counterpart.

Assign Senior and Experienced Individuals to Key Mentorship Positions

  • This can require careful and creative personnel assignment that is not within established doctrine.

Maintain Effective Continuity Across Rotations

  • Often, the risk is that new units enter Afghanistan seeking to forgo the practices of prior units and instead forge ahead with new partnering practices and approaches identified during the pre-mission training period.

Pre-Mission Training Should Include a Mock Partner Force

  • Pre-mission training that is focused on preparation for the partnering mission appears limited in scope. In only a few cases did training focus on developing mentorship capability. In such cases, the primary approach was for mentor SOF units to train conventional force infantrymen and was deemed highly effective in preparing the unit for mentoring Afghan SOF.

Building Partner Capacity Almost Inevitably Takes Longer Than Anticipated

  • This seems to be true whether the host nation is weak and international SOF are committed in large numbers (Iraq, Afghanistan) or the host nation is relatively strong and international SOF are committed in small numbers (Colombia).

Building Partner Force "Tooth" Much Faster Than "Tail" Generates Short-Term Gain but Long-Term Pain

  • U.S. assets are typically used to provide tail functions in the near term while partner units get into the fight quickly, with the idea that those capabilities will be built later. Yet, these capabilities end up being anemic for a long time and perhaps never develop. This often means that capable partner SOF units underperform after U.S. forces are reduced.

It May Be Worthwhile to Explore Nontraditional or Atypical Assignment Patterns and Durations for U.S. SOF Personnel in Partnership Missions

  • Building partner capacity requires such extensive rapport development that personnel continuity is a paramount concern.
  • Models other than the standard short deployment may be more effective. Just as one example, the British Army has long seconded officers to certain Gulf States to help build capacity. These officers, typically senior field grades near the end of their careers, are seconded for long accompanied tours, typically four years. While such an approach might not be suitable for host nations experiencing high levels of violence, it might be a much better use for many senior field grade SOF officers than a final tour as a Pentagon action officer.


  • In future conflicts, it may be best to keep the end-state in mind and limit provisioned assets to only those that can be sustained. This will help avoid some of the challenges that ensue when partnered units must be weaned from coalition enablers.
  • U.S. and coalition forces should clearly communicate to partner units how mentorship and support will be withdrawn after 2014. This will give indigenous SOF units the opportunity to plan accordingly, will avoid fears of a sudden, dramatic reduction in support, and will limit the risks of a future rise in attrition.
  • Expectations should be tempered for how quickly SOF partner units will develop.
  • Emphasize building "tail" capabilities earlier, accepting that this will reduce the speed of "tooth" development.

This research was sponsored by the Special Operations Joint Task Force–Afghanistan and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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