5 steps to standing up special forces in Libya.
On Oct. 15, the New York Times reported that the United States is "speeding up efforts to help the Libyan government create a commando force" that can combat Islamist extremists and errant militias.
I applaud the effort. In an era of decreased U.S. defense spending and a dwindling appetite for large overseas commitments, building the military capacity of our partners so that they can take care of their own security problems makes a lot of sense. And creating a host-nation Special Forces capability is a cost-effective way to build that capacity.
But there are pitfalls to creating such a force — especially if it is done too rapidly. Taking shortcuts or trying to go too fast can result in a poorly trained force that is just as likely to commit human rights violations as it is to combat militants. In the wake of the Benghazi attack, it is important to remember that one of the Special Operations Truths states: "competent Special Operations Forces (SOF) cannot be created after emergencies occur."
And building such a force in Libya will have its own peculiar challenges. For starters, most of the recruiting base is inexperienced. Candidates for training will likely come from the ranks of anti-Qaddafi militias who — though ultimately successful in their fight against their former regime — are still self-taught rebels. Those who are more experienced are likely to be former Qaddafi soldiers. The former may not mix well with the latter.
So how would one begin to build a Special Operations capability in Libya? Here are five time-tested tips to doing it right.
1. Determine what you want the unit to do.
The first thing that needs to be agreed upon is what is it that the United States and Libya want the unit to do. Is the unit to be a direct action raiding force? A counterterrorism unit? Does it need to have a civil affairs capability? These questions are important, as the answer will drive how the unit is to be manned, trained, and equipped.
For example, if the unit is to be a direct action raiding force, it will probably be made up of squads, platoons, companies, and battalions — something akin to our U.S. Army Rangers. If it’s a counterterrorism force, it could be composed of small combat assault units supported by snipers and covert intelligence operatives. Or if it’s a unit designed to infiltrate into denied territory, collect intelligence, work with the local populace, and strike out at extremists when the time is right, it might look more like U.S. Army Special Forces.
Upon determining what you want the unit to do, you can then decide what kind of training and specialized skills it needs and the type of people that you want to populate its rank structure. Which leads us to the second step.
2. Ruthlessly assess and select candidates for Special Forces training.
Two of the SOF Truths apply here: "humans are more important than hardware; and quality is better than quantity."
Despite what one sees in the movies, it is not the specialized weapons, the night vision devices, or the beards that make a SOF operator — it’s the quality of the individual. As such, SOF cadres ruthlessly assess and select candidates for training. Applicants undergo a battery of physically and intellectually demanding events in order to determine which candidates possess the requisite characteristics of a SOF operator. Intelligence, determination, common sense, compassion, a strong moral and ethical foundation, and the ability to thrive in a chaotic and ambiguous environment are all necessary traits.
When I commanded the officer portion of the Special Forces Qualification Course, I can still remember relieving a young captain from training — something that I hated to do — because he was too rigid and linear in his thinking and in his approach to solving problems. Though physically imposing and with an impressive combat record in the infantry, he lacked the ability to think creatively under pressure when the situation was less defined.
Assessment and selection is not just an American thing. For example, the Iraqi National Counter Terror Forces (INCTF) commandos that I worked with were treated to a culturally attuned version of the U.S. assessment and selection process — but keyed to getting the same results: The right guy was admitted to training. It is important to note that while American trainers started the process it was eventually (and rightly) taken over by INCTF cadres.
The point here is that whether the candidate is an American or a Libyan soldier, the clear expectation is that SOF are expected to conceptualize and solve tactically, politically, culturally, and morally complex problems with strategic or political implications — often in a physically challenging environment.
Lastly, assessment and selection must include serious vetting of candidates to ensure that you do not end up training human rights violators or enemy infiltrators. Know who they are before you provide them with advanced military training.
3. Train the basics and master them.
A respected Special Forces officer once told me that "the reason that Special Forces soldiers are so good is that they have mastered the basics." Shooting, moving, and communicating under combat conditions require realistic training, repetition, and an adherence to high standards. And that takes time.
Take shooting, for example: In an urban environment such as Benghazi or Tripoli, it is extremely important to engage the enemy discriminately. An errant bullet might pass through a dirt wall or cardboard shanty and hit a civilian, thus increasing the chances of alienating the population that you are trying to protect and whose support you are trying to win.
To get to the point where you seldom miss your target requires immense amounts of training time and ammunition. Months, not hours or days, have to be spent on the shooting range honing one’s skills.
Other basic skills like planning, reading maps, and patrolling are equally important — and culturally neutral. No matter what nationality, you have to master the basics if you are going to play at this level. It pays huge dividends when it comes time to test those skills in battle.
4. Build in oversight mechanisms.
In building a Libyan SOF capability, it is important to ensure that the force is not used improperly. There’s a credible fear that the troops trained could be used to destroy the political enemies of the ruling government — a highly trained "goon squad" that essentially assassinates political dissidents and members of minority clans or tribes.
Equally worrisome: that the force becomes so good — yet so unmanageable — that they are able to stage a coup.
To prevent the misuse of this highly effective SOF capability, trainers will have to work with the Libyan government to establish control mechanisms to ensure that those targeted by the force are deserving of the violence that may be unleashed upon them.
There are numerous ways to do this in a manner that is politically, culturally, and militarily sound. They can be as simple as ensuring the force is represented by all tribes and clans and minorities of a given populace; establishing command and control procedures that make the force easy to use in a crisis and harder to use otherwise; creating a process wherein potential targets are evaluated by a political and military board to ensure its legitimacy; establishing U.S. or other allied liaison officers; maintaining financial leverage; and professionalizing their officer corps.
(Note: The U.S. Congress plays a role here too. It is they who will give approval to the U.S. military to undertake the training mission and later hold them accountable for the training that they give and the force that they help create.)
The good news, at least: we have a good track record of getting this right. The Philippines, Iraq, and Afghanistan offer tangible examples of where U.S. SOF established host-nation special operations capabilities that were well-trained and accountable.
5. Train and educate those who will enable and support the force.
From the SOF Imperatives: "Most Special Operations require non-SOF assistance." It is not enough to train the force to conduct combat operations. One must train everyone and everything that support and enable the newly created SOF.
That can mean training drivers and gunners for mechanized assault vehicles, helicopter pilots and crews, logistics and maintenance teams, civil affairs units, information operations experts, medical trauma teams — the list goes on and on.
Training and education should extend to the conventional military units that may be required to support the SOF by cordoning off target areas, attacking supporting objectives, or providing quick reaction forces in emergency cases where extra help is needed.
Since a country’s civilian authorities should direct the efforts of its military force, Libya’s national-level leaders will also have to be trained to employ their SOF.
The requirement to bring other entities up to a higher standard of capacity, capability, and command and control should — if done properly — help increase Libya’s interagency communication and professionalize more than just the SOF unit.
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Creating a SOF capability takes time — one simply cannot take shortcuts if the end goal is a professional force that can provide protection to the populace and tailored force to the enemy. To try to build such a force too fast can result in the opposite: a unit that terrorizes the population thereby driving more members into the waiting hands of insurgents and terrorists.
If the U.S. government wants to get a Libyan unit up and running, it needs to identify what it wants the unit to do and then start assessing and selecting candidates for training. Start with the current military organizations and cull the best of the best.
Members of the U.S. Special Operations community know how to do this. It will be important for them to educate policymakers, diplomats, the U.S. Congress and — of course — our Libyan allies, so that expectations can be managed and success can be achieved.