Wanted: Ph.D.s Who Can Win a Bar Fight
How to reform the Pentagon for "light footprint" interventions.
Looming budget cuts, ground forces worn down by years of repeated deployments, and a range of ever evolving security challenges from Mali to Libya and Yemen are quickly making "light footprint" military interventions a central part of American strategy. Instead of "nation building" with large, traditional military formations, civilian policymakers are increasingly opting for a discrete combination of air power, special operators, intelligence agents, indigenous armed groups, and contractors, often leveraging relationships with allies and enabling partner militaries to take more active roles.
Despite the relative appeal of these less costly forms of military intervention, the light footprint is no panacea. Like any policy option, the strategy has risks, costs and benefits that make it ideally suited for certain security challenges and disastrous for others. Moreover, recent media coverage of drone strikes and SEAL raids may also distort public perceptions, creating a bin Laden effect — the notion of military action as sterile, instantaneous, and pinprick accurate. Yet nighttime raids are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg: the most visible part of a deeper, longer-term strategy that takes many years to develop, cannot be grown after a crisis, and relies heavily on human intelligence networks, the training of local security forces, and close collaboration with diplomats and development workers. For these smaller-scale interventions to be an effective instrument of national policy, civilian and military leaders at all levels should make a concerted effort to understand not only their strategic uses and limitations, but also the ways the current defense bureaucracy can undermine their success.
The most critical resource requirement in smaller interventions is human capital: talented, adaptable professionals who are not only fluent in language, culture, politics, and interpersonal relationships, but also willing to deploy for long periods and operate with little guidance. Smaller-scale missions mean less redundancy, less room for error, and more responsibility for every person in the field. In the words of Lt. Gen. Charlie Cleveland, the commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command: "To succeed in these missions, we need people who can wade into uncertainty, learn the key players, and figure out the best way to influence outcomes." This means that in the face of looming budget cuts, the Pentagon’s biggest national security challenge may not be dealing with a rival power or preserving force structure, but instead solving an intractable human resources problem — how to retool outdated institutions to select, train, assign, and retain the most talented people to address today’s security problems overseas.
Two of my own operational assignments may help illustrate how light-footprint missions can succeed or fail depending on the people who are assigned to accomplish them. I served in the 7th Special Forces Group and the Department of Defense AFPAK Hands program — organizations with very different missions but built for the same fundamental task of influencing foreign partners and building security capacity with a handful of U.S. personnel. These contrasting vignettes should serve as a vivid example of two different organizational philosophies and the institutional challenges that must be overcome if the United States is to master a smaller, more indirect, lower-profile approach to warfare.
The 7th Special Forces Group
The ethic that defines Special Forces training is probably best described as "select hard, manage easy." Operators enjoy tremendous autonomy in the field, but they must earn it first. Before reporting to an operational unit, every Special Forces officer and soldier is required to undergo a rigorous screening and selection process, followed by a two-year qualification course that includes instruction on infantry tactics, specialized technical skills such as weapons or communications, guerrilla warfare, survival, and foreign language training.
Undertaking these intense experiences just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I was surprised by two things. First, there was a strong connection between our training and real-world Special Forces missions — operators who had just fought on horseback with the Northern Alliance would return to speak to the class, and their feedback would be immediately incorporated into realistic, immersive exercises. Second, a large portion of the course was focused on the intellectual and social attributes of the students — creativity, oral and written communication, judgment, cultural respect, and interpersonal skills — rather than sheer athletic prowess. Peers who aced every physical challenge would suddenly be dropped when the instructors observed them unable to plan a mission alone without further guidance or incapable of building rapport with role players during a cross-cultural scenario. Sensing our confusion after a particularly tough cut sent a dozen students home, one instructor quoted a line from our World War II predecessors, the Office of Strategic Services: "The OSS, when selecting officers to parachute into occupied France, described the ideal candidate as a Ph.D. that can win a bar fight. We don’t just want an officer that can carry a hundred-pound rucksack on his back. We need someone who can think and improvise."
Upon graduation, I was assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group, a unit that has long specialized in Latin America. Every Army Special Forces unit is permanently aligned with a region of the world, and as the Spanish-speaking son of Mexican immigrants, I saw 7th Group as the natural choice. From the first day I arrived, I was struck by the sense of continuity and shared culture I encountered; it showed in the soccer posters hanging in the team rooms and the salsa music playing in the hallway. Like me, many of the operators were native or advanced Spanish speakers with families from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Panama, and those who were not had gradually improved upon their few months of formal language instruction by working with foreign militaries across the region. This was a unit full of very talented people, focused on conducting tough training and advisory missions. At any given time, 12-man detachments were scattered across a half-dozen countries, from Peru to Bolivia to Chile, or attending privately run tactical schools for off-road driving, mountaineering, or whatever the mission required. Moreover, the teams prized their independence when deployed, and they were accustomed to frequently operating as the only military presence in a country. A longtime unit veteran pulled me aside and explained: "In 7th Group, you can maybe get away with calling back to the United States and asking your boss for guidance once. But do it twice, and you’ll be out of a job. Fix problems at your level. You’re in charge."
On my first deployment, to conduct a State Department-funded infrastructure security mission in the Colombian jungle, I had the good fortune of being mentored by a senior warrant officer and sergeant major with nearly 35 years of experience and seven or eight trips to Colombia between them. While I was impressed by their ease working with civilian embassy officials and their tactical knowledge in the field, the most valuable lesson they taught me was the power of relationships. I watched these experienced American soldiers walk into high-level meetings to give the Colombian generals a bear hug and immediately start joking about past exploits. They’d known most of the top officers for more than a decade. More importantly, this level of rapport and trust allowed them to have a deeper influence than any first-time adviser with a standard training plan; they could discuss topics that mattered, such as corruption, professionalism, or ethics — not just tactics and marksmanship. I saw the power of relationships repeated again and again in many countries, even in Iraq, where I served as an adviser to a battalion from El Salvador. In the middle of an Arabic-speaking country, we conducted missions together in Spanish and learned that even though specific personalities had changed, the Salvadorans knew the history of our unit and the names of the U.S. advisers who had been killed, and they felt honored to repay the sacrifices that our 7th Group predecessors made for their homeland more than 30 years ago.
The Pentagon’s AFPAK Hands Program
In late 2009, as the military was ramping up for a surge in Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced the creation of the AFPAK Hands program. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen wrote a memo calling it his "number one" manpower priority and asked the services to search for the "best and brightest" candidates. The concept was innovative: A small contingent of several hundred military personnel from all branches of service would be carefully selected, given intensive instruction in Dari, Pashto, or Urdu, and then would spend years rotating between critical assignments in theater and Afghanistan-Pakistan staff positions in Washington or at Central Command. The in-theater jobs would be totally immersive, requiring advisers to embed within Afghan ministries, military units, district centers, and other key places where they could help serve as a cultural bridge and build long-term relationships that could endure after most U.S. troops had withdrawn. According to the concept briefing, the goal was to create a deep bench of knowledgeable, talented regional experts who would add much-needed continuity to the campaign. It was billed as a strategic game changer and basically sought to apply special operations methodologies, as I had seen in 7th Group, to the broader military effort in Afghanistan. I jumped at the chance to participate.
But a few days after reporting to Washington for the initial AFPAK Hands training, it quickly became apparent that something was amiss. First, there was no mechanism to turn unsuitable candidates away, and half of the cohort had not even volunteered for the assignment. As such, the class included far too many students who lacked either the aptitude or desire to participate in the challenging, unstructured advisory missions for which the program was designed. The overarching problem was incentives. I distinctly remember one of the best students — an exceptionally talented F-16 pilot named Lt. Col. "Bruiser" Bryant, who was later tragically killed in Afghanistan — explaining the situation during a coffee break: "Some of the most talented people in the Air Force are the fighter pilots. Now, you try asking one of them if he wants to stop flying, learn to speak Pashto, and spend the next three to five years away from his family in a high-risk mission, after which he won’t be promoted because he’s off his career track? Not many volunteer for that. So sometimes you end up with people that just didn’t have any better options." Yet beyond the selection and screening problems, the program did little to prepare even the most qualified volunteers for their future roles. The AFPAK Hands training basically consisted of four months of abbreviated language courses, a few days of PowerPoint presentations, and a week of basic combat skills. There was no practical instruction in the tasks most important to embedded advisers, such as rapport building, negotiation, force protection, or anti-terrorism measures, meaning that those volunteers who came from non-combat occupations or had no previous adviser experience were left with few resources to help prepare.
Rather than "select hard, manage easy," the program had essentially "selected easy," had skipped vital training, and was now left to "manage hard." When the first mixed bag of AFPAK Hands graduates arrived in theater, conditions were set for disappointment all around. Receiving commanders in Afghanistan had been promised a strategic game changer but all too often encountered a mediocre staff officer with a smattering of language skills and no desire or training to embed with Afghan counterparts. Conversely, the best AFPAK Hands, eager to immerse with their counterparts and full of good ideas, were frequently placed into jobs that involved little interaction with Afghans or placed under rules that severely restricted access. This became a vicious cycle, with the program developing a stigma, commanders tightening rules to prevent untrained personnel from getting into situations beyond their training or abilities, and AFPAK Hands often resigning themselves to jobs that did nothing to influence U.S.-Afghan relationships. Even today, as I prepare for my second AFPAK Hands deployment, half of the original cohort of students is now gone — departed because career progression demanded it or because the frustrating experience of their first tour gave them little desire to return.
Right People, Right Training, Right Assignments
Every new initiative suffers setbacks and implementation problems, and the experiences I have described with AFPAK Hands should not overshadow the sincere efforts by various managers and staff to improve the program since its inception. Fundamentally, the concept has great promise, but a clear-eyed discussion of the bureaucratic and structural factors that drove these early difficulties is vitally important to the future of preventive, light-footprint missions. If light-footprint missions are to become central to U.S. strategy, where dozens, not thousands, of troops work under the lead of civilian embassy authorities, then the fundamental assumptions that have determined personnel policies for much of the past decade may need to be re-examined or rewritten to get the right people, with the right training, into the right assignments.
Right People: Not Everyone Can Do Light-Footprint Missions
The selection course attended by candidates en route to the 7th Special Forces Group is just one version of a process used by nearly every organization in the broader special operations and intelligence community. Working to influence foreign partners, collect intelligence, and, on occasion, surgically apply violence requires a unique mix of maturity, cross-cultural competence, and creativity, and it is a mission better conducted by seasoned veterans than by 19-year-olds spoiling for their first firefight. The philosophy behind the rigorous screening is simple: "The wrong man can do more harm than the right man can do good." In light-footprint missions, amid today’s hyper-globalized media environment, a single person in the wrong job can uproot entire campaigns and undo years of progress, and it is often better to leave a position empty than to send an untrained or unqualified person in to fail. Unfortunately, this concept is the polar opposite of the assignment methodology that has been used to fill many critical adviser and staff positions in the broader military for the past decade.
Adviser positions are generally stigmatized and relegated to subpar performers, and the centralized mechanisms to fill billets are talent-blind and based only on rank and specialty. The bureaucracy sees "major, combat arms," and not "bottom 20 percent performer" or "has never deployed" or "lacks relevant experience for the job." Moreover, even if a candidate has performed well in conventional assignments, qualities like the ability to learn a foreign language, work across cultures, operate with minimal guidance, or build rapport are all impossible to gauge without specifically screening for them. All too often, the mission is left to the mercy of a personnel assignment lottery, and progress only happens when chance places the right person in the right place.
The timing has never been better to reform selection mechanisms. After 12 years of continuous war in and among foreign populations, the U.S. military has never before possessed so many people in its ranks with the experience and aptitude working as foreign advisers, human intelligence professionals, linguists, development workers, and other critical skills. Yet the window of opportunity is closing: As the Army and Marines begin to cut 100,000 personnel during the next few years, policymakers and senior military leaders have announced plans to retain an expansible, experienced force that can be reconstituted rapidly in the event of a major war. The rationale is that under emergency conditions, entry-level soldiers can be trained in a matter of weeks, but midlevel leaders take years to develop. This leaves the military with a pressing need to retain a top-heavy rank structure and keep more majors, colonels, and senior noncommissioned officers than there are operational units to command. If these extra personnel are sent to administrative or institutional positions while they wait for a major contingency to break out, many will simply depart the service. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in his farewell speech: "Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting PowerPoint slides, preparing quarterly training briefs, or assigned an ever-expanding array of clerical duties… the consequences of this terrify me." Instead, the most effective way to keep the most experienced leaders from leaving the military may not be by awarding bonus pay or special incentives, but by selecting the best and keeping those with the right aptitude and skills engaged in light-footprint missions overseas.
Right Training: The Limits of Modularity
Achieving the level of training required to thrive in complex environments among foreign populations demands a willingness to specialize not only in the mission, but also in the specific geographic region where it will be conducted; it requires a major cultural shift in the unit’s mindset. The process takes years, not weeks, and goes far beyond what can be taught in a classroom at a pre-deployment training center. Advisers need to learn firsthand how to navigate the delicate politics of a U.S. embassy country team, not just be given a briefing on the State Department. They must be able to leverage the military professional culture of the partner nation, not just memorize lists of cultural dos and don’ts. They should know how to communicate in the same language as their foreign counterparts, not just recite the words for "hello" and "goodbye."
Unfortunately, this need to train specifically for light-footprint missions lies at odds with the military’s overarching drive for modularity. Since the 1990s, ground forces have been designed to be interchangeable, rapidly deployable organizations that can "plug and play" anywhere in the world, and even the Army’s recently unveiled "regionally aligned forces" concept reflects a deep hesitation to specialize. A 4,000-man test brigade has already been aligned with Africa and will conduct various decentralized, small-scale advisory missions there in the coming months. But regional alignment is temporary and still constrained by the limits of a system that reconstitutes and realigns units every three years. In other words, soldiers might conduct missions in Africa, but after three years, they will rotate and never return. Also, like all conventional forces, the brigades consist of a large number of very junior soldiers led by a small number of midlevel officers and sergeants. This arrangement might be effective for more centralized, large-scale combat operations, but when piecemeal teams of five, 10, or 20 soldiers are sent to various countries across the African continent, seasoned leaders run out quickly and the resulting lack of maturity or experience becomes a liability on the ground — nothing will shut down a military engagement program faster than an international incident.
Instead, the demands of light-footprint missions suggest the need for some proportion of the military, beyond just the special operations community, to break away from modularity and truly specialize. Rather than "plug and play" building blocks that can go anywhere in the world, policymakers may also need a continuum of smaller-scale, regionally aligned capabilities — a range of specialized tools instead of dozens of gigantic "Swiss Army knives." One possible institutional solution might be developing a stratified or tiered system of units that specialize in light-footprint missions. The conventional military lacks any standing adviser units, and very few small-scale "quick reaction force"-type teams (such as the Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team) can easily support light-footprint missions. Yet even a cursory glance at today’s security environment suggests that the special operations community cannot handle the full range of small-scale missions alone.
Right Assignments: You Can’t Surge Trust
For all its faults, the AFPAK Hands program made an earnest attempt to address the paralyzing criticism that Afghanistan was "not a ten year war, but a one year war fought ten times." By deploying language-capable advisers repeatedly into the country and encouraging them to build long-term relationships, the program aimed to make a disproportionately large impact on the campaign with a very small number of people. As Admiral William McRaven warned at the recent Aspen Security Forum, "You can’t surge trust," and real influence with foreign counterparts, in Afghanistan or elsewhere, can only be developed over many years and repeat assignments. Unfortunately, while service as a foreign adviser is certainly not career-enhancing for most military volunteers, returning to do a second tour with the same counterparts is regarded as even worse, and the institutional pull to maintain competitiveness for promotion proved too strong for many AFPAK Hands.
To address the issue, the military may need to re-evaluate the incentives for advisory work, foreign languages, and overseas duty in support of small-scale missions. For instance, assignment opportunities may in some cases need to be mission- or country-based instead of installation- or unit-based. Rather than changing duty stations to Fort Bragg or Fort Hood, an officer might be assigned to a specific task force or embassy overseas, learning the language, then spending three or four years overseas or supporting policymakers in Washington. To facilitate these assignments, the rules regarding families and accompanied tours may need to be relaxed to fall more in step with other U.S. government agencies or even the civilian sector, or rotation cycles may need to be changed (e.g., three months deployed, three months home). These steps may seem drastic, but with the proper incentives and selection mechanisms, the number of volunteers may be surprisingly high. As the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan winds down and the opportunities to deploy decrease dramatically, even those officers who are selected to fill positions within standard combat units may find themselves essentially serving rear detachment duty — preparing for simulated wars at national training centers while dozens of small-scale, real-world missions are being conducted in countries overseas.
Conclusion: System Reboot?
Despite the best intentions of senior officials, some worry that the frustrations of waging counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan may drive the military bureaucracy to repeat the post-Vietnam years, returning to the status quo of preparing for large conventional wars rather than retooling for smaller ones. Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh call this a system reboot, or a tendency to "purge those military innovations most associated with a campaign that is considered a failure." While it is too early to tell which direction the Defense Department is headed, if the revised curriculum of the Army’s Command and General Staff College offers any hint, future war will look conspicuously like it did before September 11, 2001. Officers from a recent class discovered that the school’s final culmination exercise was focused not on irregular threats, but on planning a deliberate defense against a fictitious tank division attacking with old Soviet tactics.
The looming defense budget cuts only complicate matters, as they are likely to greatly intensify the Pentagon’s natural institutional tendency to protect large, high-tech, expensive programs, while "squishy," esoteric programs such as language lessons, culture immersion, broadening experiences, advanced education, advisory units, and other human capital investments — all invaluable to smaller missions — have little hope of being prioritized. Without a concerted, sustained effort by military and civilian leaders at all levels, the state of affairs within the defense establishment may come to resemble the parable of the blind men and the elephant, with doctrine writers, strategists, operators, and budget analysts all drawing different lessons from the past decade of war and telling a different story about how the institution should change to remain relevant. Unless speeches and policy documents are backed up by culture, processes, doctrine, and strategic clarity, the light footprint will likely remain a niche capability confined to a few fringe military units, not an effective instrument of national policy.