Building Special Operations Relationships with Fragile Partners

Best Practices from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan

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Relationships empower Special Operations Forces (SOF) to perform as a highly skilled and reliable cadre in collaboration with local partner forces to prevent and solve shared problem sets, often accomplishing more with less. Since 9/11, however, relationships between SOF and their partners have not always been properly built and maintained. The authors trace the causal effects of constraints, trainings, and incentives and their impact on the current North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) SOF approach of building enduring relationships.
Motivated by numerous deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, with recurring problem sets, we chose to conduct a structured-focused comparison between U.S. and Danish SOF supporting Operation Inherent Resolve in Al Anbar, Iraq (2015–2018) and German SOF during the shift of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan (2013–2015). The analysis of these cases finds that specific interactions of the studied factors not only cause variations in relationships between SOF and partner forces, but ultimately influence operations and objectives determining mission success or failure.
With further testing of our analysis and recommendations, this research can help to identify inherently flexible and nested strategic options for SOF senior leaders, allowing them to deploy SOF elements efficiently during times of asymmetric, diffuse, and episodic conflicts.