21 January 2010

SOCOM Commander Sees & Understands the Big Picture

I continue to be impressed by Adm. Eric Olson's deep and sophisticated understanding of contemporary armed conflict. When I have made this observation before, some have responded to me that his conclusions are actually rather obvious and so widely shared that they hardly merit recognition. What I find so encouraging, however, is that the leader of the world's most elite and lethal kinetic force understands that - in his words - "it’s the nonkinetic that will be decisive." In a large organization where those wielding hammers tend to see nothing but nails, Olson both understands and acts on the fact that a full array of tools are needed to get the job done. In my view, that is commendable and distinctive.

Yesterday (1/20/10), Olson testified before The House Armed Services Subcommittee On Terrorism And Unconventional Threats where he highlighted some of the following points

  • Regional AQ affiliate groups are a growing concern. The networking of affiliate groups has two pernicious effects: (1) it extends AQ’s global reach, posing an increasing threat to North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, India, Southeast Asia, and again in the United States; (2) it provides a more diversified infrastructure for recruitment and training.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a rising affiliate group that is benefiting from this process and whose leadership ranks are made up in part from Saudi and Yemeni extremists who have been released from detention or escaped from Yemeni jails.

  • The network is still largely built on personal connections and relationships developed during the Afghan resistance against the Soviets in the 1980s. Its growth and resilience are enabled by a convergence of instability, crime, corruption, and disruptive migration in the region.

The network sustains its operations mainly through individual relationships that are rooted in the 1980’s Afghanistan jihad against the former Soviet Union. The strength and tenacity of this network is due to the environment in which it functions. It is woven in the fabric of multi-ethnic communities, working with legitimate companies and charities while simultaneously exploiting the criminal networks to move people, money, and supplies around the world. Al-Qaida thrives on sources of friction created by a growing nexus between extremism, crime, and migration.

  • AQ affiliate groups are increasingly stepping into ungoverned or under-governed spaces where they can more easily leverage a base of population support through aid or coercion.

The problems we must be prepared to address include the inability of nation states to deal with increasingly complex challenges and to meet the needs and expectations of their populations. These challenges are exacerbated by the growing number of non-state actors who have strategic effect in a networked and interconnected world. In the vacuum created by weak or failed governments, non-state actors have achieved greater influence over benign populations by addressing their basic needs and grievances, and by intimidating and sometimes brutalizing them into submission. When governments fail to address the needs of the population, they become irrelevant and the people will make choices that are shaped by their own immediate needs for survival.

Adm. Olson concludes with the following:

We believe that SOF must simultaneously focus on the environmental dynamics and root causes that create today’s and tomorrow’s threats and adversaries. This belief requires an approach that is integrated with our interagency partners to foster US credibility and influence among relevant populations. We clearly recognize that deterring, disrupting and defeating terrorist will require a whole-of-government and international approach.

You can read the testimony in its entirety HERE.