(Re-Published from Small Wars Journal, Feb. 6, 2014) SWJ book discussion with Linda Robinson, senior international policy analyst at RAND Corporation, about One Hundred Victories. Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare (Public Affairs, 2013).
SWJ: Why did you choose to write a book about Village Stability Operations?
Linda Robinson: Village Stability Operations/Afghan Local Police is definitely the heart of the book. I looked at that in depth because I think it represents special operations forces going back to their roots and rescuing some of the skill-sets for working with indigenous populations that to some were lost and submerged in the last decade of heavy focus on combat and direct action. I also looked to how those initiatives worked together in Afghanistan including the development of the Afghan Special Forces and the Afghan commandos and the entire Afghan special ops structure that was a very important second mission going on at the same time. Also there was ISAF SOF—i.e., NATO and other partners—conducting a very intensive parallel effort to train and operate alongside the various police forces growing 17 different Province Response Companies, as well as the high-end Minister of Interior counter-terrorist and counter-narcotics forces. Finally the last few chapters are focused on the evolution of the US special ops command and control structure which is a little bit of an inside baseball story, but very important because for the first time, all the special ops tribes, all those stove-piped units were put together under one command. I tried to touch on all of these things that were going on and look at what the operators brought from their operational experience elsewhere and project forward where these things may be used in the future.
SWJ: Being there, on the ground and observing what the special ops were doing, how influential was the classical image of T.E. Lawrence for the operational philosophy at the core of the VSO/ALP initiatives?
Linda Robinson: Every operator, as well as the vast majority of US conventional forces sent out to these countries, have internalized, read and have been preached to about T.E. Lawrence. Of particular symbolism is the guidance about not doing so much with your own hands what they may do less perfectly with theirs. I think it is the actual insight to say that their hands are the critical hands. They in fact know their own country much better. All that the US can hope to do is to be the helping hand, the enabler. I think that is what the real T.E. Lawrence story was about: about him going over there and never pretending that he was the leader. He might be the translator back to the foreign capitals or a connector but never putting himself in the lead. That was where perhaps a wrong turn was taken in all the emphasis that developed almost unintentionally, when the US began seeing itself as the primary counterinsurgent. That is never going to be the case, never should be the case except if the US is confronted by an insurgency on its own soil. That is the optic really, to find out what it takes to operate successfully according to another countries’ standards. That is almost diametrically opposed to our process of building our own campaign plans and structuring our own approach because it has always come back to them, what they are willing to do and what they can do.
SWJ: You started the book with Sun Tzu and you ended the book with Sun Tzu. I think it is a symbolic choice especially today when we are talking so much about rebalancing. What is the broader message that you want to send by leveraging his influence including the title “One Hundred Victories”?
Linda Robinson: The key is not to win 100 victories in 100 battles, but to subdue the enemy without fighting. The interpretation or the spin that I put on without fighting means without the US taking the lead in the fighting. Of course there will likely be fighting in many of these cases, but the key is for them, the local actors, to do the fighting and for the US to enable them …
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Octavian Manea is pursuing, as a Fulbright student, an M.A. in International Relations with a focus on global security and post-conflict reconstruction at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.