The power of relationships and partnerships forged by special ops

The power of relationships and partnerships forged by special ops

In over three decades of being privileged to serve in U.S. special operations forces (SOF), I witnessed many forms of power in dozens of campaigns, battles, and other operations across four continents. These ranged from physical, kinetic power, to the use of technology, information, intelligence and others. Whether this power was tactically, operationally, or strategically employed, each form was often profoundly impressive.

And yet, I came to realize that one type of power often stood alone and, in many ways, was more important than all the rest. Ironically, it was also the least tangible or physical. Its dimensions cannot by measured by a micrometer, or its existence weighed on any scale. Indeed, its strength lies in the fact that it is deeply emotional, psychological, and highly personal.

This vital form of intangible power originates from the thoughtful, deliberate, and persistent creation of relationships that lead to partnerships, and this intentional effort is irreplaceable for advancing and protecting U.S. national security interests. The history of special operations in the U.S. is replete with examples that demonstrate how vital this can be, and I offer two specific examples that are illuminating and instructive.

As a very young Army Special Forces officer in the 1980′s oriented on the Pacific region, my colleagues and I frequently deployed to train with the Philippine Scout Rangers, the Philippine Marines, and other formations of their armed forces. This cultivated a broad network of strong friendships that flourished on both sides for decades. When relations between the U.S. and the Philippines significantly dwindled after 1991 because of the closure of Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base as U.S. installations, the American-Philippines relationship deteriorated even more sharply during the six years President Duterte was in office. And yet, the personal bonds of friendship and shared experiences between U.S. special operations forces and the Armed Forces of the Philippines endured, however informally. Subsequently, in 2014 when the Islamic State dramatically emerged to threaten the Philippines, this enduring informal network of American special operators and Philippine military personnel became indispensable in combating this threat by enabling a very rapid renewal of a strong and effective operational partnership. This was most vividly demonstrated during the battle for Marawi City in Mindanao, and ultimately enabled the Philippines to defeat ISIS. Strong relationships continue to pay dividends today to enable an ever-stronger strategic partnership between the U.S. and the Philippines in their combined efforts to contest China, which blasted water cannons at Philippine vessels and rammed one carrying Philippine Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Romeo Brawner in December 2023.

Another powerful example flows from the counter-ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, special operations personnel spent years in combat alongside both the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi special operators combatting insurgents and Al-Qaeda networks. This led to deep personal bonds of trust and affection across these forces that endured for years and remained intact long after the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. Then, in 2014 when ISIS suddenly emerged to seize the city of Mosul and begin marching toward Baghdad, the hasty redeployment of American special operations forces into Iraq quickly became operationally and strategically effective because of the enduring relationships between these forces, despite years of physical separation. Both the Peshmerga and Iraqi operators welcomed their American counterparts with open arms, and neither side had to waste time in developing trust or having to learn about what each side had to contribute to the fight. Instead, all were able to join forces rapidly and effectively in a committed partnership that endures to this day.

These examples illustrate how strategically irreplaceable these deeply committed relationships can be, and how they can blossom into strategic partnerships. The special operations community always appreciates that such relationships in another land require long-term investments of time, demonstrated reliability, and persistent presence whenever possible. Doing so, simply put, is part of SOF’s “DNA.”

Just as importantly, these SOF practices can provide invaluable advantages, opportunities, and outcomes for more than just U.S. military goals. For decades, U.S. SOF has deliberately invested in consistent integration and collaboration with many other U.S. agencies and departments, ranging from intelligence agencies to the State Department and its foreign service, and beyond. Today, a vast network of personal relationships persists between U.S. SOF and dozens of U.S. interagency partner organizations. In many cases, these relationships were initiated during deployments in combat environments over the past two decades. Most importantly, just as this practice enabled U.S. SOF to develop strategic partnerships with global actors, so has this practice with other agencies fostered genuine operational and strategic partnerships that directly enable both U.S. SOF, and these civilian agencies, to become far more effective.

Today, the entire U.S. military is a well-resourced and highly skilled enterprise. Amidst a world marked by escalating mistrust, instability and the proliferation of violence sponsored by both nation-states and extremists, all military branches are now urgently seeking new ways to achieve tactical, operational, and strategic advantages. Accordingly, the old saying that protecting America and her interests requires harnessing “all instruments of national power” is even more true than ever before.

U.S. special operations forces contribute to all these efforts in numerous ways. However, its enduring strength lies in its time-proven ability, skill, and enthusiasm for deliberately cultivating long-term and deep relationships. By intentionally nourishing these relationships, the special operations community aims to evolve them toward someday becoming genuine operational and strategic partnerships. In so doing, U.S. SOF enhances and enriches its contribution to all of America’s efforts to deter aggression, or should those efforts fail, to swiftly and decisively respond to threats, protect national interests and promote stability worldwide.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, enlisted in 1982, attended Army Officer Candidate School and later volunteered for U.S. Army Special Forces. Throughout his 38-year career, he served in many special operations and interagency roles, participating in dozens of contingency and combat operations abroad. His final assignment was Director of Strategic Operational Planning at the National Counterterrorism Center. Today, he works as the strategic advisor and senior vice president for CACI International, a defense and technology company that provides significant capabilities and assistance for U.S. SOF and other national security needs.

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