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SOF: A vital fourth service

Special Operations Forces: A National Capability
Dr. Emily Spencer, Editor
Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2011

The American-led global war on terror has brought Special Operations Forces to the fore. Given their current importance, should they too be subject to the deficit cost-cutting now underway at National Defence?

After reading Special Operations Forces: A National Capability, nine essays culled from a December 2010 symposium in Kingston, readers will undoubtedly have their own conclusions.

Much of the book is devoted to Col Bernd Horn’s contribution on the Canadian SOF legacy and provides a valuable perspective on SOF capabilities. Surprisingly, the Canadian origins of special forces’ operations predate those of the air force, navy or even conventional army units. Dr. Horn, in addition to being a former deputy of SOFCOM and a former commander of both a conventional infantry battalion and an airborne commando, has extensive academic credentials in special and airborne operations.

Canadian and American practitioners, both serving and retired, as well as academics provide insights into the alignment of the present Canadian SOF organizations with Canada First Defence Strategy missions; the utility of SOF; its role as an enabler filling the so-called strategic planning gap; SOF as an economy of force option; and SOF as a tool for expanded policy choices.

Professor Sean Maloney compares Polish, British and U.S. special forces operations in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan. The book concludes with essays on SOF media relations, so crucial to public oversight and taxpayer support.

In a book on capabilities, left unanswered for me is whether there should be development of a reserve SOF capability as was done with the SAS in the U.K. Also not addressed are chain of command issues when conventional forces commanders utilize SOF within coalition operations, a topic that surely merits discussion at the political level.

Hy Rothstein’s suggestion that only unconventional units can win unconventional wars is not considered. His book, Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare, reviewed in 2007, argues that organizational culture of conventional forces works against their use in conflicts such as Afghanistan. However, Rothstein’s view and the arguments put forward in this book would suggest that Special Operations Forces are a fourth service that Canada must continue to support with sufficient monies.

Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience
Claire Magone, Michael Neuman and Fabrice Weissman, Editors
Columbia University Press, 2011

To deliver humanitarian assistance, is it required to shake hands with the devil?

The Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) experience of negotiations in 12 different countries offers a smorgasbord of real life examples. There is no “cookie cutter” response and no centralized control of the voices and or activities of the various MSF sections.

Canadians will be particularly interested in the case of MSF in Afghanistan, which the organization left in 2004 after 24 years, only to return in 2008. The case of neighbouring Pakistan, where MSF has so far been denied access to the Federal Administer Tribal Areas but is engaged in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, will certainly intrigue. The 2011 earthquake, on the other hand, brought about a short-lived change in the relationship between MSF and the Pakistan military.

An explanation of the principles underlying MSF negotiating introduces the country chapters. Key among them is that everything is open to negotiation; that MSF judges when to keep silent, and knows its place in each scenario, and acknowledges there will be “antagonisms.”

In an afterword, David Rieff, author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, adds that “all effective humanitarian action is based on negotiating compromises.” However, there must not be “capitulation” or “complicity.” Readers can judge for themselves, but what is clear is that the need to shake hands with the devil to deliver assistance cannot be clarified in a 30-second sound bite.

Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan
Ahmed Rashid
Viking, New York, 2011

Pakistan’s future may well become ours, in part because of its nuclear weapons. So this book by the author of Taliban and Descent into Chaos should scare any Canadian with children or grandchildren.

In 1990, when I left Pakistan after my second posting in four years, I never imagined that Pakistan would deteriorate to the extent described by Rashid. Between 1986, when I attended the Pakistan Army Staff College in Quetta, and 1989/90, when I served in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Tribal areas as an unarmed UN military observer, there had been many changes, but not this catastrophic.

Rashid, a prominent Lahore-based journalist, offers few slivers of hope, arguing that the systemic challenges that face all those attempting remedies are insurmountable. Canadian boots may well be back in that area, in combat, within my lifetime.

by Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC)

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