On Oct. 15, the New York Times reported that the United States is "speeding up efforts to help the Libyan government create a commando force" that can combat Islamist extremists and errant militias.
I applaud the effort. In an era of decreased U.S. defense spending and a dwindling appetite for large overseas commitments, building the military capacity of our partners so that they can take care of their own security problems makes a lot of sense. And creating a host-nation Special Forces capability is a cost-effective way to build that capacity.
But there are pitfalls to creating such a force -- especially if it is done too rapidly. Taking shortcuts or trying to go too fast can result in a poorly trained force that is just as likely to commit human rights violations as it is to combat militants. In the wake of the Benghazi attack, it is important to remember that one of the Special Operations Truths states: "competent Special Operations Forces (SOF) cannot be created after emergencies occur."
And building such a force in Libya will have its own peculiar challenges. For starters, most of the recruiting base is inexperienced. Candidates for training will likely come from the ranks of anti-Qaddafi militias who -- though ultimately successful in their fight against their former regime -- are still self-taught rebels. Those who are more experienced are likely to be former Qaddafi soldiers. The former may not mix well with the latter.
So how would one begin to build a Special Operations capability in Libya? Here are five time-tested tips to doing it right.
1. Determine what you want the unit to do.
The first thing that needs to be agreed upon is what is it that the United States and Libya want the unit to do. Is the unit to be a direct action raiding force? A counterterrorism unit? Does it need to have a civil affairs capability? These questions are important, as the answer will drive how the unit is to be manned, trained, and equipped.
For example, if the unit is to be a direct action raiding force, it will probably be made up of squads, platoons, companies, and battalions -- something akin to our U.S. Army Rangers. If it's a counterterrorism force, it could be composed of small combat assault units supported by snipers and covert intelligence operatives. Or if it's a unit designed to infiltrate into denied territory, collect intelligence, work with the local populace, and strike out at extremists when the time is right, it might look more like U.S. Army Special Forces.
Upon determining what you want the unit to do, you can then decide what kind of training and specialized skills it needs and the type of people that you want to populate its rank structure. Which leads us to the second step.
2. Ruthlessly assess and select candidates for Special Forces training.
Two of the SOF Truths apply here: "humans are more important than hardware; and quality is better than quantity."
Despite what one sees in the movies, it is not the specialized weapons, the night vision devices, or the beards that make a SOF operator -- it's the quality of the individual. As such, SOF cadres ruthlessly assess and select candidates for training. Applicants undergo a battery of physically and intellectually demanding events in order to determine which candidates possess the requisite characteristics of a SOF operator. Intelligence, determination, common sense, compassion, a strong moral and ethical foundation, and the ability to thrive in a chaotic and ambiguous environment are all necessary traits.
When I commanded the officer portion of the Special Forces Qualification Course, I can still remember relieving a young captain from training -- something that I hated to do -- because he was too rigid and linear in his thinking and in his approach to solving problems. Though physically imposing and with an impressive combat record in the infantry, he lacked the ability to think creatively under pressure when the situation was less defined.
Assessment and selection is not just an American thing. For example, the Iraqi National Counter Terror Forces (INCTF) commandos that I worked with were treated to a culturally attuned version of the U.S. assessment and selection process -- but keyed to getting the same results: The right guy was admitted to training. It is important to note that while American trainers started the process it was eventually (and rightly) taken over by INCTF cadres.
The point here is that whether the candidate is an American or a Libyan soldier, the clear expectation is that SOF are expected to conceptualize and solve tactically, politically, culturally, and morally complex problems with strategic or political implications -- often in a physically challenging environment.
Lastly, assessment and selection must include serious vetting of candidates to ensure that you do not end up training human rights violators or enemy infiltrators. Know who they are before you provide them with advanced military training.