“As proud as we are of our ability to move quickly and react to the sound of the gun, we are equally as proud of our ability to move ahead of the sounds of gun, and if possible, keep that sound from occurring at all,” Olson said.
The U.S. military must be able to employ a complex approach to warfare, carefully blending the full spectrum of military, paramilitary and civil action, Olson explained, referring to special operations forces’ ability to augment local military training and provide medical aid and humanitarian support as well as using their warfighting skills.
Olson said the direct approach, such as combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is necessary, but the effect of those “kinetic” operations is only short-term. Lasting results, Olson said, come from supporting and enabling nations to combat extremism on their own. Helping nations to establish working governments and build their militaries offers more tangible results, he said.
“It’s absolutely essential that the military focus on point targets, but by themselves, the direct approach and overall effect is not decisive,” Olson said. “Decisive, enduring results come from indirect approaches by contributing to capabilities through advising, training and equipping, and transferring technology.”
But no solutions are simple and no approach can be the same, and each situation requires a responsible and tailored method, the admiral said.
Much has been said, written and debated about the strategic and operational approaches taken in Iraq, Olson told the audience, noting the military always is looking for proven methods that may be applicable in Afghanistan and other trouble spots around the world. Still, he said, persistent conflicts such as those in Iraq, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other regions differ greatly from one another. None presents a straight-forward challenge by any stretch of the imagination, he continued.
Many countries are up against insurgencies that are responsible for local, regional, trans-regional and even global instability — issues for which there are no quick answers or solutions, Olson said. The traditional understanding of warfare is not what it used to be, he added.
“We are living in a new normal, not in aberration,” he explained. “It won’t be something that ends one day and will get back to the way it was. This is the world as we foresee it. The paradigm of force-on-force conventional warfare is inexistent.”
The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy must be about buying time for a legitimate government to establish the capabilities to protect and govern its own people, Olson said. And buying time requires providing security in the cities and on the highways, so people can work and feel safe while economies and governments can grow.
“It is the balance of hard and soft power that brings real and tangible value to the presence of local and coalition forces,” he said.
Just as important as their actions in direct combat, special operations forces, on any given day, serve in as many as 70 countries, where they primarily help to build host-nation support and capacity. These engagements will have long-term effects on the world, Olson said.
“We can point to successes in Colombia and the Philippines and other places around the world as positive examples of long-term, low-profile, low-footprint, high-quality engagements,” he said. “Our collective challenge is to help the practitioners of counterinsurgency get it as right as possible.
“In the end,” Olson added, “we know we will not simply kill or capture our way to victory.”