Special Operations Support to Conflict Prevention

Updated: Feb 9, 2020

"Preventing the collapse of a state where the infrastructure is under immense strain can save a country from mass slaughter of civilians, violent conflict, and gross abuses of human rights. Thus, prevention is tied into the need to avoid human suffering in certain states, and the need to prevent violence from taking place.

-- Jacob Bercovitch and Richard Jackson 1

Figure 1. United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Curve of Conflict 2


Soon after the end of the Cold War, political expert Samuel P. Huntington wrote an article titled “The Clash of Civilizations” in 1993. Huntington emphasized how globalization contributed to the increased tensions between different cultures, as societies feared their values and identities were threatened. Fast forward 24 years and populist nationalism and violent extremism are growing all over the world. Significant and lasting diplomatic issues can be correlated to technological advancements, which amplify these sentiments globally. In Europe, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union and the threats by France’s nationalist party to withdraw from the EU during their recent elections demonstrates the weight popular sentiment carries through many nations. In the Middle East, the world witnessed the Arab Spring as an underemployed and an overlooked demographic—the Arab Street—protested the corruption and human right abuses carried out by their governments.3 Moreover, in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gained the support of a disenfranchised Sunni population to seize vast amounts of territory between eastern Syria and western Iraq in an attempt to establish a self-governing state, with the intent for a global caliphate. A key contributor to the movements mentioned is the considerable amount of information shared through social media that has increased the rate of globalization and has amplified underlying grievances that lead to violence. As the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, the risk for populist or extremist groups to exploit discontented populations for their interests will continue to grow. For this reason, future conflict will be exacerbated by the effects of globalization and the democratization of technology which intensifies social disparities that were once isolated.

The Concept

In the age of accelerated globalization and its toll exacted on conflict, the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) should prioritize conflict prevention activities to achieve US national security objectives. According to Joint Publication 3-07.3, conflict prevention is “a peace operation employing complementary diplomatic, civil, and, when necessary, military means, to monitor and identify the causes of conflict, and take timely action to prevent the occurrence, escalation, or resumption of hostilities.”4 For conflict prevention to be successful, it takes a holistic approach, which includes all elements of national power, international partners, and a coordinated policy to implement them. USSOCOM is the only organization within the Department of Defense (DoD) that has the unique capabilities and best-skilled forces with the political, cultural, and regional knowledge to take on the challenge of conflict prevention. This article will focus on special operations forces (SOF) approach towards conflict prevention and the challenges associated with it.

Conflict Prevention

Conflict prevention, also referred to as preventive diplomacy, is a method that’s been discussed by the United Nations, and other international organizations to prevent and manage escalating tensions to avoid conflicts, and to set the conditions for long-term peace and stability. Witnessing the conflicts that arose immediately after the end of the Cold War, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former UN Secretary General, wanted a more pro-active approach that would reduce the risk of violence and act as an early warning system for areas where conflict appeared imminent. In 1992, Boutros re-prioritized the importance for the UN to change their approach towards conflict prevention rather than focusing on peace-making or peace-keeping, which happens in the aftermath of violent conflicts. However, Boutros’ approach was more focused on prevention rather than addressing the root causes of conflict.5

Authors Carment and Schnabel stated that conflict prevention is a “long-term proactive operational and structural strategy undertaken by a variety of actors, intended to identify and create enabling conditions for a stable and more predictable international security environment.”6 Thus in Carment and Schnabel’s framework, conflict prevention would involve several other US government agencies, international organizations (IGOs), regional organizations, coalition partners, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to create the conditions necessary to prevent conflicts from emerging.

These SOF professionals can focus on a combination of contributing factors such as social, political, and economic grievances and help target those root causes that can lead to violence. However, to successfully implement this approach, it requires an integrated strategy in which SOF would play a supporting role. SOF can assist other agencies and local/regional partners by monitoring the information environment to identify early signs for potential conflicts, assist partners with social and economic initiatives, and work with local partners on strategic communications to promote stability and dissuade support to competing actors. In this role, SOF can also, collaborate with state and local indigenous partners to build trust between conflicting parties and identify any potential signs of violence before they erupt.

The Internet

Social media has been a major contributor in influencing political outcomes, mobilizing demonstrations, and instigating conflicts. To gain a better understanding of the contributing factors for violence, SOF can assist other agencies and local partners with collecting, monitoring, and analyzing information across multiple networks to identify early signs of conflict in high-risk areas. These activities can be accomplished through the host nation, internati