Transformative Force: How Counterterrorism Lessons Built a More Efficient US Military

by Colonel William B. Ostlund

On October 19th, 2001, a joint special operations task force parachuted onto Objective Rhino, a remote desert landing strip southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan. This was the beginning of overt insertion of counterterrorism (CT) forces into the country. For the next seven years, the CT task force operated in the shadows, protecting information about all facets of its organization and operations from US and coalition forces as vigorously and competently as it protected them from the enemies it targeted. But over time, the military demonstrated its ability to evolve — fairly quickly, considering its mammoth size and continuous engagement in combat operations. Despite the secrecy of early CT operations, transparency and interagency coordination increased dramatically through a decade of war in two theaters, first in Iraq and later in Afghanistan. The CT force now stands out as a niche organization that has seen unparalleled utility and success.

Despite its comparatively light footprint and a restrictive mandate, the CT force’s numerous unheralded successes directly contributed to unhinging Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and the initial defeat of the Taliban. Then in early 2003, Iraq became the CT force’s main effort and Afghanistan transitioned to a supporting or secondary effort. The CT force’s size, responsibilities, and effects expanded in the Iraqi theater far beyond their previous capabilities. The learned CT force defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq, where it dramatically contributed to conventional force successes as well.

It was in Iraq that the CT force became a catalyst for unprecedented interagency cooperation and inter-service coordination. The CT force was, and remains, secretive out of necessity. Yet its need to protect information does not detract from the value of its hard-earned lessons for bettering the overall operation of the United States Military. Aspects of its increased transparency and cooperation with conventional forces conducting Counterinsurgency Operations (COIN) played an integral role in the military’s overall organizational growth.

The evolution of CT forces’ methods of operation – known as tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) – drove its success. Its targeting process – known as Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, and Analyze (or F3EA) – was continuously refined. New technologies and additional resources, including enhanced communication, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), analytical tools and analysts, enhanced the F3EA process. Information sharing within the military – between the CT forces and conventional forces – increased, and conventional force assets and capabilities were brought to bear on the problem sets and targets facing the CT force.  In short, greater cooperation yielded more effective battlefield results. The process demonstrated that complementing operations were better than unilateral operations conducted by CT or conventional forces.

Iraq remained the CT force’s main effort until 2010, when the CT force realigned and Afghanistan again emerged as the main effort with Iraq devolving to a secondary effort.  In Afghanistan, the CT forces and interagency coordination once again evolved significantly. At the direction of the CT force commander,  unprecedented transparency was availed to the conventional forces, known as the Battle Space Owners (BSOs) – the forces that conduct Counterinsurgency Operations (COIN) and are responsible for holding and operating in a set geographic area. The CT force addressed the BSO concerns and target sets, and shared intelligence, exploitation, and assets. The BSO provided much needed conventional support and human intelligence requiring local familiarity. Transparency and coordinated efforts between the CT and COIN forces led to complementary effects and unprecedented freedom of action for the CT force.

Although Iraq and Afghanistan are very different theaters, lessons shared between them opened doors for cooperative initiatives and organizational growth. Iraq is an almost ideal operational environment with comparatively developed infrastructure, benign terrain, adequately enabled conventional forces, a more exploitable target set, and a very different detention apparatus that housed a culturally different type of detainee.  These factors led to a more effective and efficient F3EA targeting cycle.  Afghanistan is on the other end of the spectrum – geographically larger and faced with extreme terrain, limited and under-developed infrastructure, weather challenges, sanctuary that is exploited, a larger fragmented population and target set, limited detention capacity, and lower density of US troops.  These differences make it particularly remarkable that the lessons of CT and conventional coordination could be shared across theaters. The combination of lessons from Iraq and 10 years of operating in Afghanistan yields a more capable and efficient CT force moving into a new phase of US military engagement.

The CT force was in action on the day efforts began in America’s war or terror. Now, as conventional forces return to their home bases, the CT force is likely to remain engaged in multiple theaters. The past decade’s successes in balancing the necessity of protecting secrets with the need to enable sufficient transparency and share lessons learned should serve as a standard to maintain and build upon.

About the Author

Colonel William B. Ostlund is an active duty U.S. Army officer, ’98 MALD graduate, and currently serves as a military fellow at Fletcher. He has extensive overseas service and extensive combat experience in conventional and special operations units.

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