U.s. Special Operations Forces Engage Pacific Island Nations Through Security Working Group
Dr. Deon V. Canyon, Dr. Paul Lieber, Michael Mollohan and Dr. Eric Shibuya
Special Operations Command, Pacific, (SOCPAC) supports international workshops that encourage information exchanges on regional trends and nontraditional security issues. The Pacific Area Security Sector Working Group (PASSWG) recently provided the opportunity for representatives from Pacific island nations to network for future collaborations, share knowledge on security issues and promote common understanding. Rather than focus on specific threats, the solutions that emerged were framed as strategic, operational or practical. Attendees observed that security challenges in the Pacific require joint, reciprocal action, and appreciated PASSWG’s important role in helping Pacific nations keep in front of regional threats, emerging security and peacekeeping issues, disaster preparedness and compliance with international standards.
SOCPAC operates in the Indo-Pacific theater and engages through training, exchange and deployment. SOCPAC delivers some of its training through PASSWG, which runs workshops to facilitate understanding on hard and soft security issues and regional threats. These multilateral symposiums operate informally on a regional scale to promote collaboration and partnerships among all security organizations and professionals. Participants benefit from security dialogue, search for opportunities for collaborative training and promote national and regional security imperatives.The previous U.S. administration’s planned rebalance to Asia and the Pacific was partly responsible for shifting attention to the Pacific and on the PASSWG Pacific island nations symposium, hosted July 11-15, 2016, by the New Zealand Defence Force Special Operations Command in Wellington. The dialogue focused on addressing the lack of shared understanding across the region with the primary aim being to shape a cooperative way ahead for special operations forces (SOF) and the security sector of Pacific island nations. Organizers also sought to discover what security professionals should focus on at the multinational level in the Pacific and identify key stakeholders. The meeting served as an introduction for regional actors to the capabilities and limitations of SOF as well as an entree for SOF operators into the security issues of the Pacific island countries. Participants hailed from Australia, Canada, Fiji, France, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, the United Kingdom, the United States and Vanuatu.
At the workshop, three working groups — blended by profession and participant origin — analyzed information and attempted to gauge their relation to regional threats while pinpointing opportunities for SOF contribution. The group facilitated by Dr. Paul Lieber from the Joint Special Operations University proposed practical approaches; the group facilitated by Dr. Eric Shibuya from the Marine Corps University Command and Staff College focused on operational aspects of SOF integration group; and the group facilitated by Dr. Deon V. Canyon from the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies recommended strategic imperatives. Representatives from Massey University participated in all groups.
The practical recommendations included:
- Treat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU) as a fisheries crime.
- Financially and legally break the supply chain of owners of ships involved in marine crime.
- Establish fully functional, independent command centers for humanitarian aid and disaster relief before disasters hit.
- Include all small countries in anti-trafficking efforts.
- Promote education to enhance community resilience.
- Manage and measure data to promote sharing.
- Address radicalization, including messaging.
- Recognize the need for persistent engagement to build trust among all actors.
Two practical shifts in the maritime domain received significant attention. The first was that IUU fishing should be called what it is — fisheries crime. This definition puts the issue under the jurisdiction of law enforcement agencies and reduces the burden on stretched fisheries departments. This recognition empowers these agencies to address these crimes in tandem to sister violations often linked to IUU fishing. The second was based on successful actions by New Zealand authorities, who described a move away from pursuing individual ships to pursuing owner finances and the countries where they sought to sell produce and seek harbor. This paradigm shift addresses shortcomings inherent in pursuing moving targets across an enormous geographical area. New Zealand agencies have found this alternative, holistic approach to be more effective in tackling the source of the problem and reducing the number of ships involved in fisheries crime. The process involved ratifying suspect ship documentation, conducting high-seas surveillance, tracing owner companies, making diplomatic progress with countries unknowingly harboring the owners, raising awareness of the importance of fisheries crime, and accessing data from national crime authorities and Interpol.
With this information, pressure can be brought to bear on national governments to prosecute offenders, close ports to implicated ships and deny access to markets with the aim of financially and legally breaking the supply chain. However, most Pacific island states do not have the technical and human resources to sustain this holistic approach. It was recommended that a regional organization, supported by well-resourced partners, should instigate and maintain this international endeavor. This approach, as it grows in success, will make SOF increasingly less relevant to fisheries crime responses, participants said.Many operational outcomes were based on how SOF functions and engages in the region. From an operational perspective, political will was deemed to be of great importance and so was promoting greater inclusivity through personal connections and achieving nationally appropriate, design-build approaches throughout the islands. Recognizing the impossibility of solving all security issues in the region and accordingly identifying the degree of “tolerable” failure was a key challenge. It was thought that this might be resolved by conducting community and organizational resilience assessments, which are key components in analyzing and improving any failed process. There was a recommendation that security sector liaison officers learn how to operate like librarians in relation to how they acquire and triage information, categorize it for future reference and determine its relevance on local, national and regional levels. Similarly, these officers need to restructure existing data and methods of assessment to provide meaningful outcomes applicable to wider problem sets and longer terms. Ideally, such professionals working in the Pacific should have a flexible mindset, be cognizant of resource and human limitations and have a tenacious commitment. This mental flexibility is the hallmark of SOF operators, and greater interaction between SOF and the general security sector actors in the region will go a long way not just in sharing information but in developing trust and good practices between these communities.
The strategic group recommended an approach similar to the U.S. Homeland Security model and called for the establishment of Oceania Security (OS). It would serve as a one-stop shop for regional coordination and would oversee all regional multinational security activities and responses. No regional organization fully represents all Pacific island countries. The Pacific Island Forum (PIF) is the most active regional entity, participants observed. The annual meeting of the Forum Regional Security Committee is the key venue for identifying priority threats and negotiating a regional security agenda. This forum was already successfully identifying priority requirements for the region and efficiently reviewing constituent concerns. A regional security plan that aligned with the PIF framework for Pacific regionalism (PIF 2014) would perhaps have far more relevance and usefulness.
Workshop participants identified three priorities and integrated them into the supportive structure. First, participants proposed creating an OS information network to manage and share the information required to inform all assessments and decisions. Participants saw information acquisition, sharing and management as a key factor in making any system effective. Second, participants proposed an OS transnational crime-response unit to coordinate regional responses to transnational oceanic crime. Pacific island nations already possess considerable capacity for addressing transnational crime and effective regional organizations already exist for this purpose, so this entity would primarily act as a coordinator. Last, participants proposed an OS Crisis and Disaster Management unit to coordinate and oversee humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Although several national emergency and disaster management offices throughout the Pacific have grown in capacity and capability over the past decade, many possess only limited capacity for preparing for and responding to conflict and disasters in regional organizations. Furthermore, few if any have the capacity to support and coordinate a large international aid response without significant assistance. A regional coordination body would address this shortcoming in a manner that did not require duplication of effort and skills on every Pacific island country. Moreover, it could provide a more proactive and timely response to known and identified threats.
For any security initiative against a complex threat to be successful, there needs to be careful consideration of the partners involved and the realization that peace and security are not possible without compromise or concession, many experts say. National stakeholders range from military, police, coast guard and paramilitary forces to immigration, border, customs and quarantine to intelligence and other area-specific ministries such as fisheries. International stakeholders also include police and militaries, but aid donors and actors and their local subsidiaries play a large role along with various United Nations units such as the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), UNICEF and U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). They possess long-standing credibility with host nations due to perceived impartiality and prior aid efforts. Fewer regional stakeholders are associated with security matters because they prefer to let countries sort out their own issues. The above list testifies to the fact that many stakeholders are required for any successful endeavor.
Some SOF-like capacity exists in the Papua New Guinea Defence Force long-range reconnaissance unit, and other defense and paramilitary forces in the region have received limited training. These skills have mostly been brought to bear in SWAT-like situations and to quell rioting, but some might argue that Pacific security forces would benefit from broader SOF capacity to tackle transnational organized crime beyond partner nation capacity building and capability sharing. Further training would make them more effective hard power responders and give them soft power capacities. Rather than focusing on the hard power capabilities of SOF units, developing the soft power capacities that make special operations forces more effective is the real aim of greater engagement in the region. Soft power capacities are more enduring and adaptable to the region’s array of diverse actors.
Some security forces in the region have been accused of human rights violations and abuse of power. Sensitization to international standards on security sector behavior, education on the U.S. process to evaluate potential recipients of security assistance for abuses, and the development of the adaptable approach to problem solving inherent in SOF may be effective in addressing these issues.
Since most of these forces exist in hierarchical environments and work in the community, appropriate stakeholders must be included to guide the nature of training. There must also exist a mechanism to ensure outcomes are sustained.
Transnational organized crime has been identified as a “top strategic risk” to U.S. interests because there are significant “security consequences associated with weak or failing states,” as then-U.S. President Barack Obama described in his 2015 national security strategy. A potential SOF role is supporting the development of capacity in security sector governance since weak governance and grievances allow extremism and conflict to flourish.
PIF developed the Pacific Transnational Crime Assessment in collaboration with seven regional partners in law enforcement (PIF 2016). The group considered many themes, but four areas of common interest emerged. They included transnational organized crime, maritime security, political instability and climate change.
The transnational crime priorities were the most extensive: money laundering, cyber crime, increase in cruise liners, foreign fighter recruitment, small arms and light weapons, organized crime groups, drug trafficking, human trafficking and people smuggling, and environmental crime.
The primary maritime threat concerned fisheries crime, but a future area of concern with tremendous resources at stake and potential for environmental damage is deep-sea mining. Political instability attracted significant interest because weak governance allows traffickers to operate. Island states also considered the significant outcomes of climate change because it has the potential to create opportunities for organized crime and social disruption. In times of environmental crisis, these actors can also potentially fill power vacuums.
Other issues in the region that have the potential to cause instability that may require SOF attention include: uncovering war crimes and sites of interest in West Papua; the current disagreement over mine shares on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea; the end of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands; independence referendums in Bougainville and New Caledonia; the loss of Compact of Free Association funding from the United States in Micronesia and their potential shift toward China; further exposure of corruption, money laundering and tax havens throughout the region; disparities, marginalization and poverty; burgeoning soft debt to China; reactions to unwanted foreign influence; defense of marine fishing environments; climate-related radicalization; and radicalization promoted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
SOF has a role in the Pacific: introducing best practices for improving situational awareness, rapid assessment in conflict and disaster areas, intelligence gathering to support relief or containment responses, training in emergency planning, establishment of interim communications, readiness with forward-placed units, and tracking of people and resources. SOF has achieved significant successes in carrying out nontraditional nature tasks and within a low profile, which has resulted in them becoming a common tool in the hands of politicians and governments when international crises due to conflict and disasters strike. The transition of this traditionally hard force to unconventional and nontraditional security methods has been driven by increased awareness and understanding of how their effectiveness as a force multiplier is magnified by a human and trust-based approach. It also recognizes that soft power gains require persistent engagement to produce useful dividends. As the region must adapt to greater SOF involvement, SOF operators must also adapt to working with new partners and in new areas of interest.
SOF must continue to train with a view to meeting future strategic challenges. In the Pacific, they should consider forward-deployed units that are engaged with their host country counterparts — indefinitely. Transnational organized crime is not only a threat to the countries of the Pacific, but an outcome of weak, underresourced, emerging democratic governments that need assistance, many military experts observe. It is also a warning sign of future transgressions to include potential hostilities and threats to the region. Being prepared to conduct SOF core activities along with foreign internal defense, security force assistance, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and unconventional warfare remains a priority.
SOCPAC now faces the challenge of turning PASSWG workshop results into meaningful outcomes, or the effort was wasted. Participants and their sponsors are watching to see how SOCPAC will pursue these strategic, operational and practical approaches and whether they will be integrated into a unified, cohesive effort that includes stakeholders, incorporates best practices and relies on evidence-based guidance to move forward.
The imperative exists for using SOF in nontraditional areas, such as resilience, adaptation and resource protection roles in response to the changing environment, but their involvement needs careful thought. “They can both support military and law enforcement operations and training while also participating in nonkinetic activities such as civil affairs — building partnerships, medical and veterinary aid, and setting standards of conduct for host nation militaries to emulate,” as William Mendel, a retired U.S. Army colonel and senior fellow with the Joint Special Operations University, describes in the 2016 book published by the university’s press, “SOF Role in Combating Transnational Organized Crime.”
Readiness to conduct hard and soft activities remains a priority and should be tailored to give special attention to security sector development and the regional coordination of responding to transnational organized crime and disasters. That’s especially true in a region such as the Pacific islands, which have wide disparities in threat identification and response capabilities.
Change is not only seen in the SOF response to crises. There is consensus that a turning point has been reached regarding humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. Militaries have recognized the value of responding to crises and have internalized the idea that this must now be a core duty. If mishandled, these crises can destabilize a country overnight. While aid organizations initially found this distasteful and contrary to their principles, there have been loud calls for reform, and all stakeholders are responding to this evolving environment and are beginning to work better together (Humanitarian Policy Group 2016). This naturally growing relationship is resulting in strong military institutions that are trusted enough to be asked to help build more resilient communities. More important, they work together with partners to achieve regional ends. Addressing the workshop, Lt. Gen. Timothy Keating, the New Zealand chief of Defence Forces, stated that a growing number of aid agencies are requesting increased military engagement and assistance. This trust-based, civil-military interaction is a process already in motion and is evidence of a changing paradigm that may well point to the end of traditional humanitarian principles as we all move toward a more values-based, human security-focused operating environment. Similarly, alternatives to resolving conflict are increasingly moving toward being based in foundation building instead of force building.
In addition to providing the opportunity for state representatives from Pacific island nations to engage in information exchange and networking, PASSWG provided a vehicle for continued collaboration via the All Partners Access Network (APAN). This is a U.S.-sponsored portal platform that is available to all alumni and partners in the security sector. It provides a central hub for participants — even in limited technology environments — to transcend relationships beyond workshop settings. Security challenges in the Pacific region continue to expand and require joint responses that are born of mutually beneficial multilateral efforts. Through its participants, PASSWG continues to play an important role in helping all participating nations to recognize their responsibility to be prepared and develop the capacity to respond to an array of regional threats. As long as the outcomes of these important workshops translate into tangible SOCPAC objectives, the future looks bright for SOF engagement throughout the Pacific.