Small Wars Journal

The Gray Zone in Africa

Mon, 05/29/2017 - 11:30am

The Gray Zone in Africa

Donald C. Bolduc, Richard V. Puglisi and Randall Kaailau

Special Operations Command - Africa (SOCAFRICA) is a sub-unified command of USSOCOM under operational control of United States Africa Command, with headquarters in Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart-Mohringen, Germany. Subordinate SOCAFRICA organizations include: Special Operations Command Forward-East (Special Operations Command and Control Element - Horn of Africa), Special Operations Command Forward-Central (AFRICOM Counter-Lord's Resistance Army Control Element), Special Operations Command Forward-West (Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara), Naval Special Warfare Unit 10, Joint Special Operations Air Component Africa, and SOCAFRICA Signal Detachment. Commander SOCAFRICA serves as the Special Operations Advisor to Commander, USAFRICOM. SOCAFRICA's primary responsibility is to exercise operational control over theater-assigned or allocated Air Force, Army, Marine, or Navy Special Operations Forces conducting operations, exercises, and theater security cooperation in the USAFRICOM area of responsibility.

SOCAFRICA must understand and operate in the space between war and peace in a complex, volatile, uncertain and ambiguous environment — an environment of “adversarial competition with a military dimension, short of armed conflict”[i] sometimes referred to as the “Gray Zone.”  Operating in this environment requires a human-aspects focus and long-term, integrated campaigning where gains may be measured in inches.  We must possess patience, be persistent and support our partners through presence.

While the debate regarding the proper use of Special Operations Forces (SOF) to prevent and combat the spread of violent extremism around the world continues, the environments operators must brave has changed from the mountains of Afghanistan and deserts of Iraq to a world of unpredictable terrain and political uncertainty.  For the men and women of SOCAFRICA the African continent offers every possible physical, political, and psychological environment an operational command could possibly confront.  This terrain creates opportunity for threat groups to conceal themselves in the population, move unhindered across borders and transit information and material throughout the SOCAFRICA area of operations.  The definition for this type of environment has been termed “The Gray Zone.”

SOCAFRICA’s operational environment is volatile due to the political, economic and security environment, and threat factors that exist in Africa today.  It is uncertain due to the impact of these factors on the drivers of instability.  It is complex due to the past and present global effects on governance, economic development, and security in Africa.  Finally, it is ambiguous as a result of a lack of clear policy, strategy, and the variety of interpretations of the Africa problem set.  The Violent Extremist Organization (VEO) threat operates in a non-state, trans-regional and trans-national, decentralized, and dispersed operational construct, exploiting and exacerbating instability in Africa.  The threat survives in ungoverned and under-governed safe-havens and sanctuaries created by ineffective governance resulting in a population that has lost hope.  The threat often has outside support, controls the populace, exploits asymmetric approaches, and leverages information operations to promulgate its ideology and implement its will.  We assess that African partners are best able to address it through integrated campaigning[ii] characterized by effective commitment, cooperation, and coordination of their military operations in support of a broader political strategy that recognizes that regional problems require regional solutions.  Countering this threat to create opportunities for a comprehensive approach (whole of society) is in the common interest of U.S. policy objectives and those of our African partners.

The operational threat emanating from the Greater Middle East (including North Africa) is eroding the institutional framework of Western security.  Migrants fleeing the instability in the Greater Middle East threaten to destabilize the European Union (EU), the United States’ number one trading partner, and further undermine the stability of the European Union and the existing political order in the EU’s component countries. One could reasonably argue that BREXIT (the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union) was significantly affected by potential EU mandates to settle those fleeing the Greater Middle East.   When we look at security threats posed by our adversaries it is essential to assess where on the spectrum of conflict they elect to take the actions to undermine the institutions and structures that create our overwhelming strength.  In the future it’s reasonable to assume our adversaries will continue to challenge the U.S. and its allies in a similar manner below the threat of full-scale armed conflict.

Transnational security threats are most difficult to combat where national institutions are weakest, where people are poorest, and conflicts most enduring. Strong governments and leaders and economically viable societies are less likely to provide terrorists and drug traffickers with material support, safe havens, or a gullible following.  In countries where governance fails, poverty prevails, and strife is the norm, we risk seeing whole countries, even regions that grow more vulnerable to the influence of our most dangerous adversaries.  Therefore, we must invest in regional partnerships with African countries along with our allies to combat these global threats before they become more pernicious and pervasive.

Threat Groups

In many respects, the transnational security threats posed by threat groups resemble a refined Maoist playbook.  Similar to Maoist Revolutionary War Theory, the three phases of insurgent operations used by threat groups in many of the group’s areas of operation (within Africa, Arabia and Asia) can best be described as: Gain a foothold, Organize and Expand, and Control Territory.  Depending on the operational environment, the threat group will move their insurgency efforts forward or backwards along this strategic template. Understanding where the threat is in this cycle can enable us to craft effective counters to their intended goals.

Gain a foothold: the objective is establish a foothold through building organizational functions such as recruiting, finance, and planning.  

Recruitment tactics include turning opponents’ fighters, importing foreign fighters, flipping entire groups, and dispersing local recruiters with continuous enticement through social media.  At this stage, recruitment is buttressed by terror operations focused on opportunistic attacks against both military and non-combatant targets.  Information Operations highlight local successes via social media, personal relationship building, thereby promoting the terror group’s global brand.  Examples include recruitment via social media (i.e. Indonesia).

Organize and Expand: In this phase the focus is on developing the authority of the threat group and undermining the authority of opponents.  Information Operations will adjust to fit media that highlight legitimacy claims, ideological training, messaging, and moving into civil society in the absence of government during this phase of operations. Kinetic Operations also redirect terror attacks against government facilities and on vulnerable populations (VBIEDs, PBIEDs, complex attacks, and sniper operations). Examples are abundant in Libya, Somalia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, and Mali as well as Iraq/Syria.

Control Territory: includes three internal stages: 1 -Shaping; 2- Taking Territory; and 3 – Governance.

The first stage of Control Territory is Shaping.  Activities include reconnaissance, troop preposition, tactical alliances, amassing supplies in place, assassination campaigns, Information Operations against the enemy, intimidation campaigns, and other acts of barbarity.  Examples of this stage include assassination and intimidation campaigns and videotaping the killing of tribal, government and military leaders (Iraq/Syria/Libya-Sirte).

The second stage of Control Territory is Taking Territory.  Tactics include activating sleeper cells, utilizing technicals for maneuver, assassination campaigns, conquering strategic infrastructure, killing or exiling local leaders, use of social media for C2 and propaganda, public executions, signaling power through takeover of symbolic locations, breaching VBIEDs and PBIEDs, attacking checkpoints, offensive snipers, and integrating UAVs for both targeting and ISR.  Examples of this include technicals used as mobile cavalry in the takeover of symbolic locations (Iraq/Syria/Libya).

In the final stage of Control Territory is Governance.  Key activities include tax collection, security, moral policing, population control, barbaric punishments, sharia law enforcement, control over key institutions and communication, aid distribution, education, utilities, and establishing administrative services.  An example is the enforcement of extreme interpretation of sharia law (Sinai and Sirte). This is also seen in Vice Squads targeting narcotics, cigarettes, banning girls going to school, and television (Iraq/Syria, Afghanistan, and Sirte).

Populations are most vulnerable to the trans-regional threat of threat groups where governance is weakest. The root causes to the instability are inadequate security, economic and development challenges, and a disenfranchised populace that provides violent extremist organizations opportunities to threaten the national interest of our partners and of the United States.

The Gray Zone environment in Africa is characterized by both clear policy guidance in West Africa and the Sahel and unclear policy in North Africa and East Africa.

We operate in a politically sensitive and challenging Area of Responsibility (AoR) that simultaneously crosses multiple instruments of power (diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and legal). Recognizing we operate in an environment where diplomacy is key to attaining U.S. policy objectives, the country teams’ Integrated Country Strategy must drive a synchronized comprehensive approach across the regions. This places military efforts in a supporting role (where they should be). SOF are part of the solution….and not the solution.

SOCAFRICA’s operational environment and the programs, missions, operations, exercises, activities, and actions we are tasked to do address the security challenges and compliment other stability efforts that fall between war and peace. The Gray Zone environment in Africa is characterized by both clear policy guidance in West Africa and the Sahel and unclear policy in North Africa, Central Africa, and East Africa. Further complicating this environment is the fact that the United States is not at war in Africa, but the partners we support are at war.

In addition, competition for strategic influence and relationships is complicated by the political, economic, military, and informational interests of China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran.  Everything we do for our partners in Africa today must prepare them for tomorrow’s threats and support strong political and military relationships. Operating in this environment requires consensus from all stakeholders and their perspectives drive the pace of activities.

In Africa, we are not the kinetic solution. If required, our partner should do that. We do however, build this capability, share information, provide advice, assistance, accompany, and support with enablers.

Adding to the complexity of military operations in Africa is that there are too many conflicting perspectives when it comes to what the USG policy should be for Africa. The problems in Africa defy solution within a single fiscal year, or the two to four-year tour of a Geographic Combatant Command commander; such change will require at least a generation for a policy to become effective. The USG has not built a strategy to address the root causes of instability in Africa. We must use a strategy based on a goal of SUCCESSFUL GOVERNANCE as a baseline and building to GOOD GOVERNANCE as a solution.

To support SOF operations, SOCAFRICA is organized around a regional approach and exercises mission command through three Special Operations Commands-Forward (SOCFWDs) and a Joint Special Operations Air Component  (JSOAC), all led by O-6 level commanders. SOCAFRICA’s Regional SOF Framework utilizes a “One SOF Team” mission command through flat communications, decentralized authorities, and distributed command and control construct that is underpinned by a responsive logistics, air, and communications support construct. A key component to this framework is nested key leader engagements and relationships conducted at all levels. This supports transparency with all stakeholders and a regional comprehensive approach with a focus on understanding that we are connected by our partners and the threat, and leverages the SOF-Conventional force integration, our allies, and coalition partners to compliment and expand capacity. This SOCAFRICA framework is designed to operate effectively in the gray zone to support the USAFRICOM Theater Campaign Plan (TCP) and conduct appropriate and responsible missions to support USSOCOM Campaign Plans.

In order to be effective in operating in the Gray Zone environment we must ensure we are responsive, integrated, and flexible. You will find this in our tenets of operations. However, it is how we are organized, our intellectual approach, and our mission command construct consisting of Regional SOCFWDs (integrators), SOF teams (executors), and Special Operations Forces Liaison Elements (synchronizers), logistics teams, JSOAC, and communications architecture that fosters effective operations.

SOCAFRICA Gray Zone Operational Construct Defined

SOCAFRICA will underpin operations in this “competition-short-of-armed-conflict” environment using integrated campaigning.  These inter-organizational partner efforts enable the achievement and maintenance of policy aims by integrating military and aligning non-military activities of sufficient scope, scale, simultaneity, and duration across multiple domains.  We will use a more comprehensive and flexible spectrum of strategic relations – the competition continuum of cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict.[iii]  SOCAFRICA’s goal, indeed its value proposition for policy makers, is to deter and prevent adversaries from using armed conflict.  SOF’s experience, maturity, and cultural expertise makes these forces the ideal instrument to advise and assist a host of U.S., foreign, and indigenous inter-organizational partners to shape and maintain activities in the “zone of cooperation and competition”.  (See JP 3-0 figure below.)

The conventional operational phases (shape, deter, seize the initiative, dominate, stabilize, and enable civil authority) are not the optimal approach in the Africa Gray Zone and mislead us as we visualize, describe, and direct what we are doing, who we are, where we are doing it, and for what reasons. There exists confusion about our role in this environment. In Africa, we are not the kinetic solution. If required, our partner should do that. We do however, build this capability, share information, provide advice, assistance, accompany, and support with enablers. We do SOF operations in support of our partners. What we are asked to do by the USAFRICOM commander is to plan and execute responsible and appropriate SOF missions, exercises, programs, activities, and actions that only SOF can do. We require non-SOF support and we stay true to our SOF truths.

The operational phases that are more appropriate in the SOCAFRICA Gray Zone are shape, clear, hold, build, enable civil authority, and transition phases. These phases appropriately focus us on the threat and how to correctly support our partners across all lines of effort in the gray zone (see slide attached and inserted below). Unique to the Africa Gray Zone is that we must seek to enable civil authority throughout all the phases, as good governance is the objective. Additionally, we are focused on developing a capability in our partners to disrupt, degrade, contain, neutralize, and defeat the threat. This is only a small part of the comprehensive solution and therefore we must view how we do this through a more appropriate lens to operate fully and effectively in the gray zone. SOF units are the force of choice on the African continent to support our partner’s development of C-VEO capabilities. This is due to the nature of the threats, the small force posture, limited resources, limited infrastructure, indirect approaches, and remote areas our country teams and partner nations prefer to accomplish support to security challenges against VEOs. SOF is only part of the solution as there are defense institution, development, humanitarian, air, naval, and conventional capabilities that our African partners require as well.

We work through, with, and by our partners in all phases building their capability and capacity to conduct appropriate and responsible military operations to shape, clear, hold, build, and transition to civil control, while simultaneously enabling civil authority. This approach will facilitate the way we observe, orient, decide, and act in our threat-focused approach while addressing the challenges in our operational environment.

Operating in the African operational environment requires creativity and imagination to overcome limited resources, limited infrastructure, and a large geographical area.  Our enemies capitalize on ineffective governance and use ungoverned space to form connected networks that enjoy freedom of action amongst the population and operate with impunity in an asymmetric environment.

SOCAFRICA capabilities that apply to the Gray Zone:  Foundational to any activity in Africa’s ambiguous and complex environment, are the imperatives listed in the Joint Concept for Human Aspects of Military Operations[iv].  The document describes a mindset and approach that will improve how SOF and the Joint Force visualize the environment and interact with relevant actors in the context of each situation.  Specifically, we must:

  1. Identify the range of relevant actors and their associated social, cultural, political, economic, and organizational networks.
  2. Evaluate relevant actor behavior in context.
  3. Anticipate relevant actor decision-making.
  4. Influence the will and decisions of relevant actors.

Translating those imperatives into SOCAFRICA capabilities provides some specificity and focus:

1. Character-based leadership: Common sense, professionally educated, physically fit and energetic, optimistic and resourceful, aggressive but not reckless, able to see the big picture, work well with others, and build effective teams.

2. Shaping the environment: We are regionally-aligned, threat-focused, and we build sustainable SOF capabilities in our SOF focus African partner countries, We operate in the Gray Zone, between traditional war and peace, We enable friendly networks; disrupt enemy connective networks, We are transparent, write to release, collect to release, and develop policy to release information to our partners.

3.  Understand the threats:  We leverage both bottom up and top down approaches to develop a common understanding of the threat overview and assessments in Africa.

4. Preparation, and assessments: Messaging, stance, execution, C2 (command and control and collaboration and coordination) -- We are the sum of our preparations and our assessments, Understanding, Planning, Execution, and Reflection.

5. Synchronize operations with international partners:  Develop a common friendly force laydown, understand task and purpose of the units, and synchronize and coordinate operations 90 days out.

6.  Maximize support and resource sharing with our African and international partners (do more with what we have): Continuously look for opportunities to coordinate with our African and international partners for use of enablers and support for operations (ISR, RW/FW airlift, MEDEVAC, PR, etc…)

7.  Coordinated approach with our African partners:  Jointly assess the effectiveness of our African partner’s operations, and synchronize those operations with other African regional security initiates (G5 Sahel, etc..)

8. Achieve the objective without destroying everything in our path: Comprehensive population-centric approach where civil administration is the main effort and the military supports through an indirect approach that blends both kinetic and non-kinetic tactics, techniques, and procedures that protects the populace and infrastructure. Goal is to operate in and among the populace without creating collateral damage, destroying infrastructure, avoid creating a humanitarian crisis, and set conditions to support a civil administration recovery plan.

9. Winning the Information War:  Supporting our partners through institutional support with CMSE and MISO efforts to counter ideology, deliver effective messages, and teach our partners to operate appropriately and responsibly among the populace.

10. Target VEO strength to Positionally and Functionally Dislocate to degrade their capabilities: The population is the center of gravity. Effective governance brings stability and denies the threat access and influence to the populace. The denial of ungoverned spaces and safe havens positionally and functionally disrupts the threat. Improving ineffective governance, and disrupting and degrading the threat will enable local police to maintain security.

11. Obsta Principis:  The key to success in the African operational environment is to deal with problems while they are small.  Too often, problems across governance, development, and security are recognized and nothing is done to respond to them.  As the problem is watched it gets worse over time.  This complicates a response because the problem becomes more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.  This is evident in every region in Africa where we have delayed appropriate action against Al Shabaab in the East Africa, ISIL and AQIM in North Africa, AQIM in West Africa and the Sahel, and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin region.  The trans- regional and trans-national aspects of the threat must be addressed and failure to do so will result in gaps that provide advantages to the threat and complicate the security environment. 

SOCAFRICA Gray Zone Themes Defined

We must not replace our partner’s will with U.S. capability and capacity.

Everything we do is intended to build the right capability and capacity, trust and interoperability of SOF in order to build effective teams, long-lasting partnerships. Our engagements support bilateral and regional relationships to address regional security problems. U.S. Chiefs of Mission manage these relationships and play a critical role in strengthening military-to-military relationships. This allows us to work effectively in a Title 22 led environment as a member of a larger team that is led and directed by the Department of State through the country teams as directed in National Security Presidential Directive 44 (NSPD 44).

We must not replace our partner’s will with U.S. capability and capacity. Instead, we must enable our partners to conduct responsible and appropriate military operations. This approach enables and builds capability and capacity in our partners without the United States encumbering responsibility for the fight, allowing us to be in the position to better support them so that they own the problem, own the fight, and own the solution. All too often, civil administration lags behind military successes and creates a gap that exceeds military capability and capacity, negatively affecting the populace, local government and development. We need to figure this out as an international community; the solution is neither military nor unilateral. If people have no hope for the future, no job, no education, and poor government, they will find something to do (i.e., be subject to extremism/crime).

Regional Approach:

SOCAFRICA’s approach is regional and threat focused and uses our access, placement, influence, combined with full spectrum SOF operations to build regional capacity and capability in our partners.  This approach is conducted:

  • Inside out:  Work through, with, and by our partners through a regional approach that is threat focused and regionally centric to set conditions to expand good partner nation governance and security by disrupt, degrade, and defeat; thus reducing or eliminating the VEO threat.
  • Outside in:  Work through, with, and by our partners through a regional approach to set conditions to block and interdict external factors that destabilize good governance and security in a given country.

Human Rights:

The United States must approach this subject with humility because we have had our own problems respecting human rights; nonetheless, we must deliver a strong message on respecting human rights, holding violators accountable, and conducting appropriate and responsible military operations. Human rights is an operational necessity and could be a strategic game changer. A few can ruin the reputation of many.

Managing Risk:

Distance, lack of infrastructure, limited resources, and remote operational areas all affect our ability to do our mission. Risk is managed at the SOF Team level and is underwritten at the higher HQ level. As you would expect our ability to manage risk to support the broad range of SOF operations depends heavily on logistics, personnel recovery (PR), rotary wing (RW), fixed wing (FW) asset, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) requirements. SOF in Africa work day-to-day to make the best of these limitations and perform our prescribed and directed duties. Risk assessments weigh heavy in the full range of all SOF is doing across the trans-regional, multi-domain, and multi-functional environment. Experienced SOF operators and supporters will continue to do their assigned missions as directed until they assess the risk is too high. Subordinate commands will be given full latitude to make these determinations of risk to mission, risk to force, and risk to do nothing with full support of SOCAFRICA headquarters.

Africa may be the best example of a true Gray Zone environment anywhere in the world.  The complex, volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous environment we are tasked to operate in presents challenges SOF alone cannot possibly solve.  Getting to ‘good governance’ across Africa will require a comprehensive, multi-discipline, multi-agency and multinational approach — this will be a generational problem set.  For SOCAFRICA teams, understanding the full spectrum of the problem, the challenges ahead and the nature of our partnerships with African nations will guide our operations in this direction for decades to come. 

Note:  This article is derived from the following:

  1. Chairman’s Forward to the National Military Strategy.
  2. Department of State Strategic Plan 2014-2017
  3. Department of State Integrated Country Strategies
  4. United States AFRICOM Theater Campaign Plan
  5. United States Special Operations Command, Special Operating Forces Operational Concept “A White Paper to Guide Future Special Operations Force Development”
  6. Special Operations Command Africa “Gray Zone Defined”
  7. Special Operations Command Africa “Foundational Documents”
  8. Joint Concept for Human Aspects of Military Operations, Oct 16
  9. DRAFT Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning as of Apr 17

End Notes

[i] Gen Dunford, CJCS, 2016 speech at National Defense University

[ii] See DRAFT Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning (JCIC) co-sponsored by USA, USMC, and USSOCOM J7

[iii] See DRAFT JCIC

[iv] Joint Concept for Human Aspects of Military Operations (JC-HAMO), signed by Gen Paul Selva, VCJCS, 19 Oct 16 (Sponsored by USSOCOM J7.).  This Joint concept followed the SOF Operating in the Human Domain Concept signed by GEN Votel, 3 Aug 15.  Both documents describe similar ideas and capabilities; JC-HAMO the one that is receiving the most traction in the Joint community.


About the Author(s)

Brigadier General Bolduc is a former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. During his 33 years of active duty, he received 2 awards for valor, 5 Bronze Stars and 2 Purple Hearts and survived numerous firefights, a bombing, and a helicopter crash.  He is a self-described leader who admits his mistakes, learned from his many mistakes, and keeps the faith with the people, family, and organizations he serves.

Mr. Randall Kaailau is the Foreign Policy Advisor, Special Operations Command Africa, headquartered at Kelley Barracks near Stuttgart, Germany. Previously he served as the Senior Democracy and Human Rights Officer in the Office of Regional and Security Affairs in the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

SOCM (SEAL) Richard V. Puglisi is the Senior Enlisted Advisor, Special Operations Command Africa, headquartered at Kelley Barracks near Stuttgart, Germany. During his career SOCM Puglisi has worked in Central and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  His Operational assignments include multiple platoon Deployments at SEAL Team TWO, Platoon Leading Petty Officer (SEAL Team EIGHT/Bosnia), Quick Reaction Force Commander (Naval Special Warfare Unit TWO/ Kosovo), Platoon Leading Chief Petty Officer (SEAL Team ONE/Operation ENDURING FREEDOM), Naval Special Warfare Development Group Augmentation (Operation ENDURING FREEDOM), Task Unit Leading Chief Petty Officer (SEAL Team ONE/Operation IRAQI FREEDOM), Operations Master Chief (SEAL Team ONE/Operation IRAQI FREEDOM), Command Master Chief (SEAL Team ONE) and Command Master Chief, Special Operations Task Force – West (Operation IRAQI FREEDOM).