Lieutenant Colonel Kent G. Solheim has been the Commander of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) since June 2016. He has served in a variety of roles within the Special Forces community, deploying numerous times to Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently, Lieutenant Colonel Solheim served as the Special Operations Command Forward North and West Africa Deputy Commanding Officer, and the Commander of the Special Operations Command and Control Element for SOF units in North and West Africa. From 2014 to 2016, he was assigned to the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Combating Terrorism Center, United States Military Academy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.
CTC: You have now fought in three very distinct conflict zones: Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan. What are some of the common challenges that you have encountered in each of these areas? What have been some of the biggest differences?
Solheim: There are certainly commonalities in the challenges that are woven in each of these conflict zones. First, each of these zones are faced with an asymmetric and adapting threat that loosely share ideological banners. Second, the internal conditions in these places help to empower sub-state actors. Governments generally lack the ability to care for the basic needs of the populations they are governing, and governments do not control portions of their territories.
I believe the biggest differences between Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa exist in the strategies sub-state groups must use in response to conditions, and the level of support that sub-state actors in North and West Africa receive as compared to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq, many of the countries in Africa, although still extremely diverse in ethnic, religious, linguistic, and intercommunal tensions, maintain some degree of nationalism and are generally unified in a collective disdain for insurgency and terrorism. Fissures like the Sunni and Shi`a rift that al-Qa`ida and later ISIS exploited in Iraq are not as prevalent, and this plays in the favor of the state. ISIS was unable to recycle this tactic in Libya and lost their hold in Sirte.
Additionally, the insurgent groups in North and West Africa lack the level of external support that groups like the Taliban benefit from. This includes moral, political, and material support, as well as sanctuary. Without these types of support, insurgent groups face much greater challenges in achieving their goals. Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa are largely contained to the northeast of Nigeria. They will remain a threat and a drain on the region, but their containment is attributable to both the pressures of security forces of the Lake Chad Basin countries, and the VEOs’ [violent extremist groups’] lack of external support.
CTC: When you took command of your battalion, they had recently been reassigned from Afghanistan to Africa. How were you able to help prepare your soldiers to this new mission set?
Solheim: The battalion and 3rd Special Forces Group as a whole assessed the mission and challenges of Africa, and training was tailored for these distinctive conditions. In this new area of operations, Special Operations Forces are often operating in very austere conditions and in extremely remote locations that present challenges for resupply, medical evacuation, and the distribution of limited resources. Teams must be capable of self-sustaining, prolonged medical field care, mobility in challenging and harsh conditions, and have a grasp of the language and culture specific to the assigned operational area.
Our soldiers also needed to prepare themselves to operate in the Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational environment. Our successes in Africa are not only tied to what we accomplish advising and assisting security forces, but also our ability to work closely and effectively with the U.S. Department of State, European partners, other U.S. government agencies, African systems of government, etc. These transactions occur daily and share primacy in mission success. We needed to prepare ourselves to effectively manage these relationships, and this required dedicated training and investment.
CTC: One of the missions we are undertaking in Africa is the development of local security forces’ capability to fight against terrorist organizations. What are the biggest challenges in executing this mission? What opportunities do forming and developing these new partnerships present for the United States?
Solheim: This mission is very challenging. Our African partners are at war, but we are not. We execute a wide range of roles to include training, equipping, advising, assisting, and at times accompanying our partner force, but our success is measured through what our partner forces are able to accomplish. There are many competing interests in the Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational environment that are characteristic in this mission. Understanding these interests and navigating them are critically important, but at times the challenges this poses can be debilitating. We must also understand that the drivers of instability are often going unchecked, and legitimate security, effective governance, and improving development are essential to countering the VEO narrative and threat in the region. Unfortunately, these challenges will likely remain for the foreseeable future. Finally, Africa is an economy of force mission, where resources are understandably subject to competing requirements across the globe. Our forces do more with less, and constrained resources becomes a limiting factor on impending results.
Even within the confines of these challenges, persistent engagements applied in the right places with the right security forces have and will continue to produce tactical victories that have strategic implications. Our support and training enable more effective and sustained counterinsurgency/counter-VEO operations. We are building trust and relationships with foreign security force partners and governments that are critical, and are best built long before an in-extremis event. We are influencing our partners’ actions. The more we prepare and influence how the government and security forces respond to the threats they face, the greater the burden will be on the VEO. Finally, SOF elements in Africa are directly contributing to the continuous pressure that we and our allies are putting on VEOs. We have learned that we can degrade the capabilities of VEOs when we apply pressure through our training and partnership. Conversely, when VEOs have freedom of maneuver, their capabilities grow.
CTC: As the commander of soldiers getting ready to undertake difficult mission sets in Africa, an area that is not usually on the front page of the newspaper unless something goes wrong, how do you help your soldiers maintain a high level of motivation about the importance of the mission to develop the capacity of local forces?
Solheim: The mission in Africa is not unique in that Special Operations Forces are conducting similar missions of advising and assisting foreign militaries globally every day, which—more often than not—are absent from the headlines. Our forces are uniquely designed to operate in small teams for extended periods of time in the most challenging of environments, and Africa exercises all of these capabilities. The battalion has embraced the mission. We have had time to usher in the culture shift from conducting the combat roles that the unit had conducted in the previous 13+ years, to the much different role we have assumed in Africa, and we understand the importance of what we are doing. 3rd Special Forces Group has also now established tenure on the continent, and the battalion will soon be departing for their third rotation in Africa. The soldiers have been able to see the benefits of persistent and focused efforts that have created positive effects throughout the region.
CTC: Special Operations Forces have been placed at the center of today’s fight against violent extremist organizations and are being relied on more than ever. What impact has this reliance had on the SOF community? Is there a risk of over-reliance, or is the current balance manageable?
Solheim: Special Operations Forces have and will continue to feel the strain of a high operational tempo inherent with the current reliance on USSOCOM units, having seen continuous combat operations and high operational tempo for the last 16 years. Although the pace varies between the different entities within Special Operations Forces as well as assigned areas of operations, the overall tradeoffs presented by this high OPTEMPOa can’t be ignored.
CTC: In January, Secretary Mattis stated he is seeking ways to leverage “common capabilities” that conventional forces have developed in an effort to use “more general purpose forces for some of the missions” that have traditionally been the purview of SOF soldiers. How can (or should) conventional forces be leveraged in this type of campaign?
Solheim: Special Operations Forces operators are highly trained and capable, with skills that are applicable to certain mission sets more than others. Since the demand signal for SOF forces has increased, so too has the range of missions that they have been asked to accomplish to the degree that not all of our current missions require a SOF solution. If conventional forces were able to assume some of these roles that are compatible to their strengths and capabilities, this would help reduce some of the operational strain that SOF are experiencing. Although Foreign Internal Defense is a core task of SOF, conventional forces also possess capabilities to conduct this mission, and they should be applied where suitable. The Security Force Assistance Brigades are also templated to assume roles of advise and assist missions that will likely allow SOF to better focus on missions more specifically tailored to their advanced and specific capabilities.
CTC: Based on your recent time focused on threats in Africa, where would you place the threat that jihadi groups pose in general in the Sahara and Sahel? To what degree do they pose a threat to U.S. interests?
Solheim: Recent history has taught us that VEOs will continue to try and control territory as AQAP did in Yemen in 2012, as AQIM did in Mali in 2012, and more recently as ISIS did in Syria, Libya, and Iraq. The jihadi groups in the Sahara and the Sahel pose this type of threat. Continuous pressure on them is critical.
The greatest threat that I see in Africa is this threat of increased instability that would push already weak and failing states into a general collapse. North and West Africa is ripe with deep-rooted governmental, societal, and climate issues—cataclysmic climatic change—that make this area of the continent susceptible to the VEO narrative and the consequences associated with their proliferation. To state it another way, the VEOs are only one of many problems that these countries face, but the VEO actions in countries like Niger, Nigeria, and Mali are causing varying levels of internal state disruption that if left unchecked, could become the downward tipping point. The loss of this fragile balance and the subsequent security vacuum would pose a threat to U.S. interests, particularly in countries as regionally powerful as Nigeria.
CTC: What should the public understand about what Special Operations Forces are doing in the region?
Solheim: The public should understand that the environment in which SOF is operating in Africa is volatile, complex, and very ambiguous. The security threats there exist because of, among other things, the lack of foreign governmental reach both in terms of security and a lack of governance. SOF efforts are only one piece of addressing the problem, and our efforts must be nested within the much larger comprehensive approach to create stability.
It is also important to understand that the problems in Africa will not be resolved quickly, and given the depths and complexities of the problems, may never see resolution in absolute. Instead, SOF will likely continue to be the force of choice, and persistent and enduring engagement by SOF will likely be required.
CTC: The CTC has been fortunate to have an affiliation with you for a number of years now. Can you speak a little to the importance and challenge of bridging the “academic,” often strategic-level approach of the CTC with the needs of the warfighter?
Solheim: Throughout this interview, questions and answers have often focused on the complexities of the problems that SOF faces. This issue of complex problems is not just a phenomenon for SOF in Africa, but in most of the places SOF are operating. Our forces are working in the most complex environments. In these environments, the threats are transnational, mobile, adaptive, and illusive, and devising approaches and plans to solve them require a holistic look that tries to determine possible actions to minimize uncertain consequences and conditions that are dynamic and independent of another. Framing and understanding of these types of problems and developing approaches and solutions require the type of research and theoretical rigor that the CTC has the time, space, resources, and expertise to analyze. The CTC has access to a multitude of perspectives through policymakers, executive-level leadership, academia, and others. The value of the relationship between academia and the strategic-level approach of the CTC [to] the needs of the warfighter is best characterized by the critical information that the CTC provides this warfighter that may otherwise not be considered.
CTC: You are the founder of Gold Star Teen Adventures, an organization dedicated to providing healing, mentorship, development, and opportunity to the children of Special Operations service members who lost their lives in the line of duty. As the war against terrorists continues and in some cases expands into new theaters, can you speak to why you see serving the needs of families as a critical part of our nation’s effort?
Solheim: Having been in the military for 23 years and also having worked with Gold Star children since 2011, I have become intimately aware of the enormous sacrifices that these families have made and the challenges they endure after the death of a parent. I have also seen that making a positive difference in their lives is possible. I believe that we have a responsibility to take care of these families, and to do so as long as the need exists. CTC
[a] Operational tempo