A View From the CT Foxhole: An Interview With Captain Robert A. Newson, Military Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
February 27, 2015
Biography: Captain Robert A. Newson, U.S. Navy, is a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer who most recently led strategy and concept development for the Naval Special Warfare Command. Previously, he commanded Special Operations Command (Forward) in Yemen and Naval Special Warfare Support Activity, a cross-functional intelligence operations command, and served as director of the Joint Interagency Task Force – Counter Terrorism. Captain Newson is a graduate of the University of Kansas and the Naval Postgraduate School with distinction. He is a PhD candidate at the University of San Diego.
CTC: Can you briefly describe your role and experiences in Yemen in 2010-2012, and what your key takeaways were from a strategic U.S. counterterrorism perspective?
CAPT Newson: I was the commander of Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) Forward (SOC FWD) in Yemen. SOC FWD was an extension of SOCCENT, part and parcel with the command in Tampa. It was a task force with minimal staff and a joint force that primarily trained and advised Yemeni partners, but we also conducted civil affairs and military information support operations. And we were deeply embedded with the embassy and their activities.
I have three primary takeaways. First, our security assistance process is not tailored to the current fight. It is a Cold War model that values delivery as the key metric, and is un-tethered to the timing that would facilitate the advise and assist effort. So, for example, shipments of materials in Yemen would arrive based on equipment availability or supplier timelines, not when we actually needed them to be there, or not be there. Oftentimes a huge shipment of supplies or weapons would arrive at the same time we were trying to play a little hard ball with them and it undermined our efforts. So we argued to zero effect that U.S. assistance efforts should be conditional and adjusted to conditions on the ground; it should be a pull from guys forward rather than a push from contractors or the system. Having control of who gets what when is an extremely powerful tool for advisors. If they don’t have that it is very difficult to sometimes motivate the folks we are working with. So that was lesson number one.
Lesson two has to do with getting out of the capital and really working with the frontier forces. The remit of the government does not go too far out of the capital and it is not very productive to develop counterterrorism (CT) forces primarily kept in Sana’a that rarely engaged in the fight and were controlled by very senior Yemeni leaders. So we wanted to work with the Southern Regional Command, which is division level and brigade commanders that engage in the fight in the south. This was especially the case after President Saleh left power and President Hadi took control. Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was taking over large swaths of the south and we thought we needed to be down there in a much more significant way. I think concerns about force protection, over increasing demand of advisors and about slippery slopes prevented a broader advise and assist effort that both DoD and the Embassy were advocating.
And then my third lesson is about intelligence and logistics advise and assist efforts, and they are just as critical as training fighters and supplying weapons. This includes developing intelligence centers, which we did, and all-source intelligence capacity, which Yemen had but which was not well coordinated. It also included developing logistics supply plans and increasing the professionalism of support functions. All of this is critical to morale and fighting capacity, and what we saw in Yemen was that without a good supply system, without a good pay system, without the intelligence support, they were left facing the opponent without a lot of knowledge or motivation.
CTC: What were the key challenges you encountered in trying to execute U.S. counterterrorism policies with regard to AQAP while the host country was undergoing significant turmoil and a political transition? How did this political situation impact your mission on the ground?
CAPT Newson: My time in Yemen from 2010 to 2012 was broken into three distinct evolutions. The first was during the Saleh regime. At that time we were up and fully running with all our efforts. And that ran until about June 2011, when the fighting really started after the failed assassination attempt of Saleh and the immediate artillery retaliation against suspected conspirators that were in the neighborhood of SOC FWD headquarters and the embassy residence. I was in the neighborhood with my command sergeant major when artillery started falling just blocks away after the failed assassination attempt. After that, SOC FWD Yemen efforts were shut down and most of our forces were removed and replaced by a Marine Corps FAST [Editor: Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team] team that protected the embassy and the Sana’a Sheraton. I stayed in Yemen with a 4 man CENTCOM contingency advisory team. And we developed the Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation Plan and the embassy evacuation in coordination with the amphibious readiness group that was off the coast. That lasted until really the start of 2012 when we were able to restart the advising effort on a very small scale, but thankfully we were able to work with the Southern Regional Commander and get CT forces a little bit closer to the fight.
CTC: As AQAP was taking that territory in the south, what ability did you have to get engaged with that? How difficult was it to get Yemeni forces to engage with what you were concerned with, AQAP, as opposed what were probably their more pressing concerns given the national political strife?
CAPT Newson: It was incredibly difficult, so I spent a lot of time in Aden with the Southern Regional Commander working on his strategy to retake the southern part of Yemen. What appeared to occur was that there was a general evacuation of the south by Yemeni forces and AQAP was allowed to move in. They took over territory and cities without much of a fight, and then the frontline was drawn not far outside of Aden. And that is when we tried to get the Southern Regional Commander engaged. It was clear there were mixed messages from the Saleh regime. President Saleh was absolutely a master of manipulation and he used counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. as a tool to get what he wanted. He played everyone. He played the tribes. He played the political parties. He played us. So we knew we were dealing with some duplicity, and so we tried to take steps forward when we could and then hold what we had when they tried to pull back. So that was a barrier to progress. When Hadi took over they were much more engaged as earnest partners, but at that time they were also incredibly distracted with the political issues of trying to keep the government together.
CTC: Comparing pre- to post-transition, what differences did you see in Yemen’s approach to AQAP when Hadi took over?
CAPT Newson: One thing the Ministry of Defense (MOD) under Hadi did was to allow and encourage southern generals in charge of the commands within the Southern Regional Command to be more aggressive. They understood the tribal dynamics and engaged very well with the tribes. This coupled with AQAP overplaying their hand with the tribes. They were being very heavy-handed, crucifying people they thought were collaborators and doing some things that really turned the tribes against them. So that was really the shifting point, when the tribes saw AQAP as more of a burden than the government forces.
During the Arab Spring the issue of tribal engagement was critical. I was thinking about contingency planning and how we maintain our efforts against AQAP if Yemen collapses into chaos. The obvious answer (and one that likely remains today) is the tribes. It is about an unconventional warfare campaign with the tribes against AQAP. When national coherence is declining, like we are currently seeing in Yemen, it sure would be a strategic asset, even a game changer, to have a relationship with the southern Yemeni tribes. The challenge though, is planning for this worst case scenario of collapse in a way that does not undermine ongoing diplomatic efforts to achieve a more positive outcome.
CTC: There has been much reporting on the use of drones in Yemen, so much that it seemed to dominate the discussion at times. Where did you see this campaign fitting into the overall efforts against AQAP?
CAPT Newson: SOCCENT had no role in drone strikes so I did not have any operational insight into them when in Yemen. So, I can only speak about my opinions on drone strikes and where they fit in. The drone strikes, manned air strikes and special operations raids can and do disrupt terrorist operational planning and attack preparation. That is incredibly important. These strikes and raids buy space and time. But by themselves they are only a delaying action and everywhere I have been, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, every military person up and down the chain of command acknowledges this.
This “CT concept” – the solution that some people champion where the main or whole effort is drone strikes and special operations raids – is a fantasy. It may be cheaper and safer, but without broader efforts it is like mowing the grass in the jungle. You cannot hold the jungle back with a weed whacker, you need to partner with the locals to get after their own problems. So I am an advocate of small, tailored advise and assist efforts. And really what I am talking about is combat advisors on the frontlines with our partners.
Now in Yemen that was very sensitive. They understandably did not want a U.S. face on anything. But during the Hadi presidency they were very willing to have us as forward observers and combat advisors, helping with tactical intelligence and, they hoped, calling in fire support, which would enable the local forces take control of their own territory. So while I believe U.S. advisors in small numbers should be part of the fight, I also believe solutions must be locally owned. The more we are involved, the less the locals are involved. So that is a delicate balance.
CTC: How do you see the current negotiations over the future of the Yemeni government playing out? What lessons can we take from your experience with the last transition that may be applied to the current situation in Yemen, in terms of maintaining our counterterrorism efforts despite the current turmoil?
CAPT Newson: The current situation in Yemen is much more complex than what I dealt with during the Arab Spring. The Houthis have said they are willing to engage with the U.S. for the good of Yemen, but I think that is going to be really hard given their ideological underpinnings and their long-standing position about the U.S. Certainly, I have seen amazing things through diplomacy in Yemen in the past and we may be able to work some compromise where the Houthis will embrace more of a partnership to get after AQAP, but I think that’s going be a hard row to hoe.
I am concerned that the other shoe in Yemen has yet to drop, and that is the issue of southern secessionist movement, or al-Hirak. I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in southern Yemen and became very close to southerners who were senior leaders within MOD. And I can say the 1994 civil war between the south and the north remains a visceral issue for them. Al-Hirak was fairly vocal during the Yemeni Arab Spring, and while I was down south in 2011, the South Yemen flag was displayed prominently in Aden and elsewhere. So there is no love lost between the northerners and southerners and you cannot get any more northern than the Houthis. So with the Houthi rise to power I think we are going to see something more on the southern front. I see three possible outcomes. First, the southern Sunni tribes could align with AQAP to resist the advance of Houthis. The Sunni tribes aligning more closely with AQAP would be very bad for our counterterrorism effort. Second, the Sunni tribes could align with al-Hirak and seek secession, creating in effect what would be a three-way struggle between the Houthis, AQAP and a secessionist south. I know that the southerners would seek to engage the United States and seek support in their secession efforts in return for some robust action against AQAP. Third, the southern secessionists would just remain under the surface. I think that last option is very unlikely given that the Houthis are pressing south and the southerners will see their chances for their desired political solution dwindling.
Regarding how we can maintain our CT efforts in this environment, with the closure of the U.S. Embassy I think it is clear the security assistance and train and advise efforts are on hold. In the near term that leaves only airstrikes and raids to keep AQAP on its heels. The lessons that are applicable from my time from 2010-2012 I think are very difficult. When compared to today, I was operating at time of a relatively stable government, even during the transition. It was a government that was very receptive to U.S. engagement, especially under Hadi. The role of the U.S. and other Western countries within Houthi-dominated Yemen is certainly unclear right now. And until that is clarified I think that we have to give some serious thought to planning unconventional warfare, engaging with the tribes to take the fight to AQAP. If Yemen continues to deteriorate into chaos, resulting in expanded freedom of maneuver for AQAP, which continues to be the most serious terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland, this has to be addressed in some way. So I think the most prominent lesson learned from my time in Yemen is that we have to seek relationships with everyone to create options which are ready to be executed, regardless of our preferred course of action.
CTC: Moving beyond just Yemen, with the growing emphasis on building Foreign Security Forces as a significant part of our National Strategy for Counterterrorism, what are the most significant challenges we face working with these partners and their governments (whether those challenges are related to our partners’ limitations or our own)?
CAPT Newson: In terms of our own internal limitations, I have concerns about advise and assist efforts that are characterized as merely trainers, which is incredibly limiting on multiple fronts. In Yemen they wanted to put us in a trainer box whereas we were trying to take a campaign perspective. This would include developing our own intelligence capacity to understand the environment. But if you are merely a trainer, theoretically there is no need for this capacity, and some within the Embassy or DOD offices might see you as encroaching on their territory. Also, if we are seen as simply trainers then we are kept farther away from the fight. And the further away we are, the less insight we have regarding the motivation and problems of our partners. So I think we need to somehow break out of that trainer mold and really talk about campaigns, a series of coordinated activities towards a single purpose.
We also continue to have stovepipes. With all the various interagency efforts focused on Yemen, there was not a lot of integration and cross-talk with respect with how everybody was seeing things. We tried to rectify this with weekly calls for the intelligence community to bring together all these stovepipes and connect them with people on the edge and collaborate on a better picture for everyone to have a sense of what was needed.
Regarding challenges with our partners, the top issue is and will remain to be corruption. A lot of our support in equipment and money is funneled off to the pockets of corrupt personnel. We have to reduce the corruption through more transparency, more visibility, and more accountability. The other limitation related to our partners is how they relate to their populous. As we develop CT capacity we tried very hard to convince our partners to look at civil affairs capacity and Military Information Support Operations (MISO) capacity, so they could interact in a positive way and communicate with locals instead of simply bringing a hammer down on the population. And the last limitation is the motivation of our partners, which will wax and wane. We have to seek those windows of opportunity when it strengthens to make progress, and we have to figure out how we are going to hold progress at a point when that motivation starts to wane.
CTC: With regards to using the tribes like you discussed earlier, what do you see as motivations for these tribes to stand up against groups like AQAP or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)? What would be the potential carrot we could use to enhance this motivation?
CAPT Newson: In terms of carrots and sticks, the stick is thankfully provided by jihadist organizations, whether that’s AQAP, ISIL, or others. They cannot help themselves but over-reach and press too hard on the tribes. Using Iraq as an example, the tribes made a calculation that allowing ISIL into their territory and forcing former Prime Minister Maliki to leave the government was of better value than allowing him to stay in charge. But I fully expect that there is going to be a new calculation that living under the iron fist of extremists will be seen as not the way to go. So they are going to have their own internal motivations to resist. The carrots are what the tribes have always sought. When the Sunni awakening happened in Iraq, they wanted to get rid of al-Qa’idi in Iraq, who was cutting off the heads of their teenagers and delivering them in wicker baskets. They also wanted representational government and services to be provided. So our challenge is to work with governments to provide that representation, to provide some equity.
CTC: Does our own strategy meet the needs of the environments we are now operating in? Are our efforts sustainable in what will, in many cases, be long-term engagements?
CAPT Newson: I am very concerned that we are pricing ourselves out of small wars. I remember talking to senior leaders when we started bombing Libya, and it was like watching the gas pumps spin around as the cost rises. I am concerned we are using high end, very expensive weapon systems to fight small wars. And what you are eventually going to do is price us out of the ability to engage. We just cannot afford to fight the number of engagements we need to using F-22s, F-35s, and other expensive weapons systems that are not necessary against this adversary. Why can’t we fly Super Tucanos (Editor: A turboprop light attack aircraft) and armed tactical UAVs that can do a better job of supporting at a much lower price? Everyone agrees these conflicts are going to take a long time and that we cannot disengage from them without some negative consequences. But at the rate we are spending, disengagement will be forced on us. So how do we engage on a much more economical basis? I think the answer is to trade in a few high-end weapons systems for a whole bunch of smaller systems that are tailored to small wars. It is not a question of high-end or lower-end but of the right tool for the right job – having a balanced took kit and using it efficiently.
CTC: Last month we interviewed MG Grigsby at CJTF-HoA and he said that when building counterterrorism relationships, nothing is more important than intelligence sharing. What challenges have you faced trying to share information with foreign partners? And how have you overcome them?
CAPT Newson: We established intelligence centers within a couple of Yemeni organizations where they brought in all their intelligence for the first time ever and tried to build a picture with it. Part of that is building trust and process development, but the other part is bringing something to the table ourselves. For example, I think we should be using either commercial imagery or figuring out how we can provide our classified imagery to them. When I left Yemen I had a great office call with the DIA Director and brought this issue up and he said they are working hard on it. I talked to people who were still in Yemen when I left months later and they said it had been improving. So I think we are getting better but there is a long way to go to properly prepare and enable our partners.
CTC: Any final thoughts?
CAPT Newson: The last thing I wanted to briefly talk about is that it is long past time that we get honest about what we are seeing, what we are doing, and what the real issues are. There have been several recent books about how many in the military would analyze a problem, see issues with it, and then we would get into a meeting or on a conference call and not talk about those issues, but instead say we were on track and move on with scheduled activities. I think that we have to get brutally honest about what is working, what is not, and what our concerns are, and not soft peddle the issues. And I hope we in the military can get better at that. We need to get honest.