“When can my unit receive more training from the Americans? I was taught in the ‘80s by American Special Forces about infantry tactics. I’ve taught [FM] 7-8 to my soldiers from platoon to regiment ever since.”

I witnessed this question posed to a US Special Forces colonel in Beirut in 2017. Months prior, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) had soundly defeated ISIS in the operation it called Fajr al-Jurd—”Dawn of the Hills”—and this Lebanese brigadier general had commanded the 1st Intervention Regiment, whose success caught even Hezbollah by surprise. I was struck by the influence that one relationship fostered over decades could have. The LAF victory both advanced US counterterrorism objectives against ISIS and supported one of the US chief of mission’s top priorities, to establish the LAF as “the sole legitimate defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty.” A Lebanese commander trained by US Special Forces enabled the accomplishment of both US security and political objectives.

Well-placed relationships are essential to US national security in both irregular warfare and great power competition. However, investments to build relationships often fall in as a budgetary afterthought. The pivot to great power competition triggered by the 2017 National Security Strategy and subsequent 2018 National Defense Strategy has led the services to spotlight technological solutions to prepare for a war with a near-peer rival. The majority of US defense spending is committed to preparation for a great power conflict through investments in high-end warfighting capabilities. At the same time, relationship investments in the areas of education, training, and foreign military sales hold a relatively small portion of policy and budgetary attention. Additionally, the United States is withdrawing US special operations forces around the world—from the Sahel, Somalia, and Afghanistan—removing the foundation from which many relationships are established and maintained. The 2020 Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy describes irregular warfare as a framework to leverage all US capabilities to compete against peer adversaries like China and Russia, as well as their proxies. This combination of US capabilities can be better harnessed by establishing a budgetary process that prioritizes enduring strategic relationships, rather than the often seemingly singular focus on military service procurement processes and individual platform dominance.

As the joint force determines how to prepare for multi-domain, large-scale combat operations, it must also invest in relationships with key partners and allies at the personal, institutional, and programmatic levels. To do so will enable success in irregular warfare contingencies, help deter near-peer rivals from encroaching on US interests around the world, and set conditions to win in a great power conflict should deterrence fail. As former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his coauthors note in a 2020 Foreign Affairs article, military-to-military relationships protect the United States by “identifying and dealing with global problems” before they reach the homeland. What is more, even small relative investments in relationships have big returns for US national security strategy. But effective relationships do not happen by accident or overnight. The United States needs to take a deliberate approach to foster enduring relationships in order to achieve a strategic advantage.

Levels of Relationships: US Legitimacy and Reliability

Notwithstanding the lack of a formal domain, human relationships are—and always will be—central to warfare and international relations. There are three levels of relationships in which the United States should invest as it seeks to increase its image of legitimacy and reliability in the partner-of-choice competition. These relationships are important in the context of partnered irregular warfare and to generate options in scenarios that may escalate to large-scale combat operations.

First, practitioners must maintain personal relationships with military leaders from US partners and allies. This is common at the tactical level, where special operators interact daily with host-nation militaries in security force assistance operations, and applies to combatant commanders, defense officials, and foreign area officers interacting with partner-nation military leaders. Developed personal relationships provide American decision makers with better access than their adversaries, allowing the United States to identify precise leverage points and targeted resource commitments. These personal interactions are fostered by enduring institutional relationships, or a deliberate persistent presence over time with a host nation. For example, US Special Operations Command has an institutional relationship with Colombian special operations forces (SOF) through enduring 7th Special Forces Group joint combined exercises for training (JCETs) in Colombia. Finally, programmatic relationships codify the legislative and budgetary foundations necessary to establish a persistent presence to build the capacity and capability of partner-nation militaries.

Relationships and Irregular Warfare

All three levels of relationships advance the perception of US legitimacy and reliability, particularly with partner forces, host-nation leaders, and the general population. First, irregular warfare plays out via US forces working by, with, and through partner forces—what is sometimes referred to as the indirect approach. Partner forces have played a key role in irregular warfare campaigns around the world—from the fight against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, where a key goal is building host-nation military capacity, to working with the Kurds in Syria to counter ISIS, to building the partner capacity of the Colombian military to counter insurgents and international criminal networks. The ability to address each of these irregular warfare threats starts with a policy decision to invest in targeted relationships with key leaders. Programmatic, institutional, and personal relationships reinforce US legitimacy, thereby creating the conditions to influence key individual military and political leaders.

Furthermore, in irregular warfare the population is often the center of gravity, and legitimacy—the idea that one side is perceived as legal, moral, and right in its actions—is key to sustained influence. US presence—viewed as supporting the host nation with its military might, and potentially influencing the host-nation military to act in line with US human rights preferences and standards of professionalism—will also increase legitimacy of government actors against nonstate threats such as insurgents, terrorists, and criminals. US presence is bolstered by the quality of our military servicemembers, the training they provide, and the capabilities they help the partner nation build through refining systems, processes, and personal relationships. If the partner force leaders and the population see US support as legitimate and reliable, the United States will continue to be the partner of choice.

To be effective, relationships need to be enduring, not episodic. Enduring relationships prevent the problems of a reactive military posture (generating options after the emergency) and the boom-and-bust cycle of investments (neglecting a capability after a conflict) that have besieged the US military since the Cold War. Unfortunately, the word relationship only appears twice in the Irregular Warfare Annex, though its foreword identifies the enduring nature of irregular warfare. Enduring human relationships with allies and partners provides the United States the best chance to achieve a proactive approach to uncertain future conflicts.

Relationships also prepare the United States and its allies for unanticipated contingencies by providing access to critical on-the-ground information. Relationships are a key aspect to operational preparation of the environment that can provide the policy agility seen in, for example, the CIA’s rapid execution of Operation Jawbreaker following the 9/11 attacks. Relationships with the Afghan Northern Alliance provided a low-cost policy option. Sustaining such relationships takes clear vision, a recognition of the value, a realistic timeline, and policy fortitude. The United States maintained a considerable degree of patience throughout its relationship with Lebanon and the endurance paid off as the LAF was prepared to soundly defeat ISIS. The LAF won its war with ISIS on its own after years of “US military assistance and persistent training.”

The foreign lieutenant trained at US Army Ranger School today will likely become a regimental commander in fifteen years and a general officer in twenty. A pragmatic approach can provide the United States with friends in both the military and diplomatic hierarchies of key partners. This access provides valuable insights into the societal, economic, and cultural shifts that may affect US interests. Put another way, the investment in relationships ensures access to on-the-ground information, which, ultimately, is necessary for and is often a linchpin of tactical, operational, and strategic success. Irregular warfare is partnered warfare, and partnered warfare requires enduring relationships that are built before conflict arises.

Relationships and Great Power Conflict

Maintaining relationships also plays a role in potential great power conflict. First, persistent US presence and relationship building prior to conflict sends important signals to both rivals and friends about US commitment. To rivals, relationships serve as a deterrent to aggression by signaling that the United States is committed to protecting its allies and partners, and that infractions will be punished. In effect, enduring military-to-military relationships serve as a trip wire to deter rival aggression. Inversely, to friends the investment in a military-to-military relationship serves as a credible assurance of enduring commitment, which in turn leads the partner or ally to view the United States as the reliable partner of choice.

However, should deterrence fail, relationships developed prior to conflict also provide options to conventional forces in large-scale combat operations. For example, Jack Watling argues that SOF efforts to build relationships prior to a conflict provide an enabling function for conventional forces in the event of conflict escalation: “Building relationships and situational awareness in complex human environments will be vital if conventional forces are to enter theatre and operate without antagonising and coming into conflict with local actors.” Furthermore, in the context of antiaccess / area denial technologies that make conventional joint forcible entry into a contested space difficult, the recent Chief of Staff of the Army white paper on multi-domain operations argues that conventional force deployment will depend on pre-positioned logistical stocks and support infrastructure in partner nations. An enduring presence and routine engagements with partners and allies set the conditions for success in great power conflict. As the Army Chief of Staff’s paper states, “By building upon mutually beneficial relationships, the Army enables the Joint Force to provide timely response options in every contingency.”

Altogether, maintaining relationships plays an important role in both irregular warfare and potential great power conflict. However, the value of relationship building needs to be weighed against its costs.

Small Investments, Big Returns

Within the framework of great power competition, establishing, cultivating, and maintaining relationships is arguably the most difficult of the nonmaterial solutions to invest in. It is difficult to argue for investing in something intangible. Relationships with key partners are not new technological devices and do not create jobs in a congressional district’s manufacturing plants. You cannot purchase relationships or fit them into a program objective memorandum cycle. In spite of this, relationships can be quantified; one’s influence in a relationship can be measured or scaled based on current policy objectives and enduring relationships can provide a net return on investment. Investments in relationships with partners and allies increase the perception of US reliability and legitimacy, two currencies of the international system.

One of the central ideas in the 2020 Irregular Warfare Annex is to “sustain IW as a core competency for the entire Joint Force, not just Special Operations Forces.” However, US SOF can lead the joint force in irregular warfare because of its astuteness in building and maintaining relationships. Relationships are where SOF excels across the globe, often at the cost of a few million dollars per year in JCETs or multinational exercises. Small investments create big returns when US legitimacy is on the line.

As one example, Royal Thai Army SOF participated in a Joint Readiness Training Center rotation in October 2020 as a result of its institutional relationship with 1st Special Forces Group. Thailand trusted the US Army and Army SOF to keep Thai soldiers safe at Fort Polk, Louisiana during a global pandemic and to provide high-quality training. This trust is the result of enduring institutional and programmatic relationships built over half a century. The Royal Thai Army SOF commander has personal relationships with US Special Forces officers dating back to his Special Forces Qualification Course attendance in the early 1990s. Multidecade programmatic, institutional, and personal relationships bolstered the capacity of a key US regional ally while improving the US military’s legitimacy as the training partner of choice over competitor China.

Another US irregular warfare campaign that highlights the low cost and high return of investing in relationships is Lebanon. The US relationship with Lebanon is politically sensitive, and the US embassy has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect its members in the nearly forty-year aftermath of the US embassy bombings in Beirut. Despite the physical dangers, the US government maintains programmatic and institutional relationships with Lebanon, mindful of the country’s role in regional affairs. The Department of Defense has a partnership with the LAF for training, capacity building, and foreign military sales, with over $2 billion invested in the military over the last fifteen years. The $133 million per year spent in Lebanon is a rounding error in recent US expenditures when compared to the $1.6 trillion the United States has spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the returns on this investment have been sizable for the United States.

The United States gained regional protection from ISIS through its investments in Lebanon and with the LAF. A limited annual commitment of DoD resources as part of an integrated country strategy helped the LAF, led by Lebanese SOF, expel ISIS from Lebanon and secure its border with Syria. Maintaining relationships with a small country like Lebanon may not seem critical, but an alternative outcome was possible. Imagine no investment into the Lebanese military through funding, foreign military sales, or international military education and training. Imagine no bilateral exercises, with the number of LAF troops trained by the United States at zero instead of thirty-two thousand. Take the thought experiment further: ISIS flows through eastern Lebanon in 2017, takes over the Bekaa Valley, and reaches Israel’s northern border. At best, the LAF could hold ISIS off, but at worst, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, the LAF, and Israel are now sucked into a kinetic conflict with ISIS. Continuing programmatic, institutional, and personal relationships at $133 million per year is a sound investment when compared to large-scale regional war.

The Bottom Line: Start Building Enduring Relationships Now

Relationships at all levels—personal, institutional, and programmatic—protect US primacy and security. They allow the United States military to inform decision makers, compete against China or Russia, influence partners and allies, and protect its homeland. Presence in a country provides a touchpoint to reflect, reinforce, and reiterate US policies and values. Relationships can eliminate rumors and maintain stability by providing on-the-ground context to senior decision makers. Strong personal relationships with partner-nation senior leaders provide practitioners and policymakers with real-time information and options in a burgeoning crisis. As retired General Joseph Votel observed in a recent Irregular Warfare Podcast episode focused on the Syria conflict, “Relationships really matter to us. It was a relationship with Iraqi Kurds that brought us to the Syrian Kurds. . . . As we think about policies and we think about approaches to troubled areas like the Middle East, it is these types of relationships that give our leaders options and allow us to work through very, very difficult periods.”

Without establishing personal, institutional, and programmatic relationships with strategic partners, the United States is at risk of continuing the costly boom-and-bust cycle of American investments in blood and treasure. Decision makers will be left without on-the-ground information from advisors and trainers. Even worse, without relationships in place, the United States will not be able to call upon friends or provide an agile response when crises or conflicts occur. The return on investment is worth it. To paraphrase SOF Truth #4, quality relationships cannot be created after emergencies occur. The best time to establish relationships with strategic partners and their military leaders was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.

Major Marshall McGurk is assigned as the SOF plans chief at the Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, Louisiana. He served in 3rd Special Forces Group, SOCCENT, and 1st Special Forces Group, with operational experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Republic of Korea.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Master Sgt. Alexander Burnett, US Army