By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 30, 2013 – Despite dwindling resources and a national defense focus on the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific, the commander of Special Operations Command South is committed to not only maintaining, but increasing engagements in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
“On any given day, I have over 300 people deployed downrange to Central and South America, including members of every service’s special operations force and their civil affairs and military information support teams,” he said. “SOC South is engaged 365 [days a year], 24/7.”
A Green Beret who has served most of his career within Latin America, Mulholland said he’s convinced that persistent engagement establishes a level of credibility and trust simply not possible through traditional training and exercise programs. “Building partner capacity is planting seeds” that require nurturing over time, he said.
“It’s really not rocket science. It’s about personal relationships and what we do as we build partner capacity,” he said. “It is always letting your partners know that you are there, inside their country, helping them out -- whether it is one guy or 50 guys and gals. It is all about contact.”
Since assuming command in October, Mulholland has made a concerted effort to promote these contacts, all governed by the host nation’s requests, in collaboration with the U.S. embassy country team and at the direction of U.S. Southern Command.
“We don’t do anything [the host nation] doesn’t ask for. And we don’t do anything the embassy hasn’t approved that we do,” he explained. “There is nothing spooky or under-the-table about what we do. It is all above-board, and it is all about building partner capacity.”
That capacity is vital to stemming the challenges in the region: drug traffickers and other transnational criminals and terrorist elements seeking footholds in ungoverned spaces, among them. These groups use these areas to flow drugs and other illicit shipments through Central America and Mexico and, ultimately, to the United States.
“The best way to go after a threat is to have that partner nation develop a security capacity and diminish that threat,” Mulholland said. “I can affect this bridge coming up north through Mexico to the United States. I can do that by helping build partner capacity with [host nation] units that are actually going to go out there and do something about it. And that is happening.”
Mulholland cited Colombia as the shining example of what capacity building can achieve.
Historically, the FARC -- Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- ran rampant in Colombia, terrorizing citizens with a spate of murders, kidnapping and other activities associated with narcotics trafficking. But 25 years ago, the Colombian police force was corrupt and the military forces were in disarray.
Today, thanks to strong Colombian leadership and persistent U.S. support and engagement, Colombia has capable, highly respected security forces. In addition to securing their own country, they are now training other regional militaries.
“They have become exporters of [force integration training],” Mulholland said, taking what they have learned and sharing it with their neighbors. “This is Latins training Latins, and that is a beautiful story,” Mulholland said. “It’s poetry.”
Other success stories can be found in Brazil, which has long stood as a strong example in the region, and increasingly in Panama, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Mulholland acknowledged concerns about Honduras, where constrained resources limit its special operators’ ability to reach ungoverned sections of the country that offer traffickers safe havens.
Training exercises in these “dark areas” have had a temporary effect of diverting traffickers, but they consistently return after the operations there end, he said.
“The problem is that the activity is not persistent,” Mulholland said, noting that’s a problem SOC South alone can’t fix.
“Mobility is a big challenge in Honduras, and if you can’t get to the show in these ungoverned spaces, then that is a big issue,” he said.
Mulholland recognized that no matter how much he tries to expand engagements, he’ll never have the assets to keep up with demand. So he seeks out opportunities to partner in countries interested in “training, not just for training’s sake, but to go operational.”
SOC South’s special operators help partner military and police forces improve their counterdrug capabilities, then embed with them to help them plan and conduct actual missions.
“We can’t go out on the objective, patrol or do combat operations with them” due to U.S. legal restrictions, Mulholland explained.
“But we can go to the last base and provide planning and medical support,” he said, “and once a mission is completed, help assess what went right and what needs improvement.”
This forms a bond simply not possible through traditional schoolhouse training and short-duration exercises, he said.
“We are practitioners, not visitors. … This deepens our commitment to them, and they know it,” Mulholland said. “They know we are there for them, so I think it builds partnership capacity faster.”
It’s a formula that’s been tested and proven over time, even while wartime requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan tapped some of SOC South’s personnel and equipment. At one point, for example, Mulholland was serving as commander of the 7th Special Forces Group that focused on Latin America and the Caribbean when he was deployed for a year to Regional Command North in Afghanistan.
“SOC South, the ‘quiet little store,’ has been doing this forever. … So even after 9/11, the little store stayed open, continually grinding away, building partner capacity,” he said.
Now, as defense budgets get tightened, he said he’ll do everything he can to increase engagement in the region. That, Mulholland recognized, is likely to require scrapping the “nice to have” activities and concentrating on what’s essential.
“If I have to tighten my belt, I will,” he said. “I am willing to strip away everything else, but I would be hard-pressed to cut engagements, because that is where we make our money.
“So I am going to try to force the envelope and do more,” he continued. “I want to be sure my soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are engaging, because the priority is contact -- flesh to flesh, training and advising with our partners. And that will not suffer on my watch.”
Meanwhile, Mulholland has made a concerted effort to rebuild capabilities that have eroded during the past decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s pressing to increase Spanish-language proficiency across the command, speaking only in Spanish to his staff and offering Spanish classes for spouses.
In addition, he’s limiting the time SOC South members spend at their headquarters at Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida.
“I’m pushing them out to Honduras, to Colombia, to Peru, and increasing their level of engagement without breaking their backs,” Mulholland said.
“In these times of reducing resources, we need to push out as much as we can,” he said. “We can’t take on this protracted tortoise mentality, saying we don’t have enough money or resources.
Instead, I am going to do everything I can to get more people out there.
“If we do the tortoise in the shell game, I think we are going to miss something,” Mulholland added. “And I don’t want to be the guy on watch who missed something.”