Working with Host Nation Partners Creates Trust and Credibility
By Claudia Sánchez-Bustamante/Diálogo May 06, 2013
Interview with U.S. Army Brigadier General Sean P. Mulholland, commander of Special Operations Command South
Seven months into his command post at Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH) – the special operations component of U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), Brigadier General Sean P. Mulholland frequently speaks to his service men and women in Spanish. That’s because he’s acquired vast experience working in Central and South America and the Caribbean and learned the value of language and culture during his various deployments over many years within the area. Despite the current economic environment, he pushes his command to continue engaging with Partner Nations as a basic function and common theme for fostering relationships and building partnerships across the region. Internally, he brings together the community of families within the command and the Homestead municipality to become a tighter group of working colleagues.
It’s early afternoon on a sunny, Florida day, and F-16s are flying around the skies over Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida, where SOCSOUTH headquarters is located. Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Mulholland takes some time out of his busy schedule to talk with Diálogo about his current and future plans and vision for what he does as commander of SOCSOUTH.
DIÁLOGO: What do you see as the mission of Special Operations Command South, and how does it fit into broader U.S. theater security cooperation efforts in the region?
Brigadier General Sean P. Mulholland: In selected countries and in conjunction with USSOUTHCOM, we are building partnership capacity through persistent presence, equipping partner nation forces and assisting in helping build their infrastructure. In our J3 (Operations Directorate), we have four regional engagement branches (REBs). In each REB there are country officers for each country. The country officers have “ownership” of the Special Operations Forces (SOF) engagements with partner nations. These country officers learn and know their environment, allowing them to build strong relationships with their partner nation counterparts. They coordinate and are the link between USSOUTHCOM, U.S. Embassy (Military Groups, country teams, etc.), partner nation forces and various Special Operations Command force providers.
DIÁLOGO: What are your priorities for 2013 and beyond?
Brig. Gen. Mulholland: I’ve been down in USSOUTHCOM’s Area of Responsibility (AOR) for about 25 years, off and on, so my heart is part of our AOR. There really are two approaches to my vision as commander of SOCSOUTH. One is external in how we do our work with our partners. And the other one is internal to the command. I’ve lived in South America; I’ve taught at all different levels, and I wanted to impart some of that knowledge to my people that deploy into the region. In Central America, South America and the Caribbean, we deploy to conduct Foreign Internal Defense (FID); we work directly with our U.S. Country Teams and Host Nations to Build Partner Capacity (BPC), which is the most important thing that we do here in our Area of Responsibility. So the focus for me and my staff is to, at the tactical level, make sure the U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) teams understand what they’re doing when they deploy to further our partners’ capacity at keeping their people and borders secure. At the operational level, I need to make sure that I am connected to the U.S. Country Teams and the host governments, so we can properly support them.
DIÁLOGO: Why do you feel that SOF engagements are so important in achieving your mission with Partner Nations?
Brig. Gen. Mulholland: Frequent exchanges and exercises allow SOCSOUTH personnel to immerse themselves in the region, increase their cultural knowledge, and sustain relationships over an extended period of time. SOF can do this with a small footprint in the region. This method respects local populaces, increases legitimacy, and improves the American image among host populations. By working with host nation partners and the country team, SOCSOUTH creates trust and credibility.
DIÁLOGO: How do success stories such as the cases of Colombia influence your vision for other partner nations’ capacities/development?
Brig. Gen. Mulholland: For several years, U.S. Special Operations Forces have been advising and assisting the armed forces of Colombia in the fight against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In recent years, the Colombian armed forces delivered significant hits to that group, as seen in the impressive rescue of U.S. and Colombian hostages in 2008 in an operation that was completely arranged, controlled and conducted by Colombian forces. So, with more than a decade of continued, small footprint advisory assistance by U.S. SOF, the narcoterrorist stronghold was weakened, which is what we want to happen in all of the countries in our AOR. SOCSOUTH continues to enable partner nation SOF to be a force multiplier in the region and throughout the world. Chile works with Guatemala and El Salvador; Colombia works with Honduras; and El Salvador with Afghanistan. These military-to-military partnerships build their joint capacity and interoperability with foreign SOF, which has expanded their global SOF network reach.
DIÁLOGO: How do you think SOCSOUTH can support Central America in building capabilities to improve the high criminality it’s undergoing as a byproduct of drug trafficking?
Brig. Gen. Mulholland: Transnational crime remains a particularly serious problem in our region, with most issues connected in some way to the drug trade. So, in order to build capabilities in Central America, we have partnered with the Guatemalan Army, the Salvadoran Army and Air Force; and the Honduran Military. The good news story with Honduras is the FEN, the Fuerzas Especiales Navales (Naval Special Forces), a maritime unit of Special Operators capable of combating transnational organized crime in and around their waterways. This progress is also evident in Honduras, Belize, and even Panama. We also utilize civil affairs teams to assist our partners in influencing control over their territory and swaying their population against aggressive transnational criminal organizations and insurgents; Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama have been particularly successful with civil military engagements.
DIÁLOGO: What is the importance of having SOCSOUTH’s staff being bilingual so they can communicate with their regional counterparts?
Brig. Gen. Mulholland: I tell my Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines to be humble and listen; that’s one of the ways to learn their language. In Afghanistan and Iraq we use interpreters the majority of the time, so it’s like having a triangle conversation and it’s very awkward. When you speak Spanish to your counterparts you can make a connection with them much easier. The exchange will be much richer, more positive, and more lasting. Also, by being bilingual, they get a deeper knowledge of different cultures and traditions which makes them more adaptable while in a foreign country.
DIÁLOGO: What do you want your teams to learn and experience, and take away from their experiences in the region?
Brig. Gen. Mulholland: There is no question that our service members benefit from their time in the region. As the commander and a person who has spent many years working in the AOR, studying the history and understanding the culture, I want our teams to really appreciate their surroundings because it truly is one of the best places to work in. A true benefit of working in the region is having the opportunity to improve our language skills, whether it is Spanish or Portuguese, and working with our counterparts while being exposed to wonderful, rich cultures. Building personal friendships and mutual respect with our partners is something you can’t put a price on. I know these experiences will follow our personnel for the rest of their lives and long after their military service is complete because they can look back at their time in the region with fond memories knowing they made a difference by strengthening the important bonds we hold with our partners. I truly love to see our teams such as our ODAs (Operational Detachment Alpha), CA (Civil Affairs) and MISO (Military Information Support Operations) teams travel to the region because when I speak with them after a deployment, they say they are eager to go back.
DIÁLOGO: SOUTHCOM’s Commander, General Kelly, has emphasized the importance of cooperation in dealing with regional challenges. What priorities have you set for taking the command forward and advancing this effort?
Brig. Gen. Mulholland: Regional cooperation is what we’re all about at SOCSOUTH and it’s key to our purpose because we work with our partner nation counterparts every day. With our cooperation and advise and assist programs, we have seen the professionalism and commitment from our partners to combat regional challenges such as illicit trafficking. Our partners throughout the Caribbean, Central American Isthmus and South America have had a major role working with commands such as the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATFS) in Key West, Fla., and this command in the deterrence of drug flow throughout the region. Nations such as Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua have really stepped up to the plate in dealing with these challenges. Operation Martillo is a perfect example of the regional cooperation among these nations. I think these examples are exactly in line with what Gen. Kelly is talking about. A major priority for us is working with our interagency partners, both U.S. and foreign, to achieve these efforts. Our regional engagement branches are at the forefront of this by working with the interagency to ensure cooperation among all the key organizations, which is in line with Gen. Kelly’s intent.
DIÁLOGO: Can you give a big-picture view of SOCSOUTH’s foreign internal defense efforts around the region?
Brig. Gen. Mulholland: Building partnerships requires the development of meaningful military-to-military relationships. It’s a long-term effort and the effects need to be enduring. This approach not only builds partner nation capacity and regional stability, but it also deters the tacit and active support of sanctuaries that foster and develop future terrorists. Over time, we build meaningful relationships with our partner nations in order for them to create a self-sustaining capability which allows us all to provide security, develop good governance and counter violent ideology. This process is slow, but the goal is to achieve long lasting results. Part of our commitment is to remain patient and focus on a working with creating self-sustaining host nation partners.