Operating and Building Capacity in the Gray Zone

Operating and Building Capacity in the Gray Zone


African Defense interviews Brigadier General Donald C. Bolduc, commander of US Special Operations Command Africa on the challenges and opportunities facing the continent.


Q: Before we start, tell us a little about Special Operations Command Africa. What’s keeping your team busy at the moment?


Bolduc: Sure — thanks for the opportunity to talk to you today. Special Operations Command Africa is the special operations forces (SOF) component of USAFRICOM. In this role we’re the theater special operations command responsible for SOF integration in Africa. With a SOF network of between 1,500 to 1,700 operators, analysts and support personnel forward deployed across the African continent at any given moment, SOCAFRICA is leveraged to support operations driven towards the protection of US persons and interests in Africa, assist African partners in providing for their own defense and counter the spread of violent extremist organizations (VEOs) on the continent.


Our command has three forward elements: SOCFWD-East Africa, SOCFWD-Central Africa and SOCFWD-North and West Africa…..but don’t let the geographic names get in the way—I often say our teams are “threat-focused” and will tend to move with their African partners to enable regional solutions and go where the threat is at the moment. In addition, our Joint Special Operations Air Component manages aircraft assets, air support and coordination across Africa. SOCAFRICA integrates SOF capabilities from every branch of the US military and works closely with partners in more than 20 countries.

In addition to the threats emanating from areas of instability in Africa, VEO threats with the capability to reach beyond the African continent are a problem set the SOCAFRICA component is keenly focused on at the moment. In fact, USAFRICOM has designated SOCAFRICA as the lead component to execute the geographic combatant command’s counter-VEO operations. Recent attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Somalia, Turkey and several countries in Europe have really underscored the fact that these groups are transnational, unpredictable….and dangerous.


Q: Explain your view….or rather, the SOCAFRICA component’s view of the Gray Zone in Africa.


Bolduc: The Gray Zone, or the spectrum of conflict between war and peace, is where we operate every day in Africa. This environment is volatile, uncertain and complex—it’s an immense challenge for government, military, law enforcement and development efforts. In this complex environment is where extremism thrives….an ambiguous place violent organizations are able to find a safe haven. These threats facing our African partners are typically non-state actors, operating in a transregional and trans-national, decentralized and dispersed construct, seeking to dominate vulnerable populations who have lost hope due to ineffective governance. Our operating environment is the very definition of the Gray Zone….we are not at war in Africa—but our African partners certainly are.

With this mindset, we approach our mission in Africa as ‘one SOF team’ enabling African partner nations in a supporting role. We’re supporting African military professionalization and capability-building efforts, we’re supporting development and governance via civil affairs and military information support operations teams, and we’re supporting civil administration by providing time and space for these vital institutions to expand governance into remote areas. We are careful not to replace our partners will with our capability or capacity. We want them to own the problem, fight or solution.

In Africa, we are not the kinetic solution. If required, our partner should conduct those types of actions. We do, however, build this capability, share information, provide advice, assistance, accompany and support with enablers. SOCAFRICA operations in the Gray Zone are not unilateral….we’re working in support of our partners.

Most importantly, our entire command recognizes SOF in Africa operate in an environment where diplomacy is key to attaining US policy objectives; the country teams’ integrated country strategy must drive a synchronized, comprehensive approach across the regions. Working in the Gray Zone takes a change of mindset for staffs and the flexibility to try new approaches to complement other US government stability efforts. For SOCAFRICA, and SOF in general, we understand our efforts are part of the solution, but not the solution.


Q: What are the challenges to operating in a transregional threat environment, when everything you do is organized around recognizing boundaries on a map and understood norms of action?


Bolduc: I’m glad you asked—because terrorists, criminals and non-state actors aren’t bound by arbitrary borders. Especially in Africa where borders exist on maps, but in reality there’s no ‘line in the sand,’ little or no border security in remote areas and centuries-old smuggling routes supported by nomadic populations. Threat groups are able to move relatively freely to areas of instability to exploit a lack governance and recruit from under-served populations. Terror groups use the Internet and sophisticated propaganda efforts to push their message easily across borders to find receptive, sympathetic audiences. These organizations endanger the safety and security of all African states as violence disrupts and spreads from areas of instability to stronger nations. Countering these threats—creating a more stable and prosperous continent—is in the common interest of the United States and African partner nations.

That said, everything we do is not organized around recognizing traditional borders. In fact, our whole command philosophy is about enabling cross-border solutions, implementing multi-national, collective actions and empowering African partner nations to work across borders to solve problems using a regional approach. Our partners and SOCFWD commands recognize the arbitrary nature of borders and understand the only way to combat modern-day threats like ISIS, AQIM, Boko Haram and myriad others, is to leverage the capabilities of SOF professionals working in concert. And that’s not only African partners working together, but it’s important to note the vital role European SOF have in disrupting terror networks. Borders may be notional and don’t protect a country from the spread of violent extremism….but neither do oceans, mountains….or distance.

Some examples of this approach are the African Union Regional Task Force in Central Africa, the four-nation effort to stop the Lord’s Resistance Army (a task force that has been incredibly successful, I’d add), the Multi-National Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad Basin combatting Boko Haram and the African Union operations in Somalia. We’ve also greatly expanded the Flintlock exercise series; last year more than 20 countries participated in this SOF-focused, capacity building event. In 2017, we expect Flintlock to continue to grow to include SOF from more countries, more interagency partners and provide, I believe, more value to participants and host nations.

I can’t stress enough how important a trusting, relationship-based approach is to solving these problems. Just to illustrate how serious our command is about this approach—here are the topline themes from one of my last engagements: African-led, Cooperation, Collaboration, Relationships, Learning and Sharing, Collective Solutions to Collective Challenges. Clearly, we’re about working across borders to create a more stable and secure Africa….these goals are in all of our countries’ interests.


Q: Capacity building is the name of the game these days. What is the process to determine what capacity should be addressed? Do you wait for requests from a host country for a particular skill or is there an identification of gaps and then approaching the partnership country with a suggestion of options?


Bolduc: A bit of both. Everything we do is nested in the USAFRICOM Theater Campaign Plan (TCP). Under the geographic combatant command’s plan (which is available publicly and briefed to Congress every year), activities and objectives are clearly outlined to guide subordinate units in their engagement with African partner nations. Under the TCP’s five lines of effort, each component aligns and synchronizes its activities to ensure we’re building towards common goals. Necessarily, the capacity-building programs the SOF component is responsible for are rooted in one or more of these TCP lines of effort. In addition, each country team and US ambassador has their own, more tailored objectives for each respective country. Through our SOF liaison officers, the Ambassadors’ and Office of Security Cooperation intentions shape and guide proposals for the coming year. These US embassy chiefs of mission play a critical role in strengthening military-to-military relationships and guide our operations as they’re the US government’s most enduring presence in country.

In addition to aligning our efforts under the USAFRICOM TCP and the country team’s goals as articulated in each integrated country plan, SOCAFRICA’s capacity-building actions must always be in line with larger USSOCOM and DoD objectives—and most importantly, shaped by our relationships with African counterparts.

For example, on a recent trip to Burkina Faso the Chief of Defense discussed the need for the country to expand SOF response capabilities. After the hotel attacks in the region, countries recognize the need to expand the use of specialized, highly-trained counter-terror units. Burkina Faso already has a regiment with the requisite skills, so a joint combined exchange training (JCET) to expand and diversify these capabilities was quickly planned. In nearby Senegal, our relationship with the SF company led to a deeper connection between military SOF and the gendarmerie, a new intelligence-operations fusion capability and more emphasis on first responders who could react to terror-related events. Our relationships inform our planning, but the threat also shapes our way ahead—we have to be flexible and think of the requirements of each partner individually while balancing the need to create regional, cooperative solutions.


Q: How are these capacity building missions measured for success? It seems that there is a strong case to be made for a more persistent engagement so that the newly learned capacity becomes normal for the parent nation.


Bolduc: Capacity building takes time— there’s no shortcuts. A lot of planning, literally years of planning, and coordination has to take place for these types of efforts to actually be value-added for the African partner military force and the host nation.

There’s really three levels of consideration when you start to measure capacity building efforts for success…. and by success I mean does the capacity building effort lead to a permanent change in tactics, techniques and procedures?… does the capacity building effort lead to a change in behavior, processes and approach? and does the capacity building effort stand up to a true test or crisis? These are some of the hard questions you have to ask to really measure whether these programs are worthwhile.

The tactical aspects of training are relatively immediate and easy to measure. During a JCET, exercise or training event, a special forces unit might train a partner force in a particular tactical skill and can quickly ascertain if the training audience has adopted the capability. Trainers can objectively measure competency, then exercise, exercise, exercise that particular skill until it becomes a routine.

Next is the operational level of capacity. How well does the partner force execute in a real-world situation? What are the actual effects on the battlefield? Often, this is where we’ll be able to identify deficiencies that aren’t as readily apparent initially. For example, if a unit is able to act on a target with proficiency, but is unable to move to the objective because they’re waiting on an order to leave the base, or don’t have the logistical support to get to the target and back—then there’s a larger problem. Reoccurring SOF engagements where a unit has a habitual relationship with a partner force can help to identify these types of operational-level gaps.

Lastly is the strategic end-state—a much more long-term and harder goal to accomplish. When you study these types of objectives you have to question whether the partner force is achieving generational success and moving towards an integrated strategy. Is the military working in concert with law enforcement, civil administration and civilian authorities while respecting human rights and the rule of law?

Measuring this type of capacity requires the insights of the entire country team, as well as the special operations liaison officer. It’s incredibly challenging for any military force to plan, collaborate and execute long-term operations with proficiency at the strategic level.

I’m also glad you used the word persistent. While we don’t have permanent bases in Africa like we do in Europe or other continents, we do have regionally-aligned SOF units who have a persistent, long-term relationships with a particular region. They’re singularly focused on learning appropriate languages (and local dialects), deploying to particular areas repeatedly and building enduring relationships with their SOF counterparts in the region.

For Africa, the 3rd Special Forces Group based in, Fort Bragg, N.C., is the Special Forces unit aligned with the African continent. The unit is also the force provider and command element for SOCFWD-North and West Africa. The rotational, but persistent presence 3rd SF Group has with African partners enables soldiers to develop true friendships and rapport with their counterparts at all levels—to truly understand the needs of their partners. Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 primarily supports SOCFWD-East Africa (and a variety of other training missions across Africa), while 20th Special Forces Group provides additional Reserve manpower to the counter-Lord’s Resistance Army mission in Central Africa. In addition, Marine Raiders (MARSOC) act as SOF liaison elements at some of our US embassies, execute training programs in several countries and partner with African military forces to counter current threats. Each of these regionally-aligned groups is doing great work in moving forward with African partners…. together.

Speaking of needs, one of the biggest needs we’ve identified is the development of a professional NCO corps. The NCO ranks are the backbone of the force, the technical experts and the people we trust to execute the most critical tasks. In Africa, many of these military units are dependent on top-down guidance where every decision and every task is managed by a senior person. This leads to inefficient operations and a long lead time to move out on an objective. We’re constantly working with our African partners to develop a professional, trusted and capable cadre of African NCOs who are able to manage their teams and train their own staff in the vital skills they’ll need for today’s fight.


Q: Is there a skill or mission set most requested by the African partners?


Bolduc: As I mentioned earlier, while our nation may not be at war in Africa, the African partner nations we support are. The threat of organizations such as Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, AQIM and ISIL is present within their own borders, across the region and in a growing number of urban areas— as evidenced by the deadly hotel attacks late last year and earlier this year. The SOF capabilities SOCAFRICA is able to provide under training, logistics, intelligence sharing and advise-and-assist authorities are unfortunately in high-demand as threat groups look to move their brand of terrorism from traditional smuggling routes and under-governed spaces to urban population centers and vulnerable targets in the capitals of these African states.

African partners are most often requesting the types of skill sets that will enable them to combat these types of asymmetric threats using the limited resources they have. It doesn’t help if you bring in a gold-plated solution; the capabilities we’re seeking to build must be sustainable, durable and affordable.

For example, in Mauritania our civil affairs (CA) teams helped the country to stand-up its own civil affairs capability. Mauritania identified a need to extend government presence and services into remote border areas as AQIM attempts to spread its influence into under-governed spaces. While the US might periodically provide additional tailored training to the Mauritanian CA unit, they’re now able to conduct operations without the need for additional support. In other countries, our teams have been asked to increase the partner nation’s ability to action intelligence or stand up a more robust cyber or social media monitoring capability. This type of training is key to understanding terror or criminal networks as these illicit groups tend to rely on technology to spread their ideology, communicate and plan for future attacks. So there’s no single skill or mission set most in demand—each region presents its own unique challenges based on the maturity of the partner force, the capabilities and sustainment capacity of the host nation, and the threats operating in the area.

Speaking more thematically, SOCAFRICA training operations are threat-focused, regionally aligned and aimed at supporting African partner nations across the spectrum of peace and conflict—from rule of law training and the professionalization of partner nation non-commissioned officers to assisting African regional task forces in their efforts to target key threat groups such as ISIL, Boko Haram or the Lord’s Resistance Army. The SOF network helps create specific tailored training for partner nations to empower military and law enforcement to conduct operations against our mutual threats, build response capabilities and strengthen cooperation between African states. We act as the SOF integrator for the full spectrum of capabilities and capacity-building efforts USAFRICOM is providing in Africa. By enhancing our multi-national SOF network and growing these types of capabilities in African partners, we believe the United States can have the most impact on the spread of violent extremism in Africa.


Q: Are there enough SOF-centric exercises in Africa? Are the African partners, SOCAFRICA and the other participants squeezing all of the opportunities from those events?


Bolduc: There are quite a few. We’re especially proud of the Flintlock series of exercises, our biggest event of the year. The Flintlock exercise brings together SOF from more than 20 North American, European and African countries to train in counter-terror operations, human rights, tactical field care, civil affairs, communications and intelligence, and operational-level planning. Past iterations have been held in Niger, Chad, Senegal and Mauritania (among others).

Flintlock has grown over the years to more than 2,200 participants and now includes FBI and other interagency partners to shift the event from solely a SOF-focused event to more of a comprehensive response to threat of VEOs. The focus is on threats in North and West Africa, but media, liaison officers and observers come from all over the world to see how the combined team is training together at the remote outstations to prepare for cooperative missions anywhere SOF may need to work together.

Silent Warrior is another event our command hosts in various locations. This exercise is traditionally a US and African partner nation exercise where teams will plan a contingency response effort and work through the logistical, command and control and coordinating functions required to execute an operation. It’s similar to Epic Guardian, another contingency response-exercise, except with Epic Guardian our team actually deploys crisis response forces in support of a US embassy evacuation or force augmentation. I hope Special Operations International can join us for one of these exercises—we’d welcome the chance for you to talk with our African partners or witness the training in action.


Q: Do you hold an annual special operations commanders conference? Are there mechanisms in place that allow a somewhat regular, if not constant, level of communication with your African contemporaries?


Bolduc: There are a number of conferences and events we host to ensure communication and synchronization between our staff, African partner nations, US embassy and country teams and interagency organizations is maintained. There’s an annual commander’s conference in Germany where attendees from across Africa share ideas and perspectives— that’s a key event for us, but not the only engagement we have together. We also host senior leader symposiums to engage with civil administration, law enforcement and local voices to gain a deeper understanding of the problem sets our team is tasked to tackle. With these periodic events we’re able to engage with high-level leaders, general officers and key decision makers.

Day-to-day communication with African counterparts is the responsibility of our special operations forces liaison officers stationed in US embassies, SOCFWD staffs and teams on the ground. With all of these points of contact dedicated to the task, our African partners have a direct line to our team. And like old friends, we talk with one another a lot. I’m on the phone with my African counterparts, on the continent in one-on-one meetings and at larger events nearly every day—by being available and receptive, our team is always working the “useful and necessary” projects they identify. That’s the test I’ve outlined for my staff: all programs must be useful to the partner nation (not the foreign agenda) and necessary to advance the partner nations capabilities. If they don’t pass this simple test….we need to focus on programs that do meet the African partner nation’s needs.


Q: Can you talk about any special operations assistance to Nigeria in specific in the hunt for the Chibok Girls and in the Boko Haram fight in general?


Bolduc: At the request of the government of Nigeria, SOCAFRICA’s SOF teams are playing a central role in the counter Boko Haram fight. It’s not only Nigeria, but the entire Lake Chad Basin is working together to contain, degrade and eliminate the Boko Haram threat; everything we do on the continent is connected by our partners and threat.

SOF are primarily serving as trainers and advisors to our partner nation armies. Through JCET iterations, SOF are bolstering partner nation armies by providing instruction on combat skills from the basic fundamentals of operating weapon systems to the strategy and coordination of waging large-scale operations. Upon completion of each JCET, partner nation units are certified as proficient to deploy to combat Boko Haram militants.

The training does not stop after partner nation military’s have completed the JCET.

USSOF personnel conduct bilateral missions alongside partner nation military units to advise commanders throughout the engagements and to validate the unit’s performance.

USSOF are also advising senior leaders of our partner nations in intelligence fusion centers. These centers operate as focal points for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information across the battlefield.

Also in the realm of intelligence gathering, USSOF are providing our partner nation military’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities necessary to combat the Boko Haram threat.

Finally, USSOF are working hand in hand with the embassies in our partner nations, the US Department of State and the ambassadors to ensure for coordination amongst our country teams and to promote embassy objectives.


Q: Africa’s overall population is expected to grown by about 60 percent by 2030, with much of the population driving towards urban areas and will be heavily young. Disenfranchised youth are susceptible to radicalization, especially in less than governed areas. Does SOCAFRICA, as part of the larger USAFRICOM strategy, have a role to help partners develop solutions and counteract the radical rhetoric?


Bolduc: Most certainly. First, it’s important to note there are several issues compounding to make countering radical rhetoric a wickedly complex problem set. For much of modern history, violent extremism and insurgencies found a receptive ear outside urban areas, radicalizing the disenfranchised and recruiting from lower socio-economic populations. Increasingly, we’re now seeing extremists shift from rural insurgencies to more urban movements, with direct access to a more diverse pool of recruits from all backgrounds and the ability to rapidly spread their message via social media and communications technologies. And the message is becoming more sophisticated, extending to all classes, economic, ethnic and social strata.

There’s no doubt, by 2030 Africa’s population will grow substantially and become increasingly urban. The current trend of impoverished youth traveling to cities in order to seek employment and opportunities will undoubtedly continue. As a result, Africa will be home to six mega-cities by 2030 (in addition there will be 12 large cities with populations of approximately 10 million). As these cities become crowded, with employment and resource challenges, extremist narratives will have greater access to recruits and the ability to spread via electronic means. Within a particular area, extremist rhetoric seeks influence to control and influence the population and external messaging attempts influence to support and inspire. The concern is the speed of dissemination and the reach of extremist rhetoric will grow beyond our partner’s ability to set the conditions for stability, monitor extremist networks, assess and react to these threats.

Furthermore, attacks directly attributed to a particular organization are a challenge, but the inspired-by attacks presents an even more complex problem as the message itself become the means for the VEO to operationalize their rhetoric.

Our current mission seeks to address these conditions where the VEO rhetoric might take hold. Operations are focused on three phases: protect the populace, provide time and space for development, and lastly, set the conditions for civil administration, local governance and policing. We partner with SOF forces to react to threats, our intelligence team assists in cyber capabilities to monitor VEO networks and intelligence fusion centers help to coordinate information flow between neighboring countries. The military is not the answer—a comprehensive approach will require investments in a broad range of governance, economic and development initiatives. What we can do is help African states to provide security for citizens, allowing local government the time and space to extend their reach into under-served areas. SOCAFRICA SOF teams are continually working to link African military forces to civil administration and police forces—solutions that de-emphasize a military response and look to bolster development of effective governance, civilian control of the military and the successful integration of all aspects of the civil administration.

Moving forward, SOCAFRICA and our partners will need to develop increased capability for social media monitoring in order to identify terror network nodes, determine potential threats and enable partners to disrupt these organization’s recruiting efforts. Much of what we’re talking about won’t look like a military solution, it’ll be a combination of civil administration, technological innovation and development efforts. There’s no simple answer—it’s a complex problem requiring a comprehensive approach.


Q: Can you provide some detail on your civil affairs and MISO capabilities?


Bolduc: Sure—civil affairs and military information support operations are two of our most robust, and in-demand, capabilities on the African continent. As I’ve said before, we’re not at war in Africa, but our African partners are. That statement makes the point for all our planners—our SOF mission is largely one of enabling, assisting and helping to communicate with the local population how their government is providing security, serving citizens’ needs and enhancing the state’s ability to provide services to remote populations. That’s where CA and MISO really punch above their weight. With fewer than 10 teams deployed across Africa at any given time, these teams are able to have a dramatic impact for a relatively small investment in personnel and equipment.

CA and MISO working with SOCAFRICA are critical as they bridge the gap between governance and security. Whether it’s building infrastructure or messaging access to local government healthcare, everything is centered on increasing the legitimacy of the African partner state. We’re not working to create recognition for US efforts. The goal is to increase the ability for African partner nations to project governance. SOF can assist militaries in building their capacity to provide security….but governance is a much more complex problem set requiring a comprehensive approach.

The comprehensive approach means it’s hugely important to always coordinate and synchronize CA/MISO missions with US embassy development and assistance efforts. We view our role as complementary, and often in support of, USAID, NGOs and other developmental organizations. We’ve even embedded MISO teams in various Embassies to augment African partner nations messaging efforts, train host nation communicators and develop campaigns regarding local government services. These teams also assist African partners to bring together traditional, local, and regional leaders during Tribal Leader engagements. Unlike one-way messaging campaigns, Tribal Leader engagements are an opportunity to listen, something most militaries don’t do enough. For African security forces and law enforcement to hear directly from the civilian population about community needs, concerns and grievances, the government is better able to address issues with real impact.

When military and law enforcement truly listen to citizens, teams are better able to identify critical vulnerabilities that serve as drivers of conflict, instability or contribute to support for violent extremist organizations. Despite the small footprint of CA and MISO teams in Africa, they’re a big part of our cooperative mission.


Q: You’ve mentioned quite a few African ‘partner nations’ you and your team work with on the continent — how might you expand your mission into other African countries to change the US relationship in the future?


Bolduc: We’re always looking for willing and capable partners; no one organization, country or military can counter these threats effectively by working alone. USAFRICOM, through the SOCAFRICA TSOC, looks to provide significant long-term SOF investments in countries with stable governments and growing economies with the capacity to build strong defense institutions, the ability to export security throughout their respective regions, and the ability to synchronize regional security efforts. Many of the nations in Africa are still developing civil institutions, military and law enforcement apparatuses, as well as, the ability to project rule-of-law beyond urban centers to rural areas where the state has traditionally been absent. That’s one of our greatest challenges—enabling African partner nations to increase governance and provide services to vulnerable populations to counter the violent extremist narrative.

The US relationship with African partners is as diverse as the continent itself. I’d emphasize the valuable contributions of Air Forces Africa, US Army Africa, Navy and Marine Forces Africa—the other components under USAFRICOM. The capabilities each of these organizations brings to the overall capacity-building effort absolutely provides the foundation for our SOF capability and capacity-building efforts. Each of the USAFRICOM components brings a unique perspective to the mission and gives our partners much more capabilities than any single solution could provide.

A SOF solution is only one aspect of a comprehensive approach to engagement on the continent. That’s why I believe it’s important for the TSOC to work closely with other components, interagency partners, Justice, State Department, civil society and NGOs across the spectrum of conflict to assist African partner states. So when we talk about SOF engagement in Africa, it’s not only about training or advise-and-assist missions….we take our cues from the country team and work with all of the stakeholders in country to ensure our objectives are nested in the overall strategy for the area.

That said, within our area of expertise, we would be looking to bolster SOF support to countries who have demonstrated the resiliency to overcome the challenges of the VEO threat, the willingness to address human rights and rule-of-law concerns, and the military capacity to integrate the training provided by SOF teams. Some examples are Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, Niger, Morocco and Tunisia—each one has unique challenges and characteristics but all possess the desire to forge a long-term partnerships with the United States. SOF is a limited resource, so we’ll look to leverage these small teams where they’ll have the most profound impact. By working with countries who have the potential to export security, we can most directly address the regional challenges of our African partners and directly, positively influence multi-national counter VEO missions.


Q: Is SOCAFRICA as big as it should be from an organizational and personnel perspective? To execute all of the missions requested of the command, are you as big as you need to be?


Bolduc: Current plans call for SOCAFRICA staff to grow by about 100 people from our current level of approximately 275 over the next couple of years. That’s not a lot people in relation to the size of the African continent—an area approximately 3.5 times the size of the United States—and the number of missions SOF are tasked against on the continent. In addition, there are approximately 1,700 SOF and enablers deployed to our three SOCFWD elements at any given time. This team is active in 20 nations in support of seven major named operations. Asking any commander if they could use more personnel or resources is like asking a person if they could use more money—the answer will almost always be yes.

There’s never a lack of good ideas, but being a lean organization tends to focus our efforts on what’s truly value-added and important to the mission. So I think our team is nearly right sized to accomplish the mission and enable our African partners. We have to keep to the SOF Truths and stay flexible—that becomes harder and harder for an organization as it gets bigger. In today’s resource-constrained environment, no military organization will ever have all they desire….but I’m certain we have all the talented, dedicated and motivated professionals we need to accomplish our mission.

Accomplishing our mission isn’t about the size of the TSOC or the number of staff around leadership; we succeed by enabling Africans to address African security challenges. Where our partnership is welcomed and desired, we’ve got sharp men and women ready to work alongside African military members to build the capability of partner nation forces to solve the problems facing the region. Headcount doesn’t guide our mission….the will of our partners and the objectives outlined in the USAFRICOM TCP do.


Q: As you look forward over the next few years, what do you assess will be the biggest challenge for SOCAFRICA and your SOF teams in Africa?


Bolduc: There’s no single challenge…. there are a number of inextricably linked challenges facing the Africa, the SOCAFRICA team and international SOF assistance on the continent. And I can’t stress enough how SOF is not the only answer to these problems. I’m an advocate for our capability and partnership, but these are generational efforts requiring military, civil administration, development, civil society and non-governmental organizations. This type of comprehensive approach and strategic coordination over the long-term is the first of many challenges I foresee for US assistance in Africa. This effort is in all our interests and it’s not impossible….we’ll just have to manage limited resources, manpower and time wisely to continue to make progress.

Also, it’s been widely cited in academia and the media that Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest number of water stressed countries in the world….there’s approximately 300 million people already living in water-stressed environments. That’s a fact today—it only gets worse for subsequent, growing generations of impoverished peoples. The problem of resource scarcity can easily bring fragile states into conflict and turn neighbors into competitors. I believe it’s not a question of if water wars will occur, it’s a question of when and where.

The “triple threat” facing Africa— population growth, resource scarcity and continued instability—is producing vulnerable populations primed for extremist recruiting while creating opportunities for exploitation from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. How the United States balances its national interests, development, strategic relationships, counter terror operations and the intervention of foreign states will challenge special operations forces and interagency staffs in Africa for much of the next century.





Brigadier General Donald C. Bolduc


US Special Operations Command Africa


Brigadier General Donald C. Bolduc is the commander, Special Operations Command Africa, headquartered at Kelley Barracks near Stuttgart, Germany. In this role, he is responsible for the full spectrum of special operations activities across the African continent and the more than 1,700 US military, interagency and international military personnel operating in 27 countries throughout Africa and Europe. SOCAFRICA is designated as US Africa Command’s lead counter-terror operations component.

Prior to this assignment, Bolduc served as the deputy director for operations, United States Africa Command.

Bolduc earned his ROTC commission in 1989, graduating from Salem State College, Mass. Throughout his distinguished career, Bolduc has commanded at multiple levels, including: Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command, Afghanistan; Combined Joint Special Operation Task Force – Afghanistan; 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, Afghanistan; C Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne); and HHC, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).

His Army and joint experience includes: assistant deputy director for special operations, J-37, Joint Staff, Pentagon; deputy acquisition officer, United States Army Special Operations Command; Executive officer to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, Office of the Secretary of Defense; aide-de-camp, Secretary of the Army; joint policy officer, US Total Army Personnel Command; assistant operations officer, 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Command; and chemical officer, 6th Battalion, 37th Field Artillery, 2nd Infantry Division.

Bolduc’s combat experience is extensive and includes six deployments to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom between 2001 and 2013; two deployments to Kuwait for Operation Desert Spring and Vigilant Warrior in 2002 and 1995; and one deployment to Iraq for Operation Desert Storm in 1991.