Protecting Soft Networks: Time to Counter the Enemy’s Logical Strategy

By: COL Steve Miska, Marine Corps War College, and Roslyn Warren, Georgetown University

In local gathering places, away from the ears of the occupiers, insurgents meet and discuss ways to punish occupation supporters. Although the techniques vary—insurgents confront traitors in the street, leave messages at their homes, and threaten their family members—all of their tactics are designed to make supporting the illegitimate occupation unattractive, dangerous, and even deadly. Once identified by the insurgents, collaborators often cease supporting the occupiers, go into hiding, or move their families away from the area. Those who fail to heed the warnings may pay dearly as they and their families live under constant threat. Does this sound like Iraq or Afghanistan to you? It might be. But it is also colonial Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and every other hotbed of the American Revolution. Rather than harm their livelihoods for a highly risky cause like revolution, a large proportion of the colonials fervently supported the English Crown while many others simply hoped to maintain the status quo. The colonial patriots—the conflict's insurgents—used a variety of tactics to pressure Loyalists to forgo British allegiance, including public recantation, intimidation, financial penalties, and forfeiture of all property, among others. These tactics proved invaluable to the revolution's success.

Although this age-old stratagem to intimidate collaborators is pulled straight from the American Revolution playbook, the United States today consistently fails to protect the human networks critical to its effectiveness in the field. U.S. agencies are still surprised when enemies use these same pressure tactics to stymie overseas enterprises—tactics America's founding fathers adeptly used while fighting from a position of weakness against the British. As operational success in any foreign endeavor becomes increasingly interlocked with the strength and durability of soft networks—those nonmilitary and indigenous partners who support U.S. COIN and CT operations—America must build a diverse portfolio of means to meet the safety needs of those partners who are integral to its engagements abroad.1

An examination of the treatment of British Loyalists during the American Revolution turns the United States' presentday perspective on its head. Great Britain lost its North American colonies, in part, because it could not adequately protect its in-theater soft networks. Today, where U.S.-friendly host-nation governments lack stability, locals who support the United States (U.S. "loyalists," branded as "collaborators") suffer intimidation by America's enemies, a situation that jeopardizes U.S. operations.2 Terrorist groups and insurgents, such as al Qaeda in Iraq, al Shabaab in Somalia, or the Taliban in Afghanistan, quell indigenous support for Western initiatives through coercion and violence. As U.S. COIN doctrine notes, warfare is increasingly network-centric, with operational effectiveness dependent on the strength of relationships with local allies on the ground.3 To remain effective militarily, strategists and practitioners must ask themselves the following questions: How can the United States protect its closest indigenous allies in dangerous areas? Does the United States have the right mix of policy tools necessary for its national security actors to operate effectively when cultivating indigenous networks? What policies and means might be brought to bear? Do any other organizations already use best practices? How can the United States proactively protect its soft networks in fragile environments where national interests are at stake? The recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan clearly illustrate the problem at hand: the U.S. military, and the State Department to a lesser degree, desperately needs to set up dynamic protection systems to safeguard its indigenous partners who facilitate logistics, linguistics, and other critical functions for overseas operations. Moving forward, the United States must enter hazardous environments fully aware of the risks that indigenous partners take when facilitating U.S. operations. In strategy and practice, the United States must anticipate that the enemy will target its soft networks, and prepare accordingly.

Experiences with Soft Networks in Iraq and Afghanistan

With respect to protecting close partners in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military found itself first unprepared, and then ill-equipped. The Department of Defense was blindsided by the enemy's intimidation (and, at times, elimination) campaigns aimed at collaborators. Military units responded to such attacks through trial-and-error measures, leaving many interpreters and other contractors to initiate their own survival policies. Some interpreters used nicknames and wore face masks when on patrol with military units. They slept on U.S. bases, at the military unit's discretion, to minimize the risk of discovery during transit between their workplaces and their homes. With a premium placed on U.S. force protection, some units realized too late the peril in which they placed their soft networks; the U.S. mission and the corresponding legitimacy of the host-nation government suffered accordingly.

On the ground, those units that did realize the value of their soft networks found few policy tools available to protect local partners. Indigenous contractors, interpreters, and others took extreme risks to work alongside the U.S. forces; their lives and the lives of their families were jeopardized not only during the U.S. presence but also long after U.S. troops left Iraq. Ultimately, many suffered intimidation—and even death—for their U.S. affiliation. In these environments, daily survival was paramount. Tactically, U.S. units have responded to these challenges by improvising, or by acquiescing to techniques that the interpreters developed on their own, of the kind mentioned earlier. Some units issued weapons and uniforms to their interpreters. Often near the end of a deployment, units explored possible U.S. immigration for their interpreters, to bring them permanently out of harm's way.4

The Special Immigrant Visa

As a surface-level policy, immigration to the United States for critical U.S. employees and partners seems appropriate and comprehensive. It is not. For an array of reasons, the vast majority of host-country nationals who assist the United States cannot or will not pick up and move halfway across the world. On the ground, those units that did realize the value of their soft networks found few policy tools available to protect local partners. The U.S. Department of Defense was blindsided by the enemy's intimidation (and, at times, elimination) campaigns aimed at collaborators. 7 November 2013 Some cannot steer through the labyrinth that is the U.S. immigration system, while others lack either the financial means or the mental fortitude to move their entire family and start their lives over in a culture utterly different from everything they know and understand. The few who can make this extreme relocation to the United States—if they successfully navigate the arduous bureaucratic process—start down a long road riddled with serious assimilation challenges. Meanwhile, the large proportion of indigenous partners who are either not able or not willing to emigrate to the United States find themselves essentially abandoned by the U.S. government and forced to fend for themselves in an increasingly dangerous and hostile environment, simply because they supported the United States.5 This is true particularly during the nascent stages of a state-building campaign when the host-nation government is still establishing legitimacy. An exploration of the particulars of the United States' special immigrant visa (SIV) policy more clearly highlights the shortfalls of this one-size-fits-all protection policy.

In 2006, the United States instituted the SIV to assist interpreters in immigrating to the United States.6 This visa remains the only formal policy tool available to protect a limited number of local individuals, predominantly interpreters, who worked closely with U.S. forces and civilian agencies during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. If the interpreter met certain requirements, such as working with a U.S. unit for at least 12 months, he or she could apply for the SIV. The application process, however, is at best cumbersome and at worst pointless. Between fiscal year (FY) 2008 and FY2012, the United States filled a mere 22% of Iraq SIV quotas and only 12% for Afghanistan for the comparable time period.#7 Without active assistance from an embassy or other U.S. source, most foreign nationals cannot navigate, or even understand, the program and its requirements.8 Moreover, as the only policy available to help America's indigenous partners, the SIV does nothing for those for whom immigrating to the United States is not a viable alternative. Adding to this, the United States needed (and still needs) large-scale indigenous support for its state-building operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Attempting to evacuate the most useful and proven U.S. friends and partners from these countries could create a "brain drain" that would undoubtedly directly affect the United States' future relations with the countries into which it has now poured staggering amounts of time and money. According to the U.S. Army's Counterinsurgency manual,

Commanders must protect their interpreters. They should emplace security measures to keep interpreters and their families safe. Insurgents know the value of good interpreters and will often try to intimidate or kill interpreters and their family members. Insurgents may also coerce interpreters to gather information on U.S. operations. Soldiers and Marines must actively protect against subversion and espionage, to include using a polygraph.9

Despite the fact that COIN doctrine affirms that mission success hinges on the strength of U.S. relationships with indigenous experts, and on the military's ability to insulate those experts from threats, the military possesses few policy options to protect its local partners.10 To explore potential alternative policies, national security departments and agencies should take lessons from U.S. domestic witness protection systems. These systems offer a variety of more moderate methods, such as identity protection and temporary relocation, that may achieve better results for both protecting partners and safeguarding present and future U.S. missions.

Domestic Best Practices

In areas of the United States with prevalent gang activity or that are enmeshed in organized crime (locales where arguably the United States is not the sole legitimate governing authority nor the only provider of stability and security), U.S. federal and state governments take advantage of specific legal protections to encourage informants and witnesses to assist with the prosecution of accused perpetrators. In this capacity, these witnesses and informants fulfill "soft" roles similar to those of indigenous partners in areas of conflict, serving as the eyes and ears necessary for the operation to meet its end goal. Since 1971, the United States has protected key witnesses and their families in cases against organized criminals, gangs, and other malevolent actors under a federal witness security program.11 Under the purview of the U.S. Marshals Service, the program to date has safeguarded over 8,500 witnesses and 9,900 of their family members.12

Many states, such as Massachusetts, California, Colorado, Illinois, and Connecticut (to name a few), also run their own state-level programs. California and some other states offer comprehensive identity-change and familyrelocation services (similar to the federal program),13 while 33 states administer address-confidentiality programs,14 and nearly every state in the United States allocates at least some resources to help witnesses navigate the criminal justice system. Given the robust and diverse tools used at both the national and state levels within the United States to promote public safety, similar programs deployed abroad could enhance the United States' operational flexibility and help deliver security to soft networks, yielding significant benefits during overseas operations.

The United States needs to fund measures short of international relocation to fill the deleterious gap in protective services available to local partners in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in future operations. Like many witnesses enrolled in federal and state witness protection programs, interpreters and other local part because some of these contractors worked personally in such groups in the past, and/or maintain ongoing relationships with members inside these adversarial networks.15

Similar to the way prosecutors depend on the testimony of federal- and statelevel witnesses to combat organized crime in the United States, the U.S. military relies on interpreters and contractors to achieve operational effectiveness. While the knowledge that some individuals in these soft networks possess makes them invaluable to U.S. operations in combating terrorist networks in places like Afghanistan, it often simultaneously disqualifies them from legally immigrating to the United States. For example, the Material Support Bar enacted by Congress to stop potential terrorists from seeking asylum in the United States also blocks those with a legitimate and "well-founded fear of persecution" from entering the country.16 Of course, not all members of a soft network will possess intimate knowledge of insurgents and militia organizations, but many do, simply from the need to survive and protect their families. Adding to the reasons cited earlier, and because the U.S. legal system bars many of its closest supporters from entering the country, the United States needs provisions short of immigration to protect its indigenous partners. Certainly, if U.S. federal and state law enforcement agencies need dynamic protective policy options to meet the needs of the U.S. criminal justice system, an environment far more mature in its legal and rule-of-law structures than Iraq or Afghanistan, then the United States can also provide an array of policy options for its foreign affairs apparatus if it means to successfully meet its stated goals abroad. Using the domestic programs as a guide, the cost of such a program overseas would be minimal.

At the federal level, under H.R. 1741, the Witness Security and Protection Grant Program Act of 2010, the U.S. Congress authorized $30 million for each fiscal year from 2010 to 2014, totaling $150 million, to support a federal witness protection and assistance program. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the outlays based on historic rates of spending to total $100 million during that five-year period.17 At the state level, even California's program, perhaps the most robust in the nation, costs under $5 million a year,18 which would amount to a drop in the bucket of overall U.S. defense spending. These protection funds go a long way. Since 2010, California has protected 1,482 witnesses, 2,272 family members, and 2,433 defendants.19 Given the low costs of domestic programs, an international provision could easily be rolled into the National Defense Authorization Act to provide greater operational flexibility to protect soft networks in dangerous areas.

International Best Practices

If the U.S. military or other national security organizations received funding for the members of their soft networks, how could they better protect these local partners abroad? The media and some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide useful examples from overseas operations, where many of these groups apply the principles of identity protection and temporary relocation. The media use local "stringers," or indigenous freelance employees, who understand the culture and can report from areas where Western journalists have difficulty gaining access. NGOs operate with similar local support staff, especially in dangerous environments where foreigners would be targeted. In general, these organizations provide anonymity with respect to an individual's Western affiliation whenever possible. They use nondescript vehicles to mask identity, and avoid displaying identifiable logos. They allow their local employees to conduct their work without traveling into areas where Western offices are known to be located, and instead communicate via phone and internet for updates.

For their partners who face more severe threats, these entities provide modest and temporary relocation alternatives that do not demand significant assimilation or hugely bureaucratic processes. One NGO in Somalia, for example, temporarily moved a local contractor from the Somali capital of Mogadishu to Nairobi, Kenya, to insulate him and his family from militia threats generated by his relationship with the organization.20 If the danger were minimal or if leaving the country were problematic, this same organization could move an operative within Somalia, from Mogadishu to Puntland, for example, where there is less violence.21 Depending on the situation at hand, a temporary internal or regional relocation could be sufficient to ensure security and allow the threat to subside. Just like U.S. domestic witness security programs, these media organizations and NGOs protect the identities of and provide limited relocation options for members of their critical soft networks. While difficulties with implementing some of these strategies in the military arena will undoubtedly arise, there is much that military leaders can do to better protect the identities of those within their soft networks and improve discretion during in-theater interactions. They simply need to recognize the threat and be given the operational flexibility to insulate indigenous partners—just as the COIN manual tells them to do.


COIN and CT operations depend on robust and trustworthy relationships with local partners. If the United States wishes to continue achieving success in current and future operations overseas, it should protect those who help enable that success. U.S. partners in other potential conflict zones are watching how the United States treats its networks in Iraq and Afghanistan; the policies used in those theaters will influence confidence and loyalties elsewhere when supporters are needed. Future mission effectiveness may depend on the United States' willingness and ability to safeguard those individuals, and their families, who risk their lives in support of U.S. objectives. A one-size policy does not fit all. For this reason, the SIV should be only one of the policy tools in the U.S. national security toolkit to meet these ends. As Phil Williams suggested, because "it takes a network to defeat a network, the most successful attacks on criminal networks are likely to be those carried out by innovative law enforcement structures that transcend the normal bureaucratic ways of doing business."22 In today's highly dangerous overseas operations, U.S. conventional forces should creatively protect their soft networks, first, by anticipating the threats, and second, by proactively using a variety of policy alternatives.

The United States must remove its blinders to adequately meet the threats that exist in current and future operations. Promoting an understanding of the value of soft networks and developing a diverse portfolio of policy options, including those short of extreme relocation, will arm national security professionals with the necessary tools to protect the United States' closest partners and achieve U.S. national security interests abroad. Not only is this a moral approach but it is an operationally prudent one, and it will do much to sustain the vital human networks that facilitate U.S. national security objectives across the globe.

About the Author(s):
COL Steve Miska teaches national security as the Lieutenant Colonel Robert Eichelberger Army Chair at the Marine Corps War College in Quantico. He is a graduate of the International Counterterrorism Fellowship Program at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University.
Roslyn Warren is studying for her master's degree in the Security Studies Program at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.


1. The phrase soft networks refers to nonmilitary, indigenous partners in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and law enforcement operations. Soft networks often include interpreters, local business contractors, politicians, and others, as well as their families. The families of indigenous military partners can also be included in this category.

2. The Oxford English Dictionary defines collaborator in this sense as a person who cooperates traitorously with an enemy—a defector: He was a collaborator during the occupation. The negative connotation has been traced to the French Resistance's use of the word to refer to the Vichy government during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013), s.v. "collaborator."

3. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 (Headquarters, Department of the Army, 15 December 2006): ; see appendix B, "Social Network Analysis and Other Analytical Tools."

4. Conrad Mulcahy, "Officers Battle Visa Hurdles for Iraq Aides," The New York Times, 14 May 2008.

5. For a compelling account, see George Packer, "Betrayed," The New Yorker, 26 March 2007, which was made into an off-Broadway play in 2008. Numerous other journalists have reported on the plight of interpreters and other supporters who have struggled due to their U.S. affiliation.

6. Under section 1059 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, Public Law 109-163, up to 50 Iraqi and Afghan translators working for the U.S. military have been eligible for special immigrant visas (SIVs) each fiscal year (FY). Public Law 110-36, which President George W. Bush signed into law on 15 June 2007, amended section 1059 by expanding the total number of beneficiaries to 500 a year for FY2007 and FY2008 only. In FY2009, the number of visas available annually for this category reverted back to 50.

7. Representative Earl Blumenauer et al., to President Barack Obama, letter, 5 March 2013:

8. Spencer S. Hsu and Robin Wright, "Crocker Blasts Refugee Process," The Washington Post, 17 September 2007:

9. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Counterinsurgency; see appendix C, "Linguist Support," C-3.

10. Ibid.

11. 18 U.S.C. section 3521 established the legal basis for witness security and authorized the United States attorney general to operate a federal witness protection program.

12. United States Marshals Service, "Witness Security Fact Sheet," (Washington, D.C.: United States Marshals Service, 12 December 2012):

13. Office of the Attorney General of California, California Witness Relocation and Assistance Program: Annual Report to the Legislature 2009-2010 (California Department of Justice), 1–6:

14. Stalking Resource Center, "Address Confidentiality Program," The National Center for Victims of Crime:

15. A review of Massachusetts's caseload found that "87% of witnesses stated that they knew the perpetrator," and that "approximately half (50%) of all critical witnesses had a past conviction, 40% had an open case, and 19% of critical witnesses were on probation at the time the petition was filed." Deval L. Patrick, Timothy P. Murray, and Kevin M. Burke, The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Witness Protection Program: An Overview of Cases in Fiscal Year 2007 (Boston: Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, October 2007), 14–18:

16. Maryellen Fullerton, "Terrorism, Torture and Refugee Protection in the United States," Refugee Survey Quarterly 29, no. 4 (2010): 4.

17. H.R. Rep. No. 111-138, at 5 (8 June 2009):, 5.

18. California Department of Finance, 2012-13 Final Budget Summary (Sacramento: California Department of Finance, 2012), 58:

19. Office of the Attorney General of California, California Witness Relocation, 2.

20. Interview conducted by Lt. Col. Steve Miska, Washington, D.C., 3 February 2011. The identities of the individual and the NGO involved are protected by a nondisclosure agreement.

21. Ibid.

22. Phil Williams, "Transnational Criminal Networks," in Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy, ed. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2001), 95.

Average (0 Votes)
The average rating is 0.0 stars out of 5.
No comments yet. Be the first.