"Special" Forces

"Special" Forces

Mini Teaser: With terrorism incubating in cities, Washington’s approach is over-militarized.

by Author(s): Jonathan Stevenson

The United States' special operations forces (SOF) have come a long way since their post-Vietnam War decline in doctrinal prominence. During the 1980s, the U.S. defense establishment chose their "national wars of liberation" more carefully. The United States stayed closer to home, targeting mainly Central America, and Army Special Forces enjoyed some success in bolstering El Salvador's defense capabilities in a way that they had not done for South Vietnam's. Yet the emphasis remained on firepower rather than on training indigenous forces and the small-unit patrol operations favored by other counter-insurgency practitioners. In any case, the 1990-91 Gulf War-a high-intensity, high-technology blitzkrieg-extinguished any residual institutional enthusiasm for hands-on involvement in messy third world conflicts. "Fighting the nation's wars" again became the national military priority, with "low-intensity conflict"-later rebranded the even more soporific "military operations other than war"-strictly subordinate. As of 2001, the Army's principal field manual devoted only two of 313 pages to counter-insurgency.

Then came the September 11 attacks. The first salvo in the global counter-terrorism coalition's response to the attacks was the U.S.-led takedown of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in late 2001. That essentially military effort was distinguished by the central role that primarily American SOF played. SOF differ from regular combat soldiers in that they are highly trained to perform a wide variety of tasks and use a broad range of equipment, operate in small units-frequently behind enemy lines-and sometimes act covertly. Most professional militaries incorporate SOF capabilities. In the U.S. military, they include Army Special Forces (i.e. Green Berets) and Navy seals, as well as Air Commandos and now some Marines. Their rough UK counterparts are the Special Air Service and the Special Boat Service. In Afghanistan, American sof led and coordinated the indigenous anti-Taliban Northern Alliance fighters, which minimized the adverse political impact among Afghans from the presence of foreign troops. They also acted as forward observers and thus facilitated more accurate air strikes. SOF's admirable performance in such a successful operation thus appeared to augur an increasingly prominent role for them in what the U.S. government soon dubbed the "War on Terror."

At the same time, the very elimination of Afghanistan as a physical base for the global jihadist network has forced it to disperse and further decentralize. At this point, Al-Qaeda's core leadership may often do little more than inspire, rather than command or facilitate, operations by local "self-starter" terrorist cells that have fully infiltrated urban areas. This circumstance would appear to make the blunt and relatively indiscriminate instrument of military power less suited to countering Islamist terrorist threats than civilian intelligence and law-enforcement means. Yet the Department of Defense (DOD) has continued to stress the importance of SOF and devoted a rising share of the U.S. defense budget to special-operations capabilities.

The Pentagon's Bullishness

The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and the National Military Strategic Plan (NMSP) for the War on Terror, both released earlier this year, broadly embody the view that the War on Terror integrally involves the military, in that aggressive intervention abroad is necessary to forestall terrorist operations on U.S. territory. The DOD's principal counter-terrorist instruments are special operations forces, which "will possess an expanded organic ability to locate, tag and track dangerous individuals and other high-value targets globally." The fact that after 9/11 U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) became a "supported" as well as a "supporting" combatant command, received substantial budgetary and operational independence from the regional combatant commands, and was assigned the lead military counter-terrorist role under the 2004 Unified Command Plan, reinforces this mission. So does the 9/11 Commission's recommendation that the military take over the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) paramilitary division, as well as Congress's decision in 2005 to provide SOCOM with $25 million annually in discretionary money that can be used to buy foreign allegiances-a function previously the CIA's alone. In turn, the NMSP tasks SOCOM with preparing a "Global Strategic Plan" for the War on Terror that will become the centerpiece of the American counter-terrorist enterprise. Consistent with this plan, SOCOM is now the only supported command with a geographically unlimited remit.

By the end of the 2006 fiscal year, SOF are expected to number 52,846-the troop strength of three or four infantry divisions. SOCOM's baseline budget has increased by 81 percent since 2001, and for fiscal year 2006 will come to $6.6 billion. Over the next five years, the DOD plans to increase its personnel by more than 13,000 (15 percent), and to add $9 billion to SOCOM's budget. The DOD will also increase the number of active-duty U.S. Army Special Forces battalions by a third; expand psychological operations (PSYOPS) and civil affairs units by 3,700 personnel, or 33 percent; establish a 2,600-strong Marine Corps Special Operations Command; establish an sof unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) squadron; and enhance sof capabilities for insertion into and extraction from denied areas from strategic distances. The latter could occur, for example, via deployment of sof mini-submarines from converted Ohio-class ballistic-missile nuclear submarines, otherwise armed with Tomahawk conventional cruise missiles. Underlining socom's institutional significance is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's inclusion of the socom deputy commander on the twelve-person Deputies Advisory Working Group, which was made a permanent part of the DOD's senior management structure in March 2006. No other combatant commander was so privileged.

According to the QDR, defeating terrorist networks will require, among others, several capabilities calling for SOF: first, "special operations forces to conduct direct action, foreign internal defense, counter-terrorist operations and unconventional warfare." Second, "persistent surveillance to find and precisely target enemy capabilities in denied areas." Third, "the ability to communicate U.S. actions effectively to multiple audiences, while rapidly countering enemy agitation and propaganda." Fourth, "broad, flexible authorities to enable the United States to rapidly develop the capacity of nations to participate effectively in disrupting and defeating terrorist networks." And fifth, "special operations forces to locate, characterize and secure wmd."

This array of tasks conjures visions of SOF darting willy-nilly across the globe, from one hot spot to another, smashing terrorist cells wherever they arise. But with the possible exceptions of civil affairs and foreign internal defense, SOCOM's missions, though all broadly applicable to counter-terrorism, contemplate action mainly in lieu of-rather than in concert with-civilian law enforcement and intelligence bodies. These missions would be most feasible, from both an operational and a political point of view, in failed or weak states that lacked the rule of law. Current evidence, however, suggests that terrorists are not gathering in such states.


At present, the global jihad appears less likely to hijack failed or weak states than to metastasize through cities. Despite fears that jihadists would re-congregate in such states-e.g. Somalia or Yemen-after their expulsion from Afghanistan, thus far they have not done so. While some foreign jihadists have entered Iraq and opposed coalition forces there, the overriding fear is that they and Iraqi jihadists will apply what they have learned in Iraq elsewhere. Indeed, the intensification of militant Islamism in Europe suggests that terrorists will sometimes find at least workably comfortable enclaves in cities and countries with high levels of governmental control and first-rate civilian security structures. Overall, therefore, the most likely eventuality is for terrorists to remain dispersed in cities and states in which sovereign authority in varying degrees still operates. In those places, military operations of any kind-including the irregular variety associated with sof-will be exceedingly difficult to sustain. Most Western governments-including those hit hardest by Islamist terrorists-have an entrenched reluctance to allow the integration of state military power into homeland security. Even stronger reservations would logically extend to the armed forces of a foreign country.

Nevertheless, even if the jihadist network continues to favor dispersal rather than coalescence, special operations forces still could occasionally serve as counter-terrorist assets of early resort. Terrorists will still need at least small training camps and will find countries with weak law enforcement, intelligence and military capabilities the easiest operating environments for establishing the necessary sites. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), for instance, is running a handful of small, mobile training camps for Jemaah Islamiya militants in an area of the Philippines-Mindanao-over which the Philippine government has flimsy control, and American sof have helped curtail the terrorist activity of both the MILF and Abu Sayyaf. If the ascendant Islamic Courts Union movement in Somalia has allowed terrorist camps to be established, as was reported in August 2006, the 1,200-strong Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa in Djibouti could be dispatched to take them down.

To be sure, a U.S. capacity to apply military force quickly and covertly may facilitate the discreet cooperation of some governments that are politically constrained from overtly cooperating. Such situations, however, are likely to be comparatively few and far between. The strike by a Predator UAV-killing six Al-Qaeda members in Yemen in November 2002-though actually executed by CIA officers, may remain a stark example of the effective use of special operations to neutralize terrorists. Yet so far it has not been repeated. The Istanbul, Madrid and London bombings, and the recently thwarted plot by British jihadists to blow up several U.S.-bound airliners departing from the UK, suggest that the jihad's epicenter is moving to Europe, where mature and broadly U.S.-friendly democracies are the norm. In that theater, even the most covert and discreet military activity would carry prohibitive risk. So, indeed, would a heavy-handed civilian operation, as demonstrated by the criminal investigations that Germany, Italy and Sweden have undertaken of the CIA's alleged abductions of terrorist suspects in the execution of "renditions." These episodes reinforce the infeasibility of even low-visibility military operations in what is becoming a critical field of jihad.

Essay Types: Essay