Puncturing the myth of our Special Operations Forces, pawns in an unwinnable war

Summary: Special Operations Forces are the heroes in the second phase, the 16th year, of the War on Terror. But years of failure have raised doubts that their bravery and skill have been well applied to these wars, or if they are even relevant.

“Counterinsurgency is Not a Substitute for Strategy”
— “Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies“, FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency, May 2014.

Fighting against the almost untrained and poorly equipped. Losing.

From the film Act of Valor.
Poster for the movie Act of Valor.

Of the world’s 194 nations, 137 of them have had special operations forces deployed so far this year. Most for training the host governments, some waging wars that conventional forces have been unable to win. As Tom Engelhardt says in his introduction to Nick Turse’s “A Wide World of Winless War” …

“From thousands of elite troops in the 1980s, their numbers have ballooned to about 70,000 at present — a force larger, that is, than the armies of many nations, with at least 8,000 of them raiding, training, and advising abroad at any given moment.  In fact, these days it’s a reasonable bet that if American war is intensifying anywhere, they’re front and center. A year ago in Syria, for instance, there were perhaps 50 special operators helping anti-ISIS forces of various sorts.  Now, as the battle for the Islamic State’s “capital,” Raqqa, intensifies, that number has soared to 500 and is evidently still rising.  (Something similar is true for Iraq and undoubtedly, after the Pentagon dispatches its latest mini-surge of personnel to Afghanistan in the coming months, that country, too.)”

Nick Turse goes to the heart of the issue.

“‘Today we commemorate sixteen years of a permanent fight against drugs in a ceremony where all Colombians can recognize the special counternarcotic brigade’s hard work against drug trafficking,’ said Army Colonel Walther Jimenez, the commander of the Colombian military’s Special Anti-Drug Brigade, last December.  America’s most elite troops, the Special Operations forces (SOF), have worked with that Colombian unit since its creation in December 2000.  Since 2014, four teams of Special Forces soldiers have intensely monitored the brigade.  Now, they were being honored for it.

“Part of a $10 billion counter-narcotics and counterterrorism program, conceived in the 1990s, special ops efforts in Colombia are a much ballyhooed American success story.  A 2015 RAND Corporation study found that the program ‘represents an enduring SOF partnership effort that managed to help foster a relatively professional and capable special operations force.’  And for a time, coca production in that country plummeted.  Indeed, this was the ultimate promise of America’s “Plan Colombia” and efforts that followed from it.  “Over the longer haul, we can expect to see more effective drug eradication and increased interdiction of illicit drug shipments,” President Bill Clinton predicted in January 2000.

“Today, however, more than 460,000 acres of the Colombian countryside are blanketed with coca plants, more than during the 1980s heyday of the infamous cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.  U.S. cocaine overdose deaths are also at a 10-year high and first-time cocaine use among young adults has spiked 61% since 2013.  “Recent findings suggest that cocaine use may be reemerging as a public health concern in the United States,” wrote researchers from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in a study published in December 2016 — just after the Green Berets attended that ceremony in Colombia.  Cocaine, the study’s authors write, “may be making a comeback.”

Special Operations Command

“Colombia is hardly an anomaly when it comes to U.S. special ops deployments — or the results that flow from them.  For all their abilities, tactical skills, training prowess, and battlefield accomplishments, the capacity of U.S. Special Operations forces to achieve decisive and enduring successes — strategic victories that serve U.S. national interests — have proved to be exceptionally limited, a reality laid bare from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen to the Philippines. …

“After their initial tactical successes in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, America’s elite operators became victims of Washington’s failure to declare victory and go home.  As a result, for the last 15 years, U.S. commandos have been raiding homes, calling in air strikes, training local forces, and waging a relentless battle against a growing list of terror groups in that country.  For all their efforts, as well as those of their conventional military brethren and local Afghan allies, the war is now, according to the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, a ‘stalemate.’  That’s a polite way of saying what a recent report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found: districts that are contested or under ‘insurgent control or influence’ have risen from an already remarkable 28% in 2015 to 40%. …

{Turse then reviews results from other regions where SOF have fought in the WoT, and found similarly poor results.}

“The fault for this lies not with the troops themselves, but with a political and military establishment that often appears bereft of strategic vision and hasn’t won a major war since the 1940s.  Into this breach, elite U.S. forces are deployed again and again. While special ops commanders may raise concerns about the tempo of operations and strains on the force, they have failed to grapple with larger questions about the raison d’être of SOF, while Washington’s oversight establishment, notably the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, have consistently failed to so much as ask hard questions about the strategic utility of America’s Special Operations forces.”

His analysis is brilliant. I recommend reading the full article.

Send in the Special Operations Forces

“Strategy is a prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in
a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational
— From the DoD Dictionary.

A characteristic of the War on Terror, one of its many mad aspects, is that experts have repeatedly warned that our methods are ineffective or even counter-productive. Such as our assassination program, one of our core tactics (see details here), whose repeated failure has not diminished our enthusiasm for it.

Equally daft, our military leaders treat use of special operations forces as a strategy — when they are a more like a tactic: “The employment and ordered arrangement of forces in relation to each other.”  David S. Maxwell has written about this at the Small Wars Journal. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel and Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.

His May 2014 article ends on an interesting note. He doesn’t develop it, but it implies a much larger role for social scientists (including political experts) than for military professionals.

“Or more correctly stated, we must be able to advise and assist our friends, partners, and allies to understand and attack their enemies’ insurgent and revolutionary strategies.”

Blindfolded people

The big absurdity

First we tried the trinity of counterinsurgency — popular front militia, mobility (e.g., sweep and destroy missions), and firepower on civilians (e.g., artillery, and more artillery). When large scale conventional armies (and airpower) failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, America turned to special operations forces.

After years of failure, criticism of this tactic in turn has appeared — such as “Unconventional Warfare is Not the Answer to Your Problem” by Andrea Filozof (Captain, US Army) at War on the Rocks, Sept 2016. She concludes ” Fifteen years of stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan prove that intervention without a preconceived and organic political endstate is indeed the problem.”

It’s the search for the simple plan or method — the missing link — that will lead to victory by our infidel foreigners in the Middle East.

Both critics of and enthusiasts for counterinsurgency (CI) ignore the two kinds of insurgencies. Sometimes the host government takes the lead, with foreigners in a secondary role. Sometimes foreign armies take the lead, with the host either in a dependent role or an outright puppet. The record is unequivocal. Since Mao brought fourth generation warfare to maturity during WWII, local governments usually defeat insurgencies — and foreign armies almost always lose to insurgents. See the details here: Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win.

We cannot see that because it would ruin the justification for our foreign wars, the project to which our entire geopolitical and military communities are devoted. The money wasted, the lives lost, the damage to America’s reputation — none of that has forced a re-thinking of our mad wars.

Until we open our eyes to see more clearly, each new phase of the War on Terror will fail. Eventually we will give up, or our foes will succeed in striking us even more strongly than on 9/11.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about assassination and about special operations forces, and especially these…

  1. Does America have the best military in the world?
  2. Expanding the size and scope of our Special Operations Forces, an alternative to learning from our failed wars.
  3. “SAS kill up to 8 jihadis each day, as allies prepare to wipe IS off the map.” Bold words we’ve heard before.
  4. Important: What overthrew the Taliban: Special Forces’ guns or CIA’s cash?
  5. A descent into darkness by our special operations forces.
  6. Should we use our special operations troops as assassins? Is it right, or even smart?

Books by Nick Turse, one of the most perceptive analysis of our WoT.

The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spies, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.

Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa
Available at Amazon.
The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spies, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare
Available at Amazon.

2 thoughts on “Puncturing the myth of our Special Operations Forces, pawns in an unwinnable war”

  1. “70,000 at present” “Special” hasn’t been special for a long time.

    “Victory” in Columbia is taking out the FARC taxman. The producers and old bosses are thrilled.

    1. Faceless,

      That’s a powerful comment, easily Best of Thread! I’ve seen mentions of this concern by those in the SOF community, that rapid expansion has led to reduced expertise.

      The Russian SOF are very badass. The Spetsnaz is said to be about 2000 troops. The other major component of Russian SOF is the 45th Guards Independent Reconnaissance Brigade, I think roughly similar in nature to US 75th Ranger Regiment (which has 3,473 troops as of a 2015 CRS report).

      Note there are 8,195 SEALs (including the organizationally separate SEAL Team Six). Special Forces (Green Berets) are the largest component: 23 thousand military and 100 civilians).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: