15 May 2016

*The Value of Special Operations Forces

MAY 12, 2016 

Last week marked the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) action that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The publicly acknowledged raid highlighted the prominent role special operations forces have played in the ongoing war against terror.

More recently, U.S. SOF have served on the front lines in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Raids conducted by SOF in Iraq have resulted in the killing or capture of several leading ISIS figures, including finance minister Abu Sayyaf, second in command Abd al-Rahman Muhammad Mustafa al-Qaduli, and chemical weapons chief, Sleiman Daoud al-Afari. Such efforts, however, do not come without costs as demonstrated by the deaths of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Keating IV in Iraq last week and of U.S. Green Beret, Staff Sergeant Matthew McClintock, in Afghanistan in January.

On April 25th, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered an additional 250 SOF troops to Syria to help in the battle against ISIS, bringing the total number of Special Operations Forces in Syria to approximately 300. This comes on the heels of Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s announcement of an additional 200 special operators sent to Iraq.

These troops are part of a larger deployment of SOF across the Middle East and Africa. In October, President Obama ordered 300 SOF troops to Cameroon to work with West African soldiers fighting Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist group with ties to ISIS.

Special Operations Forces have also operated “in and out of Libya” for “some time now” according to senior U.S. defense officials, but their role has been strictly limited to advising Libyan forces; they do not participate in combat missions. The U.S. also maintains SOF units in Afghanistan where they have assisted Afghan Special Operations Forces in conducting operations against the Taliban and ISIS.

The increasing number of SOF being sent abroad is largely due to their advanced and highly adaptive military capabilities. SOF are particularly effective at embedding with local forces and providing them with training and logistical support as they battle extremist groups.

According to General Joseph Votel, the former Commander of United States Special Operations Command, “SOF’s value to the nation lies in: our global perspective that spans regional boundaries, coupled with our ability to act and influence locally with a range of options; our networked approach that integrates the capabilities of our domestic and international partners, paired with our ability to act discreetly against our most important threats; and our seamless integration with the Services to support and enhance their effectiveness, while we provide capabilities that SOF is uniquely structured to deliver.”

And, it appears that SOF will remain the primary instrument used to carry out America’s international counterterrorism operations for the foreseeable future. “U.S. SOF will continue to play a central role in our counterterrorism efforts, particularly, but by no means exclusively, in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan,” explains former Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Cipher Brief expert Mike Vickers. “We should expect that U.S. SOF will remain a primary tool in our fight with al Qaeda and (ISIS).”

However, these elite operators do face certain limitations. With a finite number of troops and resources, SOF are not capable of reconstructing a nation’s entire army or failed political system. “Special Forces are neither a silver bullet nor a constant Band-Aid to fill the vacuum created by the lack of a broader political strategy, and frankly, even in a broader strategy in the War on Terror,” says Michael Waltz, President of Metis Solutions and former Senior Advisor and Policy Director in the White House and Pentagon. “There are just not enough Special Forces and operators to rebuild entire ministries and to essentially to rebuild an army from scratch.”

Despite these limitations, it is likely the role of SOF in counterterrorism operations will remain a linchpin of America’s counterterrorism strategy. “Given the security environment we now face, the demand for the skill sets that our SOF operators possess is understandably very high,” stated Votel. And that is not expected to change anytime soon as threats posed by terrorist groups continue to loom large.

Bennett Seftel is the Deputy Director of Editorial at The Cipher Brief.

No comments: