28 April 2017

“America’s Dangerous Love for Special Ops” - The Real Story

by Hy Rothstein

Mark Moyar’s op-ed, “America’s Dangerous Love for Special Ops,” is at best, ill-informed and at worst, contemptuous of special operations forces. To be sure, special operations have not been able to deliver what Moyar calls, “strategic success.” This, to a significant degree, has been the result of misuse of special operations forces or more specifically, “conventionalizing” their missions. But Moyar’s assertion that “strategic victory has required the integration of special operations with both convention forces and civilian national security agencies” is laughable. What strategic victories is he referring to, Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam?

While Moyar claims that special operations rarely produce strategic success, he acknowledges that special operations have produced “frequent and impressive tactical results.” In one of Clausewitz’s lectures on “Small Wars” held at the Prussian War College in 1810 and 1811, he said that ”…the entirety of Small Wars belongs to tactics,” but what becomes clear is that the reasons for small wars is based on the necessities of strategy, or perhaps for the US, conventional military strategic ineffectiveness. Clausewitz is clear that Small War can serve tactical, strategic and policy ends. We see the confluence of tactics and strategy in both small wars and special operations.

The US military has been generally inept at dealing with the irregular threats of the last 16 years. While USSOCOM has some culpability for this ineptness, the real failure rests with the senior conventional military leaders who fought the type of wars they knew how to fight rather than the type of wars that needed to be fought. That Moyar thinks the military veterans in President Trump’s national security circle will rightly reject special operations solutions in favor of “underutilized conventional units” is ludicrous. First, it has been senior conventional military officers who are at least partly responsible for the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Moyar seems to forget that more than 100,000 conventional military forces were present in both Afghanistan and Iraq for most of the fighting. Why Moyar would recommend increased conventional responses in an age of irregular threats is illogical.

Moyar also fails to mention the strategic success delivered by special operations forces in the Philippines or special operations “tactics” that resulted in strategic success in El Salvador in the 1980’s. One characteristic of those successes was the absence of US conventional forces.

Moyar is correct in stating that special operations forces “can’t destroy a Russian armored division,” but the Russians are too smart to throw one of their armored divisions up against a superior US conventional capability. The Russians will continue to advance their security interests using irregular capabilities as long as the US is incapable of responding.

Americans and their political leaders become attracted to special operations forces in times of crisis and when conventional military units cannot deliver victory or when their employment is politically infeasible.

Mark Moyar is a skilled historian but when he goes beyond recording history to assessing its lessons he would benefit from what two eminent scholars, Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, referred to as the “Goldberg rule.” The rule is simple, rather than attempting to identify the problem, seek the full story and you will find out what the problem really is. The full story behind America’s dangerous love for special operations reveals serious flaws in our national security apparatus and in our conventional military leaders.

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