5 July 2017

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.

Fighting against the almost untrained and poorly equipped. Losing.

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.”

“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.”

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.

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