America's turn: new wars, special forces

A shift in the United States's military strategy in the direction of "remote control" involves greater reliance not just on armed-drones but on special forces.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
16 May 2013

Many columns in this series have tracked changes in the United States's military strategy during the decade that followed 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Several highlight the more recent shift towards a strategy of "remote control", and pay particular attention on the widespread use of armed-drones. Another key aspect of this evolving approach that deserves consideration in its own right is the spread of special forces as a leading military instrument (see "Remote control, a new way of war", 18 October 2012)

The importance of US special forces in Afghanistan is reflected both in controversy around their activities and negotiations over their role after the major withdrawals planned by the end of 2014. A report of special forces' involvement with a unit of the Afghan national army (ANA) in "night raids" in Wardak province that led to torture and murder created particular tension with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. At one point, Karzai even demanded the exit of all US forces from the province, despite its strategically vital location (see Matthew Rosenberg “Karzai orders special forces out of Afghan Province”, New York Times, 25 February 2013).

The Afghan authorities now claim that the relevant unit was led by a US citizen of Afghan descent, Zakaria Kandahari; contained other US personnel; and was responsible for the murder or disappearance of fifteen Afghans. US officials deny this, and allege in turn that a "rogue" ANA cell perpetrated the violations. The incident adds to the strained relations between Kabul and Washington (see Rod Nordland “Afghans say American led rogue torture unit”, New York Times, 14 May 2013).

Such tensions also underline the predicament of the Karzai government, which actually wants more US troops to stay in Afghanistan than are envisaged by Barack Obama's administration. A large residual US contingent would, Karzai hopes, help ensure control in a situation where the ANA is (notwithstanding western military sources) nowhere near ready to take over from Nato.

The president, speaking to students at Kabul University on 9 May, said that he was willing to host as many as nine US bases in the country, including the major ones at Bagram and Kandahar. This would imply a US force much larger than the 10,000 envisaged by Washington, comprising trainers of the ANA, logistical teams to support drone operations, and special forces to contain any Islamist resurgence (see Nigel Chamberlain, “What progress on the post-2014 Afghan Security Agreement?”, NATO Watch news brief, 15 May 2013).  

Whatever the result in Afghanistan, it is clear that the special forces will continue to be at the centre of the US's position in the country.

The new horizon

Afghanistan is but one aspect of a transition that is affecting the US's entire military orientation as Washington draws lessons from its post-9/11 experiences. George W Bush's defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, pursued a “war-lite” policy based on responding to threats and maintaining control overseas while avoiding large-scale troop deployments. The traumas of Iraq and Afghanistan exposed the limits of this approach, leading Rumsfeld's successors gradually to embrace a variant of his doctrine: “remote control” (see "A decade's war: legacy and lesson", 4 April 2013)

Much of the publicity surrounding this shift refers to armed-drones and their pattern of use across a range of states: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia (and soon, no doubt, in Mali (see "Drone wars: the new blowback", 30 November 2012). The part played by special forces tends to be less visible, but it is a core part of the strategy.

This can be seen in the considerable expansion of the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which oversees the distinct special-forces groups in four military branches: the army, navy, air force and marine corps (whose group was set up only in 2006). USSOCOM's establishment as a unified command in 1987 had been influenced by the disaster of Operation Eagle Claw in 1980, the failed attempt to release US diplomats seized by radical Iranians after the 1979 revolution. USSOCOM has since grown - from under 43,000 personnel in 2008 to over 63,000 today, with expansion plans taking it to 71,000 by 2015 (by comparison, the entire British army will after cuts now being implemented number 82,000).

The largest component of USSOCOM (45% of personnel) is the US army's Special Operations Command (SOC), followed by the air-force SOC (28%), the navy's Special Warfare Command (14%) and the marines (4%). The remainder work at the headquarters staff at Tampa, Florida and in several regional commands (see Linda Robinson, “The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces”, CFR, Council Special Report 66, April 2013).

The US is far from the only country expanding such forces (though it tends to be more open than others in releasing information about them). In the case of the UK, its Special Air Services (SAS) regiment and the navy's Special Boat Squadron (SBS) have been augmented by a Special Forces Support Group (SFSG). The latter, set up in 2006, has drawn elite units from the Parachute Regiment, the Royal Marines and the RAF Regiment to provide logistical and other support for SAS and SBS operations. It has been active recently in Mali and elsewhere.

The big player

But in the world of special forces, there is no doubt that USSOCOM is the main player. It is likely to be dominant too in Nato, as that organisation's new special-operations headquarters at Mons, Belgium gets into its stride, and as “boots-on-the-ground” campaigns become ever less attractive.

USSOCOM's work divides relatively neatly into two kinds of activities - direct and indirect:

* The direct approach, receiving most attention, refers to operations that often involve manhunts and may readily lead to the killing (rather than capture) of suspects. Osama bin Laden's elimination in May 2011 is an example, as are the numerous night-raids that in Afghanistan have provoked so much anti-American sentiment. These raids, which reached their peak rate of more than a dozen a time around 2011-12, have been less reported than the armed-drone attacks; but they have been a core feature of the American fight against the Taliban. It is likely that the Afghan president, whatever he may say in public, will agree to them continuing - as long as they are as low profile as possible (see "Drone wars: the Afghan model", 14 February 2013).

The indirect approach refers to USSOCOM's work with relatively weak states to boost their own capabilities. By some accounts, USSOCOM personnel are aiding or have aided the forces of as many as a hundred states; two relatively high-profile examples are Colombia and the Philippines. This, however, is a shadowy world in which little comes to light, and most military leaders (as well as politicians) prefer to keep it that way.

What is clear is that special forces, along with armed-drones and privatised military companies, are key elements in the move from large deployments (as in Iraq and Afghanistan) towards the "remote control" of threats. It is welcome that armed-drones are discussed and analysed. But special forces should also be the focus of more scrutiny. This would help ensure that they too will feature in the urgently needed debate on different models of security in the post-9/11 world.

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