Over the past 16 years, a profound transformation has been underway in how America wages war. Starting under George W. Bush after 9/11, and accelerating under Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Special Operations Forces—once a small, secretive subset of the military used for highly specialized tasks—have been transformed into the primary instrument of American military power and foreign policy. In the process, they have been put in an impossible position.
In a 2013 report for the Council on Foreign Relations, Rand Corporation scholar Linda Robinson outlined this already well-advanced trend when she noted, “[Special Operations Forces] have doubled in size and been deployed more often and for longer periods than ever before. They have more generals and admirals leading their ranks—almost 70, compared with nine a dozen years ago.” And according to a recent TIME magazine report, there are currently 8,000 members of these forces deployed around the world at any given moment, up from 2,900 in 2001.
Often known by the abbreviation SOF, Special Operations Forces is the umbrella name covering the gamut of commando and unconventional warfare units across the armed services. These include the Navy SEALs who carried out the Osama bin Laden raid in 2011, Army Special Forces like the kind operating in Africa—where four* Americans were killed in an ambush this October—and a bevy of other elite units and their support personnel. On one hand, these fabled operators have become the crown jewels of the armed forces, oohed and aahed over by the public and policymakers alike. But at the same time, they’re increasingly used like a utility tool—inside the SOF community, they call it an “easy button"—one that can supposedly fix every kind of disorder and conflict in every corner of the world.
The changes come at a price—to the idea of the military as protector and executor of democratic politics, rather than its substitute, as well as to the special operators and their families, who are being pushed to the breaking point.
“SOF has become the US version of the French Foreign Legion,” said an Army Special Forces sergeant with over 25 years of service—who requested anonymity as he did not have permission to speak to the press. He was referring to the quasi-mercenary French military force that is separate from its national army and made up almost exclusively of non-French citizens. “The legion being ultimately a force that is not French. Ma and Pa in Paris or wherever, they don’t care if a bunch of Legionnaires get killed somewhere around the world because they’re not French anyway. That’s what SOF is like now.”
Of course, the people who make up SOF are a class apart by choice—that’s the point of volunteering for elite units. But for soldiers like the one who spoke with VICE, being anointed emblems of American power has made them less visible as actual Americans. At a point, a professional warrior caste becomes indistinguishable from an army of foreigners. Their purpose is to be no one’s sons and daughters.
The glory awarded SOF operators in movies and at public spectacles, divorced from any wider sense of shared sacrifice, only makes their existence more remote. As the writer Matt Gallagher, an Iraq veteran, put it last year, “The mythos of Special Operations has seized our nation’s popular imagination, and has proved to be the one prism through which the public will engage with America’s wars.” We engage mostly through a kind of celebrity worship—you too can dress like an operator and feel contempt for beta males—and the forms of cheap adulation available in popular books and film.
Consider this fact from the TIME piece: For the first time ever in 2016 (and again so far in 2017), more special operations troops were killed in action than conventional forces. The article notes: “Special Operations forces now make up nearly all US combat casualties, despite making up less than 5 percent of the total force.” That’s out of the less than one percent of the population that serves in the military in the first place. In other words, the operational burden of American foreign policy now rests on the backs of one twentieth of half of one percent of the American people.
Special Operations Forces are relatively cheap and unencumbered compared to conventional ones. The organizational culture is flexible enough to be thrown at everything from counter-terrorism to diplomatic tasks—and mature enough to be left on its own, trusted to find at least temporary solutions. Individually, these are defining strengths, but taken together they’ve created the illusion of a unified strategy where none exists.
And the same qualities making Special Operations Forces such an effective and attractive tool for policymakers present drawbacks. Retired general Stanley McChrystal, who served most of his career in SOF, was instrumental in expanding its role and influence before scandal pushed him into early retirement. In 2010, he warned, “That’s the danger of special operating forces. You get this sense that it is satisfying, it’s clean, it’s low risk, it’s the cure for most ills.”
War is getting more special but less political. That may seem appealing, what with the state of American politics these days. But depoliticizing warfare cuts it off both from oversight, accountability, and the very purpose of politics, which is to broker solutions short of armed combat. A number of different factors have converged to cause this trend: A proliferation of drones and forms of automated attack—cyber and otherwise. The rise of private armies. The increasingly targeted nature of military operations in which, as army veteran Brian Castner wrote, “War is reverting to a perversion of classical single combat [and]… after a century and a half of industrial anonymous bloodshed, the individual is key.” None of this foretells less war or that it will no longer serve political interests, only that those interests will become more opaque and less responsive to the polity.
And Trump, who is drawn to “his generals” by an esteem for military pageantry and the appearance of strength, has shown a particular aversion to articulating the kind of clear strategic goals that could discipline the use of SOF and restore it to a balanced place in the spectrum of foreign policy options.
“The Trump admin[istration] may uniquely overvalue the military compared to diplomatic and other resources,” one Democratic congressional staffer with knowledge of the Armed Services Committee, who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak in an official capacity, told VICE. “But even if there was a different administration in office now, there’s still a broader trend that any executive will rely on SOF not only because of their utility in the mission but because they offer the advantage of being subject to less public scrutiny and less Congressional scrutiny.” What Trump inherited is a highly adaptive, highly lethal military force that could be sent nearly anywhere—and was already almost everywhere—to deal with nearly anything, and with little public criticism until things go wrong.
In the past year, they have repeatedly gone wrong.
First there was the raid in Yemen. On the night of January 29, at the end of Trump’s first month in office, one Navy SEAL was killed and three were wounded in a raid on an al Qaeda-affiliated compound in Yemen. A subsequent military investigation found up to a dozen civilians were also killed in the raid. President Trump responded to the news by publicly distancing himself from the operation and blaming the death of Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens on his generals. In fact, according to the Congressional staffer who spoke with VICE, the White House had an unusually high level of involvement in the raid's organization. "The process by which that raid was approved and executed wasn’t the traditional process that was used by the previous administration or most other administrations," he told me. "It circumvented the Principals Committee at the NSC [National Security Council] and instead it was a hodgepodge of more political actors from the West Wing reviewing and approving that raid." (The White House and Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but the thrust of these criticisms was aired in a letter sent by multiple members of Congress to the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in February.)
Yemen was followed by Niger, where, in early October, four* soldiers were killed—two of them Special Forces soldiers and two others support troops serving alongside them—and two more wounded in an ambush. SOF’s mission in Niger is, as VICE News has reported, one of many ongoing in Africa, where the US military presence has been rapidly expanding and, according to TIME, now occupies 15 percent of Special Operations Forces. Yet the scope of the American presence in the country was news to a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lindsey Graham, who told NBC’s Chuck Todd in October he'd had “no idea” about it. "I didn't know there was 1,000 troops in Niger," Graham said, adding, “we don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world militarily and what we’re doing.”
Thousands of individual terrorist and insurgent leaders have been killed since 2001 in less publicized versions of the SEAL team raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Infrastructure has been destroyed, networks have been disrupted. And yet, in Afghanistan, the Taliban is arguably more powerful than ever and the global jihadist movement remains resilient. In August, Foreign Policy’'s Micah Zenko noted that, “Despite more than 200 JSOC (and occasional CIA) airstrikes over the past eight years, the State Department’s estimated strength for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula grew from 'several hundred members' in 2010 to 4,000 fighters now—a force size it has maintained for the past half-dozen years.”
The fact that America is not winning its wars is hardly the fault of the special operations forces it increasingly relies upon to wage them. They’ve had some incredible successes with the missions they’ve been given. But it shows limits of what a SOF-centric approach can accomplish, and the costs of over-reliance on them.
Special Operations Forces are overworked, over-deployed, stretched thin, and even “fraying,” as former Special Operations commander General Joseph Votel put it in 2014. And there are signs that this is already leading to tragic results. Lurid scandals. Allegations that SOF members massacred civilians in Somalia—the Pentagon says it has investigated and refuted this claim but congressional hearings are still set to be held. And, less dramatically, allegations about standards being lowered to increase numbers that echo perennial concerns in elite units but seem to have become more vehement lately.
David Maxwell is the associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a retired Army Special Forces colonel. In an interview, he focused on the lack of a coherent and unifying national security strategy as the fundamental problem affecting Special Operations Forces and the military at large.
“There’s a lot of great people out there doing a lot of great things, achieving a lot of tactical effects, but it’s really the orchestration of strategy that we are just not good at,” Maxwell said.
He pointed to the ongoing human rights nightmare in Syria as a prime example. “What we’ve seen in Syria and a lot of these places is the employment of SOF to demonstrate that we’re doing something.”
It’s easier to keep “doing something,” pressing the easy button again and again, when it’s only the legionnaires dying.
*Correction 12/12/17: Because of an editing error, a previous version of this story suggested three Americans were killed in Niger this October when in fact four were. The story also previously said three special forces soldiers were killed, when in fact two special forces soldiers and two support personnel were killed. We regret the errors.
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