In addition to training, another core role of Special Operations forces is direct action -- counterterror missions like low-profile drone assassinations and kill/capture raids by muscled-up, high-octane operators. The exploits of the men -- and they are mostly men (and mostly Caucasian ones at that) -- behind these operations are chronicled in Naylor's epic history of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the secret counterterrorism organization that includes the military's most elite and shadowy units like the Navy's SEAL Team 6 and the Army's Delta Force. A compendium of more than a decade of derring-do from Afghanistan to Iraq, Somalia to Syria, Relentless Strike paints a portrait of a highly-trained, well-funded, hard-charging counterterror force with global reach. Naylor calls it the "perfect hammer," but notes the obvious risk that "successive administrations would continue to view too many national security problems as nails."
hostage rescues, like the high profile effort to save "Captain Phillips" of the Maersk Alabama after the cargo ship was hijacked by Somali pirates, and asserts that such missions might "inhibit others from seizing Americans." One wonders, of course, if similar high-profile failed missions since then, including the SEAL raid that ended in the deaths of hostages Luke Somers, an American photojournalist, and Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher, as well as the unsuccessful attempt to rescue the late aid worker Kayla Mueller, might then have just the opposite effect.
"Afghanistan, you've got another fairly devilish strategic problem there," Naylor says and offers up a question of his own: "You have to ask what would have happened if al-Qaeda in Iraq had not been knocked back on its heels by Joint Special Operations Command between 2005 and 2010?" Naylor calls attention to JSOC's special abilities to menace terror groups, keeping them unsteady through relentless intelligence gathering, raiding, and man-hunting. "It leaves them less time to take the offensive, to plan missions, and to plot operations against the United States and its allies," he explains. "Now that doesn't mean that the use of JSOC is a substitute for a strategy... It's a tool in a policymaker's toolkit."
Indeed. If what JSOC can do is bump off and capture individuals and pressure such groups but not decisively roll up militant networks, despite years of anti-terror whack-a-mole efforts, it sounds like a recipe for spending endless lives and endless funds on endless war. "It's not my place as a reporter to opine as to whether the present situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen were 'worth' the cost in blood and treasure borne by U.S. Special Operations forces," Naylor tells me in a follow-up email. "Given the effects that JSOC achieved in Iraq (Uday and Qusay Hussein killed, Saddam Hussein captured, [al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab] Zarqawi killed, al-Qaeda in Iraq eviscerated), it's hard to say that JSOC did not have an impact on that nation's recent history."
Impacts, of course, are one thing, successes another. Special Operations Command, in fact, hedges its bets by claiming that it can only be as successful as the global commands under which its troops operate in each area of the world, including European Command, Pacific Command, Africa Command, Southern Command, Northern Command, and Central Command or CENTCOM, the geographic combatant command that oversees operations in the Greater Middle East. "We support the Geographic Combatant Commanders (GCCs) -- if they are successful, we are successful; if they fail, we fail," says SOCOM's website.
With this in mind, it's helpful to return to Naylor's question: What if al-Qaeda in Iraq, which flowered in the years after the U.S. invasion, had never been targeted by JSOC as part of a man-hunting operation going after its foreign fighters, financiers, and military leaders? Given that the even more brutal Islamic State (IS) grew out of that targeted terror group, that IS was fueled in many ways, say experts, both by U.S. actions and inaction, that its leader's rise was bolstered by U.S. operations, that "U.S. training helped mold" another of its chiefs, and that a U.S. prison served as its "boot camp," and given that the Islamic State now holds a significant swath of Iraq, was JSOC's campaign against its predecessor a net positive or a negative? Were special ops efforts in Iraq (and therefore in CENTCOM's area of operations) -- JSOC's post-9/11 showcase counterterror campaign -- a success or a failure?
Naylor notes that JSOC's failure to completely destroy al-Qaeda in Iraq allowed IS to grow and eventually sweep "across northern Iraq in 2014, seizing town after town from which JSOC and other U.S. forces had evicted al-Qaeda in Iraq at great cost several years earlier." This, in turn, led to the rushing of special ops advisers back into the country to aid the fight against the Islamic State, as well as to that program to train anti-Islamic State Syrian fighters that foundered and then imploded. By this spring, JSOC operators were not only back in Iraq and also on the ground in Syria, but they were soon conducting drone campaigns in both of those tottering nations.
This special ops merry-go-round in Iraq is just the latest in a long series of fiascos, large and small, to bedevil America's elite troops. Over the years, in that country, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, special operators have regularly been involved in all manner of mishaps, embroiled in various scandals, and implicated in numerous atrocities. Recently, for instance, members of the Special Operations forces have come under scrutiny for an air strike on a Medecins Sans Frontières hospital in Afghanistan that killed at least 22 patients and staff, for an alliance with "unsavory partners" in the Central African Republic, for the ineffective and abusive Afghan police they trained and supervised, and for a shady deal to provide SEALs with untraceable silencers that turned out to be junk, according to prosecutors.
Winners and Losers
JSOC was born of failure, a phoenix rising from the ashes of Operation Eagle Claw, the humiliating attempt to rescue 53 American hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1980 that ended, instead, in the deaths of eight U.S. personnel. Today, the elite force trades on an aura of success in the shadows. Its missions are the stuff of modern myths.
In his advance praise for Naylor's book, one cable news analyst called JSOC's operators "the finest warriors who ever went into combat." Even accepting this -- with apologies to the Mongols, the Varangian Guard, Persia's Immortals, and the Ten Thousand of Xenophon's Anabasis -- questions remain: Have these "warriors" actually been successful beyond budget battles and the box office? Is exceptional tactical prowess enough? Are battlefield triumphs and the ability to batter terror networks through relentless raiding the same as victory? Such questions bring to mind an exchange that Army colonel Harry Summers, who served in Vietnam, had with a North Vietnamese counterpart in 1975. "You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield," Summers told him. After pausing to ponder the comment, Colonel Tu replied, "That may be so. But it is also irrelevant."
So what of those Green Berets who deployed to 135 countries in the last decade? And what of the Special Operations forces sent to 147 countries in 2015? And what about those Geographic Combatant Commanders across the globe who have hosted all those special operators?
I put it to Vietnam veteran Andrew Bacevich, author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country. "As far back as Vietnam," he tells me, "the United States military has tended to confuse inputs with outcomes. Effort, as measured by operations conducted, bomb tonnage dropped, or bodies counted, is taken as evidence of progress made. Today, tallying up the number of countries in which Special Operations forces are present repeats this error. There is no doubt that U.S. Special Operations forces are hard at it in lots of different places. It does not follow that they are thereby actually accomplishing anything meaningful."
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Nation Institute. A 2014 Izzy Award and American Book Award winner for his book Kill Anything That Moves , his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Intercept, the Los Angeles Times , the Nation , and regularly at TomDispatch. His latest book is Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.
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