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The World & I
March 2004
By Alan W. Dowd 

"When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near...Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected." 
                                                                                                       —Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Whether they realize it or not, America’s terrorist enemies are students of Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist credited with authoring one of the most pivotal treatises in all of warfare. Much has been written about how and why they employ "asymmetrical warfare" to threaten and indeed harm US interests and citizens, but the idea behind it is fairly simple: “We have destroyed the war we do best,” as Michael Vlahos of the Joint Warfare Analysis Department at Johns Hopkins observes. “No one can hope to win fighting our kind of war, so they will make war they can win.”[1] In other words, the United States is so militarily powerful, so technologically advanced, that the best way—perhaps the only way—to challenge it is to use unconventional means and methods to attack Americans where they least expect it and thus level-out the battlefield.

The al-Qaeda network, for example, has deployed small, self-contained units around the world not to target armies, but to carry out operations intended to shock and frighten civilian populations into pressuring Western (especially American) political leaders to change policy.  Al Qaeda has used a bomb-laden rubber boat against the USS Cole, car bombs against embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and civilian airliners against skyscrapers. Likewise, members of the Fedayeen Saddam dressed in civilian clothes and even used pregnant women to conduct suicide bombings against US forces in Iraq. Hezbollah and the al-Aqsa Martyrs strap time-bombs onto men dressed like rabbis.

However, asymmetrical warfare is not the sole domain of bin-Laden’s followers, Saddam's leftovers, and Arafat’s plain-clothes killers. US Special Operations Forces, in a sense, embody America's own brand of asymmetrical warfare. Though their ends and means are far different from that of the enemy, US Special Forces are also students of Sun Tzu: After all, they infiltrate foreign lands by stealth and deception. They are anonymous and adept at blending into their surroundings. They rely on small groups to carry out their missions rather than large armies or air forces. They emerge from the shadows to strike the enemy when and where he least expects it. And they aim to make the business of terrorism so costly, so dangerous, so painful that the next generation of would-be terror leaders will choose a different vocation.

Rangers Lead the Way

The asymmetrical nature of the enemy may be new, but America’s asymmetrical capabilities are not.

In fact, one of America’s most storied Special Forces units—the US Army Rangers—traces its lineage back to the 1750s, when a Major Robert Rogers organized a group of colonists to fight alongside the British against the French and Indians. The group came to be called “Rogers’ Rangers.”[2] A couple decades later, the American colonists employed asymmetric warfare against the British. George Washington’s men fired from behind trees, launched nighttime ambushes, and employed guerilla tactics that neutralized the British army’s overwhelming advantages in firepower, manpower, training and technology. They were called “irregulars” for a reason.

In 1804 and 1805, teams of US Marines and sailors conducted raids into the harbors and environs of Tripoli during the Barbary Wars. Likewise, still other US forces carried out Special Forces-style missions throughout America’s expansionist phase in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, it wasn’t until World War II that special military units began to develop their own identities and roles within the US military, although the military brass was resistant. As military historian David Hogan explains in US Army Special Operations in World War II, America’s first “commando units” were formed under the rubric of the Office of Strategic Services, which existed “outside the conventional services but included a number of Army officers and other military personnel.”[3] The OSS borrowed much from the British military, which had already deployed commandos in support of military operations.

“The recruits,” writes Hogan, “included a former lion tamer and a full-blooded Sioux Indian.” Volunteers from the 34th Infantry and 1st Armored Divisions accounted for much of what would become the first unit of US Army Rangers. Guided by the OSS, they trained in northern Scotland and participated in the campaigns in North Africa and the Mediterranean, drawing the attention and lukewarm support of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s staff. By 1943, Eisenhower had ordered the OSS to deploy teams into Italy, Greece and France, where they organized guerilla units.

The Rangers proved their worth on D-Day, when they seized a battery of German guns atop a hundred-foot cliff just west of Omaha Beach. They used rocket-propelled ropes to scale the cliff, and blood and guts to neutralize the target. “Of the 230 Rangers who made the assault,” Hogan observes, “only 70 remained by late afternoon of 6 June.” After D-Day, the Rangers and their British counterparts focused on training resistance groups in France.

On the other side of the globe, Gen. Douglas MacArthur also used special units, mostly in training local partisans, assisting guerillas, and building bonds with liberated peoples. Even so, according to Hogan, “American special operations in World War II still fell far short of their full potential.”[4]

Futuristic Warriors

That began to change after the war, with the official formation of the Army Special Forces (the future Green Berets) in 1952. Special Forces took yet another dramatic leap forward eight years later, during the presidency of John Kennedy. Concerned that a reliance on heavy formations and nuclear weaponry would inhibit US intervention in small-scale operations on the Cold War battlefields of the Third World, Kennedy pushed for the creation of more specialty units. As historian Derek Leebaert observes in The Fifty-Year Wound, Kennedy shunted $100 million to the still-nascent Special Forces in his first budget. Under Kennedy, the Navy formed its first SEAL team, the Air Force christened its Air Commandos, and the Army Special Forces dawned their distinctive green berets. By 1961, Kennedy had put the Green Berets to work—under CIA command—in Vietnam. They would be the vanguard of a combat force that eventually swelled to 529,000.

In the intervening years, US Special Forces have grown in size, reach, notoriety, standing and capability. Their emergence from the shadows, as it were, began long before al Qaeda began its asymmetric war on America. In 1986, for example, Congress created the Special Operations Command in an effort to ensure that specialty units were receiving their share of funding, as well as to enhance their effectiveness. The command is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. In a sign of foresight not always indicative of Capitol Hill, Congress explicitly noted that Special Operations Forces (SOF) had “immediate and primary capability to respond to terrorism.”[5] (See the sidebar for a more detailed picture of today’s Special Forces.)

Modern SOF units do what larger, conventional units are unable to do—or perhaps better said, what conventional units cannot do as quietly or efficiently. In a word, they do whatever it takes to complete their mission: For instance, when an allied armored personnel carrier (APC) refused to stop and pick up a team of Rangers and Delta Force operators after a mission in Mogadishu, a member of Delta Force stepped in front of the vehicle and aimed his machine gun at the APC’s Malaysian driver. Needless to say, the driver stopped.[6]  In Afghanistan, Special Operations Forces rode into battle on horseback. In Iraq, it was a US Special Ops officer who saved dozens of friendly Iraqis by walking in front of their convoy to persuade a phalanx of Marines to hold their fire.

If, as historian John Keegan has written, “soldiers are not as other men,” then Special Operations soldiers are obviously not as other soldiers. Green Berets, for instance, are required to be proficient in at least one language other than English. It takes about two years to train up an Army Special Ops soldier, three years for a Navy SEAL; and that first year of SEAL training comes with a price tag of $800,000.

Of course, Special Operations units do much more than combat the scourge of terrorism. They are called upon to play every role from warrior to physician to diplomat to civil engineer to trade rep. They conduct hostage rescues and search-and-rescue, small-scale operations behind enemy lines, training for insurgent groups and nascent militaries alike, reconnaissance, psychological operations to rattle and unsettle America’s enemies, humanitarian missions, and as a Congressional Research Service report ominously concludes, “other activities as the President and Secretary of Defense specify.”[7] 

Indeed, perhaps their most famous, or infamous, mission came not in response to terrorism, but in response to a man-made famine. It began as a simple “snatch and grab” operation against a handful of Somali clan leaders; it degenerated into a 20-hour gun battle between a few dozen US Special Ops Forces and hundreds of Somali gunmen; and it was ultimately immortalized in the book and film Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden’s gripping account of America’s noble, if misguided, attempt to rebuild Somalia. (The stark recreation of American helicopters crashing into the dusty streets of Mogadishu and America’s most elite troops succumbing to a guerilla mob reportedly had such an impact on Saddam Hussein that he ordered copies of the film to be distributed across prewar Iraq. Hence the nightmarish Mogadishu flashbacks in Baghdad and Tikrit.  How exquisitely postmodern: Art imitates life, and life re-imitates art.)

Bowden’s work underscores just how far Special Ops units like the Rangers have come since performing ad hoc missions with ad hoc units in World War II: Covered with an exoskeleton of body armor, goggles, helmets, weaponry and communications gear, he writes, “no part of them looked human…They were like futuristic warriors.”[8] His retelling of the Mogadishu mission also offers us a glimpse of the most elite Special Ops unit on earth—the shadowy and highly secretive Delta Force. In a word, Delta Force is the all-star team of Special Operations. Embodying the superlative of all other Special Ops units, Delta Force is more independent, more secretive, better equipped, better trained, and more capable than its cousins in the Special Operations family. According to Bowden, Delta Force is so good, so elite, that even Army Rangers stand in awe of them—and so secret that it took almost two decades before the military even admitted its existence.[9]

Throughout the 1990s, Special Operations units such as Delta Force were actively at work in the shadows. In 1996 alone, as Robert Kaplan details in The Coming Anarchy, “US Special Forces were responsible for 2,325 missions in 167 countries.”[10] Nor was this pace of activity an anomaly—at least not in the post-Cold War world: In 1998, for example, Special Ops personnel were sent into 144 countries. In any given week in 1999, there were 5,000 Special Ops personnel deployed somewhere overseas.

Into Afghanistan

Today, Special Operations Forces are rewriting the annals of military history, as they take the lead role in the global war on terror.

The way Americans view this campaign against terror—and for that matter, the way it has been prosecuted—can be divided into three broad, overlapping categories: For some, the campaign is a full-blown war against terrorist organizations and their state sponsors. Reforming or destroying them will take years of pitched battles and regional wars of the sort Washington has waged in Iraq and Afghanistan—and is threatening to carry into Syria and Iran.

Others view the campaign as a war against the Islamist ideology. To defeat it, the United States will have to outlast it, out-argue it, out-think it, out-spend it, out-maneuver it, and out-fight it, just as occurred during the Cold War with Moscow. The postwar efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq are indicative of the ambidexterity and endurance required to win such a conflict.

Still others see the effort as a kind of global police action, a campaign to control and contain terrorist activity, just as cops on the beat combat crime. An example of this might be Washington’s rapid reflexes in places like the Philippines, Yemen and Central Asia.

However, no matter how America’s political and military leaders ultimately choose to prosecute the campaign—as a hot war, a cold war, a police action, or some combination of all of these—Special Forces will play a central role. Indeed, they already are.

Within days, perhaps hours, of the attacks on Manhattan and Washington, US and British Special Forces, along with intelligence operatives, slipped into Afghanistan and Pakistan. They gathered intelligence, made contacts with key tribal leaders, used a mix of bluster and cash to win the allegiance of the various militias that had been fighting in vain against the Taliban, and prepared the battle-space for the unconventional war that followed.

The liberation of Afghanistan embodied the incredible ingenuity and capability of today’s Special Forces. When the bombs began to fall on October 7, one of the main reasons they hit their targets so precisely and so often was the deployment of hundreds of Special Forces across the Afghan countryside. Relying on highly independent and flexible Special Ops units rather than heavier and slower conventional units, the Pentagon was able to take down the Taliban in the span of about five weeks and dismantle al Qaeda’s base of operations, training, and communications—all without being bogged down, as Britain had been in the 19th century and the Soviet Union had been in the 20th.

Task Force 5—an inter-service team of Special Forces—was created expressly for the Afghan campaign. Task Force 5 and other Special Ops troops sent to Afghanistan were equipped with the latest in whiz-bang technology, able to direct warplanes and weaponry from thousands of miles away onto tiny targets made of earthen brick and sand. But it was their thinking and creativity that made the difference:

Their camouflage wasn’t olive-green or sand-brown uniforms, but turbans and robes and long hair and beards. In part to get the job done, in part to earn the respect of the Afghan rebel forces they were leading into battle, SOF units traded humvees and helicopters for horses. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld jokingly called it “the first cavalry attack of the twenty-first century.”[11]

During a bloody uprising of enemy POWs outside Mazar-i-Sharif, it was a team of 15 American and British SOF troops that finally brought the situation under control. The POWs, who killed a US intelligence agent during the uprising, reportedly wanted to fight to the death. The Special Forces granted their wish. Arriving in Land Rovers, they quickly assessed the situation, ordered up a package of warplanes, and moved in close to “paint” their targets with laser guidance systems. After the bombers moved out, the Special Forces troopers called in AC130 gunships to finish-off those who still refused to surrender.[12]

When the guns fell silent, US Special Forces were assigned to protect Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, and for good reason. In September 2002, a group of Taliban sympathizers infiltrated Karzai’s security detail and tried to assassinate the popular president. They were repulsed by the Special Ops detachment, who killed the gunman, raced Karzai to safety, and rounded up the coup-plotters. At least one of Karzai’s anonymous American bodyguards was wounded in the attack.

Task Force 5 continued its work until summer of 2003. It remains unclear if its men were involved in the March 2003 capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the September 11 attacks. Perhaps owing to the fact that the al-Qaeda planner was arrested in Pakistan, U.S. officials have revealed only that there were Americans present during the arrest. Even so, the circumstantial evidence seems strong: Groups of CIA agents and Special Ops units are known to operate from an airfield near Jacobabad, Pakistan. U.S. Special Forces have conducted joint operations with Pakistani troops inside Pakistan. One of the American Special Forces was even killed on the Afghan side of the border chasing bin Laden’s ghost in June 2003.[13]

Of course, the Afghan campaign was only the beginning, just one of dozens of operations and missions that have transformed al Qaeda from a terror superpower able to strike America virtually at will into a headless, disjointed organization barely able to produce an audio tape to rally the faithful. Most Special Forces activity happens beyond our line of sight, but like the wind we see the effects of their movement and the product of their handiwork. The State Department’s most recent annual survey of terrorism illustrates just how effective America’s asymmetrical warriors have been:

-More than 3,000 al-Qaeda operatives have been detained in 100 countries since 2001.

-Two-thirds of al-Qaeda’s leadership has been killed or captured.

-Since 2001, there has been a 44-percent drop in attacks conducted by international terrorists.

-The number of attacks against American targets is down 65 percent.

-Perhaps most remarkably, there have been no terror attacks on the US homeland since September 11, 2001.[14]

As Robert Andrews, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant for Special Operations, concludes, “Asymmetric warfare can cut both ways.”[15] In a very real sense, US Special Forces are terrorizing the terrorists.

The War against Saddam

They are also transforming the US military. Consider, as evidence, a simple comparison between the 1991 war with Iraq and the 2003 war. As Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, detailed in a recent analysis, new technologies and new tactics are making war cheaper, faster, and even safer for US forces.

For example, the major combat phase lasted 48 days in 1991; in 2003, it lasted 26 days. In 1991, the cost of combat was around $80 billion; in 2003, it was $20 billion. Almost 600,000 troops were deployed to fight the 1991 war; just 250,000 were deployed in 2003. This is partly attributable to the expanded role of Special Forces. Boot observes that Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded Operation Desert Storm in 1991, “was wary of the snake eaters”—one of the derisive nicknames for Special Ops personnel. “In the second Gulf War, [Gen. Tommy] Franks made better use of them, and they delivered outstanding results as force multipliers.”[16]

Indeed, at the height of the Iraq war, almost 10,000 Special Forces were deployed in Iraq. As in Afghanistan, SOF units comprised the leading and trailing edge of larger, conventional forces. But unlike the Afghan campaign, Special Forces were deployed in Iraq months ahead of hostilities, perhaps as early as October 2002. Underscoring that they may be as clever as the men they send into combat, the brass at Special Operations Command recruited almost 100 Special Ops veterans of the first Gulf War out of retirement. Their knowledge of the terrain and people of Iraq would be crucial in deposing Saddam, and would be passed on to thousands of their younger comrades. Moreover, by design, many of the Special Ops personnel deployed to Iraq were Americans of Hispanic or Arab descent, which allowed them to blend in to the Iraqi populace.

Once called into action, this army within an army emerged from its hiding places to carry out some of the war’s most crucial missions, including neutralizing the SCUD missile threat in western Iraq, securing oil fields, targeting regime leaders, protecting the northern front, and tracking Saddam’s stores of biological and chemical weapons. (It’s worth noting that according to the UN—not Washington—Saddam’s known caches of “special weapons” included 10,000 liters of anthrax, 80 tons of mustard gas, thousands of mustard bombs, and uncounted amounts of sarin and VX nerve agent. The fact that these were not used and have yet to be found is not reason to gloat, as some of the Bush administration’s detractors at home and abroad have done. Rather, it’s cause for grave concern: Whether hidden in Iraq’s vast, uncharted desert or spirited away to Syria or Iran, the weapons are somewhere.)

Navy SEALs seized oil-pumping stations near the Iraqi coastline. Army and Air Force Special Forces converted highways into airstrips, secured oil wells and protected dams. Special Ops units used psychological tactics to convince Saddam’s conscript army to stand aside and surrender—and his most fanatical loyalists to stand and fight: US forces reportedly mounted humvees with loudspeakers and taunted Republican Guard and Fedayeen units by questioning their manhood. The taunts worked in drawing some of the regimes most diehard defenders into the open, where they were decimated by the superior firepower of US tanks and warplanes.

Other SOF units roamed in and around Baghdad, gathering intelligence and calling in pinpoint air-strikes against Saddam’s inner circle. Still others, borrowing a page from the Afghan campaign, linked up with Kurdish militias in northern Iraq and tied up Iraqi divisions that were desperately needed for the defense of Baghdad. In fact, just 26 Green Berets and three Air Force Combat Controllers eviscerated an Iraqi motorized rifle unit that included tanks, APCs and hundreds of troops.

Of course, arguably the most important Special Ops mission in Iraq was conducted by something called “Task Force 20.” Numbering perhaps a thousand men, Task Force 20 included Delta Force operators, Navy Special Forces and CIA agents. In addition, it worked closely with specialized units from conventional divisions, such as the Army’s 101st Airborne.

In a sign of how strange asymmetric warfare can be, Task Force 20 modified its military-issue humvees. Like the so-called “technical vehicles” used by the warlords in Mogadishu, al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, and Fedayeen Saddam in Iraq, these “gunvees” are open in the back, slung with heavy machine guns and well-suited for urban warfare because of their speed, maneuverability and un-constricted gun mounts.

Task Force 20 apprehended terrorist leaders such as Mohammed Abbas, who was hiding in Baghdad; rescued allied POWs such as US soldier Jessica Lynch; led the search of some 3,000 sites where weapons of mass destruction might be hidden; and killed or captured some of  Saddam’s closest lieutenants, including his top weapons scientists and two sons. Indeed, it was Task Force 20 that killed Uday and Qusay Hussein outside Mosul last summer.

True to form, Task Force 20 did what was necessary to complete its mission: In June 2003, for instance, Task Force 20 was tracking some of Iraq’s top fugitive leaders, including perhaps the very top. During the ferocious, all-night gunfight and chase that ensued, elements of Task Force 20 were cleared to “disregard all international borders.” They did just that, crossing into Syria several times, razing a secret compound that straddled the Iraq-Syria border, firing on Syrian border guards, and even taking some Syrian soldiers into custody. The next morning, as Newsweek later reported, a US helicopter landed near the border and disgorged several Syrian troops, who apparently had been wounded and treated the night before.[17]

The twin missions of Task Force 20 and Task Force 5 go on, although they do so under a new codename. In an indication of just how connected US commanders believe the major fronts of the War on Terror are, Gen. John Abizaid has merged the two Special Ops task forces and created an even less conventional, less geographically constrained all-star team of Special Forces: “Task Force 121,” or TF121.

TF121 conducts operations in (and quite possibly around) Iraq and Afghanistan, using tactics, intelligence, and sources on one front to assist the US-led effort in the other. After taking over as commander of US Central Command in mid-2003, Abizaid reportedly concluded that it was counterproductive to have two anti-terror taskforces working in such close geographic proximity, on such similar missions, but in relative isolation from one another.[18]

Although its mission, methods and makeup are cloaked in secrecy, this much we know: The new hybrid force includes personnel from the Air Force, Army, Navy, and CIA. As with its predecessors, TF121 works closely with select conventional military units. And as with its predecessor taskforces, its primary objective is to kill or capture “high-value targets,” such as Osama bin Laden, Mullah Muhammad Omar, other al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, and of course Saddam Hussein and his henchmen—all blamed for the unrest and guerilla activity that has roiled post-Baathist Iraq and post-Taliban Afghanistan. The difference between TF121 and other Special Ops taskforces is that it has more resources—and far more independence and discretion—to realize its objective.    

That much was evident after the bloodless raid that netted Saddam Hussein late last year. TF121 was instrumental in the search, which involved some 600 regular troops from the Fourth Infantry Division (4ID) and a few dozen Special Forces.

Finding Saddam was akin not to finding a needle in a haystack, but rather to finding a needle in mound of haystacks. Rather than relying solely on former regime leaders and other Saddam cronies for intelligence, TF121 and its partners in the CIA, military intelligence and 4ID also tracked and detained some of Saddam’s distant relatives, especially those in and around his hometown of Tikrit. The spadework paid dividends on December 13, 2003. While a brigade of the 4ID cordoned off a four-kilometer swath of farmland south of Tikrit, TF121 personnel and troops from 4ID scoured the area for the fugitive leader. Using infrared vision equipment to see into the earth, they found the dictator cowering in a hole. “I am the president of Iraq. I want to negotiate,” he yelped as the troops yanked him up. “Regards from President Bush,” one of the Americans responded. They then whisked him away to Baghdad by helicopter.[19]

Beyond Baghdad

While the search-and-destroy missions continue in the borderlands of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria, Special Forces are also at work on many other fronts. In 2002, for example, Washington sent a 1600-man contingent of Americans, led by some 200 Special Ops personnel, to the Philippines to conduct what the diplomats call “counterterrorism training missions.” But if it’s training, it’s on-the-job training: As in Afghanistan, the US-backed force has smashed and scattered the enemy; and as in Afghanistan, US Special Forces have been killed in action on the Philippine front. At least one Green Beret is among the Americans who have fallen in the Philippines. However, the sacrifice has not been in vain. A Philippine mayor told a reporter with the Armed Forces Press Service that his city has come back to life since the Americans arrived.[20]

Likewise, in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics, US Special Ops teams are training local forces to clean out al Qaeda and its partners, while constructing “lily pad” bases that will extend America’s reach in this new century. 

From their perch in Djibouti, task forces comprised of US intelligence agents, conventional military units, and some 500 Special Ops personnel are conducting operations in and around Yemen (recall the Predator strike on al-Qaeda commanders in November 2002), monitoring terrorist activity in the lawless lands of eastern Africa, and intercepting suspicious ships transiting the vital waterways around the Horn of Africa (recall the US-Spanish operation that tracked and briefly impounded a Yemen-bound North Korean vessel).  

Still other Special Forces teams are helping the Colombian government fight a toxic mix of Marxist insurgents, terrorists and drug lords. Although they are not technically authorized to conduct military operations, small teams of US Special Forces are scattered across Colombia’s jungle countryside. 

To improve the speed and lethality of the global anti-terror campaign, the Pentagon has quietly shifted much of the authority for prosecuting the war to Special Operations Command. The switch, which was reportedly endorsed by Rumsfeld himself, is a dramatic one: US military campaigns are generally handled by one of the regional combat commands (depending upon where the war is being fought). For example, operations in the Middle East/Southwest Asia are handled by Central Command, operations in South America by Southern Command, operations in the Pacific by Pacific Command, and so on. Special Operations troops have almost always worked under the regional commander, in support of his mission—until now. Pentagon officials hope that expanding the authority and reach of Special Operations Command will enable it to move forces into position in a matter of hours rather than days. This change was foreshadowed in Afghanistan, where Gen. Charles Holland, commander of Special Operations Command, had a direct link to the White House and was given broad authority over key missions.[21]

There are almost 50,000 Special Ops personnel under Holland’s command (more than half of them come from the Army). Holland wants to add 9,000 more. The Pentagon is adding almost 2,000 in 2004, and increasing the Special Operations budget by a hefty 34 percent. With the new outlays, the 2004 Special Ops budget is around $6.7 billion, almost double what it was just five years ago.[22] 

The Marines may soon be added to that number. In 2002, the Marine Corps signed a memorandum of understanding with the Special Operations Command aimed at promoting cooperation and interoperability. Toward that end, the Marine Corps began building its own Special Operations force—the clumsily named “Marine Corps SOCOM Detachment.” An 85-man team of “Special Ops Marines” could be ready for action sometime this year.[23] 

The White House is trying to hammer out bilateral agreements that would grant Special Forces units authority to roam freely in search of terror cells in countries that oppose terrorism but lack the means to combat it. Even so, Congress has tried to block these efforts.[24]

In yet another sign that Special Forces warriors will be leading the war on terror, the new Army Chief of Staff is Gen. Peter Schoommaker, one of the founding members of Delta Force. In addition to leading or participating in numerous Special Ops missions (including the Carter administration’s Desert One debacle in Iran), Schoommaker served as commander of Special Operations Command from 1997-2000.

With more places to go and more personnel to deploy, Special Ops units are also getting more equipment to deliver them into their secret wars. The Navy, for example, is converting four massive submarines from Trident nuclear missile platforms into stealthy Special Ops transporters. Once the reconfiguration is complete, each sub will be capable of deploying 60 Navy SEALs and 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles for good measure. By way of comparison, most subs that deploy Navy Special Forces today can handle only 10 to 20 SEALs.

All or Nothing

“Galvanized by the assault on America,” as Leebaert concludes, “special warfare is in its heyday.”[25] Indeed, what some have called the “US military’s fifth branch” is coming of age. According to Michael Noonan of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, units like TF121 could become “the true first responders or preemptors in the war on terrorism.”[26]  

Yet this is not just a byproduct of the war begun on September 11. Keep in mind that the Pentagon’s margin for error—compressed as it is by the low pain threshold of the American people and the unblinking eye of the global media—has been narrowed in the shadow of Vietnam. Some 5,000 Allied troops were killed in a matter of hours taking back Normandy; thousands more died in air and naval operations in support of the D-Day invasion. Today’s America would simply not tolerate U.S. losses of the magnitude sustained at Omaha Beach. Likewise, the assaults on Dresden and Hiroshima, which killed tens of thousands of civilians, would not be tolerated by the omnipresent media of today. That sort of single-minded, ferocious commitment to victory is a thing of the past. And so, missions are increasingly carried out quietly, in the shadows, by a special breed of warriors. 

Yet there is a danger here. Given the amorphous and seemingly ubiquitous nature of modern terrorism, it would be easy to overwhelm Special Ops units with endless deployments and countless missions. Washington must resist that temptation. America’s asymmetric warriors are neither suicidal nor super-human. As of this writing, almost four dozen have been killed prosecuting the war on terror; at least three times as many have been wounded. These secret warriors, if haphazardly or thoughtlessly deployed, can be drawn out of the shadows and cut down in the light. If that happens repeatedly or routinely, America’s leaders will face a test. Kennedy and Johnson answered by upping the ante and sending more troops; Carter and Clinton answered by cutting their losses and bringing the troops home.  

It is, as Sun Tzu might say, a paradox. By allowing policymakers to wade into that gray area between war and peace, Special Forces offer opportunity and options. However, their missions sometimes force the very thing policymakers hope to avoid by deploying them in the first place—making the hard choice between black or white, all or nothing, engagement or retreat.  

The art of this war is in confronting that paradox now rather than later, and in recognizing the limits of America’s asymmetric warriors.

[1] Michael Vlahos, “Defeating the gods of war,” techcentralstation.com May 1, 2003. 

[2] See CNN.com, Special Forces Overview, July 22, 2003.

[3] Hogan, US Army Special Operations in World War II, Center for Military History, 1992, p.3.

[4] Hogan, p.42-43, p.135.

[5] Ed Bruner, “US SOF: Background and issues for Congress,” CRS Report for Congress, June 2, 2003, p.2.

[6] Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down.

[7] Bruner, p.3.

[8] Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down p.81.

[9] Bowden, pp.33-35.

[10] Robert Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy,  p.106.

[11] Don Rumsfeld, “Transforming the military,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2002.

[12] Alex Perry, “Insdie the Battle at Qala-I-Jangi,” Time December 1, 2001.

[13] See Andrew Maykuth/Mark McDonald, “US forces pursue wily bin Laden,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 9-7-03; AP, “US Special Forces soldier killed in Afghanistan firefight,” Fox News, 6-26-03.

[14] See State Department, 2002 Patterns of Global Terrorism Report, www.state.gov.

[15] Richar Sisk, “Special Forces’s success leaves tanks eating dust,” NY Daily News, 12-25-01.

[16] Max Boot, “The new American way of war,” Foreign Affairs July-August 2003.

[17] Scott Johnson, “Hunting Saddam,” Newsweek July 7, 2003.

[18] Thom Shanker, Eric Schmitt, “Cover commandos hunt Saddam,” NY Times, November 7, 2003.

[19] See Barton Gellman/Dana Priest, “When focus shifted beyond inner circle, US got a vital clue,” Washington Post, 12-15-03.

[20] Jim Garamone, “Wolfowitz meets with US troops in Philippines,” AFIS, June 3, 2002.

[21] See Richard Newman, “A new chain of command,” US News and World Report, October 11, 2001.

[22] See Bruner; Roxana Tiron, “Demand for special ops forces outpaces supply,” National Defense, May 2003.

[23] Sandra I. Erwin, “‘Expeditionary Warrior Probes Marine-SOCOM Relationships,” National Defense, February 2003.

[24] See Rowan Scarborough, “Pentagon plan seeks countries OK to attack cells,” Washington Times, August 5, 2002; Susan Schmidt and Thomas Ricks, “Pentagon plans shift in war on terror,” Washington Post, September 18, 2002;

[25] Leebaert, p.616.

[26] Michael Noonan, “Global Expeditionary Warfare,” Foreign Policy Research Institute E-notes, November 21, 2003, FPRI.org.