The Rise of Special Operations

by James A. Russell

Americans by and large have lost the connection with what war is all about—even as their armed forces and robots roam the globe blasting away at enemies both real and imagined in a desperate and fruitless attempt to police the chaotic international system. War is something done by someone else, somewhere far from home, and to be watched vicariously on TV or even in made-up form on home video games.

After 15 years and several trillion dollars committed to failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public continues to avert its gaze from these unmitigated disasters. But if the wars are conveniently forgotten in the public consciousness, there remains a romantic and wistful attachment to America’s warriors parachuting behind enemy lines in their heroic efforts to rescue prisoners or simply kill the country’s enemies. America’s movie screens and televisions are alive with tales that chronicle the heroic exploits of modern-day commandos. The public loves these stories, perhaps in a vain attempt to believe that something worthwhile came out of the post-9/11 era of irregular wars. Heroism and bravery in the field is, if nothing else, a good story.

Sean Naylor’s book Relentless Strike: The Secret History of the Special Operations Command is the latest and certainly one of the most comprehensive stories that feed the public’s demand for and interest in America’s warrior elite. Naylor, an accomplished and experienced journalist, has assembled an exhaustive, detailed, and approachable history of the Defense Department’s special forces empire.

Today, these special forces effectively constitute yet another arm of the U.S. military and have become America’s preferred way of waging war and conducting the country’s imperial policing missions. Naylor’s prose is vivid, breathless, and meticulously detailed as he builds his stories of the bravery and commitment of these forces over the decades, drawing heavily on interviews with the participants in actual operations. Anyone who wants stories of commandos jumping out of airplanes, grabbing hostages deep behind enemy lines, or just showing bravery under fire will find this a rewarding book.

Although Naylor may indeed be feeding the public’s appetite for a good, action-packed story, the more interesting story concerns the growth of the special forces bureaucratic empire as the SOF community desperately searched for traction and attention from their skeptical military colleagues and political masters. The SOF community eventually succeeded beyond its wildest dreams in Iraq and Afghanistan—perhaps to the detriment of the country and its misguided conceptions of war in the modern era.

The Origins of Special Forces 

America’s global SOF empire grew out of the wreckage of the Desert One fiasco during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980. Naylor traces the history of what would become the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, and its evolution from a mission mostly focused on rescuing hostages to one that today encompasses industrial-scale man-hunting on the global battlefield.

As Naylor recounts, JSOC finally gained the traction it needed in the fight for money and attention after the 9/11 attacks when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld unexpectedly anointed JSOC as a principal participant in the newly proclaimed global war on terror.

JSOC fit with the preferences of Rumsfeld and his neoconservative acolytes for a lighter, but more lethal military footprint, which they tried out initially in Afghanistan in 2001. In that operation, small teams of special forces combined with local militias and CIA teams toting satchels of cash and radios calling in GPS coordinates for airstrikes. The war was over in a couple of months, or at least so it seemed: a low-cost, low-risk enterprise, at least for the United States.

The only problem was that both Osama bin Laden and Taliban ran away over the border to live and fight another day in the protective embrace of their Pakistani benefactors. In fact, the war in Afghanistan had just begun. But Rumsfeld was happy, and JSOC suddenly found itself front and center in the war on terror during which it would achieve its dreams of expansion, more money, and authority to operate more-or-less independently on the battlefield. Never mind that war in Afghanistan wasn’t “won,” the Taliban defeated, or bin Laden brought to justice.

Reaching Critical Mass

JSOC achieved liftoff with the arrival of General Stanley McChrystal as its commander when the Iraq War began to go south in late 2003 and early 2004. As had been the case in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq only proved to be the opening phase of a much longer and complex war. Under McChrystal’s direction, JSOC became the global man-hunting-and-killing machine on display today. Naylor chronicles McChrystal’s successful efforts to build a more robust, networked, flattened organization structure with Task Force 16 in Baghdad that could take on Sunni insurgents. JSOC went interagency and global in the Iraq war.

Task Force 16 functioned as a joint interagency task force that put experts from across the sprawling intelligence community under one roof along with JSOC’s operators. These teams could more easily draw on DoD’s information, surveillance, and reconnaissance complex to target insurgents—handing off the targets to JSOC’s commando hunter teams. The result, as noted by Naylor, was the gradual evisceration of Iraq’s Sunni insurgent networks, a campaign that reached its zenith in 2007 and 2008. The destruction of these networks helped cover the US retreat from Iraq in 2010, though the longer-term consequences of the campaign helped create a political vacuum in Iraq that the Islamic State and other groups eventually filled.

Naylor’s details the development of the JSOC targeting methodology, known by the anodyne term the Joint Prioritized Effects List, which fused intelligence with social-network analysis to comprise the kill list of identified bad guys. A principal selling point of the targeting methodology was that it brought the idea of precision strike down to the tactical level. But plenty of innocent people got killed along the way, despite the advertised attraction of low collateral damage. McChrystal and his acolytes actually believed that they were helping to win the war in Iraq, without realizing that the armed struggle for political authority inside Iraq was simply entering another phase.

Naylor’s pages also take the reader through a similarly constructed history of JSOC’s operations in Afghanistan in which versions of the lessons learned in Iraq were applied against various insurgent groups. He reconstructs operations that eventually led to the death of Osama bin Laden, filling in details that many might find interesting.

Interestingly, however, Naylor also recounts the dip in morale in the SOF community in Afghanistan. Some portion of U.S. operatives became convinced that America’s risky operations there were pointless in an unwinnable war. Perhaps they had grasped the obvious: the forever war could never be decisively won.

The Politics of War

In addition to Naylor’s intended purpose of recounting the history of JSOC, he also demonstrates how the U.S. military and its civilian leadership gradually muddled the levels of war by elevating tactics and operations to the strategic level. Political leaders that had invented the strategically obtuse term “war on terror” also disconcertingly spoke of counterinsurgency as a “strategy.”

Naylor’s tale of the growth of the SOF empire ultimately comes down to one of political and military leaders who lost their way in trying to link the application of force to achievable political objectives. Instead, Task Force 16 and its successors became ends in themselves, producing body counts that pleased leaders but never achieving the desired strategic effect. Another unstated lesson of Naylor’s impressive book is that SOF used in isolation from other instruments of national power never produce strategic effect: a lesson that remains lost to this day.

As Naylor’s book comes to its conclusion, JSOC sets off in 2014 to chase new enemies in Somalia, drawing up yet another kill list in America’s misguided global war, a war with no end in sight.

Photo: members of the 353rd Special Operations Group

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.