In retrospect, the operation to kill Osama bin Laden–Operation Neptune Spear on May 2, 2011–may be viewed as a turning point in the Obama presidency. It bolstered the president’s standing on national security affairs and led him to listen less to the generals, who counseled him against a complete pullout in Iraq and a hasty drawdown in Afghanistan, and more to his own instincts, which, it seems safe to say, are far from hawkish. It has also led to the president’s current infatuation with Special Operations Forces, which recalls John F. Kennedy’s enthusiasm for the Green Berets in the early 1960s and George W. Bush’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s similar passion in the early 2000s after the overthrow of the Taliban.
In those earlier instances, both JFK and Bush wildly exaggerated what Special Operators could do. They could not by themselves win wars in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s no knock on our elite troops to say those challenges were too big to be solved by a few commandos. So too with Afghanistan and similar challenges today: These wars will not be won by Delta Force and Seal Team Six.
The kinds of direct-action strikes that these units carry out are an integral part of any comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy–but they cannot substitute for the absence of such a strategy. That was the mistake we made in Iraq from 2003 to 2007 and in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2009. Now it seems Obama is making that mistake again, to judge from news reports the White House is planning to lean heavily on the Special Operations Forces as they withdraw regular troops from Afghanistan. This is not a way to defeat the Taliban, the Haqqanis, and other dangerous terrorists on the cheap–it is a way to lose the war while pretending you are doing something to win it.
In reality, if conditions deteriorate across Afghanistan, as they surely will if U.S. troops pull back as quickly as the administration envisions, Special Operations Forces will have trouble generating the intelligence to identify insurgent leaders. They will also have trouble finding safe areas from which to launch their raids. But the biggest problem of all is if insurgents control substantial territory it is relatively easy for them to regenerate themselves after decapitating strikes on their leaders–as both Hamas and Hezbollah have done after Israeli counter-terrorist strikes. Al-Qaeda Central has proven a better target for Special Operations raids and drone strikes precisely because it is so small and isolated; but larger insurgent groups will not be defeated by the removal of a few leaders.
The president needs to understand not only the capabilities but also the limitations of the Special Operations Forces. They cannot carry the main burden of a U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, especially not when they are being counted upon to do a lot more in the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and other hot spots that are in turmoil.