Commentary Magazine


Topic: Special Operations Forces

Is Pursuing Kony Worth the Resources?

There is no doubt that the African rebel leader Joseph Kony is a very bad man who–as viewers of the viral hit movie Kony 2012 know–deserves to be brought to justice. But is his capture important enough to justify a growing commitment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to Uganda?

President Obama has just announced that he is roughly doubling the size of the U.S. Special Operations Force on this mission to 300 personnel and sending an Osprey aircraft along with refueling aircraft.

If defense funds and the resources of the U.S. Special Operations Command were unlimited, I would say go for it. But that is not the case. As we know, defense spending is being slashed even as demands on the entire force–and especially on SOCOM–are growing. In fact there is “significant stress” on the Special Operations community, which is called on not only to fight in Afghanistan and in the global war on terror but also to conduct anti-piracy missions (remember who freed Captain Philips?) and myriad other assignments.

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There is no doubt that the African rebel leader Joseph Kony is a very bad man who–as viewers of the viral hit movie Kony 2012 know–deserves to be brought to justice. But is his capture important enough to justify a growing commitment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to Uganda?

President Obama has just announced that he is roughly doubling the size of the U.S. Special Operations Force on this mission to 300 personnel and sending an Osprey aircraft along with refueling aircraft.

If defense funds and the resources of the U.S. Special Operations Command were unlimited, I would say go for it. But that is not the case. As we know, defense spending is being slashed even as demands on the entire force–and especially on SOCOM–are growing. In fact there is “significant stress” on the Special Operations community, which is called on not only to fight in Afghanistan and in the global war on terror but also to conduct anti-piracy missions (remember who freed Captain Philips?) and myriad other assignments.

Some missions–such as standing up security forces in Libya capable of ending the rule of militias and restoring some law and order, or training non-jihadist rebels in Syria capable of beating back both Hezbollah and al-Qaeda–are getting short shrift as a result. To say nothing of preparing for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moldova, or other states: that is a potential emergency for which the U.S. military, in the full throes of budget cuts, are simply not prepared for.

It is hard to see, therefore, how the White House can justify the commitment of scarce resources to a mission that does not implicate any vital American interest and that can best be described as humanitarian. There is, of course, nothing wrong with sending the U.S. military on humanitarian missions, but only if it does not take away from vital work elsewhere. I fear that in the case of Kony we are committing resources that are needed elsewhere.

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Changes on the Global Battlefield

News that the CIA had foiled yet another attempt by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to bomb U.S. airliners using some sort of new “underwear bomb” further confirms the big shift that has occurred in terrorist circles during the past decade: al-Qaeda “central,” based in Pakistan, has gotten less and less important even as its fellow travelers and affiliates have gotten more sophisticated and dangerous.

AQAP is at the forefront of these off-shoots in trying to attack the American homeland, but it is hardly alone–the Pakistan Taliban, a group sympathetic to al-Qaeda but not formally allied with it, was also discovered trying to attack Times Square with a car bomb. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in Iraq piled up carnage on a level undreamt of by other terrorist groups–so much killing that even Osama bin Laden thought it was counterproductive because most of the victims were fellow Muslims. AQI now appears to be expanding its sphere of operations into Syria.

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News that the CIA had foiled yet another attempt by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to bomb U.S. airliners using some sort of new “underwear bomb” further confirms the big shift that has occurred in terrorist circles during the past decade: al-Qaeda “central,” based in Pakistan, has gotten less and less important even as its fellow travelers and affiliates have gotten more sophisticated and dangerous.

AQAP is at the forefront of these off-shoots in trying to attack the American homeland, but it is hardly alone–the Pakistan Taliban, a group sympathetic to al-Qaeda but not formally allied with it, was also discovered trying to attack Times Square with a car bomb. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in Iraq piled up carnage on a level undreamt of by other terrorist groups–so much killing that even Osama bin Laden thought it was counterproductive because most of the victims were fellow Muslims. AQI now appears to be expanding its sphere of operations into Syria.

This is symptomatic of the ability of jihadist groups to adapt and survive on a changing global battlefield where certain avenues of attack may be closed off to them (it seems unlikely anyone will ever again hijack an American airliner with a box cutter), but other opportunities are presenting themselves, especially as political turmoil spreads across the Middle East. Jihadist groups are parasites that breed in areas where no lawful authority is established; thus it is not surprising to see them operating in places like the tribal regions of Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia.

We will see more threats from this direction in the future, which is why it is imperative that the CIA and Special Operations Forces continue their drone strikes and commando raids to keep the terrorists off balance. The “global war on terror” may have been banished from the official lexicon under the Obama administration, but in the field it continues to be waged with ferocity as great as ever–on both sides.

 

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The “Night Raids” Deal With Afghanistan

Should we be concerned that the new agreement reached by the U.S. and Afghanistan over the conduct of “night raids” will hamper the ability of U.S. Special Operations Forces to target America’s enemies? Not on the basis of what has been released about the accord.

Pentagon spokesmen argue that the limitations–having Afghans in the lead in both operations and the interrogation of detainees–do no more than codify existing practices. Moreover, there are wide loopholes in all cases: Afghans can always request extra U.S. aid and even raids that were not initially authorized by Afghan authorities can still be authorized after the fact.

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Should we be concerned that the new agreement reached by the U.S. and Afghanistan over the conduct of “night raids” will hamper the ability of U.S. Special Operations Forces to target America’s enemies? Not on the basis of what has been released about the accord.

Pentagon spokesmen argue that the limitations–having Afghans in the lead in both operations and the interrogation of detainees–do no more than codify existing practices. Moreover, there are wide loopholes in all cases: Afghans can always request extra U.S. aid and even raids that were not initially authorized by Afghan authorities can still be authorized after the fact.

The underlying reality here is that Afghan Special Operations Forces, like their counterparts in Iraq, are the best of the best of the Afghan armed forces–they have received the most aid and training from American authorities and they are the Afghans most trusted by Americans to act as close partners in sensitive operations. Notwithstanding suspicions that may exist between conventional Afghan and American units, there are close bonds of trust between the two Special Operations communities which should ensure, at least for the foreseeable future, that they will not allow legal limitations to hinder their teamwork. Moreover, Afghanistan’s defense minister, Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, who is in charge of the implementation of the accord, is considered by Americans to be another close and trusted partner.

From all I have read, this is a good agreement that gives Afghanistan’s government a fig leaf of sovereignty while allowing Special Operations raids to continue at their current high tempo. The successful conclusion of this accord, coming after a similar deal on the handling of detainees, augurs well for the conclusion of a longterm U.S.-Afghan security agreement that could dampen some of the jitters occasioned by the looming 2014 deadline for NATO powers to withdraw their combat troops from Afghanistan.

 

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Afghan Mission Imperiled by Opposition to ‘Night Raids’

Having concluded a deal with Hamid Karzai that will involve transferring more than 3,000 detainees to Afghan custody, American negotiators are now trying to clinch a deal that would allow the continuation of “night raids”—the melodramatic label given to most Special Operations missions which occur at night when fewer civilians are likely to be in harm’s way and the targets are less likely to be on their guard and at more of a disadvantage because of America’s night-vision systems. The Wall Street Journal claims that the U.S. side is offering to allow Afghan judges to approve any future operations; I don’t know if this is true but it would make sense because similar authority was given to Iraqi judges.

The broader point is that it’s very difficult to get the Afghan government to approve what American leaders regard as their most effective terrorist-fighting tool—the ability of Special Operations Forces such as the SEALs, Rangers, and Delta Force to swoop down on “high-value targets” at night. And if it’s difficult today, when the U.S. has 90,000 troops in Afghanistan buttressing the authority of its government, imagine how difficult it will be after 2014 or even sooner when the U.S. presence will decline dramatically.

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Having concluded a deal with Hamid Karzai that will involve transferring more than 3,000 detainees to Afghan custody, American negotiators are now trying to clinch a deal that would allow the continuation of “night raids”—the melodramatic label given to most Special Operations missions which occur at night when fewer civilians are likely to be in harm’s way and the targets are less likely to be on their guard and at more of a disadvantage because of America’s night-vision systems. The Wall Street Journal claims that the U.S. side is offering to allow Afghan judges to approve any future operations; I don’t know if this is true but it would make sense because similar authority was given to Iraqi judges.

The broader point is that it’s very difficult to get the Afghan government to approve what American leaders regard as their most effective terrorist-fighting tool—the ability of Special Operations Forces such as the SEALs, Rangers, and Delta Force to swoop down on “high-value targets” at night. And if it’s difficult today, when the U.S. has 90,000 troops in Afghanistan buttressing the authority of its government, imagine how difficult it will be after 2014 or even sooner when the U.S. presence will decline dramatically.


Advocates of a steep drawdown, such as Vice President Biden, seem to imagine that even if we pull out most combat troops, our Special Operators will still have full freedom to target any concentrations of terrorists they might find. But in fact no Afghan government is likely to extend such authority, and Kabul may very well decide to kick out the U.S. military altogether if our presence becomes so minuscule that it enflames nationalist resentment stoked by the Taliban without providing an effective check on the insurgency’s advance.

Afghan leaders are most concerned about stopping the Taliban, which threaten their rule, while U.S. leaders are most concerned about Al Qaeda that threatens the American homeland. In the past decade we have essentially made a de facto compact—the Afghans will permit us to chase Al Qaeda if we support their government. If we stop effectively supporting their government, the deal is off and the U.S. will have about as much freedom to operate as it currently does in Iraq—which is to say none at all.

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