Small Wars

The Toughest Op

The Toughest Op

This week, the New York Times reported on a draft proposal circulating inside the Pentagon that would permanently boost the global presence and operational autonomy of U.S. special operations forces. According to the article, Adm. William McRaven, the Navy SEAL who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and who is now the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), is requesting additional authority and independence outside of the normal, interagency decision-making process.

After the successful direct action strike against bin Laden and SOCOM’s important role in training allied security forces in Afghanistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere, it is easy to understand how McRaven’s command has become, as the New York Times put it, the Obama administration’s "military tool of choice." A larger forward presence around the world and more autonomy would provide McRaven’s special operations soldiers with some of the same agility enjoyed by the irregular adversaries SOCOM is charged with hunting down.

McRaven’s request for more operational authority is an understandable reaction to the additional responsibilities the Obama administration and the Pentagon are heaping on SOCOM’s shoulders. In the post-Afghanistan era, it will be more politically difficult for U.S. policymakers to employ large numbers of conventional ground forces. But the work of hunting down terrorists and training foreign security forces in unstable areas will go on — missions that will fall to McRaven’s men. In addition, U.S. policymakers expect McRaven’s troops to track down loose weapons of mass destruction anywhere in the world and to conduct discreet on-the-ground reconnaissance and intelligence gathering when high-tech overhead systems can’t collect the information needed.

But the growing crisis in Syria could provide the most challenging test for McRaven and the operating authorities he seeks. Last year’s successful overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi showed how outside military support for insurgents — a core special forces mission called unconventional warfare (UW) — can produce decisive results with a small investment. Should a coalition of Arab and Western powers eventually intervene in support of Syria’s rebels, McRaven and his operators might face their most complicated mission yet.

The New York Times piece made no inference to UW, but it is a mission that dates back to the origins of U.S. Army special forces at the start of the Cold War and is a basic component of special forces training. Special forces UW doctrine usually foresees a Special Forces-led UW operation as just one line of effort in a larger military campaign typically dominated by conventional forces. But after Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers may look to special operations UW campaigns to go it alone, doing the disruptive and controversial regime changing once entrusted to large armies. Major combat operations and unconventional warfare are both offensive operations. But with the use of conventional forces politically constrained, policymakers may look to McRaven’s special operators to use their UW skills to carry out regime change, the most controversial of offensive missions.

The Libyan rebels who ousted Qaddafi were supported by a classic unconventional warfare campaign. In addition to British and French special operators, hundreds of Qatari soldiers infiltrated into Libya during the fighting last summer. These covert forces (none, officially, from the United States) provided arms, equipment, training, and coordination with the NATO fighter-bombers that were systematically destroying Qaddafi’s army. After a slow start, Libya’s rebels, once provided with outside support, combined with NATO air power and drove Qaddafi from power. UW methods achieved a decisive result at little cost and seemingly little risk.

Some now look to Syria and wonder whether a UW campaign could achieve the same result. Proponents will point to Libya as a model for success. They may also argue that the doctrine of "responsibility to protect" should apply to the Syrian civilian population as much as it did in Libya. And they may mention that the successful removal of Bashar al-Assad would inflict a grievous geostrategic setback to Iran. Opponents would note that such a campaign lacks legal authority from the United Nations Security Council thanks to opposition from Russia and China. And just because UW worked in Libya is no guarantee of success in Syria; a botched operation could lead to an escalating quagmire, as U.S. policymakers have learned to their later regret on so many occasions.

Chapter Four of the Army field manual for unconventional warfare contains a long list of planning considerations to take into account prior to beginning a UW campaign. These include numerous factors — such as the viability of the insurgents and political constraints on U.S. actions — that bear on whether a particular UW mission is feasible or even wise. As much as they wish it were otherwise, McRaven and administration policymakers don’t get a chance to choose the problems that come across their desks, nor are they always allowed to wait until circumstances for a certain course of action become ideal. Last March, the approach of a Qaddafi armored column on Benghazi triggered NATO’s intervention in Libya, ready or not. Perhaps the prospect of an al Qaeda takeover of the support to Syria’s rebels may force the hand of policymakers in the Arab world and the West.

With the usefulness of conventional forces on a steep decline after Iraq and Afghanistan, McRaven knows that much will be asked of his command in the period ahead. In response, he wants the authority to match those heavy responsibilities. The admiral will stand on familiar ground when asks for a freer hand to hunt top terrorists, train foreign security forces in difficult places, or conduct dangerous but important reconnaissance.

What will be more interesting is how much policymakers will look to McRaven and his operators to carry out support for convenient insurgencies, one of the oldest and most controversial of special operations missions. Libya was textbook case of unconventional warfare. SOCOM may get Syria and perhaps its toughest job yet.