The Hidden Costs of Strategy by Special Operations


As Libya descended anew into violence, the United States withdrew its small contingent of special operations forces from Tripoli on Apr. 7. Most Americans had little idea U.S. forces were ever in Libya in the first place, much less why. This lack of transparency has a small subset of scholars and practitioners worried about increased civil-military tension in the United States government and society. Many books, articles, and even podcasts examine the relationship between America’s civilians and its soldiers, which, despite its challenges, still feels mostly healthy to me after a decade in uniform. For those interested in civil-military relations, debate is lively. What it often misses, however, is a look past “the military” writ large into the smaller tribes that comprise it. No part of the U.S. military has gained more in stature, funding, and importance during the wars that have defined the last thirty years than the special operations forces. The drawback to this approach, as evidenced in Libya, is the myopic use of U.S. special operations forces as a foreign policy “easy button” divorced from the hard work required to make lasting progress towards strategic objectives defined in the U.S. National Security Strategy: promote American prosperity; preserve peace through strength; and advance American influence.

One often acknowledged characteristic of the current American way of war is its growing reliance on special operations forces and their use of a light-footprint approach that operates “by, with, and through” local partners to combat threats and safeguard U.S. interests without large commitments of conventional manpower. U.S. Special Operations Command has grown from 32,000 personnel assigned in 2001 to over 70,000 today, making it larger than the entire German army. The command’s budget request for 2019 was $13.6 billion, and a significant portion of the proposed $165 billion Overseas Contingency Operations budget for 2020 is expected to be spent on special operations task forces deployed throughout the world.

Given how little the average American knows about the military in general, it follows that she knows even less about its secretive special operations community. This poses a special risk to healthy civil-military relations because it allows policymakers to avoid justifying or explaining operations publicly. Reliance on special operations also decreases the likelihood of mission success because special operations forces are not designed to win complex campaigns on their own. As Gen. Mark Milley notes, “The one thing [Special Forces] are not designed to do is win a war.” Hence, the American public doesn’t know what exactly is being done in their name, but does get the impression that it sure seems to cost a lot of money and doesn’t seem to be working.

Effective National Discussion

One of the reasons that today’s reliance on special operations forces to advance U.S. security interests contributes to a problematic civil-military paradigm is the secrecy surrounding special operations. The need to maintain operational security is real, especially as the small formations employed by special operations forces accept a higher degree of risk than conventional battalions and brigades. However, it means that while special operators are engaged in myriad foreign lands, they are usually noticed only in their passing. Besides disasters like Niger or congressional testimony by senior military leaders, special operations forces do their best to keep operational deployments out of the news. The special operator’s tribal code of embodying the “quiet professional” considers staying out of the headlines a plus, but it also makes it surprisingly easy to send U.S. forces to most countries around the globe without generating much domestic attention. Accordingly, the strain of an increasing operational tempo and concomitant growth to fill busy units can lead to widely publicized lapses in discipline. While the joint special operations force and community is impressively resilient, recent concerns over ethical misconduct threaten to diminish hard-won public trust.

Another concern, voiced recently by Loren DeJonge Schulman, is politicization of the military. Unlike the valuable conclusions drawn by studies like the Triangle Research Study and YouGov poll, my experience is purely anecdotal and telling mostly by its absence. I have no concerns about the apolitical professionalism of the military leaders in special operations formations. They take the responsibility of civilian control seriously; the hardest-working staff member in a special operations headquarters tends to be the lawyer, who constantly advises the commander and reviews concepts of the operation plans for adherence to legal and policy guidelines. Instead, more dangerous than politicization is the risk that lack of proper policy guidance and strategic development from civilian leaders capable of ordering deployments leaves special operations commanders with the unenviable position of developing “policy by CONOP” (concept of operation). Commanders and their staffs, often with minimal guidance about U.S. strategy, have to tease out how to advance American policy as they gauge it from their own professional experience and judgment. In Libya, this decentralized quasi-strategy worked in the short term, driving the Islamic State out of Sirte. In Syria, it liberated over 20,000 square miles from ISIL. Whether it will give the United States the ability to shape future outcomes is less certain.



When All You Have is a Hammer…

As Rosa Brooks argued in her most recent book, the military has become the ubiquitous hammer applied to the numerous nails found worldwide. America’s leaders acknowledge that the United States cannot defeat an ideology by killing foreign fighters. Those, like Gen. Michael Nagata, have noted that “our own government and governments around the world are seeking to eliminate the … root causes, the drivers that lead to a foreign terrorist fighter problem itself.” Addressing the symptom of this instability, however, is precisely what special operations task forces are trained, organized, and equipped to do. Deployments for tactical units are measured in “quantifiables,” such as missions conducted, partnered forces trained, and enemies killed. As an example, the 75th Ranger Regiment has been deployed to combat constantly since 2001, and, as the Army’s premier raid force, does not own battlespace in the traditional sense. Rather, it moves freely throughout an area of operations conducting special operations raids to seize, destroy, or capture enemy facilities or material. Almost all of its operations take place at the company or platoon level, meaning between 40 and 150 Rangers. The current and previous commanders of Special Operations Command, current commander of Central Command, and the last two commanders of Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan are all Regiment alumnae. Although this shows the Regiment continues to fulfill the Abrams Charter by selecting the best soldiers available, it also means many of the military’s most senior leaders’ key developmental positions were in small units focused on a challenging but narrow range of objectives. Maj. Gen. Mark Schwartz of Joint Special Operations Command recently attributed the Regiment’s success against the enemy in Afghanistan to “the ongoing dialogue with the Taliban,” but it remains unclear how the Afghan government would survive the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Rangers are the best light infantry unit in the world, but they can’t fix all of the problems of an unstable country wracked by civil war.

It’s true that special operations forces create and support highly capable partnered forces, such as the Afghan Commandos, Iraqi Golden Division, and Somali Danab. Unfortunately, these small forces often end up as grist for the mill, thrown into every hopeless situation by their national and U.S. leadership to avoid strategic defeat. The Golden Division, for example, lost almost half of its combat power fighting ISIL in Mosul. The Afghan Commandos are rushed into every provincial center under threat, often suffering heavy losses. Former commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel testified to Congress last year that “we must consolidate gains,” but the military alone lacks the means to do so. Current Operation Resolute Support commander Gen. Austin Miller reiterated the same point in his confirmation testimony in June 2018, saying “military pressure is necessary to create the conditions for political reconciliation.” As the 2020 budget proposal unfortunately signals, no other agency aside from the Department of Defense will be appropriately resourced to assist special operations forces in creating these conditions.

The American-led effort in Iraq and Syria is similarly focused on killing enemy fighters, regaining territory, and training partner forces. Even after killing well over 70,000 ISIL fighters (these numbers are a gross approximation, as military leaders stopped publicly counting bodies in 2017), the U.S. position in and ability to shape post-ISIL Syria is tenuous and Iraq’s peace fragile. America’s efforts to work with local stakeholders and rebuild are pushed to the back burner by a military force lacking the political guidance and partners necessary to have any hope of rebuilding a shattered city the size of Raqqah, let alone midwife a successful local government into being. Although Gen. Votel rightly highlights the importance of an “integrated approach aligned with interorganizational partners,” it’s hard to square a multifaceted approach with the removal of economic support funds for the Syrian opposition. After a brilliant campaign with the Syrian Democratic Forces to destroy the physical caliphate, the United States again risks losing a chance to secure the peace.


Nothing that I have experienced since 2016, when I last wrote about the difficulties of achieving strategic ends through counter-terrorism campaigns, has changed my opinion. Special operations task forces continue to perform exceptionally well in hunting enemy networks and training partner forces. And yet the special operations forces who are supposed to provide commanders with an understanding of the civil domain or take the lead in working with non-governmental or multinational organizations in a conflict zone continue to lose the Army’s internal personnel battle: half the active civil affairs formations are already gone from the last Army drawdown (one of the two brigades ceased to exist in 2018), and the Army is removing the division-level staff positions as well. U.S. senior military leaders acknowledge that the armed forces can’t do everything alone, but the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Department of Justice receive ever-fewer resources as the Pentagon swallows over half the federal discretionary budget.

Senior leaders in and out of uniform should ask themselves harder questions when deciding to employ special operations forces, for they are too valuable a resource to use haphazardly. More importantly, overreliance on their abilities will prevent them from properly preparing for great power competition, continue to fuel anti-American sentiment in conflict zones, and fail to advance U.S. priorities.



Maj. Walter Haynes is a student at the Command and Staff College of the German Armed Forces. He most recently served as the civil affairs officer for 2/75 Infantry (Ranger). The views expressed here are the author’s, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.


Image: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Steven Hitchcock