Over the past decade, the United States’ military and the country’s national security strategy have come to rely on special operations to an unprecedented degree. As identifying and neutralizing terrorists and insurgents has become one of the Pentagon’s most crucial tasks, special operations forces have honed their ability to conduct manhunts, adopting a new targeting system known as “find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, and disseminate.” They have adopted a flatter organizational structure and collaborated more closely with intelligence agencies, allowing special operations to move at “the speed of war,” in the words of the retired army general Stanley McChrystal, the chief architect of the contemporary U.S. approach to counterterrorism.
Implementing McChrystal’s vision has been costly. Spending on sophisticated communications, stealth helicopters, and intelligence technology; building several high-tech special operations headquarters; and transforming a C-130 cargo plane into a state-of-the-art flying hospital have consumed a large (and classified) portion of the total special operations budget, which has increased from $2.3 billion in 2001 to $10.5 billion in 2012. The investment has paid clear dividends, however, most dramatically in May 2011, when U.S. Navy SEALs, operating in coordination with the CIA, raided a compound in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden.
The target and location of that raid made it exceptional. But similar operations, which in earlier eras would have been considered extraordinary, have become commonplace: during the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. special operations units sometimes conducted as many as 14 raids a night, with each successive raid made possible by intelligence scooped up during the previous one and then rapidly processed. When decision-makers deem raids too risky or politically untenable, they sometimes opt for strikes by armed drones, another form of what special operators refer to as “the direct approach.” (The CIA conducts the majority of drone strikes, but special operations forces are also authorized to employ them in specific cases, including on the battlefields of Afghanistan.)
Dramatic raids and high-tech drone strikes make for exciting headlines, so the media naturally focus on them. But this attention, along with policymakers’ reliance on raids and drones, has encouraged a misperception of such actions as quick, easy solutions that allow Washington to avoid prolonged, messy wars. In fact, raids and drone strikes are tactics that are rarely decisive and often incur significant political and diplomatic costs for the United States. Although raids and drone strikes are necessary to disrupt dire and imminent threats to the United States, special operations leaders readily admit that they should not be the central pillar of U.S. military strategy.
Raids and drone strikes are rarely decisive and often incur significant political and diplomatic costs.
Instead, special operations commanders say the direct approach must be coupled with “the indirect approach,” a cryptic term used to describe working with and through non-U.S. partners to accomplish security objectives, often in unorthodox ways. Special operations forces forge relationships that can last for decades with a diverse collection of groups: training, advising, and operating alongside other countries’ militaries, police forces, tribes, militias, or other informal groups. They also conduct civil-affairs operations that provide medical, veterinary, or agricultural assistance to civilians, improving the standing of local governments and gaining access to and a greater understanding of local conditions and populations.
It is time for special operations forces to prioritize indirect operations. That approach — also called “special warfare,” the preferred term of its advocates in the U.S. Army — offers the prospect of lasting benefits with a smaller footprint and lower cost than the hugely expensive wars of the last decade. The indirect approach is not without its pitfalls, and the special operations community will need to reconfigure itself to execute it more skillfully. But it holds great potential for advancing security objectives, especially in a time of fiscal austerity.
DIRECT VERSUS INDIRECT
In testimony delivered to the U.S. Congress last March, Admiral William McRaven, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, said that “the direct approach alone is not the solution to the challenges our nation faces today as it ultimately only buys time and space for the indirect approach,” arguing that “in the end, it will be such continuous indirect operations that will prove decisive in the global security arena.”
Yet despite such high-level Read entire article here