Special Operations Expanding Role in War on Terror
The Pentagon has greatly expanded the role of military special operations forces in fighting terrorists around the world, according to a detailed story by Ann Scott Tyson on the front page of today’s WaPo.
Details of the plans are secret, but in general they envision a significantly expanded role for the military — and, in particular, a growing force of elite Special Operations troops — in continuous operations to combat terrorism outside of war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Developed over about three years by the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in Tampa, the plans reflect a beefing up of the Pentagon’s involvement in domains traditionally handled by the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department. For example, SOCOM has dispatched small teams of Army Green Berets and other Special Operations troops to U.S. embassies in about 20 countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America, where they do operational planning and intelligence gathering to enhance the ability to conduct military operations where the United States is not at war. And in a subtle but important shift contained in a classified order last year, the Pentagon gained the leeway to inform — rather than gain the approval of — the U.S. ambassador before conducting military operations in a foreign country, according to several administration officials. “We do not need ambassador-level approval,” said one defense official familiar with the order.
But SOCOM’s more robust role — while adding manpower, specialized skills and organization to the fight against terrorism — has also led to some bureaucratic tensions, both inside the military with the joint staff and regional commands, as well as with the CIA and State Department. Such tensions are one reason SOCOM’s plan took years. When SOCOM first dispatched military liaison teams abroad starting in 2003, they were called “Operational Control Elements,” a term changed last year because “it raised the hackles of regional commanders and ambassadors. It was a bad choice of language,” said one defense official, adding: “Who can pick on Military Liaison Elements?”
State Department officials, meanwhile, said that although, for the most part, cooperation with the military teams has been good, they remain concerned over continued “gray areas” regarding their status. “Special Ops wants the flexibility and speed to go in there. . . . but there’s understandably questions of how you do that and how you have clear lines of authority,” one U.S. official said. There remains “continuing discussion, to put it politely, in terms of how this is going to work,” the official said. SOCOM says the teams work for the regional commanders.
This “tension” isn’t surprising. The staging of special ops missions out of U.S. embassies, mentioned several weeks back, also created substantial interagency bickering.
Given the vagaries of counterterrorism, it makes sense to give special ops folks, our most highly trained and best suited forces, great latitude to make quick decisions. Often, the terrorists have the tacit backing of the governments of the countries where they are based and, even when they don’t, intelligence often needs to be acted on rapidly. Unfortunately, as John Burgess notes, it’s only a matter of time before mistakes are made that create substantial diplomatic blowback.
State, Defense, and the Intelligence Community* all have the same end state in mind but have different ideas as how to reach it. Partly, it’s a matter of those with hammers seeing everything as a nail. Mostly, it’s a matter of varying organizational cultures and perspectives. Theoretically, at least, the point of the National Security Council is to aggregate and distill these viewpoints to give the decisionmakers the advice they need to direct the overall effort. Clearly, though, Defense is seen by the White House as the lead element in the war on terrorism, with State and the IC in supporting roles.
*State and especially Defense both have a part in the IC, so these not mutually exclusive. Still, intelligence officers working for State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research or the myriad DoD intel components are first and foremost parts of their larger Department and part of its culture.