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.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Middle East, Military Affairs, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steve says:

    I’ll put the bottom line up front….

    The administration’s choice of strategic methods implies how serious and critical they view “The Long War”.

    Even as recently as twenty years ago, this mission would have been assigned to the CIA. A lesson learned in the past 40 years is that deniable covert ops by CIA paramilitaries, have limited utility. This is a clear statement by the US that we will not be afraid to use overt military action to protect our interests.

    The other interesting facet is that Rumsfeld, the obnoxious manager who does not respect dissenting generals, is astute enough to know that you can’t just impose a strategic plan on other agencies, from State to Rumsfeld’s own joint CINCs. Three years speaks of lots of staff papers, coordination meetings, thumb sucking and blue sky theorizing about how the world works.

    Granted, in the end the President can impose a strategic choice. But so much better if you can anticipate and resolve many of the petty details that tend to accumulate into bureaucratic friction.

    The prime value added here is to provide DoD with a pipeline of operational/tactical intelligence, as opposed to “civil” and “political” information that is routinely collected around the world.

  2. DC Loser says:

    This plans violates the first principle of any operation – unity of command. With it, you now will have up to three different command chains (SOCOM, the regional COCOM, and the Ambassador) for any given country. This is a recipe for a disaster waiting to happen, and will be very detrimental for US foreign relations when the time comes where the SOCOM units mistakenly takes out an innocent or somebody with political connections.

  3. James Joyner says:


    I gather that SOCOM would have the lead only in quick strike missions not part of a larger, continuous op. One would think the SOCOM commander would operate independently of the regional CC in such a raid. They are, after all, equals.

    And there are almost always ambassadors involved in warfare. There’s no unity of command issue there: The ambassador has no command authority.

  4. DC Loser says:

    James, but I would think that the ambassador should know what is going on with US forces inside his AOR. If something goes down inside his country and he doesn’t know it, then it opens up all sorts of bad things. As for SOCOM and the reginal COCOMs being equals, I think this is at least on paper. But I should think that, say for example, the PACOM commander would be extremely pissed if SOCOM pulled off an operation in the Philippines that upset some of his own ops. Of course I’m just speculating here. These are the kind of things that have to be deconflicted at the joint staff level.

  5. James Joyner says:

    DCL: Sure. The article says that SOCOM would at least be required to notify the ambassador, just not get permission as before.

    And, yes, one would hope SOCOM and the regional CCs would coordinate in some fashion on this stuff. Presumably, SOCOM would at least give a head’s up that they are monitoring a group in a given AO and that action might be imminent.

    One would think/hope, too that the reason all this planning took three years was that they were figuring out the rules of the road for all these eventualities. If they haven’t, then, yes, it could be a mess.

  6. Roger says:

    This entire “leak” is merely cover to pretend Rumsfeld is involved in something useful related to the so-called GWOT. It’s intended to distract from the calls for Rummy’s removal due to incompetence. The game is up.

  7. Roger says:

    And now Rummy has been sent on another “surprise” visit to Iraq to consult with it’s new puppets–I mean leaders. Rove is good at creating distractions when the incompetence becomes too clear, you’ve got to give him that. But in this case, the jig is finally up. No one will be foooled into thinking Rummy can doing something competently re Iraq. His record speaks too eloquently to the contrary.