Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Special Operations ‘Successes’ Around the World

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By Nick Turse, a fellow at the Nation Institute and a 2014 Izzy Award and American Book Award winner for his book Kill Anything That Moves. His pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Intercept, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His latest book is Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. Originally published at TomeDispatch

They’re some of the best soldiers in the world: highly trained, well equipped, and experts in weapons, intelligence gathering, and battlefield medicine.  They study foreign cultures and learn local languages.  They’re smart, skillful, wear some very iconic headgear, and their 12-member teams are “capable of conducting the full spectrum of special operations, from building indigenous security forces to identifying and targeting threats to U.S. national interests.” 

They’re also quite successful.  At least they think so.

“In the last decade, Green Berets have deployed into 135 of the 195 recognized countries in the world. Successes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Trans-Sahel Africa, the Philippines, the Andean Ridge, the Caribbean, and Central America have resulted in an increasing demand for [Special Forces] around the globe,” reads a statement on the website of U.S. Army Special Forces Command.

The Army’s Green Berets are among the best known of America’s elite forces, but they’re hardly alone.  Navy SEALs, Air Force Air Commandos, Army Rangers, Marine Corps Raiders, as well as civil affairs personnel, logisticians, administrators, analysts, and planners, among others, make up U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF).  They are the men and women who carry out America’s most difficult and secret military missions.  Since 9/11, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has grown in every conceivable way from funding and personnel to global reach and deployments.  In 2015, according to Special Operations Command spokesman Ken McGraw, U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to a record-shattering 147 countries — 75% of the nations on the planet, which represents a jump of 145% since the waning days of the Bush administration. On any day of the year, in fact, America’s most elite troops can be found in 70 to 90 nations.

There is, of course, a certain logic to imagining that the increasing global sweep of these deployments is a sign of success.  After all, why would you expand your operations into ever-more nations if they weren’t successful?  So I decided to pursue that record of “success” with a few experts on the subject.    

I started by asking Sean Naylor, a man who knows America’s most elite troops as few do and the author of Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command, about the claims made by Army Special Forces Command.  He responded with a hearty laugh.  “I’m going to give whoever wrote that the benefit of the doubt that they were referring to successes that Army Special Forces were at least perceived to have achieved in those countries rather than the overall U.S. military effort,” he says.  As he points out, the first post-9/11 months may represent the zenith of success for those troops.  The initial operations in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 — carried out largely by U.S. Special Forces, the CIA, and the Afghan Northern Alliance, backed by U.S. airpower — were “probably the high point” in the history of unconventional warfare by Green Berets, according to Naylor.  As for the years that followed?  “There were all sorts of mistakes, one could argue, that were made after that.” He is, however, quick to point out that “the vast majority of the decisions [about operations and the war, in general] were not being made by Army Special Forces soldiers.”

For Linda Robinson, author of One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare, the high number of deployments is likely a mistake in itself.  “Being in 70 countries… may not be the best use of SOF,” she told me.  Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, advocates for a “more thoughtful and focused approach to the employment of SOF,” citing enduring missions in Colombia and the Philippines as the most successful special ops training efforts in recent years.  “It might be better to say ‘Let’s not sprinkle around the SOF guys like fairy dust.’  Let’s instead focus on where we think we can have a success… If you want more successes, maybe you need to start reining in how many places you’re trying to cover.”

Most of the special ops deployments in those 147 countries are the type Robinson expresses skepticism about — short-term training missions by “white” operators like Green Berets (as opposed to the “black ops” man-hunting missions by the elite of the elite that captivate Hollywood and video gamers).  Between 2012 and 2014, for example, Special Operations forces carried out 500 Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions in as many as 67 countries, practicing everything from combat casualty care and marksmanship to small unit tactics and desert warfare alongside local forces.  And JCETs only scratch the surface when it comes to special ops missions to train proxies and allies.  Special Operations forces, in fact, conduct a variety of training efforts globally.

A recent $500 million program, run by Green Berets, to train a Syrian force of more than 15,000 over several years, for instance, crashed and burned in a very public way, yielding just four or five fighters in the field before being abandoned.  This particular failure followed much larger, far more expensive attempts to train the Afghan and Iraqi security forces in which Special Operations troops played a smaller yet still critical role. The results of these efforts recently prompted TomDispatch regular and retired Army lieutenant colonel Andrew Bacevich to write that Washington should now assume “when it comes to organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies, that the United States is essentially clueless.”

The Elite Warriors of the Warrior Elite

In addition to training, another core role of Special Operations forces is direct action — counterterror missions like low-profile drone assassinations and kill/capture raids by muscled-up, high-octane operators.  The exploits of the men — and they are mostly men (and mostly Caucasian ones at that) — behind these operations are chronicled in Naylor’s epic history of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the secret counterterrorism organization that includes the military’s most elite and shadowy units like the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and the Army’s Delta Force.  A compendium of more than a decade of derring-do from Afghanistan to Iraq, Somalia to Syria, Relentless Strike paints a portrait of a highly-trained, well-funded, hard-charging counterterror force with global reach.  Naylor calls it the “perfect hammer,” but notes the obvious risk that “successive administrations would continue to view too many national security problems as nails.”

When I ask Naylor about what JSOC has ultimately achieved for the country in the Obama years, I get the impression that he doesn’t find my question particularly easy to answer.  He points to hostage rescues, like the high profile effort to save “Captain Phillips” of the Maersk Alabama after the cargo ship was hijacked by Somali pirates, and asserts that such missions might “inhibit others from seizing Americans.”  One wonders, of course, if similar high-profile failed missions since then, including the SEAL raid that ended in the deaths of hostages Luke Somers, an American photojournalist, and Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher, as well as the unsuccessful attempt to rescue the late aid worker Kayla Mueller, might then have just the opposite effect.

“Afghanistan, you’ve got another fairly devilish strategic problem there,” Naylor says and offers up a question of his own: “You have to ask what would have happened if al-Qaeda in Iraq had not been knocked back on its heels by Joint Special Operations Command between 2005 and 2010?”  Naylor calls attention to JSOC’s special abilities to menace terror groups, keeping them unsteady through relentless intelligence gathering, raiding, and man-hunting. “It leaves them less time to take the offensive, to plan missions, and to plot operations against the United States and its allies,” he explains.  “Now that doesn’t mean that the use of JSOC is a substitute for a strategy… It’s a tool in a policymaker’s toolkit.” 

Indeed.  If what JSOC can do is bump off and capture individuals and pressure such groups but not decisively roll up militant networks, despite years of anti-terror whack-a-mole efforts, it sounds like a recipe for spending endless lives and endless funds on endless war.  “It’s not my place as a reporter to opine as to whether the present situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen were ‘worth’ the cost in blood and treasure borne by U.S. Special Operations forces,” Naylor tells me in a follow-up email.  “Given the effects that JSOC achieved in Iraq (Uday and Qusay Hussein killed, Saddam Hussein captured, [al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab] Zarqawi killed, al-Qaeda in Iraq eviscerated), it’s hard to say that JSOC did not have an impact on that nation’s recent history.” 

Impacts, of course, are one thing, successes another.  Special Operations Command, in fact, hedges its bets by claiming that it can only be as successful as the global commands under which its troops operate in each area of the world, including European Command, Pacific Command, Africa Command, Southern Command, Northern Command, and Central Command or CENTCOM, the geographic combatant command that oversees operations in the Greater Middle East.  “We support the Geographic Combatant Commanders (GCCs) — if they are successful, we are successful; if they fail, we fail,” says SOCOM’s website. 

With this in mind, it’s helpful to return to Naylor’s question: What if al-Qaeda in Iraq, which flowered in the years after the U.S. invasion, had never been targeted by JSOC as part of a man-hunting operation going after its foreign fighters, financiers, and military leaders?  Given that the even more brutal Islamic State (IS) grew out of that targeted terror group, that IS was fueled in many ways, say experts, both by U.S. actions and inaction, that its leader’s rise was bolstered by U.S. operations, that “U.S. training helped mold” another of its chiefs, and that a U.S. prison served as its “boot camp,” and given that the Islamic State now holds a significant swath of Iraq, was JSOC’s campaign against its predecessor a net positive or a negative?  Were special ops efforts in Iraq (and therefore in CENTCOM’s area of operations) — JSOC’s post-9/11 showcase counterterror campaign — a success or a failure?

Naylor notes that JSOC’s failure to completely destroy al-Qaeda in Iraq allowed IS to grow and eventually sweep “across northern Iraq in 2014, seizing town after town from which JSOC and other U.S. forces had evicted al-Qaeda in Iraq at great cost several years earlier.”  This, in turn, led to the rushing of special ops advisers back into the country to aid the fight against the Islamic State, as well as to that program to train anti-Islamic State Syrian fighters that foundered and then imploded.  By this spring, JSOC operators were not only back in Iraq and also on the ground in Syria, but they were soon conducting drone campaigns in both of those tottering nations.    

This special ops merry-go-round in Iraq is just the latest in a long series of fiascos, large and small, to bedevil America’s elite troops.  Over the years, in that country, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, special operators have regularly been involved in all manner of mishaps, embroiled in various scandals, and implicated in numerous atrocities. Recently, for instance, members of the Special Operations forces have come under scrutiny for an air strike on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Afghanistan that killed at least 22 patients and staff, for an alliance with “unsavory partners” in the Central African Republic, for the ineffective and abusive Afghan police they trained and supervised, and for a shady deal to provide SEALs with untraceable silencers that turned out to be junk, according to prosecutors.

Winners and Losers

JSOC was born of failure, a phoenix rising from the ashes of Operation Eagle Claw, the humiliating attempt to rescue 53 American hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1980 that ended, instead, in the deaths of eight U.S. personnel. Today, the elite force trades on an aura of success in the shadows. Its missions are the stuff of modern myths

In his advance praise for Naylor’s book, one cable news analyst called JSOC’s operators “the finest warriors who ever went into combat.”  Even accepting this — with apologies to the Mongols, the Varangian Guard, Persia’s Immortals, and the Ten Thousand of Xenophon’s Anabasis — questions remain: Have these “warriors” actually been successful beyond budget battles and the box office? Is exceptional tactical prowess enough?  Are battlefield triumphs and the ability to batter terror networks through relentless raiding the same as victory? Such questions bring to mind an exchange that Army colonel Harry Summers, who served in Vietnam, had with a North Vietnamese counterpart in 1975.  “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,” Summers told him.  After pausing to ponder the comment, Colonel Tu replied, “That may be so. But it is also irrelevant.”

So what of those Green Berets who deployed to 135 countries in the last decade? And what of the Special Operations forces sent to 147 countries in 2015? And what about those Geographic Combatant Commanders across the globe who have hosted all those special operators? 

I put it to Vietnam veteran Andrew Bacevich, author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country. “As far back as Vietnam,” he tells me, “the United States military has tended to confuse inputs with outcomes. Effort, as measured by operations conducted, bomb tonnage dropped, or bodies counted, is taken as evidence of progress made. Today, tallying up the number of countries in which Special Operations forces are present repeats this error. There is no doubt that U.S. Special Operations forces are hard at it in lots of different places. It does not follow that they are thereby actually accomplishing anything meaningful.”

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  1. Peter Schitt

    Let’s be honest: A lot of these “special” forces types are psychopaths that enjoy killing humans. Operation Phoenix, anyone? Torture, murder and mayhem are the stock in trade of these guys; not foreign languages, cultures and organic basket-weaving. Indeed, one would need to be “special” to get a kick out of murdering 15 year olds: The Kill Team: How U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan Murdered Innocent Civilians.
    These guys are dehumanized and trained to murder people. They are desensitized to violence – torture, rape and murder is the logical outcome. In Vietnam it was standard operating procedure. (Kill Everything that Moves). Enough with the mindless fetishism of these units; see them for the bloodthirsty savages that they really are. If these guys weren’t in the military they would probably be murdering and raping on the streets of American cities.

    1. fajensen

      If these guys weren’t in the military they would probably be murdering and raping on the streets of American cities.
      Probably not – In a healthy society most would be failures which would limit the extent of their sadism, necrophilia and what-not.

      If one looks at life stories of the top nazis, for example, we have Himmler who was a neurotic hypochondriac trying his luck at different professions and failing, Heidrich a traveling sales guy selling oil- and fuel additives. Et Cetera. Without Hitler creating the infrastructure, Himmler would be that guy at the post office or the bank who closes the till right in front the queue exactly on time (with that little smile, they have) and terrorizes the mail-office ladies. Never becoming more than the middle-manager in some menial shop.

      After WW1 and WW2, the Mob sucked up many of these people and gave them opportunities to use their talents, after Vietnam it was the biker gangs – but in general this was “blue on blue”, nobody cares much for a bunch of gangsters offing each other.

      The problem we have now, today, is that all these heroes come back and then they become police officers or security consultants teaching the police how to deal with people. We see the effects of that already.

    2. Elfranko

      If it weren’t for people like this in WWII, you’d be speaking german. Instead of being an ungrateful dick, blame their political leaders for what you don’t agree with.

  2. Anno

    I know that US special forces are not top teams in the few world special forces competitions conducted annually.

    1. JTMcPhee

      …tell me again what these “competitions” measure?

      And gee, do these Really Special Forces ever, once they are done competing on referee’d little gaudy contests, ever get around to maybe actually shooting the sh_t out of each other “in the field,” (if they ever actually confront, team Red to team Blue, rather than “killing terraists or whoever collateraldamagebugsplats…”)? “Making the world safe for DemocracyastheEmpiredefinesit ™?

      And what are “we” getting for our billions in training, weapons and tactics, again, even just writing off the half a billion on those “moderate rebels”? Not so much, even among Our Own Troops, apparently — — something you don’t see on ESPN X…

  3. Anarcissie

    Even if the ladies and gentlemen of Special Operations, etc., were paragons of virtue and good manners, the question would remain whether imperialism serves the interests of the people of the imperial home country. We can look at history and note that, at least since the end of the medieval periiod, every attempt to acquire and maintain empire has ended in physical, financial, and often moral bankruptcy. The better the elite troops do, the deeper into the swamp the state and its people fall. The American people and their rulers should instead heed the Book of Changes:

    Wading in blood. Get out of the pit.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Exactly, any regime regardless of the spectacle (purple fingers, cookies in the square) will always retain an element of illegitimacy. Whether the population moves to violence or a more peaceful change, the illegitimate government will be tossed without massive outside support.

      If you can offer a clear improvement for a long enough time (many generations), assimilation is possible, but usually those empires really did bring in better rules and still had their own problems which forced a move towards political equality.

    2. Jim Haygood

      ‘Effort, as measured by operations conducted, bomb tonnage dropped, or bodies counted, is taken as evidence of progress made.’

      This is the pure logic of statism. For decades, the Interstate Commence Commission grew larger and larger, dispensing more rulings and rate-makings annually as the U.S. economy grew in size and complexity.

      Then it was abolished, and it didn’t matter. NATO could be abolished, and that wouldn’t matter either.

      The entire notion of having a ‘European Command, Pacific Command, Africa Command, Southern Command, Northern Command, and Central Command’ is a false premise, guaranteed to fail. America does not command the world, except as a ‘legend in its own mind.’

  4. Felix47

    I have worked with these soldiers quite closely over the last decade. They are the best of our soldiers and the best of our citizens. I grant that patriotism is obsolete in this world of collapsing borders and failing nation states including the US. They are obsolete. I think they realize as much as the readers of NC the pointlessness of the vast majority of our military exercises especially in AFG and Iraq and Africa. Talk to one of them. Consider though that our nation has failed to provide an occupational pathway for highly motivated, intelligent men. Most of them would rather be doing something else but how in the US can a young man find a steady job, with benefits, and a promotional path to a higher rank? Not everyone can go to Harvard, Yale, medical school or law school…..rentier occupations licensed by the state. Unions are gone. The high caliber of our special forces personnel reflect the slow motion economic disaster visited on us by our feckless leadership.

  5. Gio Bruno

    Puhleeze! Apologia has no place in describing the real violence “the best soldiers” of the US armed forces inflicts on folks across the globe. If these folks want and desire to be doctors (instead of Dominators) then they should find an honest method of attaining their goals. The Green Beret may be the best of a dull green lot, but they are not highly conscientious folk.

    Instead of fighting abroad they should stay home and fight the real enemy.

  6. Kurt Sperry

    Soldiers more or less do as they are trained, and in battle that is often to kill. The moral instinct not to kill another human must be defeated by that training. Then these trainees are sent into hot battle and kill people. The more sensitive and introspective suffer or kill themselves next in their tens of thousands. These men and women deserve our respect and all the help we can give them but it’s hard to imagine this training and experience is a good basis for then working in civilian policing.

    I’ve probably said this before but teaching for two years in an urban high school would be exponentially better training for civilian policing than military training.

  7. Gaylord

    The policies instituted by the secret government of the elites is at fault. Bad policy brings bad result. Again and again.

  8. DR. OH

    “I’ve probably said this before but teaching for two years in an urban high school would be exponentially better training for civilian policing than military training.”

    I have been teaching in a high school that is 100% students who are not Beige – like me – in a city of 70,000 people: the most segregated city in the U.S. with a population over 50,000; the city’s median household/family income is $32,000; poverty depends on which sub-group, as do unemployment rates, and on and on. Budget cuts the last 8 years in a row.

    However, since I believe that my work is important, and my students, over the years have clearly recognized my passion, and behaved accordingly, I have no idea what you are talking about??? And I like the “thoughful” concealing of your fear of the moniker “racist” by using the euphemism?? Urban!! However, you have aspects within your thinking and your soul? that still have vestiges of anti-non-white forms of racism. Perhaps you do not care.

  9. Kurt Sperry

    I mostly have no idea what you are banging on about. The reason I advocate teaching as a prerequisite for civilian policing is that teachers have to deal with a diverse set of people of an age near to where many of the people a police officer is likely to be interacting with without having a sidearm or beating the #$%@ out of the person in front of you as a crutches to cover for a lack of basic competence. The use of “urban” was to distinguish those posh leafy suburban schools where two years could be spent teaching without demonstrating much in the way of those people skills in anything approaching a difficult setting.

    I hope you aren’t teaching reading comprehension or using awkwardly expressed and gratuitous accusations of racism as a teaching staple. That weirdness aside, you probably are as a result of your work far more qualified to be civilian police than a warrior returning from battle trained to use lethal violence as a problem solving tool. Which of course was my point.

    1. Gio Bruno

      …take a look at the Guardian video of an officer assaulting a female student inside a classroom. The only thing that’s missing is the beret.

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