What is Mightier than the Sword?

What Rumsfeld?s recent emphasis on Special Forces means for the future of counterterrorism.


Article created by the the Center for Defense Information.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has approved plans that designate the elite Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, as the Department of Defense’s lead element for the “war on terror.” Instead of creating wars with half trillion-dollar price tags and endless streams of roadside bombings and mortar attacks, Green Berets and SEALS will slide in, grab the bad guys, and fly off into the night.

Is there any reason to doubt that we have found the key to the “Long War” on terror?

If “terror” were a military problem that could be solved with military methods, the answer would be: “no.” SOCOM is exactly what it’s advertised to be: the world’s most highly skilled warriors. Becoming a Navy SEAL, to give one example, takes two and a half years of training of such intensity that only one in five who start the program complete it. If military operations were the key to eliminating threats to our well-being in the years ahead, or at least reducing them to the level of irritants, SOCOM would be the folks you would want riding point.

If military operations were the solution to groups like al-Qaida, the war on terror would have been over years ago, given that U.S. spending on defense roughly matches the rest of the world combined. The United States is not, however, meeting military forces on the field of battle, but facing a collection of various guerrilla and anarchist groups whose motivations are primarily economic, political, social, and most of all, religious.

Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, for example, survive because they can convince large numbers of people that their religion and way of life are under attack by Western nations with a Christian, Jewish, or worst of all, secular agenda. As evidence, they cite the West’s military involvement against Muslims — as bin Laden reiterated this week — and U.S. support of non-democratic regimes that have invited the infidels in. Paradoxically, military operations, even successful ones by SOCOM, reinforce bin Laden’s message.

The problem in areas of the world that harbor such groups is the economic, political, and social structures, or lack thereof. The United States could go in and take out terrorists, assuming there was intelligence of suitable quality, but if the society does not change, it will simply spawn more. As an aside, the requirement for quality intelligence should not be taken lightly — consider the problems the United States and coalition forces are having stopping insurgents in Iraq, a country they have occupied for three years with 130,000 troops. Although SOCOM will be effective tactically — that is, their operations will likely work — the strategic effect will be disappointing, like stabbing the sea with a very sharp sword.

Where might SOCOM`s expertise prove useful? Perhaps it would be useful against the “resentful state leaders” labeled by journalist Robert Kaplan in a recent Washington Post article as the greatest threat to our well-being. Kaplan posits that characters like Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus may acquire nuclear weapons and pay “terrorists” to use them against the United States and our allies. This scenario is not as far-fetched as it might sound. As Iraq demonstrated, countries without a nuclear deterrent are indeed at the mercy of anyone with a modern army, which Western countries undeniably have.

Let’s postulate that for some reason — say to deter what he fears is impending regime change — Mugabe wants the ability to threaten to set off a nuclear weapon in Washington and have his threat taken seriously. He might strike a deal with al-Qaida or some other “terrorist” group to plant the thing. But if he were clever enough to get his hands on a working device, he also has the much more straightforward option to rent his own apartment within a few miles of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Would he risk giving a nuclear weapon to a third-party “terrorist” group and hope they meet high standards of business ethics?

Nuclear blackmail may well be a legitimate threat, although it isn’t “terrorism” so much as it is a logical evolution in state versus state warfare, a poor man’s strategic bombing campaign. SOCOM could be effective in a scenario like this, where they might mount a raid of some size to disrupt preparations for the attack and perhaps remove the perpetrator from the scene. It would require superb intelligence, but good intelligence on Zimbabwe is easier to come by than on shadowy non-state groups like al-Qaida. On balance, SOCOM will likely be effective at the tactical level — as with a counter-terrorism raid — and there is also a possibility for success at the strategic level, that is, for positive and lasting effects.

But it is just a possibility, because if we operate as we have in the past and say we will in the future, there is no chance of success. In fact, by advertising that the primary tool in this war is a force of assassins and kidnappers 66,000 strong, the United States could be making itself less safe. In doing so, the world has been divided up into one zone where the norms of international law are obeyed and another where the Pentagon can strike at will.

Should the United States expect the House of War — to use that deliciously ironic phrase from Islam — to sit around waiting to get whacked? Or has the U.S. government given the Mugabes and Lukashenkos of the world the moral cover to actually do what Saddam was accused of — take concrete action to protect themselves from the world’s only remaining superpower? And since nobody can be sure who’s on the list or off the list, the U.S. government may also have given someone an incentive to provide the weapon.

On the other hand, a counter-proliferation raiding force could — and the emphasis is on could — have a positive impact. For example, if U.S. allies recognize that the state in question is a danger not only to the United States but to the democratic world, they will be more likely to support military action. After the bombings in Madrid and London, it should not be hard to convince these governments to cooperate if the case is solid. Obviously the United States crying “Wolf!” in Iraq didn’t help.

Another consideration is whether the American public and U.S. allies accept military force as appropriate for the situation. For many people, military force is only justified when all other options have been exhausted. It will mean that the U.S. SOCOM force needs to be viewed as the cavalry riding to the rescue and not as cowboys gallivanting around the world. Statements like “We do not need ambassador-level approval,” as reported by Ann Scott Tyson in Sunday’s Post, do not help. With patience, honesty and some good intelligence work, objections can be overcome. If not, then perhaps the United States should be listening to what its allies are trying to say.

Finally, SOCOM operations have to be professionally executed, and then the military must get out, quickly. The reason such a raid would prove necessary in the first place is that the target country’s economic, social, and political systems are dysfunctional. Military forces cannot help with any of those, but they can catalyze an insurgency. The “what happens next?” problem is one for the world’s diplomats and development experts to consider, and everybody needs to understand that the military is only involved in order to make their jobs possible. Regime change, with the resulting obligation to nursemaid a new one — even if we can figure out how to do it — may not be the best option.

Designating SOCOM as DOD’s lead element in the “war on terror” makes sense if for no other reason than the other elements of DOD play virtually no role. However, SOCOM is not a panacea — bin Laden and Mullah Omar have not been found, don’t forget. These are difficult operations fraught with military risk but also, given the nature of their targets, with political, social, and religious implications. To ensure that the first phase of an operation, even if successful, doesn’t compromise the other three, the vast majority of our efforts must go into solving the “what next?” issue before the trigger is pulled. As the great 6th Century BC Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once observed, victorious warriors win first, then go into battle.