Early in the Afghanistan war, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld praised US Special Operations Forces for the pivotal role they played in routing the Taliban. Later, as the Taliban returned to Afghanistan and the US military became mired in a protracted counterinsurgency fight, senior US officials once again turned to special operators. This year, President Obama publicly pointed to the traditionally hush-hush force’s role in killing Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.
In the wars to come, their role is only likely to grow, says Mr. Freier of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Throughout the Cold War and up until 9/11, the Pentagon “insisted that Special Forces maintain an ability to partner" with the forces of other countries, he says.
Today, they have become premier irregular warfighters in their own right. As a result, they are less focused partnering with foreign forces and stabilizing those countries from within, “leaving a lot of that to the regular old military,” says Frier
That’s because in many ways the scale of the rebuilding task in Iraq and Afghanistan simply exceeded the ability of Special Forces. “It was almost a foregone conclusion that you’d have to involve regular ground forces in this Herculean task,” adds Freier.
The result: “It has really freed up space for special operators to focus on this ‘direct action mission’ – or targeted strikes on high-value insurgents. “This has always been part of their repertoire, but until 9/11 it was more discreet,” Freier adds. “It was not the normal routine of the Special Forces.”
In the decade of fighting America’s current wars, Special Forces have become “these fine tuned instruments,” he adds. Whether they eventually return to their traditional mandate of operating with the indigenous forces of partner states remains to be seen.
Yet their role in the future is likely not to be limited to the war on terror, Freier says. “My sense is that we’ve learned a great deal about the value of using discreet operators to handle some of these missions that require low visibility entry, discretion, and striking high value targets in the most discriminating fashion,” he adds.
Bombings through Predator strikes, for example, “can’t verify that you’ve got the target – that sort of positive identification is only possible face-to-face."
What is clear, Freier says, is that the demand for special operators “is going to remain quite high for some time to come.”