SEAL Team 6: Somalia rescue illustrates new US military strategy

The Obama administration has spoken of the need for a 'smaller, more agile' military. Covert operations such as the one that rescued two aid workers in Somalia are part of that strategy.

Danish Refugee Council/AP
This combination photo made from undated images provided by the Danish Refugee Council shows Dane Poul Hagen Thisted, left, and American Jessica Buchanan. U.S. military forces flew into Somalia in a nighttime raid Wednesday, Jan. 25, and freed the two hostages while killing nine pirates, officials and a pirate source said.

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Less than a year after a daring raid killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, another raid involving the same elite US Navy SEAL unit freed two aid workers being held hostage in Somalia by pirates in the type of covert, narrowly-targeted operation that is becoming more common for the US.

The SEALs, with other members of the US military, parachuted into Somalia about two miles from where the hostages were being held, walked to the location, and freed the hostages. They were picked up by helicopters, which brought them to the nearby town of Galkayo, where they flew out on a military plane, The New York Times reports. According to the Pentagon, no prisoners were taken, but nine Somali gunmen were killed. The Associated Press reports that all the captors were killed.

American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul Hagen Thisted were kidnapped on Oct. 25, en route to the airport in Galkayo while working for the Danish Relief Council.

The rescue operation is representative of the Obama administration's vision for a "smaller, more agile" military that relies heavily on targeted counterterrorist strikes against enemies, rather than large-scale, costly land invasions, the Associated Press reports. The administration is expected to announce today an increase in investment in special operations force and clandestine operations, which have become critical tools since 9-11.

That’s a strategy much preferred to the land invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost so much American blood and treasure over the past decade. The contrast to a full-bore invasion is stark: A small, daring team storms a pirate encampment on a near-moonless night, kills nine kidnappers and whisks the hostages to safety.

The SEAL mission also helps soften the blow of defense cuts the White House is seeking in spite of a chorus of criticism by hawkish lawmakers. Not to be discounted is the feel-good moment such missions give the American public, a counterbalance to the continued casualties in Afghanistan.

According to The New York Times, Somalia has been considered "out of reach" for conventional military operations for years, although the US has executed several special operations raids like this one out of bases in Somalia's neighboring countries. 

The Los Angeles Times notes that a 1993 US military peacekeeping mission failed and was forced to retreat after 18 Americans were killed. This week's successful rescue reflects the changes to the US approach to Somalia. Today the US presence is characterized by surveillance drones, special operations units, and warships off the coast.

Reuters reports that a US raid resulted in the death of a senior Al Qaeda militant in 2009 and that several other militants in Somalia have been killed in drone strikes in the past few years.

Somalis express "little sympathy" for the nine captors who were killed during the rescue operation because most Somalis are increasingly frustrated with the impact that piracy is having on the country, reports The New York Times. Neither the government nor local clans have the ability to exert influence over the pirate groups, which are well-funded.

Several elders said that they were pleased with the rescue operation, and they blamed Somalia’s pirate gangs for sullying Somalia’s reputation and causing inflation by carelessly spending millions of dollars of ransom money.

“The pirates are not taking our advice or orders,” one elder said Wednesday. “They are outlawed, and they are only making our image look bad.”

Several Western hostages remain in Somalia, including an American freelance journalist kidnapped last week.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that the increase in the number of land operations by Somali pirates is a result of the increasing pressure on them at sea – preemptive naval strikes have reduced pirates' successful strikes by half.

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