by Francisco R. Fonseca
Ever since the United States entered the Global War on Terror (GWOT) in the wake of the September 11th attacks, it has taken an aggressive stance, seeking to locate and root out terrorists wherever they may be. This was true in the immediate aftermath that resulted in the US invasion of Afghanistan and it is true now, in the form of President Obama’s drone attacks in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, in Yemen, and elsewhere. Even though the nature of the war is largely the same, in the past three years the way the Obama Administration has sought to go about it is different, a difference that may not be visible to the naked eye, but in its nature ignores the larger problem of the threat itself.
The GWOT is not like any war in our history; it is a war that is asymmetric in nature, focusing on fighting an ununiformed, stateless enemy, an enemy who will try and blend in with civilian populations to avoid fighting U.S. troops head-on, an enemy who will not think twice about sending suicide bombers into a civilian area for the sole purpose of demoralizing not only the indigenous population but also US troops and their fellow citizens watching the news at home. Considering these facts, one has to think long and hard about how best to combat al-Qaeda and its franchise groups. There is no one answer though, but rather one that will vary depending on the circumstances at hand, meaning the reaction of the United States will and should change depending on the country such organizations may appear in. The antidote to one circumstance may be very different from another, which should not be forgotten as well.
Even though the conditions in a given country should be taken into account when considering action, there are some options that can be applied universally, such as the use of Special Operations Forces (SOF), the utilization of airpower to some degree, and the maximization of the intelligence community. Another factor the US must remember in its continuing pursuit of the GWOT is the fact that we must seek to work with the nation in which al-Qaeda or its affiliates are operating from, and its neighboring countries, because all too often in these circumstances the threat that a group poses to one nation it will pose to its neighbors as well.
The Utilization of Special Operation Forces
Since time immemorial insurgencies and unconventional enemies have required a different approach in order to combat them since by their very nature they seek to avoid large-scale, conventional battles, preferring to engage in hit-and-run tactics or using improvised explosive devices as has often been seen in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout all of history conventional forces or nations have employed such techniques to combat irregular forces, techniques such as the flying column among others that are still in use today. From light infantry units used during Europe’s colonial period to the formation of the modern SOF units in the United States, one thing has remained the same and that is the fact that such units are of vital importance in countering terrorist and insurgent groups.
This is due to the very nature of these modern units such as the Navy SEALs, US Army Special Forces and Rangers, and Delta Force. One of their defining attributes that allows them to be so successful is their ability to be highly mobile, such as the light infantry Army Rangers. It this mobility that allows such units to conduct direct action raids against terrorist targets, the most famous one in recent history being Operation Neptune’s Spear that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.
The ability to call on and maintain the quality of these forces is of the utmost importance in continuing to successfully fight such combatants. Doing that takes a conscious effort and dedication to military spending and willingness to maintain specific standards for the units. The men who are recruited into these units are elite and when those standards are neglected the entire quality of the units follow suit. As a result operations may not be as successful as they might have been had standards been kept high. This is not a theoretical argument either, rather it is one that has been seen to have happened and the results of those errors were seen in the seventies. This problem is bipartisan as well and must be avoided at all costs. Just because these units excel in small quantities does not mean adding more will make them better.
In this war though, these operators will be at the tip of the spear in the long years ahead. Many conventional Army and Marine units will engage in battles against such enemies as well, and they will without a doubt act bravely, but due to their conventionality are not as suited for such action. Therefore it only makes sense then that SOF units will be utilized to a greater extent to not only engage in direct action raids such as have been seen in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, raids that have been instrumental in weakening the insurgency in Iraq for one but also aid in foreign internal defense (FID) to a greater degree.
FID holds a certain kind of importance in the GWOT. This is due to the fact that as al-Qaeda and its affiliates arise throughout the Middle East and East Africa there will, in turn, arise a need to combat such threats and due to the limitations of the US military the next best alternative is to send Special Forces to act in an advisory capacity to host nations and to train them in counterinsurgency tactics and strategies. In the coming years and decades this will be the most efficient way to fight and win the war against Islamist extremism. It will be these training missions that will equip indigenous militaries with the tools to fight their own insurgencies since the US has a limited number of SOF to send to such afflicted nations. Training the people in skills they will need will be much more beneficial in the long term view of succeeding in this conflict. When taken together, utilizing US SOF along with training indigenous militaries in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency will allow for the best possible solution to a threat that will most likely expand in the region rather than detract anytime soon.
Airpower has been an active component of the GWOT since the early days in Afghanistan when American SOF helped to call in air support on Taliban and al-Qaeda positions, but airpower can at the same time be said to be one of the components that has evolved the most in the past ten years. The initial airpower that was used were the usual platforms that had been used in all previous wars, the AC-130, the B-52, the F/A-18, and accompanying Joint Tactical Air Controllers to aid in close air support, but during the GWOT the world saw the introduction of the Predator Drone for use in targeting terrorist operatives, a platform that, while it has been used successfully in many ways, has its own drawbacks as well.
The first major usage of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in an offensive capacity in the GWOT was on November 5, 2002, when a CIA Predator Drone killed Ali Qaed Senyan al-Harethi.. In this case it was fired from a CIA drone and resulted in killing al-Harethi, who had been involved in the 2000 USS Cole bombing and six other men. Since then such weapons have been used many times, yet in the past three years President Obama has been in office he has used drones more than President Bush did. While the use of such weapons does have its benefits, such as not endangering airmen in the process, they have drawbacks as well, as all airpower has. Firstly, airpower by its nature is very technologically driven and by that is done from a distance where one cannot control targeting as well, thus avoiding collateral damage is not guaranteed.
Secondly and more importantly, by solely relying on drones to kill terrorists (at least in most cases) less actionable intelligence is being gathered. In earlier years high-value targets were captured as well in large numbers, allowing for their personal effects to be collected for intelligence purposes and people in question, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah among others, to be interrogated afterwards so the US intelligence community could collect and disseminate the acquired information and build a picture of what al-Qaeda’s capabilities were. Years later that intelligence is not as up to date and former government officials such as the former chief of the CIA’s Clandestine Service, Jose Rodriguez are saying the administration is too reliant on the drone program to fight the War on Terror and the lack of captured terrorists is a detriment to the war’s overall efforts.
This is very true, and while the President should be commended for taking a strong stance on terrorist safe havens in Pakistan, his unwillingness to utilize some old methods to garner intelligence should be noted. Airpower in and of itself is a precarious tool for fighting wars of this nature and it should not be looked at as a cost-effective panacea to avoid American casualties (especially in the age of un-manned drones), but rather as a tool to be used in conjunction with “boots on the ground,” the euphemistic term that can in this war refer to either SOF units or CIA officers. Either way what is being done now is but a short term solution for a long term problem that will need more than killing terrorists to win it.
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