For the past 20 years, U.S. special operators have been on the frontline of the struggle against terrorism.

Those special operators are small in number compared with their conventional counterparts, but they’ve made an outsize contribution to the global war on terrorism.

After the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, most U.S. counterterrorism operations involved unconventional warfare, with commandoes training local partners and conducting raids.

That has played to the strengths of special operators, who see themselves as a scalpel rather than a hammer. Special operations forces have thrived in such fast-paced, ambiguous environments.


First in, Last out

Army Rangers Afghanistan
U.S. Army Rangers clear a room during a night operation with Afghan forces in Helmand province, August 14, 2012. (Photo by Spc Justin Young/U.S. Army)

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, special operators were the first in Afghanistan.

The Army’s elite Delta Force launched a daring operation to take out Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, in his own headquarters deep in enemy territory. While that was taking place, Green Berets were leading local anti-Taliban fighters to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda in a matter of weeks.

When the insurgency threatened to destroy Iraq and foil U.S.-led reconstruction efforts there, special operation forces orchestrated an industrial-scale counterterrorism campaign. Tier 1 units — Delta Force and SEAL Team Six, now known as Naval Special Warfare Development Group — led the effort to dismantle Al Qaeda in Iraq with a relentless campaign of raids, sometimes as many as three at night.