President Obama’s recent decision to grant Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) expanded authorities in the fight against terrorism likely came as welcome news to many. Anything that means we move more quickly and nimbly in hunting the enemy has to be welcome. Here is the reality, however.
We are in this war for the long haul, and JSOC is not the answer.
There have probably never been more capable fighting men and women than those assigned to JSOC. I don’t just mean in the history of our nation. I mean in the history of the world.
We will not win this conflict, however, by hunting down and eliminating targets on a kill list. This is not some giant game of “whack-a-mole.” We are not fighting a finite set of enemies. We are struggling against worldwide movements and economic and demographic forces, which will continue to generate instability and threats for generations.
Islamic extremism is burning its way through what amounts to a coal seam of fuel supplied by factors that are tearing large chunks of the world apart, shredding civil authority and creating large swaths of ungoverned territory. These forces are not dissipating. They are gathering strength.
In 2013 the world’s population reached 7.2 billion. Of that number 5.9 billion lived in the developing world, in those areas least capable of handling an increased population. Almost 1 billion of those lived in the 49 poorest nations on earth.
By 2050 the world’s world population is projected to reach 9.6 billion persons. Almost none of that increase will occur in developed nations. In fact, by 2050 the population of the developing world is expected to be 8.3 billion, larger than the entire population of the planet at present. That means in 2050 86.4% of the people in the world will live in the poorest nations on the planet.
This trend will only accelerate after 2050. The population of Nigeria alone will reach 1 billion. Among the twenty most populous countries in the world, eight will be the least developed countries—the United Republic of Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda, Niger, Bangladesh, Sudan and Mozambique.
As this population explosion in the developing world occurs, the average age of individuals in these nations will drop precipitously. This means that these nations will not simply be attempting to deal with a growing number of citizens but also to grapple with issues of education and employment. Unemployment rates, already catastrophically high in most of the developing world, will skyrocket, and the resulting discontent with it.
These demographic forces will combine for impact with growing shortages of key natural resources. Forty years ago, when intensive modern farming started, there were 120 cubic miles of water beneath the Saudi desert. All of this water was contained in a fossil aquifer not replenished by rainfall. That aquifer has effectively now been pumped dry. Saudi efforts to achieve self-sufficiency in food have ended, and the kingdom is for all intents and purposes completely dependent on imports of food.
Saudi Arabia is no aberration. Yemen, home to one of the world’s fastest growing populations, is fast running out of water completely. Water tables are falling by two meters a year. In Sana’a tap water is available once every four days.
In Taiz tap water is available once every three weeks. The grain harvest has declined by one third over the last forty years.
Forty years ago Jordan produced 300,000 tons of grain a year. The harvest is now below 60,000 tons a year. Ninety percent of Jordan’s grain must now be imported.
The story is the same worldwide. Those areas already wracked by instability and growing fanaticism are about to be submerged by a tsunami of demographic and environmental forces. Where civil authority is stressed and infrastructure crumbling today, the future appears only infinitely bleaker.
The international community should do all it can to ameliorate these problems. None of its efforts will fundamentally alter the trajectory of events. The United States, as a single nation state, no matter how rich and powerful, has not a prayer of preventing what is going to happen. Large portions of the world are headed into the abyss, and we cannot and will not prevent that.
What we need then is to face the reality of the situation and focus on what we need to do to safeguard our citizens and our national security in what will be an increasingly unstable and dangerous world. The selective use of highly specialized special operations forces to strike targets of high importance at critical junctures will likely be part of the answer. It will not begin, however, to address the magnitude of the challenges we will face.
What that will require will be a sober, clear-eyed focus on what can be done and what must be done. That requires more than anything else, humility and prudence. We must accept that we cannot and need not be everywhere. We must recognize that there will be many instances in which the answer is that we should not act, that no matter how horrible the events unfolding, we cannot alter them and should not try.
Next, managing the threats we will face will require that we reacquire the capacity to operate in truly unconventional ways, with a much lighter, much more sustainable footprint. We are going to face a future filled with a multitude of threats occurring simultaneously in remote and unstable areas. Tactics, which require the establishment of large bases, the movement of significant numbers of air assets and the commitment of a significant number of supporting troops cannot be sustained worldwide without unacceptable financial and political consequences.
What this means is that increasingly we will need to employ not what amount to the “hyper-conventional” capabilities of the units in JSOC, but the much less visible and much less costly capabilities of “white SOF” units and CIA. We will need to return to the conduct of operations involving handfuls of people, limited support to indigenous forces and the selective application of political influence through both normal diplomatic and intelligence channels.
The future belongs not to commandos but to small teams of operators working in the shadows and behind the scenes. JSOC may be grabbing the headlines now, but is not the answer.
Image courtesy of Reuters