Since 9/11 we have seen a revolution in how the entire US defense structure approaches and deals with the issue of terrorism. While the Clinton administration introduced some legislation that would pave the way for “targeted” killings in instances where there was an Executive Finding, the Clinton administration took a limp-wristed approach to intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism for the bulk for the 1990s, including missed opportunities to kill Al Qaeda head honcho, Osama Bin Laden.
The post-9/11 Bush Administration not only swung US Special Operations forces into action, along with Para-Military and Clandestine Services, but also pushed hard for an expansion of these capabilities. Then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld played a large role in expanding the Special Forces Regiment and personally visited the Delta Force compound on Ft. Bragg to get a better understanding of how counter-terrorist forces operate.
Obama stepped into the White House during a transition period where America was withdrawing from Iraq and attempting to hash out an exit strategy for Afghanistan. While timelines were debated, shifted to the right, and a number of phony withdrawals were staged for the media, the US military did pull out of Iraq and is currently working towards doing the same in Afghanistan. No doubt this action has increased support from both the Pentagon and the American public with the near total lose of credibility of US Counter-Insurgency strategy with the so-called “insider” or “green on blue” attack where our Afghan allies suddenly turn on and kill American soldiers.
In the face of this withdrawal, the War on Terror seems to be decreasing in over all troop deployments while simultaneously expanding in all directions with low-visibility operations in places like Yemen, Somalia, Iran, Mali, and Libya. Meanwhile, other long standing operations have continued in places like Colombia which have been largely ignored by a media, and perhaps a Pentagon, that has a fixation on the Middle East.
With SEAL Team Six eliminating Osama Bin Laden during Obama’s watch, the Special Operations community has received unprecedented popularity in the public arena. Reportedly, the Obama Administration has delegated responsibility for counter-terrorist operations to JSOC and his National Security Council, leaving them more or less to their own devices.
This can be good or bad depending on your perspective. While many will applaud taking the training wheels off our Special Operations units and letting them do what they do best, we sometimes see chinks in the armor when things go wrong. One well publicized incident is the debacle in Benghazi, Libya.
Another, less publicized incident occurred when a van with two JSOC operators and one Civil Affairs Officer went over the side of a bridge in Mali. Sources indicate that they would have been transporting local nationals to a safehouse on the opposite side of the river that was used for clandestine operations.
What Obama’s Re-Election Means for US Counter-Terrorism Strategy
The question on the minds of many of our readers will be what the re-election of President Obama means for US counter-terrorism programs, units, and operations. Historically there is a feeling that the military benefits during a Republican administration but is defunded and ignored during a Democratic administration.
During the Clinton administration, even Special Forces soldiers did not have the funding for bullets and explosives to train with in some cases so this notion has some truth to it. However, this did not occur when Obama first took office. It seems likely that this was not because Obama favored the military in any particular way but simply that a robust counter-terrorist capability was in the best interests of the nation and so following realpolitik, in the best interests of Obama’s Presidency as well.
Another way to look at this topic is to see that DOD and counter-terrorism in general had simply taken on a life of its own, sprawling across dozens of agencies and absorbing billions of dollars. You have to ask the question of whether or not you could even turn off such a strategy if you wanted to.
When Presidents are re-elected, especially by what appears to be by a wide margin in the context of the electoral college, it is popular to claim that the President has received a mandate, a total justification of past policies. Another common belief when an incumbent is re-elected is the idea that he now has “nothing to lose” and will make hardcore political decisions which project his personal ideology. This may be the case in domestic politics, but this effect is much less relevant in the context of Counter-Terrorism in the opinion of this author.
There will be no significant changes to America’s approach to terrorism, and Special Operations, because the on the ground realities all around the world have not significantly deviated with the re-election of Obama. The desert is still the desert and the jungle is still the jungle, no the earth has not moved. Geography is the same, foreign governments have not changed their disposition towards America, a number of nations still maintain nuclear deterrents. Political energies and centers of gravity continue to evolve independently of President Obama. The status quo remains and the Executive Branch will continue to call on America’s Special Operations and Para-Military services to battle terrorism.
The real risk during Obama’s second term is mission creep, over delegation, and over tasking of Special Operations units.
Mission creep can occur in many ways, and in many places. This can involve taking a Counter-Terrorist mission and gradually expanding it into area significantly beyond anything have to do with terrorism. With billions of dollars to play with, it is easy for DOD to start overstepping its bounds and exceeding its mandate.
Over-delegation happens when the Obama White House seeks to kick the can (to use an Obama expression) down the road to other agencies or individuals in order to absolve the President from having to make difficult decisions. This happened during the Maersk Alabama hostage rescue for instance where the Obama White House stopped making decisions so they could not be held liable if the operation went wrong. It should be noted that SOFREP has no evidence at this time that this performance was repeated in Benghazi, despite it being widely reported in the media.
It appears that the bulk of Counter-Terrorist decisions are being turned over to Obama’s National Security Council, the ring leader of these operations being John Brennan. A quick bio from Wikipedia:
Chief counter terrorism advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama; officially his title is Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counter Terrorism, and Assistant to the President. His responsibilities include overseeing plans to protect the country from terrorism and respond to natural disasters, and he meets with the President daily. Previously, he advised Obama on foreign policy and intelligence issues during the 2008 presidential campaign and transition. Brennan withdrew his name from consideration for Director of the CIA in the new Obama administration over concerns about his support for the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, also known as torture, by the CIA under President George W. Bush. Instead, Brennan was appointed Deputy National Security Advisor, a position which did not require Senate confirmation.
After leaving government service in 2005, Brennan became CEO of The Analysis Corporation, a security consulting business, and served as chairman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, an association of intelligence professionals. Brennan’s 25 years with the CIA included work as a Near East and South Asia analyst, as station chief in Saudi Arabia, and as director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
With Special Operations units having unprecedented levels of clout and credibility, it seems that Obama has handed the direction of counter-terrorist operations over to Brennan, effectively removing himself from much of the decision making process.
Again, some will welcome this decision. Why shouldn’t covert operations be handled by technicians as opposed to a President whose resume highlights include community organizing? On the flip side, over delegation of military actions of foreign soil spells dangerous repercussions for democracy in America for years to come.
Over-tasking of Special Operations units, and their over use around the globe, can not only potentially exhaust the operators themselves but lead to ill conceived missions and failures. This can happen when the President and his National Security Council have so much faith in JSOC and SOCOM that they see Special Operations Forces as a means to remedy every foreign policy challenge they face, as opposed to using diplomacy, or simply deciding that intervention is not in America’s best interest.
At this time we are beginning to see mission creep in several areas, over delegation is a serious fault of this administration, and over tasking of Special Operations Forces may become a serious issue over the next four years. The operators on the ground will never, ever tell us that they are exhausted. That just is not in their nature. They will always go when their country calls on them. However, it would be disingenuous to believe that more than ten years have not taken their toll.
While conventional units, and some Special Operations units will get a much deserved break from the constant deployments, Special Mission Units such as Delta Force, SEAL Team Six, and several others will probably continue to be in extremely high demand. These are units that have already sacrificed much during the War on Terror.
Another factor in the next four years of counter-terrorism operations is austerity. Like it or not, austerity is coming to the Pentagon. The US economy is not out of the woods yet, and while it seems that the Pentagon and our civilian government will seek to maintain America’s Special Operations capabilities, it remains to be seen how, and if, budget cuts will effect capabilities and outcomes down the line.
During election season it is typical to see both the left and the right resort to the most extreme rhetoric in order to secure their position, such as threatening to move out of the country if their candidate is not elected, or decrying that if the opposition is elected that this will be the last election ever held in America.
The truth is somewhat more subtle.
It is the gradual effects that should concern Americans in regards to our defense posture. Also, America’s current obsession with Special Operations Forces, leading to a belief in super human capabilities may be what ultimately leads to their undoing. Lets hope that someone is able to yank on the reigns in the coming years.
Who could that be? General Mulholland as SOCOM commander? David Petraeus as President?
Time will tell.