The US is resorting to increasing use of Special Operations Forces worldwide with terrible consequences for targeted societies.
Special Forces Operations (SFOs) have been increasingly used as a key component of US military counterinsurgency strategy since Barack Obama became president. Increasing use of drones to assassinate people deemed undesirable by the US is one side of this equation. While the US state apparatus explains its deployment of SFOs only in terms of contemporary challenges US imperialism faces worldwide, there is another side to this emerging strategy and it has to do with declining US power and the Islamic Awakening sweeping the Muslim East (aka Middle East).
Militarily the new strategy may make some sense; however, it will create new set of strategic political, security and soft-power problems for US hegemony with which it can no longer deal as easily as it used to do a decade ago. It is also a delayed decision as the Islamic movement in Iraq realized the necessity of SFOs prior to the Pentagon’s armchair generals and founded in 2007 a military organization called Special Groups. Nevertheless, this US strategy will also create complications for the global Islamic movement and the wider world.
In June 2012 many media outlets reported the shift in military strategy of Obama’s regime away from large-scale and conventional counterinsurgency operations toward Special Forces operations. The reports focused mainly on the announcement by the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) chief Admiral Bill McRaven about establishing a worldwide network linking special operations forces of allied and partner nations to combat terrorism. The aim of this plan is to create regional security coordination centers, modeled after NATO’s special operations forces headquartered in Mons, Belgium.
In practical terms what this means is that the world will see less of US tanks, cruise missiles and planes and more of its drones, sniper rifles and guns with silencers. The main purpose of all special forces operations worldwide is to conduct operations in a hit-and-run mode targeting the leadership or crucial targets of adversaries amidst their existing environment. Intelligence is the most crucial component of special operations warfare (SOW). In the case of current US aggressions worldwide, the SOW will also be accompanied by economic, social and political soft-power sabotage and co-option strategies. This means that the US will have to recruit many informants and co-opt collaborators from key segments of societies it plans to target. All of this has been practiced by the US since a long time, but now it will be done in a much more intensive manner. It is not a secret that Muslims are the prime target of this new SOW strategy. What it means for Muslim societies is that there will be greater internal tension and conflicts because US special operations forces will rely on agents within Muslim societies to supply them with information to be used in their military operations. That is why SOCOM is going global because it will need all the assistance it can get from others in generating local sources of intelligence.
The Islamic Awakening in the Arab world discredited and weakened US-backed autocrats in the Muslim world and made them less usable in the current regional political and social settings. They are no longer viewed as assets by the US, but liabilities. The increasing emphasis on special operations forces will therefore require the cultivation of new fifth columns by the US… the old class of US proxies will be irritated and try to sabotage the work of the emerging new informant caste…
The general characteristics of this strategy are adopted from the Israelis who have successfully targeted the leadership of Hamas over the past decade and Hizbullah in the early 1990s combined with the destabilization methods of Palestinian and Lebanese societies. The unofficial primary reason why this strategy is being adopted today with greater intensity is because the security apparatus of US installed despots like Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali and many others have been significantly weakened. The Mubarak types used to do all the dirty work for the US in which Washington did not want to get involved directly in order to maintain its soft-power appeal as the “freest nation” on earth. This mask that provided the US with significant soft-power leverage is now gone.
The Islamic Awakening in the Arab world discredited and weakened US-backed autocrats in the Muslim world and made them less usable in the current regional political and social settings. They are no longer viewed as assets by the US, but liabilities. The increasing emphasis on special operations forces will therefore require the cultivation of new fifth columns by the US. By opting to create a new caste for its dirty work, the old class of US proxies will be irritated and try to sabotage the work of the emerging new informant caste in order to force the US to continue working with the old guard. The US will have to spend a great deal of resources to manage this unavoidable phenomenon.
Militarily the SFO mode will give the US short-term tactical advantage, but it will also create serious long-term challenges, as it will be the incompetent and ideologically unmotivated US proxies who will conduct the bulk of the fighting. Today this strategy is already facing serious problems in Yemen. The US attempted to use Saudi forces to crush the Islamic movement led by the Houthis but its Saudi proxies proved completely incapable of fulfilling the task. The military campaign against Ansar al-Shari‘ah in Yemen is also proving difficult for US proxies even with intense drone and strong SOW backing.
Previously a component of the SOW mode suffered strategic defeats in Gaza and Lebanon. In May 2007 Hamas disarmed the US-trained and financed armed thugs led by Mohamed Dahlan in Gaza. In Lebanon in May 2008 Hizbullah completely annihilated the US-backed Saad Hariri’s armed gangs operating under the disguise of private security firms. In Pakistan the increased use of drones to assassinate people has turned the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis against the US and its proxies. These experiences show that SFO strategy is full of long-term disadvantages and will further undermine US soft-power appeal and its super power image.
The global Islamic movement will also face challenges from SFO strategy because of its increasing use by the US in the coming years. The primary damage will be when the US goes after the leadership of the global Islamic movement. While organizations like Hamas and Hizbullah have learned to counter such threats from bitter experience, the emerging Islamic organizations in Libya, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt lack adequate experience and skills to protect themselves from special operations of the US military combined with its soft-power techniques.
The upcoming phase of special operations will most probably target a much broader set of Islamic assets worldwide. Empires in decline act in a particularly vicious manner. The US, will therefore, most likely target well known Muslim thinkers, academics, journalists, scholars and activists who are not directly involved in resisting US imperialism militarily. The Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir types are no longer strong enough to kill intellectuals like Sayyid Qutb; they are on the verge of being overthrown, so the US is now forced to step in directly.
Politically, dealing with and conducting even basic negotiations with the US will also become complicated for its adversaries and allies because of the increased resort to SFOs by Washington. As Andrew Bacevich pointed out in Asia Times online “John F Kennedy famously gave the Green Berets their distinctive headgear. Obama has endowed the whole special operations ‘community’ with something less decorative but far more important: privileged status that provides special operators with maximum autonomy while insulating them from the vagaries of politics, budgetary or otherwise… Autonomy and accountability exist in inverse proportion to one another. Indulge the former and kiss the latter goodbye.”
One of the historic symptoms of the collapse of empires is their forced decentralization process. Today the US is forced to decentralize its military arm because its newly adopted counterinsurgency tactics and strategies have completely failed. Therefore, within the next five to ten years the world will witness the inconsistency of US strategy, as various autonomous Special Forces centers will start to implement their own agendas often deviating from the overall state strategy. This will certainly lead to tensions and misunderstandings for the US with its allies and create a new set of problems for US imperialism.