The Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is a product of the reorganization of the armed forces which originated in the 1980’s and accelerated after September 11th, 2001, as well as the result of particular institutional dynamics and the changing nature of warfare which made interagency coordination imperative. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is the result of this organizational revolution, and, deservedly, one of the U.S. military’s proudest achievements. Numbering around 60,000, this battalion patrols the global commons, which extends into space and cyber, prepared for ‘war in any form in any context’ and ready to ‘wage’ deterrence on non-state actors who possess today what are essentially state-level capacities.
JSOC’s members, informally referred to as ‘snake-eaters,’ are regarded as the most dangerous people on the planet. They can skydive into enemy territory undetected, rescue hostages, kill terrorists, and interrogate suspects with links to them. In this way, the arrival of this force signals a reterritorialization of external space, because the entire planet is the purview of JSOC. National boundaries are just one more element of the global battlespace. Cyber infrastructure is another dimension in which the battlespace is reproduced with the same adversaries, frequenting the 4,300 jihadist websites that existed already in 2005. By monitoring and dismantling these networks, the Command’s cyber operatives degrade terrorist crowd-sourcing capabilities as part of counter-terror strategy. While JSOC’s snake-eaters are the most deadly members of the most the U.S. military, they are additionally trained to interact with civilians in disaster situations as well as foreign military officers in warzones. In the contemporary battlespace, it is critical to distinguish between civilians, foreign state security officers, and enemy combatants, because irregular adversaries employ irregular methods, even and especially using the tenets of the Geneva conventions, of which snake-eaters must be cognizant, against them.
Much of the controversy surrounding this paramilitary organization surrounds its use of targeted killings, as well as tactical intelligence gathering techniques that, critics allege, do not amount to surgical strikes, and frequently kill innocents more than terrorists. Although these are indeed troubling contentions, this analysis will not discuss JSOC from the perspective of human rights or international law. This analysis does not seek to cast an unfavorable light on those in the administration who must make tough choices for the national interest under complex and highly uncertain circumstances. Neither is it the purpose of this article to denigrate the armed forces. On the contrary, this analysis aims at a sober appraisal based on the economic and political costs and benefits of current military strategies, combining the insights of academic literature on counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism.
II. The Organization
Although shrouded in secrecy and officially unacknowledged during most of its existence, the contours and scale of this organization are gradually becoming known to the public. As Admiral William McRaven advised, “If you google JSOC, you can find out pretty much everything they want to know.” Even so, the specifics of the missions unacknowledged or denied by local governments remain unknown outside of the over 800,000 individuals with top secret security clearance. Meanwhile, in the official theaters of war, there have been up to several hundred raids every month. Much that is extant on the SOCs and the agencies which support them (GAPO, SCS or F6, Detachment 3, NEST and SCO) comes from interviews by embedded journalists with military commanders and soldiers, or that which is sometimes casually revealed by Linkedin profiles or begrudgingly by Freedom of Information Act requests. Also informative are the strategy pamphlets that the Joint Force published before ‘disestablishment’ in 2010, as well as various archives of leaked documents on the internet. From all these sources, a realistic portrait can be constructed.
SOCOM oversees each individual Special Operations Commands (SOCs) of the air force, the navy, the marines, and the army. As Dana Priest of the Washington Post pointed out, JSOC members operate with often seamless interpenetration of civil and military spheres. Although these linkages are often covert, SOCOM has been reported to have extensive links to private sector military companies and humanitarian relief agencies who gather intelligence and aid in the implementation of projects. JSOC offers security assistance in a variety of contexts, with examples such as in the case of the kidnapping of the US Army General James Dozier in Italy, the rescue of hostages on the cruise liner Achille Lauro off the Egyptian coast, searching for war criminals in former Yugoslavia, and directing US Scud missile hunting efforts during Desert Storm. The various secretive branches under the SOCOM umbrella are also tasked with military to military training exercises all around the world. The specialized hostage rescue, close protection, and counterterrorism team known as Seal Team Six, or DEVGRU, are deployed alone, or in support of larger efforts such as before in Panama (1989), Haiti (1993), Somalia (1994), and since 2001 in Afghanistan and 2003 in Iraq. Estimates of the number of countries where JSOC is presently active range from 75-120.
JSOC relies on the resources and transport infrastructure of the other branches of the military for insertion and support, although they have their own civilian staff, including interpreters (‘terps’), intelligence operatives, and cyber support. One benefit of these elite forces is their cost efficiency, but they require the assistance of the conventional forces to engage in major conflicts. Interagency coordination is marked by civil military collaboration, because special operations require intensive command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance equipment (C4ISR), but the joint forces aim to be ‘single point safe’ because this equipment can be substantially degraded by a single enemy incursion. Much of the advantage of JSOC comes from its successful leverage of these capabilities and turning their fruits into ‘actionable intelligence,’ which have been long in coming and are now exploited to great effect.
III. The Enemy
Globalization has a shadow in which a convergence of organized crime and insurgent groups now dispose of an estimated $3 trillion USD. In an increasingly multipolar world without a dominant power, organized crime, likened to an incipient private sector in the past, now boasts of transnational networks that are “better articulated and more efficient and competitive than are most legal businesses.” Wherever the rule of law does not penetrate, these non-state actors congregate and grow their organizations. The more ominous trend is when organized crime becomes linked to paramilitary or terrorist groups, as in Colombia, with the FARC or Hezbollah. As the case of Colombia illustrates, geography poses a critical challenge to the state’s capacity to extend its presence into areas governed by criminal/paramilitary/terrorist organizations. The U.S. military refers to these adversaries as ‘hybrid threats,’ which are actors that simultaneously and adaptively employ a mix of conventional, irregular, criminal, and terrorist means and activities in the battlespace. The state-level deficit in repressive capacity calls for JSOC’s strategic strength, and, as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iraq, JSOC’s capacities are often solicited for this sort of security assistance, but as Gordon Adams remarked, “Security assistance with a security goal is one thing; security assistance with a governance goal, well that’s quite another.” JSOC’s special reconnaissance mandate and the links between counterterrorism, counter-narcotic, and counter insurgency could result in the solicitation of its services in literally any part of the world, especially with broadly construed ‘hybrid threats.’ The governance goal is achieved through the political power that comes with the repression of the aforementioned types of non-state actors, but this political power is not equally distributed between the U.S. and local government. Often, it is accrued by the former at the cost of the latter. Furthermore, on the level of the individual recruit, to MS-13, or Al Qaeda, despite the ethnographic research of the military’s social scientists, there seems to be a pervasive assumption that force will dissuade actors from engaging in hostilities, when the record demonstrates that these actors have a steely determination and a famed capacity for the social construction of grievance.
As a starting point, the goals of JSOC must be clear, because a counterinsurgency on a global scale is qualitatively different from countering terrorism in one region or one country, and all too often great powers lose in single country COIN conflicts. The effects of JSOC’s success on the internal hierarchy of the military must be taken into account, because the conduct of military operations change over the long term as other branches of the armed forces are increasingly subsumed under the SOCOM umbrella. We might additionally inquire if there are substantial political risks arising in the implementation of COIN doctrine and in the institutional reformulation of the U.S. military.
The doctrinal imperative of counter-insurgency strategy constitutes part of SOCOM’s political power base along with JSOC’s supremacy in the provision of security, both symbolic and material, which has aided the ascendance of the command within the military hierarchy. This shift has been underway with redoubled momentum after 9/11, and the immediate concern of terrorism catalyzed the coordination of interagency operations. Despite the progress these successes signaled, there were misgivings within the military that the Command would use the broader mandate too aggressively by carrying out operations that had not been reviewed or approved by the regional commanders.
By now, the legal framework has been constructed at length, although the legal implications of irregular, hybrid warfare are still being worked out. The capture vs. kill debate is one example, in which soldiers are unsure how to classify or deal with civilians who directly participate in hostilities, and may prefer to kill them because of the risks involved with their storage and treatment. The military’s legal corps has been pragmatic, emphasizing that civilians who participate in hostilities forfeit safety from attack. However, instructive results have emerged from a project by the Saudi Arabian government in the rehabilitation of terrorists which claims an 80-90% success rate. It may benefit the goal of deterrence to consider capture and rehabilitation as an alternative to current counterterrorism policy.
For example, in the situation in which the President chooses to act on intelligence from SIGINT and the Yemeni government with the rapid deployment of JSOC's lethal force from Djibouti, few options may be left for a substantive evaluation of the significance of the HVT or the subsequent demoralization this causes the organization the HVT belonged to, although proponents attest to the usefulness of this strategy. Critics counter that the lessons of COIN learned in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be generalized across theatres of war and “elevated to the level of doctrine.” However, looking at 20 examples of past HVT campaigns and generalizing guidelines from them, Matt Frankel asserted that domestic forces, not third party forces, must lead counterinsurgency efforts. In addition, he argued that HVT campaigns must be part of a broader strategy, that forces should kill only when capture is not possible, and that understanding the organizational dynamics of the enemy is vital when eliminating leaders.
In recent years, debates have raged between the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the White House, the Pentagon, and the Senate Committee on the Armed Services on the oversight of JSOC. Although cooperation is marked, there was a turf war between DIA, CIA, and JSOC, over who should carry out CNO against terrorists. In view of these conflicts, it is safe to say that the subject of the future structure of oversight as well as command and control of the SOCs is a matter of great concern, because of budgetary constraints, national security, and the integrity of our military institutions. Many worry that with the reduced war-making capacity because of cuts to defense, the U.S. security establishment will not be able to ensure that Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks do not regroup.
What is sure is that the force will shrink, further integrate operations, and shift the distribution of human, technological, and capital resources. In this process, JSOC, perhaps under a different name and/or command structure, but nevertheless deployed with a 'whole of government' approach, will continue to be indispensable for the repression of terrorist and narcotics, human, and arms-trafficking networks, whenever the executive branch and its manifold intelligence apparatus determines that any threat merits lethal force. It is an open question if counterterrorism policy enforced in this manner does not generate multinational counterinsurgency; if JSOC galvanizes rather than deters extremism by underestimating martyrdom as a force multiplier for transnational jihadism. It is also unclear what extent is JSOC benefiting the war on terror versus the extent that the war on terror is benefiting the ascendancy of JSOC. That is to say, the underlying doctrinal paradigm and metrics of the organization justify its operating procedures while reverse causality, especially in the case of HVT with so-called ‘double tap’ drone strikes, is left unaddressed. Furthermore, while the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) of insurgents could be monitored in Afghanistan in order to determine if the war effort was successful, measuring insurgent DDR in a multi-theater COIN is a dubious proposition, if not entirely implausible.
The objective state of security, Jessica Wolfendale compellingly argues, is not improved by counterterrorist operations, when measured statistically against the actual damage, in terms of lives lost annually, of terrorism. Nevertheless, counterterrorism operations remain a cost effective way to address the threat of terrorism, although the efficacy may be more symbolic than real. Although JSOC is the incarnation of the dreams of theorists, war-strategists, and movie producers alike, the strategy of the organization assumes that force can suture instabilities in the interstices of the global commons and that the symbolic threat of terrorism is not increased by counter-terror operations. Because terrorism poses a threat to our security, to our values, to our very civilization, JSOC will continue to secure freedom, although its efficiency is far from assured. Until public opinion indicates emphatically that this is an unpopular solution, JSOC is the ultimate silver bullet.
Tim Tolka is an Analyst at 361Security