Small Wars Journal

“America’s Dangerous Love for Special Ops” - The Real Story

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 10:42am

“America’s Dangerous Love for Special Ops” - The Real Story

Hy Rothstein

Mark Moyar’s op-ed, “America’s Dangerous Love for Special Ops,” is at best, ill-informed and at worst, contemptuous of special operations forces. To be sure, special operations have not been able to deliver what Moyar calls, “strategic success.” This, to a significant degree, has been the result of misuse of special operations forces or more specifically, “conventionalizing” their missions. But Moyar’s assertion that “strategic victory has required the integration of special operations with both convention forces and civilian national security agencies” is laughable. What strategic victories is he referring to, Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam?

While Moyar claims that special operations rarely produce strategic success, he acknowledges that special operations have produced “frequent and impressive tactical results.”  In one of Clausewitz’s lectures on “Small Wars” held at the Prussian War College in 1810 and 1811, he said that ”…the entirety of Small Wars belongs to tactics,” but what becomes clear is that the reasons for small wars is based on the necessities of strategy, or perhaps for the US, conventional military strategic ineffectiveness. Clausewitz is clear that Small War can serve tactical, strategic and policy ends. We see the confluence of tactics and strategy in both small wars and special operations.

The US military has been generally inept at dealing with the irregular threats of the last 16 years. While USSOCOM has some culpability for this ineptness, the real failure rests with the senior conventional military leaders who fought the type of wars they knew how to fight rather than the type of wars that needed to be fought. That Moyar thinks the military veterans in President Trump’s national security circle will rightly reject special operations solutions in favor of “underutilized conventional units” is ludicrous. First, it has been senior conventional military officers who are at least partly responsible for the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Moyar seems to forget that more than 100,000 conventional military forces were present in both Afghanistan and Iraq for most of the fighting. Why Moyar would recommend increased conventional responses in an age of irregular threats is illogical.

Moyar also fails to mention the strategic success delivered by special operations forces in the Philippines or special operations “tactics” that resulted in strategic success in El Salvador in the 1980’s. One characteristic of those successes was the absence of US conventional forces.

Moyar is correct in stating that special operations forces “can’t destroy a Russian armored division,” but the Russians are too smart to throw one of their armored divisions up against a superior US conventional capability. The Russians will continue to advance their security interests using irregular capabilities as long as the US is incapable of responding.

Americans and their political leaders become attracted to special operations forces in times of crisis and when conventional military units cannot deliver victory or when their employment is politically infeasible.

Mark Moyar is a skilled historian but when he goes beyond recording history to assessing its lessons he would benefit from what two eminent scholars, Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, referred to as the “Goldberg rule.”  The rule is simple, rather than attempting to identify the problem, seek the full story and you will find out what the problem really is. The full story behind America’s dangerous love for special operations reveals serious flaws in our national security apparatus and in our conventional military leaders.


J Harlan

Fri, 04/28/2017 - 9:55am

The rise of SOF can also be attributed to two things which have nothing to do with strategy or tactics.

SOF (along with airborne)serve as a powerful recruiting and retention tool. How many soldiers would not have joined or would have quit when they could if sitting in a Bradley was the apex of their careers?

American myth making focuses on the lone hero and perhaps a small band of followers- Danial Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Wyatt Earp, Sgt York, Elliot Ness, and Jason Bourne. A few exceptionally rugged men will sort out our problems. It's possible that all of the foreign policy dilemmas faced by the US will be cured if only our super heroes can shoot just one more villain. The SOF are as much a psychological prop for the public to believe things can get better than a militarily useful tool.

Bill C.

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 5:38pm

In reply to by MarkMoyar

Again it is important, I believe, to define what "strategic success" looks like.

Mark Moyer said above:

"The fact that strategic success was not enduring in Iraq or Afghanistan is largely the fault of President Obama, who decided to pull American forces out more quickly than the military commanders (both conventional and SOF) recommended."

Thus are we saying here that:

a. "Strategic success" for Iraq and Afghanistan -- defined as sustainable transformation of these outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines (in this manner, to permanently cure the "ills," for example "terrorism" and/or "terrorist sanctuaries," that emanate from these such states and their societies) that:

b. This such measure of "strategic success" was not accomplished; this, specifically because President Obama decided to pull American forces out more quickly than his military commanders (both conventional and SOF) recommended? Herein, to understand that:

1. Had President Obama complied with his military commanders recommendation (for leaving the more troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for a somewhat longer period of time), then

2. The measure of "enduring and sustainable strategic success" -- outlined at my "a" above -- this such measure of "strategic success" would (and specifically because of this somewhat longer period of more troop presence) have been achieved?

(Or, in the alternative, should we understand -- yesterday as today -- that we really have no idea -- then as now -- how many troops, deployed and employed for how long and in what way -- it would/will take to achieve our such "enduring strategic success" goals for Iraq and Afghanistan?" Herein, our employing air and special forces now more exclusively to the project thus being seen more in a "more politically sustainable over the very long haul" light?")


Thu, 04/27/2017 - 3:46pm

As is indicated at its bottom, the New York Times article is based upon a book I have just published on the history of American SOF. The book was written, in fact, because no one had previously written a beginning-to-end history of America’s special operations forces- the “full story” referenced by Dr. Rothstein. The importance of this gap became clear to me when I was asked to teach the history of special operations at the Joint Special Operations University. Even in the SOF community, historical awareness is generally spotty, weighted toward the history of a few high-profile organizations and events, e.g. Jedburghs, CIDGs, Desert One, Blackhawk Down, Horse Soldiers, Neptune Spear. The book includes lesser-known aspects of SOF history, and relies upon the full range of SOF experiences in drawing conclusions.

I wish that Dr. Rothstein had read the book before leveling criticisms. In the book, I discuss, among many other things, the cases that I purportedly failed to consider (the Philippines and El Salvador). Incidentally, the absence of conventional forces from El Salvador does not mean that they played no role; much of the training of Salvadoran forces took place in the United States for the very reason that 55 troops were not enough for the job.

As someone on this thread has already pointed out, the conventional commanders have not been oblivious to irregular warfare. They were largely successful in integrating conventional forces and SOF in combating insurgents in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter offers particularly strong evidence of the importance of conventional forces in a large counterinsurgency campaign- before the Afghanistan Surge, SOF were unable to prevent the ascent of the Taliban, and after the Surge, they were unable to maintain the Surge’s gains. Anyone who visited Afghanistan during these years will tell you that the Surge enabled the government to gain control over key insurgent hotbeds like Helmand and Kandahar. The problem for SOF was not quantity, but quality - SOF are generally not large enough to handle large-scale counterinsurgencies singlehandedly where the insurgents are more formidable than the government. The fact that strategic success was not enduring in Iraq or Afghanistan is largely the fault of President Obama, who decided to pull American forces out more quickly than the military commanders (both conventional and SOF) recommended.

It is trendy now to say that we will no longer do large-scale COIN, and that we will no longer fight conventional wars. But similar prophesies emerged after WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm, and yet major war did not go away. Building military forces in an effective manner is a long-term proposition, and we are therefore well advised to take a long-term view.

As I believe the op-ed makes clear, I am critical primarily of the makers of policy and strategy, not the special operations forces. I have the greatest respect for those who put on a SOF uniform; in fact, the book is dedicated to them. Publisher’s Weekly, the first publication to review the book, took special note of my admiration for SOF. ( It is unfortunate that pointing out the limitations of SOF is interpreted by some as contempt, for it inhibits candid and objective discussion. I recognize, of course, that institutions often prefer wholehearted cheerleading to critical analysis, particularly when they are fighting with other institutions for resources. But I don’t think we do SOF a service when we revere them so uncritically that we thrust them into situations ill-suited to their capabilities and burn their people out through overuse.

Since Bill M. asserted that I “missed the mark widely and did a disservice to SOF,” I will also respond briefly to his comments. He wrote, “Moyar tends to think it is an either or situation, either SOF or conventional forces, and that we overly rely on SOF. In most cases it requires both CF and SOF working closely with interagency partners to achieve our objectives.” This statement reflects a misreading of the article, as I stated explicitly: “With the notable exception of the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, strategic victory has required the integration of special operations forces with both conventional forces and civilian national security agencies.”

I am pleased to see that the op-ed has stimulated debate. More discussion on these topics is needed, particularly at a time when a new administration is devising policy and strategy. The book covers a great many more topics, so I hope that it will lead to further dialogue.

I found myself underwhelmed by both articles about SOF. Moyar tends to think it is an either or situation, either SOF or conventional forces, and that we overly rely on SOF. In most cases it requires both CF and SOF working closely with interagency partners to achieve our objectives. He wrote that SOF can't defeat a Russian Armor column, which is probably true, but so what? We have a joint force with various capabilities for a reason. SOF was never intended to do everything. That comment cheapened the article and undermined Mayar's credibility as an expert on the topic.

Rothstein argues that SOF is tactically successful, and implies that is good enough. Then he overreaches when he claims SOF was strategically successful in El Salvador and the Philippines. Strategic success in El Salvador was due to the USSR collapsing more than anything else. The second major factor was El Sal's government reforms that the USG pushed. SOF played an important supporting role that created space by denying the insurgents military victory, but SOF alone didn't achieve strategic success all by their lonesome. The Philippines is another matter, what strategic success did we achieve there? The same problems exist, but on a positive note the Philippine security forces are much more capable and they are keeping it in check. The Philippines won't have strategic success against the VEOs until the government implements the right reforms.

Rothstein further argues that conventional military leaders led to our failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. That is partially true, but ultimately the strategic failures lie in the laps of the Presidents who provided the end states without the resources to achieve those end states. He implies SOF would have been strategically successful if they led the effort. Picking Afghanistan as an example of why this probably is true, look at the village stability operations in Afghanistan were tactically effective, but they did not address the strategic issues that would determine the outcome of the region, nor could they. Power struggles among the political elites would not be resolved by VSO, nor would Pakistan's continued support for the Taliban. Much like El Sal, SOF working with the local security forces can buy time, but if the government doesn't use that time to solve the strategic issues, then we will fail strategically.

In sum, I think both authors missed the mark widely and did a disservice to SOF.

One final point, Mayer questions whether SOF will be relevant during the next war. After 15 plus years of conflict with VEOs, it seems the majority of people view SOF as little more than a CT force. However, SOF was developed to address threats posed by state actors, and SOF has constantly evolved like the rest of the joint force to address emerging threats to our national security interests. How SOF will fight in the future is a topic that does needs more emphasis than it is getting at the moment, but it will be relevant.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 2:21am

Ever notice how history repeats itself.....

Back when there really was only one SOF unit called USA SF and from the 50s until the end of VN USA SF was on the move everywhere on this planet from chasing down Che to the "wars of liberation" to VN to the White Star program in Laos to Berlin, Germany.....

Being successful along the way.

Just as the modern SOF of today......overused and beaten up in those "fights" in both periods of history and then suddenly the media takes a turn.....and turns on SOF......and that "media" includes "internal media"...meaning the military itself...

In VN it was the killing of a South Vietnamese interpreter a proven triple agent who was responsible for the killing of 8 SOG SF soldiers...which to this day has never really been fully and completely covered by US MSM.....

So the trash talk begins again.....this time about a worn out beaten up SOF that has been largely at war for over 16 long years...

Dave Maxwell is totally correct...fighting without a National Command Authority strategic strategy which really has been only..."on a whim.....prayer...and hope"....and ALL three are definitely not strategies...WILL never led to overall success even if the individual battles are won and won and won.....

We saw this in VN do we need to repeat history again?

I personally experienced what BIG Army did to SF in the beginning of the 70s and IMHO still continues to do regardless of what people say is not the case....

In some aspects we are starting to see this all over again...

J Harlan

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 5:55pm

Clausewitz said. That's an argument?

"the senior conventional military leaders who fought the type of wars they knew how to fight."

Hardly. They might be accused of trying to apply the lessons of SFOR etc to Afghanistan and Iraq but the wars they knew how to fight- large formation heavy armour against a peer occurred only in the opening phases of Iraq and was quickly shelved for "peace support" style operations and SOF. In Afghanistan it's been nothing but peace support and SOF with a handful of efforts to catch HVTs with air mobile operations early on.

The grand strategy that the U.S./the West adopted, post-the Old Cold War, and as the replacement for "containing communism," was "advancing market-democracy."

Thus, to determine if ANY of the U.S./the West's "instruments of power and persuasion" -- configured, deployed and employed in any way, shape or form -- have, in fact, "delivered strategic success," then one would seem to need to identify:

a. Whether, post-the Old Cold War, market-democracy had, in fact, been advanced somewhere in the world. And, if so, where. And

b. Which, if any, of the U.S./the West's "instruments of power and persuasion" (acting together or separately) had

1. Delivered/helped deliver such "strategic success." And

2. How they did this.

"America's Love for Special Operations," thus, needing to be viewed -- for example, as logical and healthy or illogical and dangerous -- in this exact such light?

(Additional thought/question: Whether one is pursuing one's grand strategy [exs: containing communism or advancing market-democracy] in peace-time and as per, for example, diplomacy and "aid" -- or in war-time and as per big and/or small wars -- the grand strategy, and the strategic goal; these would seem to remain the same. What would change, it would seem, would be the manner that one has chosen/been forced to choose to pursue such grand strategy/strategic goal. Yes?

Example: One might determine that it was necessary to pursue one's grand strategy, of advancing market-democracy, from a military perspective via air and special forces only -- whenever and wherever this was possible-- this, given that such was the only sustainable way (in blood and other treasure) that [a] the U.S./the West could continue to pursue it such grand strategy in [b] a "hostile-to-the-advance-of market-democracy" [rather than the "welcoming-to-the-advance-of-market-democracy" that we had hoped for] conflict environment. The final determination of "strategic success" -- thus in this context -- needing to be deferred/delayed to a much later time; this, much as we had to do in the Old Cold War?)

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 8:45pm

Like Hy I am a great fan of Thinking in Time by Neustadt and May. He offers a critical ad important counterpoint to Mark's OpEd.

But to both Mark and Hy I would offer that to have strategic success you must first have a strategy with balance and coherency among ends, way. and means and once you have the strategy you then have to be able to "do strategy."