Public fascination with special operations and the forces that conduct them has never been higher. Once limited to the realm of the enthusiast and conspiracy theorist, special operations are a firm fixture in popular culture. Video games are based around units, real and imagined, to allow almost anyone the visceral thrills of conducting covert and clandestine missions with no personal risk. Members of the public not only want to enjoy the experience of special operations from the comfort of their own homes, they also have a seemingly endless appetite to learn the details of specific missions and units through movies, books, articles, and documentaries that a number of former operators seem only too willing to provide. The equipment, techniques, and procedures of special operations which form the focus of popular attention are an important element to ensure the successful tactical outcome of missions, often performed at high personal risk to special operators.
Remarkable innovations have occurred in special operations tactics, largely as a result of the operational processes and integration of technology to make special operators even more effective at identifying, isolating, and killing or capturing terrorists and insurgents.[i] Improved tactics and processes are a necessary element of the approach to defeat violent extremist networks (VENs) but, as this article argues, they are insufficient to achieve long-term strategic success. The key to that success lies, as Carl von Clausewitz reminds us, in first understanding the nature of the conflict in which one is engaged and using specific instruments of power such as special operations accordingly. Although special operations and the forces that conduct them have been crucial to success against VENs over the past decade, their strategic effectiveness can only be assessed in the context of contemporary strategy. This article first examines the nature of the strategy and places the current strategy against VENs in its appropriate theoretical context. Next, special operations and their tactical and operational contributions to that strategy are outlined. Finally, this article concludes by identifying the challenges and opportunities of using special operations in the future in a strategy of attrition.
The strategic approach against VENs
2011 marked the end of the first decade of the struggle against VENs, and particularly against Al Qaeda, which organized and conducted the attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001. The year was also momentous in that it saw special operations find, fix, and finish a number of al-Qaeda’s key leaders and facilitators, but two in particular stood out for their significance. The first was the killing of Usama bin Laden in May, the spiritual and organizational leader of al-Qaeda who had evaded attempts to locate him successfully over the previous decade, in Abbotabad, Pakistan. The second was Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American-born imam who played a prominent role in the group in Yemen affiliated with al-Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al-Aulaqi facilitated a number of terrorist attacks, including the “Fort Hood shooter” (Major Nidal Hasan) and “the Underwear Bomber” (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab), and oversaw the production of the group’s periodical entitled Inspire. The passing of the first decade since the 11 September attacks, the death of numerous al-Qaeda leaders and operatives, and the lack of significant terrorist incidents in the United States has led some to question whether global terrorism still poses a significant threat. The remaining leaders of al-Qaeda have not surrendered or given up armed struggle, and groups affiliated with al-Qaeda have made gains in Mali, Nigeria, Yemen, and elsewhere. The threat posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents (AQAA) will continue for at least several more years, if not another decade, until it is supplanted by another cause or other means.
Although the practice and conduct of strategy is infinitely complex for reasons identified by Carl von Clausewitz, Colin Gray, Edward Luttwak, and Hew Strachan, among others, the strategic approaches available to policymakers and planners are limited to two. The first is a strategy of annihilation put into practice, or “operationalized,” through maneuver, material erosion, and with the advent of nuclear weapons, and/or firepower. There are many challenges to conducting a strategy of annihilation, not the least of which is having the will to employ available means or to see the conflict through to its conclusion. Another approach is achieving objectives is through a strategy of attrition. A strategy of attrition is designed to erode both an enemy’s material capacity as well as their will to continue the struggle over time. Rarely is a strategy of attrition deliberately sought out because it is misunderstood and caricatured as wasteful and inelegant.[ii] A strategy of attrition is also undesirable for policymakers given the time and material costs they impose. However, the nature of the conflict may dictate that such a strategy may be the most likely one to succeed.
Unless one adversary possess as overwhelming superiority in all categories, is able to dictate the tempo of the conflict, and is willing to eradicate its opponent, the successful adoption of a strategy of annihilation is a historical rarity. Conflicts are duels between two thinking, reactive opponents that seek to thwart each other and deny the achievement of their opponent’s end. This often lead, by accident or design, to prolonged struggles of attrition until one side determines that the pain of submitting to an opponent’s will and demands outweighs the continued political, social, and economic costs of fighting. The nature of this struggle, which is reflected in its characteristics of chance, friction and uncertainty, remains best summed up in Edward Luttwak’s pithy phrase “the paradox of strategy.”[iii] That paradox suggests that the road to victory is most attractive along its shortest route, but because an opponent is also aware of this fact, that route is likely to be the most heavily defended and costly to travel. Most of the theories we associate with insurgents, such as those espoused by T.E. Lawrence and Mao Zedong, espouse strategies of attrition based on necessity, given relative weakness against an opponent.[iv]
The nature of the sub-state groups and individuals operating under the banner or inspiration of “al-Qaeda,” as well as the desire of leaders to conduct a limited struggle against them ensures that the U.S. is locked into a strategy of attrition not of its choice. Core U.S. policy documents and statements do not identify the approach against VENs as such but the conclusion, based on statements contained in the National Strategy for Counterterrorism and the National Military Strategy for the War on Terrorism as well as Department of Defense briefings, is inescapable. Al-Qaeda and its affiliated movements remain a distributed, clandestine network of leaders, facilitators, and operators linked regionally and globally by different yet related causes under the banner of a single ideology. Like a contagion, the cause espoused by al-Qaeda has spread to the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and has reappeared after the U.S. departure from Iraq, attesting to its continuing appeal despite its violence and operational setbacks. Significant resources have been dedicated to denying al-Qaeda the means to conduct large-scale terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Defending against domestic attacks is necessary but does little to deny al-Qaeda and its affiliates the means to fight or will to continue the struggle. Such actions are the realm of special operations.
Special operations and the strategic opportunities they provide
Special operations are most effective strategically when they are used in a sustained campaign to improve the performance of those forces primarily used in the conflict. In wars that have been more conventional in nature, special operations when used properly have improved the performance of conventional forces, increasing the strategic effectiveness of the latter. For example, during the Second World War Allied special operations by military and paramilitary forces behind enemy lines were instrumental in defeating the operational mobile defense used by the Germans to stymie offensive campaigns against them. In particular, the use of special operations nearly simultaneously in June 1944 on the Western (Operation Overland in Normandy, France) and Eastern (Operation Bagration in Belorussia) fronts significantly improved Allied conventional force performance which had the strategic effect of accelerating the collapse of the Third Reich.
In contemporary irregular conflicts, special operations should be used to improve the performance of friendly host nation forces (Iraq), proxy forces, or those interagency organizations which best address the underlying causes of terrorism abroad (interior ministries, law enforcement agencies, internal diplomacy and development, etc.). In other words, special operations provides short-term gains to increase the odds that long-term efforts can succeed. Special operations contribute to a strategy of attrition by improving the performance of other forces and organizations to erode an adversary’s fighting power and will.[v]
Special operations improve the performance of those forces primarily used in the conflict in a number of ways at the strategic and operational level. First, they are capable of creating strategic freedom of maneuver or operational breathing space, in terms of time and/or space, through counterstrokes designed to contest or regain the initiative. The accomplishment of various military and paramilitary special operations during the first phase of Operation Enduring Freedom in November 2001 made coalition airstrikes more accurate and Northern Alliance forces more effective. At the time such special operations provided the United States with sufficient freedom of maneuver to better understand its opponent and take defensive precautions to thwart another attack such as 11 September. Perhaps most importantly the improved performance of conventional and proxy forces, through special operations, denied al-Qaeda its sanctuary, and with it the training camps, operating bases, and other facilities that made its attack on the United States possible. Another example of creating operational freedom of maneuver has occurred in the Philippines. Special operations as part of Operation Enduring Freedom—Philippines (OEF-P) have been crucial both in improving Philippine conventional and special operations forces, and through such actions providing the government of the Philippines with the time and opportunity to address some of the underlying social, political, and economic grievances that exist in Zamboanga and elsewhere.
Second, special operations are designed to increase friction within the ranks of an enemy organization. Individual special operations raids can introduce shock into an enemy system but more lasting effects are achieved in sustained operations to maintain pressure, and therefore increase friction within the enemy system. Friction cannot be created, but its presence within organizations and decision making, a function of stress, imperfect knowledge, and human nature, can be enhanced by special operations in a number of ways. For example, communication lines can be severed or disrupted, impeding anticipated or effective command and control as was the case during Operation Desert Storm. In other examples, enemy plans or strategies that rest on specific timelines, sequences, or assumptions can be thwarted, forcing them to scramble to adapt. Special operations increased Iraqi friction significantly during Operation Iraqi Freedom by deliberately confusing and denying information to the senior Iraqi leadership as to the real avenue of approach of Coalition forces. One instrumental impact of special operations, in conjunction with conventional forces, was to fix key Iraqi units in place and limit their response to ineffective local counterattacks by militias.
In a sustained campaign against al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and adherents, friction comes as a result of an “inside-out problem” that confronts leaders with a dilemma when special operations are used. Communications and trust-based links are necessary to sustain a network of regional and global clandestine organizations and cells. Such communications and links, however, can become the means by which security is compromised and organizations and leaders identified and tracked. Special operations have contributed significantly to al-Qaeda’s “inside-out problem” by improving the ability of other government agencies to corrupt or attack the group’s communications and links. Corrupting links between cells and organizations erodes the crucial ties that give distributed networks their power, and bind leaders to followers. Fearful of discovery or penetration by enemy agents, leaders within clandestine networks historically and today have taken action designed to preserve their own safety and security – for example those undertaken by Usama bin Laden at his compound in Abbotabad – at the cost in overall organizational effectiveness. In addition, leaders have resorted to purges of those they suspect to be traitors, further weakening organizations. Time and resources spent on ferreting out such traitors, real or imagined, is taken away from orchestrating more complicated plots, developing creative attacks, and facilitating resource sharing such as information, key components, or specific technical expertise. Special operations designed to attack the links disrupts or denies communication, and therefore coordination and sharing, between groups and organizations. Terrorist and insurgent leaders are forced to make a Hobbesian choice between how much effort they put on preserving their own security and safety and how much they devote to attacks against their adversary.
Prolonged special operations campaigns can generate additional strategic effects against an opponent. Through sustained action special operations can hold at risk or attack specific enemy capabilities or vulnerabilities. The preceding paragraph discussed one such vulnerability: communications, based on trust, which allows a networked organization comprised of leaders, cells, and groups to coordinate and collaborate. In some cases directly attacking such communications is unnecessary or unneeded. Prior efforts by special operations to attack specific communications, and therefore hold others at risk, has forced al-Qaeda members and affiliates to sink time and resources pursuing other, less effective forms of communication. Similar calculations occur when specific capabilities within an al-Qaeda organization, such as key bomb makers, financiers, facilitators, and other leadership and management, are killed, captured, or held at risk through the threat of future attack. Special operations may make specific capabilities or vulnerabilities critical through their sustained action, or threat of action, against them.
Holding at risk key capabilities and vulnerabilities that allow terrorist networks to function is only one indirect method of special operations strategically. Special operations can be used indirectly to challenge al-Qaeda and its affiliates by enabling and improving the performance of partner nations and proxy forces. Where functioning states exist, U.S. security assistance and related programs such as the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP) facilitated by special operations seek to improve the capability and capacity of the forces of partner nations. Such nations have included Pakistan, Indonesia, and Nigeria and CTFP-funded programs spearheaded by special operations forces, have improved their ability to identify, isolate, and defeat violent extremist threats within their own borders. The results of improving the capabilities and capacity of partner nations are not immediately apparent. In a strategy of attrition against AQAA such results take time and is no guarantee of success given the internal political, economic, social, and military challenges faced by some countries. Where no functioning state exists, or where states refuse to function, special operations can improve the performance of proxy forces through training, equipping, provision of information, and augmenting native capability.
Challenges that accompany the opportunities
Strategies of attrition cut both ways, in that they consume resources for both sides of the conflict. Given the overwhelming advantages possessed by the United States and its partner nations relative to al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and adherents, one might reasonably conclude that a strategy of attrition against VENs is not problematic. We can regenerate forces much quicker than VENs and material losses are not felt as acutely in a large country as they are in a small, kinship-based network. Such a conclusion overlooks the fact that strategies of attrition contain not only material aspects, in the form of physical resources, but also non-material aspects related to the will (domestic, political, etc.) to continue. Material and willpower dimensions do not erode or attrit equally. T.E. Lawrence, for example, suggested that relatively small strikes could have a highly disproportionate effect on Turkish will given the harshness of the terrain, the tenuousness of their supply lines, and the isolation of individual garrisons.[vi] The political will in the United States to sustain special operations against AQAA is vulnerable to erosion in two interrelated ways.
The first way in which the political will of the United States may erode in this strategy of attrition is related to the need to sustain operations against a clear and present threat to the country. For many Americans, the most significant chapter in the conflict against al-Qaeda ended with the death of Usama bin Laden. Americans took vengeance against the leader behind the 11 September 2001 attacks. It may be increasingly more difficult for policymakers to argue for continued actions, including special operations, against a threat that is seen as “on the ropes” and increasingly strategically insignificant.[vii] The lack of significant terrorist attacks on the homeland, and the seeming ineptitude of those planning plots that have been disrupted, has also diminished the threat in the public mind. In addition, some of the threat assessments of AQAA appear contradictory. For example one recent depiction suggests that AQAA is a “significant threat to our country” and is “resilient, adaptive, and persistent”; yet the examples provided suggest that most affiliated groups are only capable of limited, local attacks.[viii]
The second potential cause for the erosion of political will is related to how the struggle against AQAA ends. At present, those responsible for fighting against AQAA envision the struggle continuing for the foreseeable future. The lack of a definable end point in the struggle may contribute to further public fatigue or disinterest in terrorism, particularly when more pressing individual and public policy matters, such as the economy, remain foremost in the public mind.
The erosion of domestic political will to continue the struggle against AQAA could have a severe impact on the efficacy of special operations. In particular, the broad authorities that have made special operations so effective in recent years may be increasingly vulnerable to significant change or restriction. Currently the Commander, United States Special Operations Command, envisions a sustained, aggressive approach termed “global pursuit” to find, track, and remove terrorist threats wherever they might be.[ix] Such an approach will be less overt and more clandestine in nature. The laws and frameworks which would authorize such a special operations approach, including the Authorization to use Military Force (the AUMF), legal authorizations for overt and covert action in U.S. law (Titles 10 and 50, U.S. Code), among others, are likely to come under increasing Congressional scrutiny and revision.[x] Questions regarding the legality and morality of so-called “targeted” or “extra-judicial” killings are also casting doubt over the long-term viability of such special operations.
Understanding the nature of the war in which one is engaged is useful to identify potential future challenges. If identified early enough and addressed such challenges may not erode the foundation upon which a strategy rests. In addition, better understanding the role specific instruments, in particular special operations and the forces that conduct them, play in a strategy of attrition ensures they are not misused or undue expectations are placed upon them. Special operations have and continue to be used because of their short-term effectiveness and high probability of success that makes them exceptionally valuable to policymakers. Understanding that the primary strategic effectiveness of special operations is to set the conditions for the success of other instruments of national power, however, would go far to ensure that they are not used for strategic effect in and of themselves. Put simply, just because special operations are easy to use does not mean they are the answer to a national security problem, but they may be a necessary precondition to solve the national security problem at hand.
The views contained within this article do not represent those of the United States government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Air Force.
[i] Innovations within the special operations community are discussed in Mark Urban, Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the Secret Special Forces War In Iraq (London: St. Martin’s Press, 2011) and Christopher J. Lamb and Evan Munsing, Secret Weapon: High-value Target Teams as an Organizational Innovation, Strategic Perspectives No. 4 (Washington, DC: NDU Press, March 2011).
[ii] In addition to the author’s own work, see also J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr., “The Issue of Attrition,” Parameters 40:1 (Spring 2010): 5-19.
[iii] Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1987), p. 4.
[iv] The preceding paragraphs draw from the author’s work Special Operations and Strategy: From World War II to the War on Terrorism (London: Routledge, 2006).
[v] This section draws from Chapter 4, “Death by a thousand cuts: Special operations, attrition, and the nature of strategy,” Special Operation and Strategy, pp. 58-82.
[vi] T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (London: Jonathan Cape, 1943), pp. 196-201.
[vii] Remark attributed to John Brennan, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Associate Press, “U.S. Counterterror Chief: Al Qaeda Not on the Ropes,” FoxNews.com (1 September 2011), available online at accessed 1 October 2012.
[viii] See The Honorable Matthew G. Olsen, Director, National Counterterrorism Center, “Hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs The Homeland Threat Landscape and U.S. Response,” (September 19, 2012).
[ix] See USSOCOM, FY2013 Budget Highlights: United States Special Operations Command (Tampa, FL: USSOCOM, 2013), p. 4.
[x] Evidence that this potential shift may come about soon is found in Richard A. Best, Jr., Covert Action: Legislative Background and Possible Policy Questions, RL33715 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, December 2011).