Last September, General David Petraeus, Commander in Chief of the Central Command, signed a seven-page memo authorizing an increase in American special forces operations across his command. Under the order, which was reported by the New York Times last week, American special forces would be able to deploy to countries throughout CENTCOM’s area of responsibility (the Middle East and Africa) to “gather intelligence and build ties with local forces.” They would also gather intelligence “that could pave the way for possible military strikes in Iran.” Notably, the order applies to all countries within the region. Many are at least officially friendly to the United States, but some, notably Syria and the afore-mentioned Iranian regime, are decidedly unfriendly.
The New York Times report makes for fascinating reading and certainly sounds portentous. But it is important to understand exactly what such an order means (to the extent it is possible to understand a classified document that has not been seen by the general public). General Petraeus has not authorized any attacks or disruptive operations by American forces, he lacks the authority to do so; any major operations would require Washington’s approval. But he has made it possible for American military personnel to function as intelligence operatives, infiltrating countries both hostile and friendly, to assess conditions on the ground and work, perhaps in conjunction with local friendly forces, to disrupt terrorist cells and training operations.
These efforts will provide the United States with valuable human intelligence in areas where the CIA and other intelligence agencies lack significant resources, and will provide details that even the most advanced satellite or drone cannot possibly detect. While deploying American troops secretly into any country will always carry risks, General Petraeus will not be freelancing any unsanctioned invasions, despite some of alarmed reaction the memo has generated.
These assignments will be dangerous, both for the personnel involved and for the United States politically, but they should still be applauded. Nine years of warfare in Afghanistan, and now seven years in Iraq, have shown how difficult it is to wage war against diffuse terrorist cells linked only by their ideology, with heavy weapons and mass formations of troops designed to do battle with the Cold War-era Soviet Union. It took a long time after the shocking attacks of September 11th for the American military, as powerful as it is, to adjust to the new kind of war, waged not by billion-dollar battalions, but the courage and ingenuity of small units.
Given the current weaknesses in the American economy, such a shift away from the massive deployments of the last ten years was inevitable. America cannot afford to keep fighting attempted car bombers with columns of tanks. Once American forces have left Iraq, and after Afghanistan is stable enough to leave (if ever), future battles in the war against Islamist extremism will be waged by these clandestine warriors. By infiltrating extremist hotbeds, they will make possible the same kind of targeted killings of enemy leaders that have of late proven so successful in Pakistan and Yemen.
They will not be enough to defeat militant Islamism, but if kept up at a steady pace, will serve to keep it off balance and offer local governments the chance to develop functional, stable societies of the sort less likely to export fanatical suicide bombers to the West. For that reason, this plan — what we know of it — should be commended. It offers the prospects of tangible benefits to the United States for relatively little risk.
But the risk is real, not just for the soldiers whose lives will be in danger (though we of course must keep them in our thoughts) but due to the temptation to become overly reliant upon these elite teams at the expense of other, more traditional elements of American military strength. Given the enormous financial pressure the United States finds itself under, and given the tendency thus far of the current White House Administration and Congress to favor social spending, cutbacks to some elements of American military readiness are inevitable. Until America’s fiscal house can be put back in order, that is simply the bleak reality.
But the cuts made today to save money tomorrow will have an enormous impact for decades to come. Ballistic missile defense, as originally envisioned by the administration of George W. Bush, has already been scrapped, and the orders for advanced navy destroyers and F-22 stealth fighters have been slashed. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently got into a public spat with the Navy over whether or not the United States truly needed 11 aircraft carriers when the rest of the world combined does not have that many. Such debates will undoubtedly become more common in the years ahead, and military leaders and politicians alike must avoid cutting American capabilities too deep on the false assumption that special forces teams can pick up the slack.
To an extent, they can — but only to that extent. Indeed, it is worth noting that the original report on the expanded role for these teams was quite clear that one of their missions is reconnaissance in preparation for a possible American attack against the Iranian nuclear program. That example perfectly illustrates the proper balancing of unconventional special forces and old fashioned heavy firepower. After all, once American special units conducted such preliminary survey missions, it would fall to the Navy and Air Force to blast their way into Iran, destroy their targets, and then deal with the inevitably violent Iranian response.
There is a role for special forces teams in future wars and low-level conflicts, and General Petraeus and the Obama Administration are to be praised for recognizing that. But the best efforts of those brave Americans deployed far from home will be wasted if the United States does not maintain the striking power to make use of their hard-won information and chooses instead of cut the military too deep to reduce deficits or free up funds for social programs of dubious value.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.