Fourth, our assessment efforts must take a hard look at special operations forces, who have been the star players in all three campaigns of the war on terrorism. Their achievements are doubly significant when one considers that they represent only 5 percent of defense personnel and no more than 4 percent of the entire DoD budget. In the war on terrorism, their focal point has been the direct approach. In March 2012, Adm. William McRaven, the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, described this counterterrorist effort as a combination of “precision lethality, focused intelligence and interagency cooperation, all integrated on a digitally networked battlefield.” He believes SOCOM must now shift to an indirect approach to help U.S. allies fight their own battles and expand allied capacity to do that work in the future.
This will be a difficult shift. Few organizations easily abandon successful programs, especially when they are so popular with the public. The need for engagement, advice and training, however, will soon exceed the need for kinetic operations. It will require fewer shooters and more language-qualified trainers, less door-kicking and more cultural awareness. The nation’s leaders must also protect special operations forces from being used on missions that could be done by general-purpose forces.
A wide range of common-sense recommendations for the future of SOF can be found in an April Council on Foreign Relations report by Rand expert Linda Robinson. She calls for the United States to “raise the game of special operations forces” by emphasizing the indirect approach of engagement, training and assistance. She concludes the report with this important thought: “The phrase ‘You can’t kill your way to victory,’ coined by a special operator, is a useful signpost on the road to a more comprehensive approach to special operations as part of U.S. national security policy.” Finally, we need to think hard about the evolving terrorist threat. The lonewolf terrorist feeds on psychological discontent and terrorist information operations. The U.S. has killed Osama bin Laden and many of his senior comrades, but his poisonous ideology and other varieties of radical Islamist thought thrive on the Internet. For example, even after his death, the radical sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki motivated the Boston Marathon bombers, just as they had influenced Maj. Nidal Hassan, the lone-wolf terrorist accused of shooting his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood. Along with implementing better immigration controls and screening, the United States must take action against al-Qaida websites and propaganda outlets. While dealing with lone-wolf terrorists at home is a police issue, U.S. forces, diplomats and homeland security experts must help out by defeating the poisonous sites and the “magazines,” like Inspire, that train the wannabe lone wolf in how to build bombs.