No matter how you look at the global war on terror – as a full-blown war against terrorist organizations and their state sponsors, a global police action, an ideological-generational struggle akin to the Cold War, or even something less than a war – special operations forces (SOF) are an essential element of U.S. security in this post-9/11 age.
The evidence is quite literally everywhere, and Washington is expanding the role of America's covert warriors.
At this moment, more than 12,000 SOF personnel are deployed in more than 75 countries, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. Last year, they were deployed to just 60.
Not surprisingly, most of these "quiet professionals" are located in CENTCOM's area of responsibility. Some 9,000 SOF shooters are "evenly divided between Iraq and Afghanistan," according to The Washington Post.
We don't know all that these shadow warriors are doing. In fact, their most successful missions are usually the least publicized. It's worth noting in this regard that, according to the Post, SOF personnel may actually be collecting intelligence inside Iran.
What we do know for certain is that SOF units are training Afghan and Iraqi forces, targeting insurgents and terrorists, guiding in airstrikes and hunting the remnants of al-Qaida. They were crucial in turning the tide in Iraq, and are key to repeating that feat in Afghanistan.
In one three-month period this year, Special Ops raids in Afghanistan "killed or captured 186 insurgent leaders and detained an additional 925 lower-level fighters," according to a Los Angeles Times report.
Hollywood's depiction of Special Ops personnel storming in with guns blazing is more myth than reality. In fact, CRS reports that "on about 80 percent" of raids involving Special Ops personnel in Afghanistan, "no shots are fired."
Sometimes the hunt carries SOF troops into neighboring Pakistan. There may be as many as 120 SOF personnel in Pakistan, most of them focused on training operations. U.S. commanders want to up that number to 300.
In Yemen, the new center of gravity for al-Qaida, U.S. commandos are not only training local forces, but also targeting the bad guys.
Beyond CENTCOM, SOF operators are at work in the Pacific, South America, Europe and especially Africa. SOF units are known to have targeted the enemy in Somalia in recent months, and are also deeply engaged in Mali and neighboring Saharan nations. Their mission is to train up local forces to fight the rising tide of terrorism in and around the Maghreb. As many as 400 al-Qaida operatives are based in northern Mali. The fear is that the enemy will use this area as a launching pad into Europe.
SOF shooters are even in NORTHCOM's area of responsibility. The most likely deployment site for the handful of special operators with NORTHCOM task orders would seem to be Mexico, where U.S. training teams are quietly helping the Mexican military.
What may come as a surprise to some observers is that this is nothing new. Throughout the 1990s, Special Ops units were actively at work in the shadows. In 1996, as Robert Kaplan details in "The Coming Anarchy", "U.S. Special Forces were responsible for 2,325 missions in 167 countries." That said, the demands, tempo and stakes are all higher today, which explains the growth in special operations spending and numbers since 9/11. In 2000, the Special Ops budget was around $3.5 billion. By 2004, it was $6.7 billion. Today, it's $9.8 billion.
Special Operations Command has about 57,000 personnel under its umbrella, with another 2,700 on the way in 2011. It takes about two years to train up an Army Special Ops soldier, and three years for a Navy SEAL; the first year of SEAL training comes with a price tag of $800,000. In other words, America's shadow warriors are a precious resource.
There is a danger here. Given the amorphous and seemingly ubiquitous nature of modern terrorism, it would be easy to overwhelm Special Ops units with endless deployments and countless missions. Washington must resist that temptation. These secret warriors are superb at what they do, but they are not superhuman. If haphazardly deployed, they could be drawn out of the shadows and cut down in the light.
The challenge for policymakers is to find that fine line between underutilizing and overburdening America's shadow warriors.