Much is being made, and properly so, of President Bush’s changes to top-level military and intelligence service leaders. In some ways such moves follow logically from the replacement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It makes sense that with a new strategy being formulated and implemented the new Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, will want his own team on the ground. In time of war when dealing with scarce resources and even more precious soldier’s lives, who wouldn’t want people who supported his strategy at the point of the spear?
It is important to note that the generals who are replaced – John Abizaid and George Casey – are solid, intelligent, brave, highly decorated soldiers who performed at a level they considered their best both in physical effort and professional judgment. But their attitudes, particularly that of Casey who was said to be more focused on withdrawal than victory, apparently do not conform with the new strategy promulgated by the president. British journalist Melanie Phillips noted “[it] has long been apparent that [Bush] has been ill-served by his top brass in Iraq.”
Admiral William Fallon is being brought in from Hawaii, where he commanded all U.S. forces in the Pacific, to Central Command. LTG David Petraeus, who was considered outstanding in his leadership role of the 101st Airmobile Division in Operation Iraqi Freedom and in his latest role of training up Iraqi forces, is replacing Casey as head of all Coalition forces in Iraq.
Will these personnel changes matter?
Again, Phillips observes, “the fight in Washington…has not just been over whether more or fewer troops are needed in Iraq. It’s also been over a major difference in strategic perception.” It is that same strategic conundrum that Fred Gedrich and Paul Vallely question. “The United States has to transition from a conventional to an unconventional war footing,” the authors write. They further note that “in January 2003, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld designated the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) as the lead military organization to prosecute the global war on terror but unfortunately that has not materialized.” [Emphasis added.]
Columnist Ralph Peters agrees that the strategy has been misdirected. In a piece praising the professional character of General Patraeus, he worries that “the counterinsurgency doctrine produced under [Patraeus’] direction remains far too mired in failed 20th century models. Winning hearts and minds sounds great, but it’s useless when those hearts and minds turn up dead the next morning.”
So where to go?
Till now the war – whether known as the Global War on Terror or the more appropriate designation by Frank Gaffney as the “War for the Free World” – has been fought by conventional, geographically oriented commands. Despite the 2003 memo Gedrich and Vallely cite, Central Command (USCENTCOM) has maintained the lead in combating Islamofascist terrorists. Other geographical commands such as Pacific Command and Southern Command have had a piece of the action, all supported by SOCOM and the special operations community. This is considered by many to be exactly the reverse of what is needed. “President Bush and the new U.S. defense secretary, Robert Gates,” according to Gedrich and Vallely, “could deliver an effective change in current Iraq war strategy and the wider global war…by placing experienced unconventional warfare leaders in charge of the war effort.” In other words, perhaps it is past time to do what seemed to most of us to have been decided more than three years ago.
Why does this seem like such a big deal? For starters, the CENTCOM leaders work primarily in a restricted, albeit large geographical area. While CENTCOM’s area of responsibility covers 27 different countries across the Middle East and Central Asia even down to the Horn of Africa, it is by definition limited. Conversely the SOCOM community has a global perspective. When al-Qaeda terrorists like the Bali bombers, for example, transit from Afghanistan to Malaysia to Indonesia and return, they cross two major command areas. SOCOM on the other hand, has responsibility for them the entire time because it is focused on the functionality of the war, not merely artificially imposed geographical delineations.
SOCOM’s basic mission statement says it plainly enough:
SOCOM leads, plans, synchronizes, and, as directed, executes global operations against terrorist networks….[SOCOM] deploys combat-ready special operations forces….[that] are organized with a regional focus to take advantage of language and political skills. [Emphasis added]
In other words, the special operators have a global strategic view reinforced with highly specialized regional capabilities. Doesn’t that mission statement sound like exactly what is needed to win this war?
Use Operation Enduring Freedom, the liberation of Afghanistan from Taliban and al-Qaeda terror as an example. Once given the mission, SOCOM was able to use its varied internal resources supported by external conventional military units to bring down an enemy that had been described by former military officers, analysts, and the media as virtually invincible. And they accomplished it all in the midst of the “fierce Afghan winter” against which our forces were deemed unsuited to prevail. Further, the mission was accomplished relying on a tactic that special operators alone bring to the table, a principle known as “economy of force.” This means American spec ops troops use indigenous soldiers to do what conventionally-minded strategists would rely on American units to accomplish – better, cheaper, faster, and with fewer casualties.
To Peter’s point, special operations units understand the need for “the defiant us of force.” They realize that with some opponents the only solution is the application of controlled, deliberate, and irresistible violence. For example, when a special task force confronted Uday and Qusay Hussein barricaded inside a house, they took it down with such force that the example affected other terrorists. It has been repeated as necessary with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and other terrorists who know they can run but cannot hide. Special operations forces are able to think more creatively, operate more freely, and use more flexibility than conventional forces that are tied to legalistic, unrealistic, and often self-defeating rules of engagement drawn up by Pentagon JAG lawyers or imposed timid unit commanders who wish, as Peters comments “to pretend we’re not at war.”
Because they can operate across service lines (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard) and agency lines (CIA, FBI, DEA, police, and others), as well as across international lines, the special operations forces are better able to accomplish a mission by sharing intelligence information, coordination appropriate inter-agency missions, and understanding the “big picture” threat that faces America and its allies. For example, special operations forces in South America see the links between Colombian narco-terrorists in the FARC, al-Qaeda infiltrators, rogue state support from Venezuela, and Cuban influence and work hand-in-glove with DEA and CIA along with local forces to counter these mutual enemies.
The most important point is that this “War for the Free World” is not a conventional war. This war, other than for brief interludes in which set-piece battles were fought and won as during the early weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is a dark, shadowy war. It must be fought against an enemy adept at using a mixed-strategy of ideology, propaganda, terrorism, money-laundering, non-state combatants, rogue state sponsors, and irregular, conscience-less brutality to conduct operations against America.
By restricting ourselves to artificial, bureaucratic geographical division of responsibility, by thinking only in terms of conventional battlefields, and by relying on gentle, media-friendly tactics we are trying to fight our sworn enemies with unacceptable – indeed potentially fatal - mental and physical constraints. If victory is our objective then we must fight the war to win, using forces specially configured and trained to employ an effective strategy to defeat this terrible an enemy. Those forces are found in the special operations community and the sooner we call on them to take charge the better chance we have of winning this war.
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