This week, the New York Times reported on a draft proposal circulating inside the Pentagon that would permanently boost the global presence and operational autonomy of U.S. special operations forces. According to the article, Adm. William McRaven, the Navy SEAL who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and who is now the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), is requesting additional authority and independence outside of the normal, interagency decision-making process.
After the successful direct action strike against bin Laden and SOCOM's important role in training allied security forces in Afghanistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere, it is easy to understand how McRaven's command has become, as the New York Times put it, the Obama administration's "military tool of choice." A larger forward presence around the world and more autonomy would provide McRaven's special operations soldiers with some of the same agility enjoyed by the irregular adversaries SOCOM is charged with hunting down.
McRaven's request for more operational authority is an understandable reaction to the additional responsibilities the Obama administration and the Pentagon are heaping on SOCOM's shoulders. In the post-Afghanistan era, it will be more politically difficult for U.S. policymakers to employ large numbers of conventional ground forces. But the work of hunting down terrorists and training foreign security forces in unstable areas will go on -- missions that will fall to McRaven's men. In addition, U.S. policymakers expect McRaven's troops to track down loose weapons of mass destruction anywhere in the world and to conduct discreet on-the-ground reconnaissance and intelligence gathering when high-tech overhead systems can't collect the information needed.
But the growing crisis in Syria could provide the most challenging test for McRaven and the operating authorities he seeks. Last year's successful overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi showed how outside military support for insurgents -- a core special forces mission called unconventional warfare (UW) -- can produce decisive results with a small investment. Should a coalition of Arab and Western powers eventually intervene in support of Syria's rebels, McRaven and his operators might face their most complicated mission yet.
The New York Times piece made no inference to UW, but it is a mission that dates back to the origins of U.S. Army special forces at the start of the Cold War and is a basic component of special forces training. Special forces UW doctrine usually foresees a Special Forces-led UW operation as just one line of effort in a larger military campaign typically dominated by conventional forces. But after Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers may look to special operations UW campaigns to go it alone, doing the disruptive and controversial regime changing once entrusted to large armies. Major combat operations and unconventional warfare are both offensive operations. But with the use of conventional forces politically constrained, policymakers may look to McRaven's special operators to use their UW skills to carry out regime change, the most controversial of offensive missions.