As the focus of modern warfare shifts from conventional military campaigns to clandestine, targeted strikes, the U.S. military has increasingly come to rely on covert operatives employed by U.S. Special Operations Command, according to a new report.
When an elite team of Navy SEALs swooped into Osama bin Laden's compound and ended a decade long hunt for the al Qaeda leader, it gave the American public a brief glimpse into the shrouded world of special operations. After a wave of articles about the infamous Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or SEAL Team Six, interest receded.
The raid grabbed headlines for its target, but it was hardly unprecedented: SEAL Team Six represents a tiny proportion of the small but growing army of Special Operations commandoes regularly carrying out missions in foreign countries, according to a report in Salon by Nick Turse. By the end of the year, Special Operations forces could be active in 120 different countries; on any given day, they are deployed in around 70.
"We do a lot of traveling -- a lot more than Afghanistan or Iraq," U.S. Special Operations Command Spokesman Colonel Tim Nye said.
Special Operations Command personnel now employs almost 60,000 people, up from about 37,000 in the early 1990's, and it has seen its budget increase from $2.3 billion to $9.8 billion in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. That reflects the extent to which counter-terrorism relies on assassinations and on the targeted drone strikes that the Obama administration has aggressively employed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Yemen and Somalia. It also parallels a drive to train troops around the world in counter-terrorism techniques.
There are many different forces operating under the auspices of Special Operations Command, including the SEALs and the Army's Green Berets, but Joint Special Operations Command has taken a leading role in hunting suspected terrorists. John Nagl, a past counterinsurgency adviser to former commander of U.S. forces and soon-to-be CIA Director David Petraeus, called the Joint Special Operations Command "an almost industrial-scale counter-terrorism killing machine."
As American troops depart from Iraq and Afghanistan, such forces are likely to take on an augmented role while the secretive nature of their missions largely shields them from scrutiny.