Zero Dark Thirty: The Reality And Future Of Special Forces After Osama Bin Laden

 @MayaErgas on December 18 2012 5:12 PM

Being a U.S. Special Forces operator isn't all fun, night-vision goggles and killing Osama Bin Laden. At least according to Linda Robinson, a former war journalist and adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

With the opening of the Oscar-baiting movie "Zero Dark Thirty," which claims to be based on actual accounts of how the Bin Laden raid went down, Robinson said now is the time for Washington to decide what to do with future special operations, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Robinson proposed a shift toward an "indirect approach," meaning more joint operations with local forces and militias.

"Many people in public and in the policy-making community only view special ops as those units that go out and do high-value-target kill and capture," Robinson said. "In fact, the hallmark of the indirect approach is work through partner forces." Partner forces, she clarified, could be local armies, militias, or elite police units. "Right now in Afghanistan there's a huge program to develop village-based local defense forces using civilians," she said.

Special ops became commonplace, Robinson explained over a conference call, because the glut of "irregular threats" against the U.S.

"We've moved away from conventional warfare into the world of terrorism," Robinson said, "and this is what special operations forces were designed to go after. They're designed to deploy in small operations, with an emphasis on a small footprint and a cost-effective approach to national security efforts."

Now, with U.S. troops out of Iraq and the intervention in Afghanistan scheduled to end in 2014, Robinson said we could actually see even more special ops raids, a tactic she said she didn't think could have sustained positive effects.

"Iraq and Afghanistan have always been arenas in which special operations forces have been operating at a very high tempo," she said. "Twelve to 14 raids a night is the oft-cited tempo. 

"But," she continued, "this is the perfect moment in a post-Bin Laden era to pivot away from raids. Drones and raids are just tactics. They don't have an enduring effect; they're not going to solve problems in a long-term way, and often there is dramatic political and diplomatic fallout." Indeed, after Bin Laden was eliminated in 2011, relations between Pakistan and the U.S. went into "full-blown crisis" mode, Robinson said, and all operations in Pakistan came to an abrupt halt.

Robinson also cited the examples of Colombia and the Philippines, where U.S. Special Forces came in long-term to train and work with the national armies. "We're starting at a point in many of these countries where the governments are weak," Robinson said. "Armed forces often have inadequate capabilities and human rights problems. In Colombia, over half the army was under the control of the guerrillas."

Partnering with U.S. special ops affords these troubled armies a new level of professionalization and prospects for long-term improvement, Robinson asserted, and she said that special ops are currently engaged in indirect approaches in about 75 countries, including Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, against Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance army in Uganda, Indonesia, and Thailand, as well as longer-term projects in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. The vast majority of these projects, Robinson said, are "non-lethal operations."

As for "Zero Dark Thirty," sure to become one of the foremost works in the canon of 9/11 art, Robinson said she thought the movie spent too much time on the "enhanced interrogation techniques," and "raiding element" of special ops. 

"It doesn't acknowledge this majority [non-lethal] part of the community," she said. "Part of my problem with public perception right now is that they think special ops only does capture and kill."

The future of special ops, whether they will be used for mostly lethal or non-lethal purposes, is up for debate. For her part, Robinson said if we learned nothing from the Bin Laden raid, it's that al Qaeda will regenerate, and thus special ops will be required elsewhere. 

"Policymakers have to realize you're not going to get an endgame just by application of the hunter-killer approach," she said. "It has to be fleshed out into a real pivot into how special ops are applied."

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