Survival of the fittest

Conflicts since 9/11 have given special forces new prominence. They may fare less well as politicians prepare for the wars of the future
October 17, 2012

The Long Range Desert Group of the SAS after months behind enemy lines, north Africa, 1942

The former US Navy SEAL writing under the pseudonym Mark Owen provoked an extraordinary range of responses with the publication of his account of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden, No Easy Day. Originally slated for release on the symbolic 11th September, it was rushed out early to meet a demand that had already placed it at the top of the Amazon and Barnes & Noble online bestseller lists; in the case of Amazon, displacing Fifty Shades of Grey.

Owen’s book raised issues of the legality of the bin Laden raid as well as the opportunism of the politicians who ordered it and have subsequently milked its success. It also highlighted the rights and responsibilities of special forces operators seeking a public voice. But perhaps more than anything else it was a public discourse on the role of special forces in contemporary iconography—on the unique place they have won on the battlefield, in politicians’ reckoning of national assets and in the public imagination.

It has been a long romance, which began with the creation of these shadowy elite forces more than 70 years ago, a process led by Britain and which others have followed. The Special Air Service, or SAS, erupted into the public consciousness with the end of the 1980 Iranian embassy siege in London, relayed live on primetime television on the May Day bank holiday to an audience of millions. Its motto, “Who Dares Wins,” has lodged itself in the public mind. But it is the wars of 9/11—confused, episodic and offering only fleeting opportunities to engage an elusive enemy—that have seen special forces lead the military response ahead of more deliberate conventional military units. Public celebrity has attended success and Mark Owen’s account has fed a keen popular demand for insight into these enclosed military orders. However, strategic challenges change and as the 9/11 era draws to a close special forces will have to re-cast themselves for different conflicts where their unique qualities may have to share a stage with other, more prosaic, military capabilities.

Who are these people and where do they come from? Military units that have a defining quality, that are preserved for a purpose other than the grinding battle and are committed to the fight only on the order of the highest level of command populate history from Alexander the Great’s Silver Shields to Orde Wingate’s Chindits (the largest of the Allied special forces in the second world war). Yet most have failed to survive the circumstances of their creation as regimes change, armies revert to orthodoxy and elite forces become a political embarrassment. One of the signal achievements of British and American special forces is to break this cycle, at least until now, by a process of constant adaptation.

In the specific case of the Sea Air Land teams, they are drawn from across the US naval service. A small element of the SEALs, known colloquially as SEAL Team 6 but more accurately and inelegantly as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, combines with the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta, drawn mainly from the US army—to make up the Tier 1 of US special forces.

This core is made up of personnel who survive a Darwinian selection process that limits numbers of the top tier to only a few hundred, in both the US and UK. Individually, special forces soldiers tend to be more reflective and solitary than their conventional military peers, accurately representing an organisation that bases its strength on individual rather than collective competence, the inverse of the relationship sought in conventional soldiering.

For those nations that choose to seek genuine excellence in their special forces, the numbers are remarkably consistent and indicate a finite proportion of the general and military populations equipped to meet the selection criteria. For those nations that do not seek excellence but rather the designer accessory without which no despot’s public inventory is complete, the numbers can be higher and the uniforms more gorgeous. Britain produces about the same number of special forces soldiers a year as Oxbridge colleges produce double firsts.

And it is the British example that has set an historical standard for special forces, drawing on two separate traditions. The first is the soldier romantic, perhaps best defined by David Stirling, who founded the SAS in 1941. This tradition would climb Everest because it was there and would have attacked German aircraft in North Africa as a natural extension of a European grand tour. Even today, it might draw its creed from James Elroy Flecker’s words inscribed on the memorial clock tower of the SAS base at Hereford:

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go Always a little further; it may be Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow Across that angry or that glimmering sea.

The second tradition is the capacity for implacable but discriminate violence, almost certainly best represented by Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne, who took over command of the wartime SAS when Stirling was captured and imprisoned in Colditz. Mayne, a man of preternatural physical strength and brooding demeanour, won Irish and British Lions rugby caps as well as four Distinguished Service Orders. His contemporaries record a sense of metaphysical presence in the raids he led from 1941 onwards.

In successful combination, these two traditions created a capacity for insouciant savagery still recognisable today.

There was no equivalent US tradition; America has fought its wars by the application of industrial technique to conflict resolution. A process begun by the Union forces in the American Civil War found full expression in the twentieth century when US industrial capacity and technological innovation were the decisive factors in the second world war and the Cold War. And, while the Western Frontier may have created rugged individualism as a self-defining mythology, there was little in the American experience to compare to the authority and independence of the British colonial political officer or the subaltern playing a cameo role in the Great Game in Central Asia in the mid nineteenth century. Victorian imperial heroes like Francis Younghusband, James Abbott (who gave his name to Abbottabad, bin Laden’s last refuge), the Lawrence brothers and, perhaps above all, John Nicholson were the spiritual antecedents of Stirling and Mayne and there was no corresponding sense of historical continuity with US special forces until, that is, Charlie Beckwith plagiarised the British model.

Beckwith was one of those vivid, sometimes flawed, characters who appeared in the small wars of the late twentieth century; Jacques Massu, the French general who fought in Indo-China and Algeria, and Mike Calvert the British officer who served in Malaya in the 1950s, are others. After service in Korea and Vietnam punctuated, crucially, by an attachment to the SAS, he became a proselyte of the British techniques of specialised small unit operations as the necessary corrective to the US habits of mass deployment in the war amongst the people that it was fighting in Vietnam. He remained an isolated voice until his insistent evangelism and the rise of international terrorism combined to make a compelling case for a specialised military response and, in the late 1970s, Delta Force was created and the SEALs followed a short time later. For a brief period, Beckwith’s homage to the SAS was so complete that the Delta base at Fort Bragg saw an outbreak of brogues, tweed and gundogs as the traditional accoutrements of the British officers’ mess were transferred, whole and incongruous, to North Carolina.

Beckwith’s career ended with the debacle of Operation Eagle Claw in April 1980, the abortive and humiliating attempt to rescue American hostages held in Iran for which the killing of bin Laden is the final act of redemption.

British and American special forces embarked on the wars of 9/11 evenly balanced. While the Americans could call on scale and reach, the British were credited with an atavistic knowledge of operations in remote and sensitive conditions. This broad equivalence bore no relationship to the conventional force ratios of the two countries (US defence spending was $711bn in 2012, compared to the UK’s $63bn), nor any other index of national power; neither would it survive the following decade.

At a simplistic level, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought as a facsimile of that in Northern Ireland. Large numbers of conventional forces have provided a public face and tried to hold the ring in support of fragile civil structures, while special forces, in and out of uniform, have engaged a range of enemies ever more closely in order to create the necessary preconditions for a political settlement. The scale, ferocity and effectiveness of the special forces campaigns fought in Iraq from 2003 onwards and more latterly in Afghanistan are yet to find full public record. Mark Urban, diplomatic editor of Newsnight, captured elements of the fight in his book Task Force Black, but a full audit of these operations still awaits its author.

What is clear though is that the traditional cottage industry scale of special forces operations has been elevated to industrial levels. The special forces operators kicking down the doors remain the same people, in the same numbers. However, now wrapped around them is an army of military support groups, linguists, analysts, interrogators, computer and forensic geeks, all linked from the operating theatre by huge data pipes to the parent intelligence agencies in the US and UK. This is where the US penchant for scale kicks in and is the point at which it pulls away from all other countries. There is nothing to separate US and UK special forces; the difference in the national capabilities lies in the size and sophistication of the supporting structures. Any witness to the relentless application of military violence that destroyed al Qaeda in Iraq, forced the recalcitrant Sunni to the negotiating table in Baghdad and continues to punish the Taliban will recognise the quintessentially American qualities of scale, technological sophistication and driving sense of purpose. The Abbottabad raid not only closed the account on bin Laden, it also showed US special forces operating front and centre of the national military structures.

In turn, this had wider implications for US military strategy. At 9/11, America’s strategic world view was dominated by the Powell Doctrine, named after Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs and secretary of state to George Bush, which resolved only to deploy US forces under conditions of overwhelming superiority. Donald Rumsfeld took office with the hunch that this was no more than a manifesto for profligate military spending and he immediately saw the opportunity to overturn this assumption by the limited and economic use in Afghanistan of special forces, suitcases of CIA money and the convenient proxy of the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban quickly and install Hamid Karzai in power.

But while the Rumsfeld Doctrine may have been right for Afghanistan, a weak state but a strong society, it was not appropriate for Iraq, a strong state but a weak society. Over the years from 2003 to 2006 US forces learned the hard lessons of counter insurgency which then provided the core script for the later “Surge” of forces followed by US disengagement. However, even America was unwilling to accept the cost in blood, treasure and political capital that the remaking of societies through the techniques of counter insurgency implied. A replacement counter terrorist doctrine is now emerging.

Counter terrorism avoids the uncongenial burden of large scale soldiering in other people’s countries and concentrates on killing the bad guys, at as great a distance as possible. It is punitive rather than reconciliatory and has the decisive advantage of being cheap. Why, runs the argument favoured by vice president Joe Biden, and others, would you put US boots on the ground when the occasional special forces raid and a sky full of drones can do the same job without hazard to American life or domestic political constituency? A glance at the pattern of US operations in Waziristan or Yemen charts this latest transition and illustrates the way in which the US military shares the wider national vocation of innovation. An army trained, equipped and deployed against four different core assumptions in ten years is quick work by any standard and it sets the scene for Mark Owen’s footnote to the history of our times.

Operation Neptune Spear, the raid on bin Laden’s compound, took risks at a number of levels. The sovereignty of a major ally would be wilfully disregarded; indeed, a confrontation with Pakistani air defence or ground forces was entirely possible. A successful operation might imply Pakistani complicity in hiding bin Laden; an unsuccessful one would represent a hideous failure of intelligence. Presidential re-election might benefit from success and it would certainly suffer from failure.

In many ways the risks grew in inverse proportion to the distance from the objective. The technical challenge of the insertion of the forces from Jalalabad to Abbottabad was well within the competence of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Aided by stealth technology, superb flying skills and the habit of the Pakistani integrated air defence system to look east to its strategic nemesis, India, rather than west to Afghanistan, the force was inserted and later recovered without major incident.

Minor incident, in the form of the crash of a Blackhawk helicopter, concentrated minds but the assault on the bin Laden compound was little more than routine and certainly easier than the SEALs might have expected. There were none of the devices they had become inured to in a decade of house clearances: no cleared fields of fire, no prepared obstacles or booby traps, no defended citadel or fervent jihadist awaiting a martyr’s death by firing his explosive vest close to the assaulting troops. Rather, there was a middle-aged man with a dyed beard and an obsession with his back catalogue of videos starring himself, surrounded by his extended family and retainers. Resistance was brief and desultory and Owen is unable to conceal his contempt for a phenomenon he claims to have seen repeatedly: “the higher up the food chain the targeted individual was, the bigger the pussy he was.”

For the SEALs it may have been another day, another dollar but for the Central Intelligence Agency it was a triumph. Since bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora in 2001, the agency had been smarting at its failures then and its inability since to track him down. It may be that the regimented structures of Soviet governance or the Iraqi Republican Guard had habituated CIA analysts to expect form, hierarchy and structure amongst its enemies, characteristics conspicuously absent in al Qaeda. The organisation had always been loose and organic, a tendency exaggerated by the pressure of American attacks. While the CIA continued to seek vertical patterns of organisation, al Qaeda conducted its operations by horizontal proliferation of its command. But as time went on the CIA became more flexible in its approach and, eventually, in the hunt for bin Laden, got lucky.

Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti had long been of interest, but it was only in 2007 that he was identified as Mohammed Arshad Khan, who, though he was brought up in Kuwait, was a Pakistani national. Fluent in Arabic, Urdu and Pushto, Khan was the ideal facilitator and when, in 2009, the CIA identified his mobile number, it was able to build an intriguing network. A year later, Khan was physically located in Peshawar and followed to a compound in Abbottabad where a tall man, dubbed The Pacer, was seen to take occasional exercise. Khan was the first to die in the subsequent assault.

Reports suggest a majority of the CIA analysts most closely involved in the operation were women, an observation that will come as no surprise to those with experience of the intelligence world. And it is the co-ordination of intelligence, surveillance and military action, conducted over years, protected by operational security and sanctioned by appropriate levels of political leadership that is the real measure of American success, rather than its ability to conduct a single night raid. Before 9/11, the US was probably not capable of the bin Laden operation; by 2011, only the US was capable of it.

None of this, of course, would be possible unless President Barack Obama had been convinced and given the go-ahead. It is interesting to note that in Owen’s account the SEALs, with their lightly concealed contempt for political process, never expected this to happen. While the president may have chosen to lead from behind in some areas of national security, he has been highly aggressive in his pursuit of terrorist targets and drone engagements have multiplied since the end of the Bush administration. In part, this trend simply follows the emerging US counter-terrorist strategy, at another level it might suit a president better equipped for the intellectual abstraction of selective targeting than the more visceral business of large scale deployed operations. That Obama has taken credit for an operation he was intimately involved in, and which carried enormous political risk, seems no more than fair. Yet is was Hilary Clinton, recorded in Peter Bergen’s book Manhunt, who observed that, even if it was never launched, details of the operation would eventually leak. To be the president who had bin Laden in his sights but failed to pull the trigger would be politically terminal and his final decision may have contained a certain element of inevitability.

How much did the Pakistanis know? It seems impossible that bin Laden could have hidden in plain sight from the authorities in a place known locally as the Arab compound. Our pre-conceptions of the omnipresence of the Pakistani military intelligence service, the ISI, also make it difficult to believe he could have lived almost adjacent to Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst without official knowledge. Equally, if the Pakistani authorities had known would there not have been a range of contingency plans against American action, or, at the very least, some prepared public response? Rhetorical certainty for and against Pakistani complicity is about equally balanced and probably tells us more about the tensions existing within that country than the role it played in bin Laden’s end. The choice between complicity and breathtaking institutional incompetence is not an attractive one but the observation by Jason Burke, the Guardian’s South Asia correspondent, that a “diffuse, inchoate but nonetheless real sense of shame” pervaded the domestic Pakistani debate might nudge us in the direction of incompetence.

There has been some debate about whether the SEALs were conducting an assassination or attempting an arrest of an indicted fugitive. This seems to ignore the precedent set by the opening salvoes of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, designed to kill Saddam Hussein on the legal basis that the individual and the regime were indivisible and the death of the former would hasten the collapse of the latter and so enjoy some defensible conformity to the criteria of just war. At a more organic level, it also ignores the dynamics of small unit military operations. The inquest into the killing of three IRA terrorists in 1988 in Gibraltar raised the question that there might have been a conspiracy amongst the SAS team involved to kill the putative bombers, regardless of the formal orders they had received and the rules of engagement under which they were operating. Having been raised, the issue was dismissed by a verdict of lawful killing, though the European Court of Human Rights subsequently found differently. Leaving aside formal legal process, the institutional left will always be provoked by the idea of military elites acting as judge, jury and executioner, perhaps informed by a political doctrine of Wanted: Dead or Alive. In the case of bin Laden, few shared these misgivings.

It is easy to romanticise special forces as any nation’s finest and Mark Owen’s book certainly does. A natural correction to this is to glance at the way in which some former special forces operators, and occasionally some still serving, represent themselves and their institutions on the public stage. Secrecy, anonymity and self-deprecation should be the special forces’ stock in trade but in a world that has to accommodate significant egos it is unsurprising that some seek a wider audience. Almost invariably this is wrapped up in a self-justifying alibi that “it’s for the guys” or “if politicians can talk about it, so can I” and Owen employs both. But he’s not alone, and a series of accounts have emerged over recent years, usually under pseudonyms, of which the pen name Dalton Fury is probably the most luridly evocative. In addition, favoured journalists are closely briefed and some breathless accounts of operations more closely resemble acts of authorised biography than objective reporting, at least in the eyes of the grizzled denizens of the sergeants’ mess, the ultimate arbiter of regimental taste.

The effect is profoundly divisive and has led to accusations of headline seeking, money grabbing and, most importantly, compromise of operational techniques; in turn, men who have spent their adult lives in military service have been denied access to regimental facilities or associations. In both Britain and America considerable effort has been put into formalising the circumstances in which accounts of this recondite world can discharge their debt to the public record. But neither Hereford nor Fort Bragg is above the temptation of cashing in, nor perhaps to the influence of celebrity culture.

In their evolution over seven decades, special forces have shown an ability to survive through adaptation. The SAS was disbanded in 1945 but reformed again in 1950 to meet the specific requirements of the Malayan Emergency. Wiser to the ways of military officialdom, the Regiment, as the SAS is also known, immediately set about establishing its credentials as a general purpose force, and its survival beyond the Emergency is evidence of its success. Delta Force would pull off the same trick a generation later when, having been formed for the specific purpose of counter terrorism, it quickly became capable of ubiquitous employment and an indispensable part of the national military inventory.

At their formation, the SAS and other units appealed to something deep within the British martial soul but they did not win the Battle of the Atlantic, form part of the bomber offensive or deliver a nuclear weapon. In general conflict, the place of special forces has been at the margins of the decisive engagements. But the speed, agility and opportunism with which they operate has found its time since 9/11. Today they occupy an historic high point in terms of both military utility and public profile; almost uniquely, they continue to be generously funded. Whether this position can survive the next strategic shift is the key issue for their future.

There may be some clues to that future in the past, particularly in the early 20th century. Certainly the strategic “pivot” of the US to the Pacific basin, away from Europe, bears a striking resemblance to the concentration of the British fleet in northern waters after 1900. So too the bruising colonial engagements in the first and second Boer wars, in illustrating the limits of imperial power, have a contemporary echo; Afghanistan and Iraq have provided the same salutary warning for America. Meanwhile, the febrile debate in London in 1912 on intimations of national decline looks remarkably like this election year in Washington. Above all, and as Henry Kissinger and others have observed, the key security issue for the 21st century is whether China wishes to reprise the role of Germany in the 20th.

So what does this baleful precedent tell us? The period that followed from 1914 to 1991, Eric Hobsbawm’s short twentieth century, formed an unbroken block of historical continuity, dominated by the European continent, the twin abominations of fascism and communism and great power politics. Two world wars were followed by framework concepts such as containment and deterrence. Alliance systems that included NATO and the Warsaw Pact shaped the calculus of world affairs and marked a period of strategic formality in which tank armies and nuclear submarines were the military units of account, rather than special forces patrols. At its back end, for Britain, it had the sub plot of colonial disengagement but this was never more than a distraction from the main theme.

In 1989 we entered a period of strategic “broken play” from which we are now emerging as the wars of 9/11 run down. The existence of a Global War on Terror as a continuing condition tells how much of an aberration we have been through. Terrorism will not go away, the Middle East will see to that, but al Qaeda has been contained and is now an irritant rather than an existential threat, and, we have bigger fish to fry. The economic challenge to the West, nuclear proliferation, cyber threats and the possibility of currency, water or energy wars all point to the return of great power politics. Deterrence is in urgent need of a makeover if we are to have any chance of controlling nuclear use in the Middle East or South Asia, or the chaos of cyberspace, and other features of a wider international strategic framework will follow.

It may be that special forces are a less tight fit for the rehearsed military playbook this new era implies than the broken play from which we are emerging.

Meanwhile, special forces live in austere times. In Britain, they will have to win a share of a declining defence budget against competition from a replacement nuclear deterrent, the Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carriers, cyber capabilities and the next generation of aircraft or armoured vehicles: the tools of big power. They will also face the arithmetical challenge of drawing the same numbers from a smaller military population.

Whether they stay in the game as a minor player, become an affordable but illusory substitute for the big battalions, disappear or become emasculated, as historical example might suggest, remains to be seen. But we should never forget that survival, individual and institutional, is what they’re good at.