To a degree that is surprising, impressive, and dismaying in equal measure, the brunt of the battle against ISIS, the Taliban, and other terrorist foes is being borne by a relatively tiny number of Special Operations Forces of various nationalities. Iraq and Afghanistan are especially reliant on these elite forces.
As this Washington Post article noted, by far the most effective military forces at Kabul’s command are the Commandos, approximately 11,000 strong. This Brookings report by retired U.S. Army colonel David Witty observed that the same is true in Iraq, where Baghdad leans heavily on the Counter-Terrorism Service, which is approximately 13,000 strong. It was Iraqi commandos that were largely responsible for driving ISIS out of Ramadi, and it was the Afghan commandos who were largely responsible for retaking the northern town of Kunduz from the Taliban.
There is little doubt why these forces are so effective — they receive more support and training than do regular Afghan or Iraqi army units, and they are more insulated from corruption and politicization. The Special Operations Forces (SOF) are better-led and better-motivated and better-paid than their regular army counterparts, which helps to explain why they do not cut and run in the face of the enemy.
Yet the reliance on the SOF can only go so far. These units are not big enough to safeguard entire nations — the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, for example, has to rely on just three operational battalions, each with no more than 600 trigger-pullers. Such a small force was sufficient to retake Ramadi, but it won’t suffice to take Mosul, which is a much larger city. That helps to explain why plans to recapture Mosul have stalled — there simply are not enough well-trained Iraqi forces to do the job yet.
Moreover, by using their SOF so much, both Afghanistan and Iraq are in danger of exhausting this precious resource. These units not only carry an inordinately heavy load in battle but also suffer correspondingly heavy casualties and a nonstop deployment tempo, raising the risk of burnout leading to combat ineffectiveness.
This is not just a problem for Iraqi or Afghan units. It is also an issue for the US Special Operations Forces which mentor and support these local forces. Just as Afghanistan and Iraq count so heavily on their SOF to carry the burden of battling terrorists, so does the U.S. In fact the Obama administration has become more reliant than ever on special operators, as symbolized by the appointment of General Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, to run Central Command.
The news is full of the exploits of American SOF units. They are in Somalia battling Shabaab militants. They are in Libya preparing to battle ISIS, which has established a province in Sirte. They are in Iraq capturing the head of ISIS’s chemical weapons program.
And that’s to give only a few highlights of U.S. SOF missions that have become public in recent days. There are countless other operations in numerous other countries that are going on outside of the limelight – just as they have been ever since September 11, 2001. That’s nearly 15 years ago. That’s a long time for any force, much less a relatively small force like the U.S. SOF community, to continue such a high tempo of operations.
The American SOF operators are far better trained and supported than their Iraqi or Afghan counterparts, and there are more of them, but they run the same risk of death, injury, stress, and burnout. The same might be said of British, Australian, and French special forces, who have regularly worked with their American counterparts “down range” ever since 9/11 and which are even tinier than the U.S. forces.
Special Operators are superb soldiers, but they are not superhuman, and it is reasonable to wonder if the United States, like Iraq and Afghanistan, is counting too heavily on too few men to battle our all-too numerous enemies.