A Navy SEALs in gun battle in Iraq, 2016
The most tragic thing about Thursday’s death of a U.S. Navy SEAL, killed on a mission in Somalia on Thursday, is that he probably should not have been there. America is in Somalia to help the central government extend its control and defeat its Islamist rival Al-Shabaab, which is linked to Al Qaeda. Because of these links, Al-Shabaab is a U.S. target in the zombie war on terror.

But what’s the end goal? If Al-Shabaab is defeated, will the threat of violent Islamism vanish from Somalia? Highly unlikely. Al-Shabaab itself is a harder-line spinoff of the Islamic Courts Union, a group that first appeared back in 2006 and threatened to overrun Somalia. It did not.

Intervention by Ethiopian forces and regional support from the African Union and West has helped the Somali government push Al-Shabaab out of the major cities. Which is positive, for a campaign that has lasted a decade and counting.

The mission creep of America’s special operations forces came about largely from the Obama administration’s pushback against George W. Bush’s large-scale interventions.

There had to be a better way to kill terrorists than invading Arab states with a hundred thousand men, the logic went. And fair enough: If America could be kept safe by a very few, highly-trained elite, then all the better.

But the truth about these operators is that for all their successes, they can’t actually have that much of an impact. The very nature of their training and standards weans thousands of recruits down to a highly-motivated elite, with stupendous capabilities for a few select missions.

But they are very few.

And in America’s struggle against violent Islamism today, there is little evidence that individuals matter. It is no accident that even our operators’ finest moment — the killing of Osama Bin Laden, six years ago this week — did not fundamentally change the extremist threat America faced.

In fact, it got worse. The Islamic State was born from Al Qaeda in Iraq, even as Al Qaeda’s core was being torn to pieces by special operations.

Today it has been totally eclipsed. If Raqqa falls and ISIS is crushed tomorrow, its component pieces — and the societal forces that are creating this threat — will almost certainly morph into something new.

If individuals do not particularly matter in this war, then why do we have special operations forces carrying such a predominant load?

Because it seems easy. It seems low cost. The operators are good at what they do, they don’t require massive invasions, and they rarely make mistakes.

But there are many costs. Americans still die, month after month, in peripheral locations like Somalia with only a distant impact on American national security.

Nor will the numbers ever work out, on the margins. The billions America spends to prep its special forces to fight terrorism — including intelligence support, aviation, supply, beard oil and all the other necessities — is astronomically higher than the cost for the radicals to hoist a new flag and brand a new website. Over the long run, even the scalpel of special operations forces will become too costly.

Worse, the very ease and professionalism of these raids encourage American leaders to conduct more of them. As they become more numerous, they subsume other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. We will trade other priorities for foreign support for counterterrorism, playing whack-a-mole with constantly fewer quarters.

These raids also become a narcotic, numbing the need to make painful policy decisions and offering the illusion of progress.

Lastly, there’s the simple moral fact that it is troubling for any society to outsource its violence to so few for so long.

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