One of the most useful aspects of Zero Dark Thirty is its dogged focus on the mundane and numerous things that underpin great raids. There are the countless hours of intelligence collection and analysis, some of which is highly dangerous. The deliberations and interagency decisions about an event that not only risks the lives of brave men but also requires a high degree of enabling technologies and logistics. Perfect certainty is unavailable, and the identification of the Abbottabad hideout is a product of inductive reasoning of a highly impressionistic nature. A sophisticated helicopter malfunctions.
Of course, the film underplays all of the things that could have gone wrong. My former Georgetown classmate Phillip Padilla, a USSOCOM alumni, wrote a very chilling piece for Slate with Daniel Byman about how Neptune Spear could have easily gone FUBAR. As Padilla observes, the intel could have been wrong, al-Qaeda could have prepared defensive traps and positions that might have inflicted a heavy toll on the attackers, the helicopter could have crash-landed in an location far more inconvenient than the compound (such as in the middle of urban Abbottabad itself), and a diplomatically perilous and tactically risky shootout with the Pakistani military could have occurred.
For every Neptune Spear, there are many Dieppes or Mogadishus. In the world of hostage rescue, the kind of confused mess seen in Algeria's gory retaking of its natural gas complex is more common than smooth operations like Entebbe or the GSG-9's expert performance at Lufthansa Flight 181. Roger Spulak of the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) emphasizes that Special Operations Forces (SOF) are selected and organized in a manner that deals directly with three prominent sources of friction on the battlefield: constraints imposed by physical and cognitive limits, informational uncertainty, and the highly unpredictable nature of combat between two thinking adversaries. Elite warriors are better able to overcome basic human constraints, flexibility provides a means of customizing capabilities to deal with informational problems in ways conventional forces cannot, and creativity provides game-changing methods for dealing with complex problems. The latter is dramatically demonstrated by William McRaven's concept of "relative advantage," which can create a state of tactical paralysis in even a well-prepared opponent that knows an attack is coming.
The problem is that the higher the importance of the mission, the greater the level of fog, friction, and overall interactive complexity inherent in the operational problem. A war cannot be won by great raids alone. Even new technology has not changed the high costs to consistently replicating decisive raids. An operation like Stuxnet was dependent on contextual organizational, technological, and human factors that are unlikely to be replicated in the exact same way for the target set struck. Getting that mixture right is very difficult. It seems apparent from open-source accounts that bad intel and good enemy counterintelligence ruined the recent French hostage rescue attempt in Somalia. The right organizational framework eluded the doomed rescuers in the 1980 Tehran hostage rescue attempt. Enemy adaptation, restrictive rules of engagement, poor strategic guidance, and the problem of operating in a multinational coalition were all factors in the Battle of Mogadisu.
Sometimes special operations are also fairly irrelevant to the long-term outcome. The Spetsnaz operation in 1979 that ushered in the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan decapitated the government in a marvelous display of operational acumen. But like a stone that makes the water ripple but nonetheless still sinks, its influence on the ultimate outcome is at best highly indirect. Perhaps Neptune Spear will be more significant for its domestic political effects than its ultimate impact on al-Qaeda. Certainly killing bin Laden removed a prominent enemy leader from the war effort and delivered troves of valuable intel on how his organization worked. But the destruction of the Afghan safe haven and the constant attrition by local Afghan cross-border forces (the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams) and American airpower likely had a more important impact.
Neptune Spear did, however, give the President more political breathing room to draw down the Afghan war. In terms of the ultimate aim of war, this is highly useful and underrated. Stuxnet also may have reassured regional allies and given more time for the US to create the sanctions regime that would devastate Iran far more than any computer worm. Some special operations missions have distinct strategic payoffs that often make them often worth the risk, and hence the need for customized, tailorable forces that can do the job. The structural requirements of enabling those forces, however, are often grossly undervalued.
The "tip of the spear" is only one small element of a large and multifarious machine, and when that machine breaks down (as it is wont to do) there is hell to pay. Special operations forces are highly skilled and lightly armed infantrymen, supported by special operations aviation, search and rescue, close air support platforms, and other enabling capabilities. A small group of lightly armed infantrymen, as seen at the battle of Arnhem, does not count for much in the face of superior numbers and even the most rudimentary of combined arms. And as my friend Rei Tang often reminds me, the famed SOF efforts during the Surge were highly dependent on a unique form of interagency fusion.
All of these factors should give us pause when thinking of replacing targeted killing programs with capture regimes. The level of planning and risk involved, to say nothing of the potential blowback in terms of violations of sovereignty and civilian casualities, is of an order of magnitude higher. Between 1,500 to 3,000 Somalis were killed or wounded in the Battle of Mogadishu, all for the capture of one man who wasn't even there to begin with. If there is one truth to criticisms of targeted killing, it is that they are more sustainable. The air war over Pakistan has gone on long because the complexity and friction inherent in the missions are lower. But one of the prominent reasons why is that the potential moral harm inherent in some situations potentially posed by a coercive capture regime dwarf those of airpower-based killing. The large and complex apparatus needed to make a snatch-and-grab work in a complex environment cannot be underplayed, and the human consequences for civilians when that machine breaks down can be very ugly. How would we regard Neptune Spear if scores of Pakistan civilians were harmed in a madcap attempt by special operators to shoot their way out of a failed mission?
Reducing targeted killings is certainly desirable, but the degree to which captures can meaningfully replace TKs is highly context-dependent. Ultimately, when the policy requires an terrorist be removed from the scene, some means will be used. When a snatch-and-grab promises Mogadishu-like results, an aircraft may be employed. When it is possible to rendition a terrorist, it will likely be preferable to do so. As noted in my previous posts, the demand is unlikely to go away, which has implications for the supply. Finally, there is no way to reliably know whether another Mogadishu will occur. Had AQ or the ISI been better at counterintelligence and deception operations they could have foiled Neptune Spear in the same way the Somalis did to the French hostage rescuers. Indeed, when one thinks of the great coups de main of antiquity, good CI and MILDEC could have turned the Trojan Horse or the fall of Jericho into bloody disasters. Had the inhabitants of Jericho "turned" Rahab they could have fooled the Israelites as handily as the Double Cross System foiled the Germans, and the Trojans might have been a bit more skeptical of "Greeks bearing gifts" had they patrolled more vigorously.
What is the future of special operations great raids? Technology will create different tactical possibilities, certainly. Advances in cyberweapons, directed energy weapons, sensor meshes, 3-D printing for logistics, and robotics will create a much more diverse and powerful set of enabling capabilities to augment the power of raiding forces. Of course, they will also introduce their own set of complications, vulernabilities, and enemy adaptations. What won't change is the enduring value of SOF as a "strategic asset"--defined not necessarily as a tool that necessarily has intrinsically "strategic" qualities but one that delivers a certain kind of effect with a unique and rare meaning for strategy. That meaning must be appreciated, lest SOF is squandered in missions that do not play to its unique strengths or seen as a panacea.
One of the preemiment problems with the way that guerrilla warfare is discussed is the almost commonplace idea that it is a fundamentally different type of war, requiring fundamentally different interpretive and operational methods. Last weekend's spectacular assault on Camp Bastion should disabuse everyone of that notion. The assault on the heavily fortified airbase demonstrates an Taliban special operations capability that has yielded strategic effect. Since the 2008 Kabul Serena Hotel attack, the Taliban (likely guided by their Pakistani patrons) have developed a capability for complex, high-risk assaults that now seems to have taken center stage. The war of position has hardened, as swathes of the country remain in the hands of either Mullah Omar or the Haqqani Network and the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) continues what has been a problematic effort to consolidate their gains in the south. The Taliban are now using special operations to bolster the political effect of their territorial holdings and make their mark on Afghanistan's new politics.
James Kiras, a historian of special operations, writes that special operations are "unconventional actions against enemy vulnerabilities in a sustained campaign, undertaken by specially designated units, to enable conventional operations and/or resolve economically politico-military problems at the operational or strategic level that are difficult or impossible to accomplish with conventional forces alone." Special operations generate cumulative moral or material attrition on the opponent in conjunction with conventional forces. Both moral and material vectors are vulnerabilities for the United States and its Afghan ally. Seven percent of the Marine Corps' overall Harrier fleet went up in smoke, and each high-risk assault in a Afghan urban center and targeted killing of an Afghan official adds to the perception of Taliban will and capability. While the Taliban special operations community may not look much like the Anglo-American model of special operations honed in World War II, it is still capable of formidable feats. The raid on the heavily fortified and geographically remote Camp Bastion required solid operational planning skills and intelligence prepartion of the battlefield. As Jeffrey Dressler argues, the complexity of the operation suggests planning and direction from Pakistan's intelligence services.
Under Kiras' model, special operations and regular forces both produce effects to support a political end. That end, as the transition process nears, is political position in Afghanistan's new order. There is nothing particularly unique about that kind of warfare. In major conventional wars after World War II, operations frequently were designed to bolster an overall political position rather than lead to decisive victory. The ending phases of the Korean and Vietnam wars both were marked by intense battles to gain a favorable position before the cease-fire. North Korea has repeatedly utilized a range of conventional and unconventional military tools for brinksmanship over the last few decades, and seems to be expanding its special operations and information warfare capabilities. Special operations, which utilize specially trained and tasked men to undertake difficult missions, are ideal for achieving strategic effect under such political conditions.
The idea that the Taliban could field a special operations capability and deploy it in a manner consistent with historical campaigns is not shocking when one considers that they originally gained political power in Afghanistan through mobile warfare to seize territory in the mid-90s. This required combined arms coordination, operational logistics, and command--all helped by generous Pakistani support. They lost political control through the similarly successful Northern Alliance prosecution of maneuver operations, which leveraged combat power to convince both Taliban elites and rank-and-file to change sides. Force destruction and the seizing of territory certainly can certainly achieve strategic ends all on their own (think Napoleon's most glorious campaigns) but the political element of war is paramount in every mode of warfare. The problem is not that Afghanistan is a uniquely political kind of war--all wars are---but that we forget that strategy involves the use of battle to generate political currency. The opening gambit of the current civil war cycle was, after all, a Soviet direct action raid to decapitate and destroy the Hafizullah Amin regime.
The Taliban are unlikely to use special operations to achieve anything that dramatic. However threatening their recent exploits may be, one concrete lesson of special operations history is that pinpoint raids do not obviate the need to painstakingly eliminate the opponent's ability and will to resist. The culminating point will be reached if the Taliban's reliance on special operations gets too far removed from what their main forces achieve. There are many people in Afghanistan and the wider region with a vested interest in seeing that the Taliban do not return to power, and a hard force-on-force fight looms. But Camp Bastion has demonstrated that Taliban special operations are nonetheless an important threat.