January 25, 2012

For Somalia Rescue, Look to Legacy of Iran

Anyone seeking to find the roots of yesterday's successful rescue mission in Somalia should start by looking in the sands of Iran.

It was only following the disastrous attempt to rescue hostages there in the spring of 1980 that the US military invested in special operations capacities and capabilities that could better respond to contingencies demanding specially selected and highly trained forces.

Monday's rescue reflects both the lessons learned over three decades as well as capabilities now organic to the US military that were not present during the Carter administration.

The United States was not the first nation to develop direct-action special operations forces capable of performing counter-terror and hostage rescue missions. The United Kingdom, France, Germany and Israel all had counter-terror forces before the United States stood up its first "special missions unit" within the US Army.

That unit was in Iran in 1980 with elite light infantry from the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment, but the operators and Rangers had little experience working together. They also had no complementary special operations aviation capability.

Due credit

Over the next two decades, though, the US military would continue to recruit, train and equip special operations forces and would place a special emphasis on the units training together in real-world conditions.

By the time the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began, US special operations forces from the US Army, Navy and Air Force had extensive experience working with one another in demanding training environments.

The most remarkable thing, then, about last night's raid in Somalia is how quotidian such feats of derring-do have become for the US special operations community”

The elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, established the year after the fiasco in Iran, grew proficient at ferrying commandos in and out of the most difficult environments.

The two men who deserve the most credit for the way in which US special operations forces have developed over the past decade are the retired US Army Gen Stanley McChrystal and US Navy Adm Bill McRaven.

While leading the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (Jsoc) in succession, they honed the ability of US special operations forces to work with one another and to execute missions at a rapid pace.

The extraordinary ordinary

Today, the task force associated with the command executes a dizzying number of missions each night in Afghanistan and previously played a largely undisclosed role in collapsing the insurgent networks in Iraq between 2006 and 2008 through a highly successful "capture-or-kill" campaign.

This task force carried out the successful mission to rescue US Army prisoner of war Jessica Lynch in 2003 as well as the failed mission to rescue Scottish hostage Linda Norgrove in 2010.

It is most recognised, though, for its successful efforts to capture Saddam Hussein in 2003 and to kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 and Osama bin Laden in 2011.

In 2009, Navy snipers from the task force shot the three Somali pirates holding hostage the captain of the Maersk Alabama on the open seas in three co-ordinated shots - an incredible feat of marksmanship on the open seas.

The most remarkable thing, then, about last night's raid in Somalia is how quotidian such feats of derring-do have become for the US special operations community.

The risks these men (and a few women) run remains high - as the 2011 helicopter crash that killed 22 Navy commandos illustrates.

But it is no exaggeration to say that the United States is now reaping enormous dividends from the decisions made by the military and successive presidential administrations to invest in the development of these special operations forces over the past three decades.

Dr. Andrew Exum is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC. He teaches a course in low-intensity conflict at Columbia University in New York, NY. Dr Exum led US Army Rangers as part of special operations task forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.