Terrorists Can Run, But Can They Hide?

Raids in Libya and Somalia show that a military shift may be underway.

U.S. Navy SEALS await a night mission to capture Iraqi insurgent leaders July 27, 2007 near Fallujah, Iraq.

A spate of articles have appeared this week arguing whether or not last weekend's raids in Libya and Somalia show a major shift in the Obama administration's approach to battling al-Qaida and its affiliated movements. As the Washington Times reported

The number of drone strikes approved by the Obama administration on suspected terrorists has fallen dramatically this year, as the war with al Qaeda increasingly shifts to Africa and U.S. intelligence craves more captures and interrogations of high-value targets.

U.S. officials told The Washington Times on Wednesday that the reasons for a shift in tactics are many — including that al Qaeda's senior ranks were thinned out so much in 2011 and 2012 by an intense flurry of drone strikes, and that the terrorist network has adapted to try to evade some of Washington's use of the strikes or to make them less politically palatable.

But the sources acknowledged that a growing desire to close a recent gap in actionable human intelligence on al Qaeda's evolving operations also has renewed the administration's interest in more clandestine commando raids like the one that netted a high-value terrorist suspect in Libya last weekend.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

David Francis at the Fiscal Times argues that the raids over the weekend point to two things:

First, the small war model of Special Forces and drones is becoming the primary sign of U.S. power—and it's already here. The war in Afghanistan is not officially over yet, but it might as well be: barring a dramatic shift in world affairs, the United States is unlikely to fight one like it in the foreseeable future. This past weekend is view of the future of war.

The second point is more uncomfortable. The success of the SEAL mission to kill Osama bin Laden, along with a video game industry that presents Special Forces as unbeatable, has conferred the special branches with a degree of invincibility. They're modern-day Titans, a superior fighting force with the ability to defeat a larger, less-skilled enemy.

But in war, there are casualties. This war is no different: sooner or later, soldiers are going to die.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Such deaths may complicate the use of force both internationally (in the case of so-called "collateral damage" casualties) and domestically (when our service members die in far off locales). And at Breaking Defense, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. sensibly argues that we probably shouldn't make too much about either/or dichotomies about the raids.

Of course, the raids in Somalia and Libya were also provided a geographical advantage. As former Army Ranger officer Andrew Exum tweeted last weekend in the wake of the raid in Somalia: "One big difference between Somalia and Afghanistan/FATA? A coastline. Makes things a lot tougher for Shabab, a lot easier for [Special Operations Forces] planners."

The capture of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai (aka Abu Anas al-Libi) in Libya was important. Regardless of what his family claims and no matter how good a life he may or may not have led recently, he was involved in the brutal bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that killed several hundred and wounded thousands more. Capturing him and prosecuting him for his crimes sends a message to others that they can run, but not hide, and that while they think they may be home free the U.S. government will be persistent in tracking them down. This also sends a message to the Libyan government.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Over on NPR, Linda Robinson of RAND was asked whether Special Operations Forces was the future of American military power and she responded:

It is absolutely the future. And the special operations forces can't be everywhere, nor, of course, should they be everywhere. But where there are problem areas, they are looked to to provide a quiet solution. And I think that is not only the direction of U.S. policy, but I think that it has - is a formula that can work as long as they pay close attention to what that local government wants and needs, and not go in as the dominant occupying force.

As Joshua Foust notes, a vision of "small training efforts supporting governance work and enforced by the occasional commando raid or drone strike, is deeply appealing to many in the Obama administration. But whether it can actually come to fruition depends on the gridlock in Washington coming to an end."

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

But can this type of employment of force be a "quiet solution" when policymakers (and sometimes operators) can't seem to stay quiet about their use? As retired Army Special Forces Colonel David Maxwell told Catherine Cheney at World Politics Review's Trend Lines:

…he has been frustrated to see anonymous government sources reportedly stating the names of the organizations that conducted the operations over the weekend, explaining that providing detailed information about the operations puts service members in those units as well as their family members in danger. While these operations have to be discussed, he said, and it is important for the public to understand that coordination and preparation goes into them, this information should not come out at the expense of military capability and service member safety.

"If I were king for a day, I would attribute these operations to U.S. military forces and I would leave it at that," he said, explaining that in the case of the Somalia mission, discussion of rules of engagement and the way U.S. forces withdrew because of the high number of civilians "feeds the enemy for their future operations and discussions of specific tactics techniques and procedures.

As I've written in this space on numerous occasions over the past year, there certainly is an argument to be made about the use of Special Operations Forces as one part of a larger indirect strategy to counter violent extremists and other (to include large-scale) threats to the United States. But while these forces will often play a role, they will only be one tool among many and should not always be the first tool of choice for seeking and implementing solutions to complex international problems.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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