Current and Future Trends in Special Operations Warfare

Current and Future Trends in Special Operations Warfare

A top Pentagon official says victory in the global fight against terrorism is achievable, but may take decades to accomplish.

July 23, 2008 3:25 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Michael G. Vickers was among the key architects behind the paramilitary operation that drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Now, three decades later, he is the top civilian advisor in the Pentagon on the capabilities of U.S. Special Operations forces, the fastest growing branch of the U.S. military. That growth is likely to continue. In Iraq, for example, Vickers says he expects Special Operations Forces to "remain at their current levels for a significant period of time" after the majority of conventional U.S. forces leave. He also expects a protracted Special Operations presence in Afghanistan.

Beyond the current war zones, Vickers says the Pentagon is watching "scores" of high-priority countries in the global fight against terror. And while Vickers says the battle against extremism "is fundamentally winnable," victory will take years. "Most irregular wars take time to win. They typically take a decade or more when they involve a single country," he says. "One that takes advantage of globalization and spans continents can be expected to take at least that amount of time, or more."

There’s been a lot of talk in the presidential campaign this year about the future of forces in Central Command, specifically Iraq and what to do in Afghanistan. I wonder how any changes in force structures would translate to Special Operations. Redeployment—would a drawdown mean a drawdown in special forces capability in the region?

Our plans are dependent on future conditions, but it is a safe assumption to say that as conventional forces draw down in Iraq, for example, Special Operations Forces will likely remain at their current levels for a significant period of time, and with their Iraqi counterparts, assume greater responsibility for the battle space that is vacated by drawing down conventional forces. In Afghanistan, it may be a different case where we may actually add to our conventional forces there over the next year or so.

There [have] been many developments on the Pakistan-Afghani border in the last couple of weeks; certainly a heightening of tensions between the U.S. and Islamabad. And I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about why it’s been so difficult to bring order and stability to the Pakistani tribal region.

The Pakistan border area, of which the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is a part, and then Balochistan in the southern area, and the North West Frontier Province adjacent to that, has been an area that has had a great deal of autonomy going back a hundred years or more. And there are a number of local militant groups and foreign fighters there. It’s a heavily armed region. It’s an area that’s very difficult to govern and establish security. And so, al-Qaeda senior leadership enjoys a degree of sanctuary there, as does Taliban senior leadership and what’s called the Pakistan Taliban.

It’s a critical challenge to our security, to the security of forces and stability in Afghanistan, to the stability of Pakistan’s government, and to U.S. and Western interests worldwide.

We clearly don’t have an overt welcome to operate in the region, but there’s been a number of reports suggesting that we’re operating covertly. I wonder if you could speak to that.

I can’t comment on anything like that. Pakistan is a critical partner or ally of ours in the global war on terror.

How cooperative are the Pakistanis? There’s been ongoing speculation that the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] continues to support the Taliban.

I don’t want to talk about intelligence issues, but Pakistan remains a vital ally of ours and we cooperate in a number of areas.

Before leaving the Afghan theater I have to ask an obvious question: whether or not we’re any closer to bin Laden’s whereabouts. More generally, how important is his apprehension to the overall global war on terror?

To address the second part, he remains the leader of al-Qaeda and certainly has enormous symbolic value if not day-to-day operational control. He is definitely a hunted man. And that’s true of his colleagues as well in the al-Qaeda senior leadership. Certainly, capturing or killing bin Laden would be a major blow to al-Qaeda. And, you know, manhunting is a very difficult business. But you can rest assured that we take the threat that al-Qaeda’s sanctuary poses to the United States very seriously. And we’ll do what’s necessary to eliminate that sanctuary.

You called it a potential symbolic victory if he was apprehended. Does that suggest that he is no longer in direct control of day-to-day operations?

I don’t want to go into great details, but among the al-Qaeda senior leaders, some have responsibilities for more operational matters, some have responsibilities for financial or media matters, and other senior leaders have more responsibility for operations, although he’s certainly still involved. But his role is more in the generation of statements and providing a vision.

Moving to Iraq, there are those in the intelligence and military community that are starting to focus on foreign fighters, [who] spent time in Iraq and [are] now going home. And I wonder how closely you are watching where they go and how big of a threat to regional and global security these Iraq-war-seasoned jihadists are.

After major, irregular warfare campaigns there’s often a bleed out of these foreign fighters. So we do watch that. It’s hard to judge just how significant it will be over time. A number have left already. And again, without getting into intelligence details, it’s too soon to tell at this point. I would say that foreign-fighter flow into Iraq has been significantly diminished and the foreign-fighter network, al-Qaeda in Iraq in particular, has been severely battered over the last year.

Do we have a way of measuring the metrics of departing fighters?

Yes, we have a way of that. Again, it’s not a perfect science. But it’s something we do track.

There’s been quite a bit of talk in the last couple days about [future] U.S. force strength in the region. The Iraqi government has tacitly endorsed the idea of a major U.S. drawdown in the next year or two. What [are] your thoughts on what a sixteen-month, two-year horizon for drawdown would mean?

Any drawdown must be based on conditions on the ground. The objective of operations in Iraq is certainly to hand over security to the Iraqis as soon as possible. There’s a rate at which a drawdown can be conducted prudently, sort of a brigade combat team or two or so a month that the military works. But again, [it] has to be conditions based. And as a transition occurs to Iraqi primacy for security, there remains a need for security assistance in training and advising and equipping that will likely go on for some time.

Some see [future threats] being dominated by irregular counterinsurgency-type battles like we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, while others worry that we’re taking too much away from conventional threat [capabilities]. Are there bits of truth to both of these arguments?

There’s a range of threats. And, of course, the future security environment is fundamentally unpredictable. There will be surprise—that’s one of the things you can count on. There are a lot of things going on in terms of growing economic strength, which can translate into military strength, advances in technology, sources of conflict both irregular and potentially traditional.

It is a safe assumption to say that as conventional forces draw down in Iraq, for example, Special Operations forces will likely remain at their current levels for a significant period of time.

What one can likely say is that the war we’re in will likely continue for some time—that is, the broader global war on terrorism. Irregular warfare will be the most likely form of conflict in the couple decades ahead. But we retain the requirements to maintain strategic deterrence, conventional deterrence, and if necessary, the ability to wage traditional wars, while we fight these irregular wars.

One of those tools in our tool kit is our nuclear deterrence capabilities. A recent Washington Post profile of you noted that among your many job responsibilities, one includes "the modernization of nuclear forces for deterrence and retaliation." As the U.S. works to negotiate an end to nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, how are you working to modernize our own nuclear forces?

Our strategic deterrent remains a fundamental cornerstone of our security, and of course that’s tied up with arms control as well. But part of my responsibility is not just strategic policy, but the capabilities that go with that, and how to modernize that. And we’re beginning a cycle to do that, which will span the next couple decades. With our partners in the Department of Energy, that requirement extends from the nuclear infrastructure, our labs and our production facilities, as well as our platforms and then our weapons and command and control systems.

Can you give an example of where you would like us to be in ten, fifteen, twenty years?

The immediate problem we face right now is in the area of conventional global strike, or "prompt global strike" [system to attack within sixty minutes of a presidential order]. We don’t have a capability in that area right now, and we’re trying to field one as soon as possible to give future presidents more options. But eventually we will have to modernize our nuclear infrastructure and some of our systems as well. And so we’re just getting started in that area. This will be an issue for the next and subsequent administrations, but we will undoubtedly have to modernize our sea-based strategic deterrent and develop a bomber capable of both nuclear and conventional use, as we’ve had, and then look at modernizing our land-based deterrent as well.

On the non-nuclear long-range strike option, what’s a scenario that, at this point, we would not be able to respond to?

The only prompt global strike option we have at this point—"prompt" meaning the ability to respond in a very short period of time, an hour or so—is nuclear. And of course, that limits a president’s options. And so one can imagine the time-sensitive terrorist target that can only be struck by that manner of weapon—a transfer of weapons of mass destruction, or a potential launch, or a counter-space capability. There could be a number of areas that would require a prompt global strike conventional capability. There’s been broad bipartisan support for such a capability.

It’s been reported that you keep a list of "high-priority" countries, dozens of them. How does the U.S. keep an eye on all of them? And is the expansion of the war on terror beyond Afghanistan and Iraq realistically winnable?

I don’t personally keep a list. The National Counterterrorism Center for the U.S. government actually has a list of high-priority and priority countries. And the United States Special Operations Command, that is the DOD-supported command for the global war on terror, has a list of high-priority and priority countries that we review regularly and allocate our resources accordingly. It is in the scores of countries and it spans multiple continents. And the high-priority countries, one can look around the world and imagine those. They’re certainly several beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.

I would say that foreign-fighter flow into Iraq has been significantly diminished and the foreign-fighter network, al-Qaeda in Iraq in particular, has been severely battered over the last year.

As to your question about whether the war on terror is fundamentally winnable—yes it is. But as it is a global insurgency, and one that is ideologically driven, it will take—most irregular wars take time to win. They typically take a decade or more when they involve a single country. One that takes advantage of globalization and spans continents can be expected to take at least that amount of time or more. But typically the way irregular wars end is you drive the belligerence down to a very small level and then increasingly negotiate with those that can be accommodated, and not have successive generations join them, depending on whether they’re a traditional insurgent group or a terrorist group. And then the violence goes from low levels to petering out or to having a negotiated settlement. Now, with a group like al-Qaeda, you’re not likely to have a negotiated settlement that you have with traditional insurgent groups, which is one of the things that adds to its protracted character.

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