SpecialOperations Forces(SOF) Becoming Important Element of US Foreign Policy



While the incumbent US administration has sought to extract itself from large scale conflicts like Iraq or Afghanistan, it has invested heavily in the special operations forces (SOF) to strike “high-value targets”. It has the message to convey: “We will find you and get you, however long it takes.”

But many countries view it as a global superpower throwing its military weight around and acting outside the law to pursue its own purposes…The raid to eliminate Osama bin Laden upset Pakistan and seriously spoiled the bilateral relations at the wrong time.  

The Special Operations Command (SOCOM)is scheduled for more spending and personnel increases while the rest of the military looks to be making cuts subject to sequester that SOF are exempt from as an elite component. The end strength has grown to almost 70,000 to add countless private support personnel to it. The number of commandos has doubled since 9/11, and their budget tripled — from $3.5 billion to $10.5 billion.

The trend will likely continue.  Special forces operations have become commonplace during the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s not short targeted combat raids only – over the last decade the forces have been more frequently assigned long-term missions meant to train and build local security forces around the world – acting as an important foreign policy tool.

On October 5 US SOF carried out two separate raids in Africa targeting senior Islamist militants.  Anas al-Liby, an al-Qaeda leader accused of the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was captured by US commandos in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. The operation was carried out by the Army Delta Force.

At the same time a leader of the al-Shabab group (believed to be Abdikadir ‘Ikrima’ Mohammed, a Kenyan of Somali origin and a fighter commander for al-Shabaab in Somalia) was targeted in southern Somalia. The al-Shabab leader is suspected of involvement in last month’s attack in the Westgate shopping centre in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.

That raid failed. It was carried out by members of Seal Team Six – the same Navy unit that killed bin Laden. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the raids conducted in Africa by American special forces signaled the ongoing determination of the US to bring terrorists to justice and sent the message that “members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations literally can run but they can’t hide.”

The operations showed that the US would never stop “in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror“, he told reporters in Indonesia where he is attending the APEC CEO Summit on 5-7October in Bali.

Commenting the operations, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement that al-Liby’s capture, along with the Somalia raid, sent “a strong message to the world that the United States will spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable, no matter where they hide or how long the evade justice.”

Libya asked the U.S. on Sunday for “clarifications” regarding the raid and said any Libyan should face trial in his own country. The raid puts the Libyan government in an awkward position making it come under criticism for allowing U.S. forces to act freely on Libyan territory.

The central government has somewhat only limited authority around the country while local militiamen hold considerable power to counter the powers that be. But the US is in awkward situation too – it openly showed contempt for the sovereignty of another state.

The US added another focal point to that African counterterrorism campaign on October 7 with the addition of Egypt’s Muhammad Jamal Network and its founder Muhammad Jamal, an associate of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the US global terrorist list.

The Muhammad Jamal Network has close ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and has established terrorist training camps in Egypt and Libya, according to the State Department. Will the US SOF conduct operations on Egyptian soil without asking the government of the country for its agreement?

The US administration says there is an ongoing non-international armed conflict between the United States, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and associate forces, which consequently permits to engage in at-will targeting of enemy belligerents. It assures it sticks to the well-established principles of proportionality   and distinction meaning that an attack cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. The attacks are presumed to be directed only at legitimate military targets. But there is no way it all could be checked.

SOF may wrongly identify targets and inflict civil losses as well. According to the U.N. Charter, the use of force is legitimate only if undertaken in self-defense or authorized by the United Nations. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress passed a few days after 9/11 allows the President to use force against groups and countries that had supported the attacks.  Somalia and Libya are not on the list.

In the speech (May 23, 2013) on counterterrorism President Obama reemphasized that view, pointing out that the country is at war with international terrorist groups. The President delivered a major addresson U.S. counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., where he announced new policy guidance for U.S. targeted killings off the conventional battlefield.

Notably, he said that the same “high threshold” the administration has set for targeting U.S. citizens will be extended to non-U.S. threats-a policy that “respects the inherent dignity of every human life.”  (1)

Some argue it is impermissible for the US to claim self-defense rights against non-state actors. Talking about states’ permission needed for taking actions on their territory, Pakistan has not consented to the United States’ use of force within its borders, Libya says it was not aware the October 5 raid had been in works.

The report to the UN Human Rights Council on legal issues raised by targeted killings prepared by Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions by  Philip Alston, was released on 2 June (Study on targeted killings (2). It says targeted killings are increasingly used in circumstances that violate the relevant rules of international law. The report identifies two major issues, namely, the excessively broad circumstances in which targeted killings are alleged to be legal, and the absence of essential accountability mechanisms in situations where they are used.

According to it, in recent years a few states have adopted policies, either openly or implicitly, of using targeted killings, including in the territories of other States. Such policies have been justified both as a legitimate response to ‘terrorist’ threats and as a necessary reaction to the challenges of “asymmetric warfare”. In terms of the legal framework, says the report, many of these practices violate straightforward applicable legal rules.

There are indeed circumstances in which targeted killings may be legal,” said Alston, noting that ‘they are permitted in armed conflict situations when used against combatants or fighters, or civilians who directly engage in combat-like activities.

”’But they are increasingly being used far from any battle zone. The United States, in particular, has put forward a novel theory that there is a “law of 9/11” that enables it to legally use force in the territory of other States as part of its inherent right to self-defence on the basis that it is in an armed conflict with al Qaeda, the Taliban and “associated forces”, although the latter group is fluid and undefined.”

This expansive and open-ended interpretation of the right to self-defence goes a long way towards destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the United Nations Charter. If invoked by other States, in pursuit of those they deem to be terrorists and to have attacked them, it would cause chaos,” said Alston.

Blowback from civil liberties and human rights groups is likely to grow in direct proportion to any increase in targeted killings. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch have raised pointed questions regarding the program’s perceived lack of accountability and transparency.

In a statement on the report, the ACLU said the report “underscores the alarming legal questions raised by the US program of targeting and killing people, sometimes far from any battlefield”.

According to it, “The targeted killing program operates with virtually no oversight outside the executive branch, and essential details about the program remain secret, including what criteria are used to put people on CIA and military kill lists or how much evidence is required”.

The organization says, “The U.S. continues to carry out illegal targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. The government must be held to account when it carries out such killings in violation of the Constitution and international law”.(3). In 2012 the Union launched a number of lawsuits related to target killings abroad.


There is a ground to  believe  that, even if successful, the  US “raids foreign policy” does not gain ground in global counter-terrorist efforts.    The strategy is at best ambiguous. It has its limits. Decapitation means other personalities step in to do the job willing to commit new resonant terrorist acts to prove their efficiency.

Some groups may have leaders waiting in the wings to take over. The “targets”  are likely to scatter across the what is called  the “arc of instability”  in North Africa and the Middle East and regroup in more remote regions.Some say there is no other way to do the job.

To be effective, such operations will need the cooperation and participation of governments. That’s where the problem of sovereignty and public opinion steps in. The state leaders, who could tackle the problem on their own,  like Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, for instance, are gone with US blessing.

Bashar Assad is tackling a tall order task of neutralizing all the radicals rushing to his country to hone their terrorist activities skills and use them in the countries of their origin or residence.

Moreover, the deaths of civilian bystanders and the very fact of US armed forces conducting operations on the territory of  other states, in most cases without their governments consent, fuels anti-U.S. sentiments in the countries in which targeted killing operations have taken place.

Any short-term gain there might result from targeted killing is outweighed by the longer-term damage to national security interests that this hostility creates.

Who knows, perhaps, finding an accommodation with Tehran, the US will find a partner on spot who could stand up to international rag-tag radical terrorist forces. After all the Al Qaeda affiliated groups hate Iranians just as much as they hate Americans.






Andrei AKULOV | Strategic Culture Foundation



1. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/05/23/remarks-president-national-defense-university

2. A/HRC/14/24/Add, May 28, 2010 -http://unispal.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/69633D6116C53C898525773D004E8C13






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