Mark Bowden: How Special Ops Became a Solution to Everything

President Biden plans to end the U.S. fight in Afghanistan, bringing home the last of the roughly 2,500 American soldiers by September 11th.  The 20-year-long war begun following the terrorist attacks of 2001 will be over.

What will not end, however, are the less well publicized wars the United States is fighting all over the world.  These battles are being fought not by large conventional forces, but rather by smaller and much more specialized units that now conduct most of this country’s military operations.

Mark Bowden, who has written extensively about the U.S. Military, including the best-selling book Black Hawk Down, writes about these elite forces in a recent edition of The Atlantic: “How Special Ops Became the Solution to Everything.”

Today’s Special Operations Command, or SOCOM as it is known, has grown from a tiny hostage rescue team in 1979 to a force of 75,000 soldiers and civilian contractors.  “Made up of elite soldiers pulled from each of the main military branches—Navy SEALs, the Army’s Delta Force and Green Berets, Air Force Combat Controllers, Marine Raiders—it is active in more than 80 countries,” reports Bowden.

SOCOM operates in the vast space between peace and all-out war, often working in conjunction with in-country military to fight off enemies and kill bad guys.  “Using conventional forces is like wielding a sledgehammer,” Bowden writes.  “Special Ops forces are more like a Swiss Army knife.”

Their operations are usually low profile.  “Much of SOCOM’s actions take place in secret,” Bowden writes.  “Most Americans are unaware that it has been active in a country until the announcement that its forces are being withdrawn…

“…or when something goes wrong—as in Niger in 2017, when four Special Ops soldiers were killed in an ambush.”

SOCOM expanded significantly during President Obama’s term.  He wanted a force to fight terrorism while reducing overall troop levels around the globe. SOCOM’s deployments during the Obama years included the “Middle East, Niger, Chad, Mali, South Korea, the Philippines, Colombia, El Salvador, Peru, and dozens of other countries,” reports Bowden.

One big advantage of SOCOM is that the fight can be conducted on the cheap. The unit’s expenses make up just two percent of the entire Pentagon budget.

Bowden believes Special Ops is now firmly established as the main military solution to our national security problems.   “Barring the outbreak of a catastrophic war between major powers, SOCOM will likely remain a primary way America projects force, one that is well suited to the global, varied and collaborative nature of war in the 21st century.”

So, yes, 2,500 American soldiers are coming home from Afghanistan, but as Bowden reports, our country will be maintaining significant—albeit less well publicized—fighting forces around the world.

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