“Expansion” or contraction?: The case of Special Operations forces in the Middle East

In today’s New York Times, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt have a very interesting and informative story about President Obama’s use of Special Operations Forces in the U.S. armed conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. One thing about the story, however, doesn’t seem quite right.

“They [i.e., Special Operations forces] are taking on a larger combat role in Afghanistan,” the story begins. The second paragraph continues this theme of expansion: “With the Middle East in tumult, radical groups holding swaths of territory in Africa, and a presidential campaign fanning fears of a growing terrorism threat, the White House has steadily expanded the global missions of American Special Operations troops.”

The distinct impression in the story is that President Obama has expanded the use of Special Ops forces — consistent, perhaps, with the oft-heard (but in my view mistaken) notion that the President has in many respects asserted and implemented presidential war authorities even more aggressively than did his predecessor.

Yet then, about halfway in, there’s this paragraph:

During the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 13,000 Special Operations forces were deployed on missions across the globe, but a large majority were assigned to those two countries. Now, roughly half of the 7,500 elite troops overseas are posted outside the Middle East or South Asia, operating in 85 countries, according to the United States Special Operations Command.

If I’m reading this correctly, it implies that during the Bush Administration somewhere upward of 7,000 or 8,000 Special Ops forces – perhaps many more than that (a “large majority” of almost 13,000) – were deployed to counterterrorism operations in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. And now, by contrast . . . fewer than 4,000 such troops (“roughly half” of 7,500) are deployed throughout the entire Middle East and South Asia combined.

That doesn’t sound much like an expansion. To the contrary, from all I can tell, the headline of the story is that President Obama has dramatically reduced the number of Special Ops forces deployed in our armed conflicts in the Middle East and Northern Africa . . . albeit not to the extent he had hoped, due to the new threats posed by the Taliban and ISIL.

Perhaps what Mazzetti and Schmitt are trying to say is that Special Operations Forces now make up a higher ratio of U.S. troops in the Middle East – which wouldn’t be all that surprising, in light of the President’s massive withdrawal of other, more conventional U.S. forces. Or perhaps the authors intended to explain that such troops are now stationed in more locations around the world than they once were — but if so, the story doesn’t really make that case.

I don’t mean to suggest that a whole lot turns on this quantitative confusion: Obviously, what’s more important than the numbers are the questions of whether such Special Operations forces are being used wisely, and what, if any, differences it makes — from the perspectives of, e.g., diplomacy, effectiveness, congressional oversight and legal authority — that Special Ops troops are now playing a more significant role, at least as a comparative matter, in our armed conflicts in he Middle East. What’s “special” about the Special Operations forces, anyway? In what respect are they — their roles; their capacities; their perspectives — different from military forces that are not so “special”?

In comparison to these sorts of substantive questions, the numbers question is hardly the most pressing. Even so, it would be useful for the Times to clarify whether the Special Ops role is, in fact, expanding and, if so, in what respect. 

About the Author(s)

Marty Lederman

Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center Follow him on Twitter (@marty_lederman).