U.S. Military Assistance: Underreported and Overcommitted
Last week's column noted the adverse impact on America's over-stretched military forces of the Pentagon's persistent reluctance to acknowledge the true magnitude of our overseas commitments.
The cover story of last week's TIME magazine, by national security journalist W.J. Hennigan, alarmingly unpacked one increasingly strained component of those previously under-reported commitments.
Recalling the recent deaths of five Special Forces soldiers in Niger, a nation in which few Americans - including their legislators - even were aware that we were present, let alone had more than 800 troops stationed, Hennigan noted that "The little noticed buildup in Niger is just a snapshot of the expanding worldwide deployment of U.S. commandos."
According to U.S. Special Operations Command, Hennigan reported, that deployment has escalated in the past 16 years from fewer than 3000 to more than 8000 special operations personnel in 143 countries - about three-quarters of the world.
Fueled by Congress's 2001 authorization to pursue Al Qaeda and its "affiliates" anywhere on earth, USSOCOM commitments expanded during the second Bush administration, exploded on President Obama's watch, and have only continued to grow under his successor.
Formally, such commitments aren't classified as combat operations. Their nominal purpose is to "advise and assist" host governments. In reality, however, Special Forces teams routinely go "outside the wire" with the indigenous forces among whom they're imbedded.
During Mr. Trump's first week in office, just such an operation in Yemen cost one SEAL killed and three others wounded. Four months later, a similar operation in Somalia - site of 1993's notorious "Blackhawk Down" debacle - resulted in still another SEAL fatality.
As GOP congressman and former SEAL Scott Taylor told Hennigan caustically, "It's easier to put 'trainers' and 'advisers' in a country and say we don't have 'boots on the ground.' Well, that's b------t. They're combat boots, every one of them."
Apart from incurring mounting fatalities - 11 this year alone, in four countries - the expanded optempo has increasingly stressed special operations personnel and their families. Reported Hennigan, "Ceaseless deployment cycles have caused problems at home, driving the Pentagon to create a task force to address drug and alcohol abuse, family crises and suicide."
They also increase the likelihood of more tragedies such as the one in Niger. As one expert told Hennigan, the stress on Special Forces is uncomfortably similar to that widely believed to be responsible for the Navy's recent rash of costly and avoidable accidents at sea.
Senior military leaders have begun to sound the alarm about the problem. Two years ago, Hennigan reported, Adm. Bill McRaven, who planned and supervised the 2011 operation that killed Osama bin Laden, warned attendees at a conference in Tampa that suicide rates among his people were at record highs.
In recognition of the problem, USSOCOM has assigned psychologists and family counselors to special operations units and sought help in identifying early signs of potential suicide. But those responses essentially are palliatives, not solutions.
Instead, in an effort to ease the strain on its Special Forces community, the Army has begun to stand up Security Force Assistance Brigades - effectively leader-heavy cadre formations - intended, like Special Forces units, to advise and train indigenous forces.
But the premise of that effort, like that of its Special Forces counterparts, is that a U.S. military presence will help produce more stable and effective host governments, and in the process, discourage the incidence of insurgency and hostile extremism.
On the evidence, that premise is increasingly suspect. Writing in Parameters, the journal of the Army War College, Dr. Steven Metz, director of research at the College's Strategic Studies Institute, points out that, in many if not most of the nations hosting a U.S military presence, our aims and those of the host governments we seek to assist significantly diverge.
"In many parts of the world," he notes, "including those most prone to insurgencyÖthe body politic is not designed to balance diverse interests but to formalize and to sustain the group holding power." Far from seeking to defeat instability, such governments prefer just enough to keep the U.S. engaged, the aid flowing, and themselves and their cronies in power.
Those with the power to defeat instability often have little incentive to do so, he argues, while their people pay the price of America's engagement. Our very presence thus becomes a gift to the extremists.
Even to counter global terrorism, Metz argues, such self-defeating military assistance makes no sense. "Helping create friendly governments that rule the way the United States would prefer might be nice," he admits, but is neither efficient nor cost-effective.
The problem, of course, is that having created a capability that we might well do better without, we now feel compelled not only to use it, but to overuse it.
When the capability tail begins wagging the strategic dog that way, it's probably time to recalibrate.