Winter 2016
Number 30

Book Review - America’s Shadow Warriors

Daniel R. DePetris

Sean Naylor, Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 560pp. $29.99.

Ever since American B-2s dropped the very first smart bombs on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces have been engaged in continuous conflict. From the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to covert counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, the U.S. military has now been the first line of defense in the war on terrorism for two administrations. Yet, like most wars in U.S. history, the war on terrorism has not been an easy one to prosecute; indeed, it has generated an incredible amount of strain within the active-duty army, repeated and extended deployments for soldiers who are called upon to leave their families, and the deaths of thousands of men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in the urban alleyways of Fallujah and the flat, poppy-seeded fields of Helmand.

Experiencing the full brunt of war under normal circumstances is a tall order for the most professional military. Yet the U.S. military has had to conduct counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and stability operations at the same time that Republicans and Democrats in Washington have been cutting their resources and reducing top-line annual budgets through the automatic spending cuts popularly known as the sequester. In a move to control spending in Washington and address a monstrous national debt to the tune of $19 trillion, the sequester has had the adverse effect of keeping Defense Department spending far lower than what the Pentagon has requested. More important than the actual numbers, however, is what the cuts have done to the joint force: the active duty army, army national guard, army reserve, and Marine Corps have all decreased their numbers as a way of preserving shrinking resources on priorities deemed more important to U.S. national security.

Yet there is one component of the joint force that has escaped the spending restrictions that have shocked virtually every other military branch—a vivid demonstration of just how valuable this component has been in the past and will continue to be in the future. If the army and navy are operating with less money, U.S. Special Operations Command is experiencing just the opposite: a membership, funding stream, and influence that are growing simultaneously. According to the Government Accountability Office, the ranks of America’s Special Forces have increased by 47 percent over the last fourteen years, their budget has risen by an astounding 213 percent, and special forces deployments overseas have increased by 148 percent.

With the exception of several accounts detailing the hunt for high-value targets such as Osama bin Laden, Pablo Escobar, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Mohamed Farrah Aidid, there has rarely been an in-depth and exhaustive dive into the history of the Joint Special Operations Command as an institution. More often than not, the Hollywood-themed, middle-of-the-night raids deep into enemy territory overshadow the men and women that make those raids possible. Sean Naylor, a former journalist at the Army Times and now a national security reporter for Foreign Policy magazine, does an excellent job of filling in that gap.

Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command, is a vital addition to the military genre. The account goes well beyond its companion books in detailing precisely how the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, came to be such a powerful institution in the counterterrorism wars of the 21st Century.

The historical narrative it sketches is sweeping. Spawned in the aftermath of the failed 1980 rescue mission to free American hostages in Iran, JSOC was very much a by-product of military commanders willing to sit down together, push inter-service rivalries aside, and confront embarrassments and failed missions head-on. The military is an institution that is commonly stereotyped as immune to change and reform, but Naylor outlines in incredible detail how shallow that assumption truly is. Faced with enormous obstacles and bureaucratic resistance in some quarters of the Pentagon, the commanders and operators who originally conjured up a joint special force melding the Army’s Delta teams, the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, and the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron would go down in history as innovators who created an elite, efficient, and dedicated manhunting machine.

A hefty chunk of Naylor’s account is a checklist of sorts of the best and least known missions of JSOC lore. Those deployments stretch from the 1989 hunt for Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to the exhaustive search for war criminals in the Balkans to the behind-the-scenes planning for Operation Enduring Freedom immediately after the September 11th attacks. Naylor covers all of them with laser-like precision. Where he truly breaks new ground, however, is in his detailing the often-dynamic relationships between JSOC and its foreign counterparts.

More often than not, as it turns out, these relationships proved to be more of a burden to JSOC operations than an asset. Thus, during the 2007-2008 U.S. troop surge in Iraq, JSOC efforts to interdict, capture, detain, and interrogate personnel from the paramilitary arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, known as the Quds Force, and to roll up Iranian-supported Shi’a militia networks were hindered by the sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki would often threaten to shut down JSOC operations inside Iraq whenever U.S. forces would capture a high-value Iranian operative on the battlefield. After a particularly violent operation in Baghdad’s Sadr City district which killed forty-nine Shi’a militiamen, Maliki prohibited U.S. personnel from operating in the area entirely—an order which not only slowed down counterterrorism operations in the area but prevented the United States from going into a large district in the heart of the Iraqi capital known for Shi’a militia activity. When Maliki found out that JSOC’s Task Force 17 had picked up a senior Quds Force commander at a terminal at Baghdad International Airport, the Iraqi government forced the unit to release him into its custody. “He was handed over to the Iraqis and then released the next day,” a JSOC official commented.

JSOC’s luck was not much better in Afghanistan, where the government of President Hamid Karzai would put up roadblocks to unilateral operations against Taliban individuals in their homes and pressured U.S. commanders to conform their rules of engagement to tactics and procedures that many JSOC personnel viewed as beneficial to the insurgency. Every civilian casualty inflicted by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan would further inflame Karzai’s temper—so much so that U.S. night raids on the homes of suspected insurgents became prohibited without Afghan army personnel joining the operations.

In each and every instance, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in Yemen—whose former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, barred JSOC personnel from operating on the ground—JSOC had to adapt and find a way to continue what U.S. military commanders, national security bureaucrats, and politicians alike considered a highly effective way of warfare.

Given the widespread support of special forces in the Pentagon and the halls of Congress, the important history told in Relentless Strike can be expected to last well beyond the end of President Barack Obama’s administration. JSOC’s budget grew exponentially during the tenure of President George W. Bush, and the pace of operations quickened dramatically under President Obama. The next President of the United States will enter office in January 2017 with the comfort that JSOC remains available—and effective. Indeed, at a time when the American public remains reluctant to support large-scale, conventional ground operations, the offensive capabilities that have defined JSOC as an elite force make it a near certainty that the next President will order operators into the field before contemplating any other option on the ground. The fact that the current war against the Islamic State is staffed in large measure by U.S. special operators is a testament to just how much trust JSOC has generated among America’s civilian and military leadership.

Naylor’s book can help Americans to understand the evolution of JSOC from a niche force to an elite group that is now serving as the tip of the spear—and why the work that it does has become the “new normal” in U.S. warfighting.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst for Wikistrat, Inc., a geopolitical consulting firm specializing in the study of international economic and political developments for private and public-sector clients. His work has been published in a variety of publications, including the National Interest, Quartz, the Hill, and the Huffington Post.