Things aren’t going so well in Afghanistan these days. The Obama administration plans to reduce America’s presence there by only about half as much as it originally intended, from the current level of 9,800 to 8,400 instead of 5,500 by the end of 2016. The administration also expanded the rules of engagement governing the armed forces’ ability to involve themselves in conflict and will allow U.S. forces to accompany the regular Afghan military into combat situations. These expanding mission sets come at a time when the U.S. military continues to be underfunded, faces a troubling readiness crisis, and must contend with an increasingly dangerous and demanding global operating environment.
Special operations forces (SOF) have avoided much of the recent belt-tightening faced elsewhere in the Pentagon. As the most well-resourced, but also most flexible and innovative element of the military, we shouldn’t be surprised that SOF will continue to play a large role in Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and Operation Resolute Support. The relatively limited core responsibilities of America’s forces in Afghanistan—training, advising, and assisting the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and conducting counterterrorism missions— also play to SOF strengths.
SOF have a tendency to be overused. But the mission sets, terrain, and the nature of conflict in Afghanistan make the use of special operators a natural choice. So natural, in fact, there is a tendency to overlook potential issues that might impede their success.
For those not involved in counterterrorism missions, the main issue affecting SOF, ironically enough, is a lack of resources. America has had a problem translating top-line budgetary and personnel resourcing into adequate support for in-theater operations ever since the U.S. effort in Afghanistan began in 2001. Old habits die hard. Even considering the comparatively limited scope of their mandate as compared to times past, the new responsibilities, as laid out in the recently loosened rules of engagement, threaten to stretch thin SOF train, advise, and assist efforts.
American SOF have long partnered with their Afghan counterparts and specialized units, such as the Afghan Local Police, but now the same troops will also be tasked with training conventional Afghan forces. Using the force sizing recommendations of a recent RAND report as a guide, Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan, at one Special Forces battalion, is sized to adequately handle the training of the ten Afghan National Army Special Operations Kandaks but not much more. In fact, there are already indications that Afghan SOF training has been negatively impacted, as their overstretched American counterparts shift the focus of their efforts.
Furthermore, the Status of Forces Agreement limits the contribution of NATO coalition members to the train, advise, and assistance mission alone. Only American troops can conduct counter-terrorism operations, such as direct action missions against al Qaeda or the Islamic State. But due to the inadequate numbers of available American soldiers in Afghanistan, special operators must be ferried in from elsewhere to help address the growing complexity and demands of the regional counter-terrorism portfolio. Resolute Support Commander General John Nicholson, for example, recently used a “special authority” to deploy troops from outside Afghanistan to support SOF operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan group.
Though it may be politically convenient to keep troop numbers artificially low using this technique, it is certainly more costly. It also precludes the benefits that a more permanent increase would bring, such as personal relationships with Afghans and deep tactical knowledge of the theater of operations, both of which take time to establish and maintain.
As SOF are asked to do more while the number of overall troops declines, their operational effectiveness will be impacted as well. The tragic attack on a Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) hospital in Kunduz in the fall of 2015 is a case in point. As soldiers become more fatigued, their judgment—like that of any person—becomes cloudier and more confused, especially if their tactical knowledge of the area is lacking. The CENTCOM investigation into the incident found that U.S. soldiers in Kunduz had been involved in battle constantly over the four days prior to the incident, with little sleep, and that their knowledge of the area was unsound. Long periods of battle are sometimes unavoidable in war, but the likelihood that such scenarios will take place in the future will only increase as SOF are tasked with more responsibilities and equipped with fewer resources than they had in the past.
The pattern of over-reliance on SOF is not limited to Afghanistan. In addition to the funding and resource increase, Congress has successively bestowed upon U.S. Special Operations Command increased responsibility and authority over its soldiers. But while SOF assigned to the Joint Special Operations Command typically generate the most public and political attention, their brethren conducting overt missions are getting the short end of the stick. At a minimum, the President should revisit his decision to further decrease the number of permanently stationed troops, as it’s clear that the number is artificial. Congress should verify that military leaders are assigning SOF only to missions that require their peculiar skill set, as well as the adequacy of the number of special operators allocated to particular missions.
America’s SOF alone are unlikely to be enough to facilitate stability in Afghanistan—that task will fall to the Afghans themselves. SOF affect maximum impact with minimal political downside, but they too have limits. Fortunately, the resources exist to maximize the chances of American SOF’s success. Our leaders just need to get those resources to the right place.