Role Reversal: U.S. Special Operations Forces After the Long War

Role Reversal: U.S. Special Operations Forces After the Long War
A U.S. special operations forces soldier leads Iraqi special operations forces while practicing movement techniques, Baqubah, Iraq, April 6, 2011 (photo by Flickr user DVIDSHUB used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

For many years, U.S. special operations forces (SOF) did important, often invaluable work, but were at the periphery of the U.S. military, simultaneously part of the team yet different. Commanders of conventional units often complained that SOF operating in the same area as their troops did little coordination and seemed to have their own objectives. The actions of special and conventional forces were more in parallel than synchronized. Even in the classrooms of the military’s staff and war colleges, the special operators were easy to spot, connected to their fellow students while somehow distinct.

Then the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the ensuing conflict with al-Qaida and other transnational jihadists, changed everything. SOF always had a part in the military’s plans for big conventional war, undertaking deep reconnaissance and strikes far behind enemy lines. But their true specialty was dealing in the irregular and unconventional realms through actions like counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, advising friendly forces and supporting guerrillas resisting a government hostile to the United States.

Al-Qaida’s attacks on the U.S. instantly propelled irregular threats and unconventional responses to the forefront of American strategy. This transformed SOF from a supporting player to the star of the show. SOF became the face of the conflict with al-Qaida and kindred extremists. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal, an Army Special Forces officer, was named in 2009 to command the NATO force in Afghanistan—which was composed mostly of conventional forces—it demonstrated the ascendance of special operators, capping their move from the periphery to the core of U.S. military strategy.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.