Revelation of Special Forces Misuse Points Up the Need for A Hard Assessment of the Long Wars

06/09/2015 01:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

It turns out that it's not only drones which are being overused in our still far too secret "long wars" around the globe. A New York Times investigation revealed over the weekend that our most famous special forces unit is being used on an amazingly ad hoc basis, with no oversight to speak of.

Back in the spring of 2011, President Barack Obama asked my old friend and boss Gary Hart, the former U.S. senator and one-time presidential frontrunner who has a long history with military reform efforts and geopolitical strategy, to form a bipartisan working group to recommend how Obama might refocus the nation's military in a hoped-for second term after years of mostly fruitless post-9/11 conflicts.

As James Fallows reported in the Atlantic's big cover story at the beginning of the year on the continued failures of what is supposed to be the best military in the world, Hart put together the group and the concise report. A big part of that report focused on the need to take a very hard look at what we are doing, reforming how we decide to use force and investigating the "long wars" of the post-/9/11 era.

Unfortunately, Obama then proceeded to, as we say, look beyond reforming our national security structure and approaches. While of course continuing to ratchet up more military engagements, mostly secret.

Now an in-depth New York Times investigative feature over the weekend on the legendary, and legendarily secretive, Navy SEAL Team 6 indicates that the nation's most elite special forces units are being misused and overused as a sort of general purpose ad hoc response to pop-up jihadist-oriented crises.

The fact is that there are bad guys all over. But we have to be strategic. We can't get involved in every situation. And we certainly can't use our most capable and trained forces to take on every half-baked jihadist in the back of beyond.

Increasingly, the most elite special operations forces around, such as SEAL Team 6 and the Army's Delta Force, are being used as an all-purpose response to an expanding roster of trouble spots. Some of them may not be top priorities.

For years they have been used as regular assault troops in Afghanistan, a role that should be played by Marines and Army troops. (Actually, the Afghanistan surge was a big mistake.) Now they're in Syria and Iraq, due to the tardy response to the rise of Isis, which of course only exists as a threat because of the Iraq War. They are in Somalia, a longstanding failed state, and Yemen, chasing after jihadists who may not pose a real threat to the US. And that's just what we know about.

Former Senator Bob Kerrey, a Navy SEAL officer and Medal of Honor-winner during the Vietnam War, told the New York Times that SEAL Team 6 and other special operations forces are being overused.

"They have become sort of a 1-800 number anytime somebody wants something done," he says.

SEAL Team 6 has expanded since 9/11, now numbering a reported 300 commandos and 1500 support staff. But the expansion has brought with it many new missions that don't seem suited to the use of truly elite troops. This diminishes the feeling of elite status that is important to the psyche of special forces operators. Worse, the wear and tear, both physical -- casualties are much higher -- and psychological tends to dull the edge of the most finely honed units.

Ostensibly in Afghanistan to hunt Al Qaeda leaders -- who of course had fled to points elsewhere -- the SEALs instead spent years going after lower level Taliban types.

One former SEAL Team 6 member told the Times that they functioned there as "utility infielders with guns."

A former SEAL Team 6 officer derides the mission profile. "By 2010, guys were going after street thugs," he says. "The most highly trained force in the world, chasing after street thugs."

This widespread use of our most elite special forces, traditionally reserved for only the most critical and challenging of missions -- such as the Obama bin Laden take-down achieved by a SEAL Team 6 unit four years ago -- has been shrouded in secrecy. Just as our worldwide drone strike program, a source of global controversy, is hidden behind the most cursory classified congressional oversight.

The U.S. is undertaking lethal combat operations on what looks, appallingly enough, much more like an ad hoc basis than the prosecution of any well-conceived strategy needed to defend the United States. Simply going after bands of bad guys, even jihadists who don't like America, is not a plan for success, it's a plan for non-stop conflict, conflict with tremendous blowback potential. Not every problem in the world deserves an American response.

Disagreeing with America is not a capital crime; attacking America is. We can't afford to be a hyperactive headless Crusader Rabbit lashing out spasmodically around the world. Send in the drones. Send in the SEALs ... Send in the clowns is what the rest of the world will end up saying.

In the post-Vietnam War era, Hart had many good reform ideas for the post-Vietnam military -- generally focusing on smaller, faster, and more maneuverable forces -- though I differed from him in always favoring the big aircraft carriers. Some of Hart's ideas were adopted even in what proved to be a largely Republican time.

In the post-Iraq War era, the recommendations of Hart's new defense reform group for the post-9/11 military comprises seven key points:

1. Combat units must become smaller, faster, and more lethal.

2. Conduct a critical review of the U.S global posture.

3. Streamline the Cold War national security apparatus.

4. Clarify the decision-making process for use of force.

5. Appoint a Commission to Assess the Long Wars.

6. The Commander-in-Chief as military reformer.

7. Restore the civil-military relationship.

With the problems which have slipped out about the secret global drone strike program and now the knowledge that elite special operators are being unaccountably sent hither and yon, it's appallingly clear that several of these points are of grave importance.

We have to examine what we've been doing in these long and increasingly open-ended wars, conflicts in which we mostly end up failing. The U.S. global posture, set up for a non-existent Cold War and seamlessly transitioned after 9/11 to the open-ended "long war" scenario, also cries out for examination, as does the decision-making process for the use of force.

The disastrous overreach of our failed occupations of Iraq, where the army we so expensively trained is simply collapsing, and Afghanistan, one of the world's most spectacularly corrupt countries in which the world-leading opium trade has actually hit record highs during our time there, should have made it obvious that there are distinct limits to our ability to influence foreign events.

All this would be a huge problem in any country that aspires to be effective in the world. It's especially so in a democracy.

The hard fact is that, with all the secret droning and commandoing going on, we don't really know what lethal operations are being carried out in our name. Or why.

And if anyone really imagines that we are somehow doing so much better in secret than we have done in public, well, I'm especially happy to sell off my share of the Brooklyn Bridge.

One wonders what the heck is going on with President Obama's National Security Council. While the massive apparat and bureaucracy of the Department of Defense can undoubtedly use some serious reform and streamlining, it's the president's National Security Council that is responsible for the overall.

The adhocracy starts with Obama's National Security Council. It needs to end there, too.

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