Special Forces, Special Operations, Special Rules

Troops from the United States Army on patrol in Iraq
Troops from the United States Army on patrol in Iraq, early 2000s

In a similar vein to yesterday’s post on James Fallows’ controversial critique of the United States’ military in the Atlantic magazine comes this article by Nick Turse over on Tom’s Dispatch examining the remarkable growth of America’s special forces contingents since 2001. As with Britain’s counter-insurgency war in Ireland from the 1970s to late ’90s (and arguably to the present day) a myriad of secret armies have developed in the shadows of the conflict, armies that have been granted unprecedented levels of operational freedom coupled with ever-more voracious budgetary demands.

In the British “Dirty War” various groupings such as the chameleon-like Military Reaction Force (FRU), the Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU), the 14 Field Security and Intelligence Company, the Special Air Service (SAS) and of course the infamous Force Research Unit (FRU) were able to function virtually free of oversight as senior army commanders and government officials turned a blind eye to their activities (aided by the fetish-like veneration of such forces by the Thatcher administration from 1979-90). In the American “War on Terror” a legion of specialist military units have captured the public and media limelight in ways that their British counterparts would probably have abhorred (though admittedly assassinating “white Europeans” in Europe itself elicited very different consequences to the killing of people with brown or black skin in faraway territories. Even when sections of Britain’s press were veritable cheerleaders for the former). From Turse’s piece on Tom’s Dispatch:

“During the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries — roughly 70% of the nations on the planet — according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises.  And this year could be a record-breaker.  Only a day before the failed raid that ended Luke Somers life — just 66 days into fiscal 2015 — America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total.

Since September 11, 2001, U.S. Special Operations forces have grown in every conceivable way, including their numbers, their budget, their clout in Washington, and their place in the country’s popular imagination.  The command has, for example, more than doubled its personnel from about 33,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 today, including a jump of roughly 8,000 during the three-year tenure of recently retired SOCOM chief Admiral William McRaven.”

Just as interesting as the use of “elite” military units in the United States’ self-appointed counter-terror war across the globe is the employment of “proxy-forces”; insurgent or terrorist organisations allied to US national interests. While elements of the UK government sponsored at one remove several British terror gangs in the north-east of Ireland including the UDA-UFF and UVF (not to mention Billy Wright’s fanatical LVF, the soon-to-be-discarded plaything of the Force Research Unit) America’s own contemporary dabbling in “terrorism” remains largely unknown outside of the so-called Sons of Iraq or أبناء العراق‎, the euphemistically named Sunni Awakening, from 2005 onwards. There are several stories waiting to be uncovered here.



  1. “America’s own contemporary dabbling in “terrorism” remains largely unknown”

    Look to what is known about Northern Ireland, and then extrapolate, massively, for the US and Israelis (and the Brits) in the Middle East over the last 50 years. What do you get? “al-qaeda” etc. It’s SOP.

  2. During the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries — roughly 70% of the nations on the planet
    And that’s a good thing – because the alternatives are Russian or Chinese forces and I certainly don’t want that.

    In response to Putin’s war against Ukraine the Americans deployed some of their troops to Latvia and I hope that they’ll stay there. And other NATO members (the evil UK, for example) are planning to deploy their troops there as well.

      1. That failed parody of a country occupied my country for 50 years – I know them very well.
        It is run by a nutjob and it’s the biggest security threat in the world – ISIS is completely insignificant compared to Russia.

  3. I don’t know, but America’s relatively pathetic, almost amateurish dabbling seems to lack many of the sinister elements of other nations practising similar tactics. They appear to be more the uninformed bull in the china store. As for the killing, distance is more of a factor than skin color. When social media-induced havoc struck London not too long ago, British authorities used great restraint, almost favouring destruction over taking action against the vandals, many of which were non-white Europeans. Had this occurred in Northern Ireland, many white Europeans would have found themselves shot to death in the street, especially if they were of a certain religious conviction.

    1. I know that is the stereotype of the US, the lumbering giant swatting at flies in all directions and smashing up the house in the process. However think back to the covert actions of the Cold War (especially in Latin America) and you have to question those claims of dumb innocence. I would say that the British Forces only rarely behaved in the north-east of our country as the US Forces did in Iraq or Afghanistan. However there were very good geographical, political and press reasons for that. Belfast in the 1970s and ’80s was a short flight from London. Not a long-haul one with connections and numerous stumbling blocks to entry. The British got away with what they could get away with given the circumstances. As did their opponents.

      1. Let’s not forget that the British committed many many atrocities in both Iraq and Afghanistan (and very probably, Libya and Syria as well). One of the factors obscuring this reality is that, contrary to the stereotype, the American media – or at least sections of it – are much more likely to be critical of their own country’s actions, than their ultra-chauvinistic British counterparts are to be of theirs. And of course the British have a very powerful presence in the U.S. and global media (especially in Ireland!) which helps to ensure that they get a free pass where war crimes are concerned. Let’s not forget the way the whole British media uniformly agreed to suppress Prince Harry Windsor-Battenberg’s presence in Afghanistan at the behest of the British Foreign Office. Their justification in doing so was that to have revealed his presence there would have endangered his military colleagues. This rationale, even if true, itself amounted to an explicit admission that the British media saw themselves as part and parcel of the national “war effort”.

        Naomi Klein’s 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine” provides a powerful insight into the real agenda behind the War on Terror. Amongst other things she notes how western news outlets such as the BBC, Channel 4 and CNN routinely invite alleged “experts” on to “discuss” the War on Terror, the surveillance state, etc., – “experts” who have in fact very strong personal financial interests in the security and arms industries – and are therefore anything but “disinterested” observers.

      2. The actions by the U.S. in the cold were what solidified their reputation and branded that stereotype (way to many examples to list here). The actions in Central and South America were mostly at the behest of private industry, not government, and we all know just how more ruthless they are (Anaconda Copper for e.g.). From my limited knowledge, I would actually say that we do not know the half of what the Brits did in NI and the rest of the country, because they were simply better at targeting opposing propaganda, and were more thorough in “disappearing” the opposition. They were also better at covert operations and infiltrating the media preventing a lot of information from getting out. We are just now realising some of the extent of SAS involvement, and there is more of that in the woods, I am afraid.

        1. Very much agree with all of that. The veteran British left-wing journalist Richard Gott wrote a brilliant piece in the Guardian a couple of years ago on the true extent of British military interventions around the globe over the last century – the number of which dwarf those of all other nations – including the US. And of course infiltration and the widespread use of false flags and agent provocateurs have been part and parcel of British military and political strategy for centuries.

      3. And the reason they intervened in Latin America and elsewhere was because the Soviets did the same.

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