In the context of my previous work on the institutional architecture of the US military, this week’s WPR column could probably best be summed up as “give the Air Force to the Special Operations Forces.”
While counterterrorism was certainly understood as important during the 1980s, it did not dominate defense considerations. After the attacks of Sept. 11, SOF again assumed a prominent role in counterterrorist operations. However, counterterrorism itself now became the primary “problem” of U.S. security policy. So while special forces played key roles in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly the former, counterterrorism was redefined in more conventional terms. Fighting terrorists no longer involved small teams raiding terrorist hideouts, but rather large military operations geared toward regime change.
We can’t know how the debate over the response to Sept. 11 would have played out had the U.S. armed forces been designed differently at the time. Nevertheless, the inclination to understand major security problems in traditional terms may be a consequence of the enduring structure of America’s Cold War-era security institutions. In other words, as counterterrorism became the major mission of the U.S. national security apparatus, the traditional services came to interpret this mission in conventional terms. A different structure, one that privileged the skills and capabilities of SOF, might have come to different conclusions about the appropriate response to the attacks of Sept. 11.