Last week the Defense Department announced a couple of significant appointments: Gen. Joseph Votel, head of Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, would become head of United States Central Command, in charge of all military operations in the Middle East. Lt. Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas, head of the Joint Special Operations Command (composed of the Army's Delta Force, Navy SEALs and other “Tier 1” forces) would gain an extra star and replace Votel as overall head of special operations.
Thomas thus becomes the third Joint Special Operations commander in a row to ascend to lead SOCOM and Votel becomes the latest special ops veteran elevated to a senior command, following the precedent set by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who went from Joint Special Operations Command to director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff to command in Afghanistan.
This may sound like Pentagon inside baseball, but it actually reflects an important trend: the extent to which President Obama depends on Special Operations forces, especially the joint command, which specializes in direct action missions: kicking down doors and killing or capturing terrorists. Army Special Forces, popularly known as Green Berets, by contrast, specialize in the less sexy mission of working “by, with and through” indigenous forces. No career Green Beret officer has ever been put in charge of SOCOM.
Having become president by strongly opposing the Iraq war, Obama is loath to commit ground forces to combat. But it's a different story with special operations forces. Wherever the president sees a terrorist threat, his preferred solution is to use drones or special ops troops to stage “surgical” strikes against “high-level targets.”
And how is this strategy working? Thomas told a West Point interviewer last spring that in the war on terrorism “we're losing across the board.” That's not because of any lack of valor or skill on the part of the troops Thomas commands. Special operators can eliminate individual terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden, but they cannot eliminate the organizations those leaders run.
Since Bin Laden's death in 2011, the terrorist threat has only gotten worse. Al Qaeda central, in Pakistan, has been weakened but its affiliates, in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere are stronger than ever. Meanwhile Islamic State has emerged from the ruins of Al Qaeda in Iraq, whose founder, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was killed by special forces in 2006. Islamic State not only administers a “caliphate” sprawling across the borders of Iraq and Syria, but it is also proliferating from Libya to Afghanistan and inspiring killers from Paris to San Bernardino.
History suggests that terrorist leaders, even ones as notorious as Bin Laden and Zarqawi, are as replaceable as most corporate CEOs. No entrenched insurgency has been defeated simply by getting rid of its chiefs. As long as the organization continues to command the loyalty of a substantial body of fighters, it will always find a substitute leader — and the new boss may turn out to be even more deadly than his predecessor.
That doesn't mean we should stop targeting terrorist leaders. Those missions can keep our enemies off balance and buy time for other efforts to succeed. The recent decision by the administration to send high-end special operators (to whom Defense Secretary Ashton Carter referred as a “specialized expeditionary targeting force”) back to Iraq was a good one.
But we also need other efforts, other lines of operation, to defeat our enemies. Alas, when it comes to the Obama administration and the war on terrorism, leadership targeting is pretty much all there is. Where is the Obama strategy to stabilize lawless lands such as Libya, Syria and Yemen, which have become a terrorist's playground? Admittedly, it is much harder to restore order out of chaos than it is to simply kill a few bad guys. But it is also necessary.
What the administration has been missing all along in the fight against Islamic extremists is a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan, one that integrates political efforts, diplomacy, information warfare, development aid and security assistance. Of these, political operations will ultimately be the decisive factor: Only if Syrian and Iraqi Sunni Muslims have a goal worth fighting for will they rise up against Islamic State. They won't fight the extremists on our behalf if the alternative is Shiite Muslim tyranny at the hands of Iranian proxies.
The best special ops forces in the world can't do it all or do it alone. The glamour of special operators, evident in movies such as “Zero Dark Thirty” and “American Sniper,” seems to have blinded Obama and a lot of other people to this important reality.
Max Boot, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.”