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Why the United States Should Use Special Operations Forces to Fight the Islamic State (ISIS)

Why the United States Should Use Special Operations Forces to Fight the Islamic State (ISIS)

By Geraldine Cook
February 29, 2016

Given the capabilities they can deploy, their rigorous training, their organizational flexibility, and the types of missions they carry out, special forces are ideally equipped to battle the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria.

The U.S. Army’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) have been arriving in Iraq to carry out operations against the Islamic State (ISIS) as part of a more concerted and effective effort to disrupt the terrorist organization. This is complemented by the presence of U.S. SOF in Syria, where they obtain intelligence, perform Military Assistance tasks with Kurdish forces, and conduct raids on high-value targets.

One of the initial strategies designed by U.S. President Barack Obama to address the threat of ISIS was a series of air strikes on specific targets aimed at destroying jihadist enclaves. However, in light of events, Military officials sent SOF to achieve certain goals that by their nature can only be achieved through the use of such units.

In addition, the United States has openly called on other countries to send special operations forces to join the fight against ISIS, including from the U.S.’s traditional allies, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter confirmed. “There are states in the region that have been requested to take a more active role in the Military campaign against Islamic terrorism.”

The countries in the region with special operations forces that have trained with their American counterparts include Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. In this context, the full validity of the longstanding and well-known aphorism of “boots on the ground” is evident, as the presence and deployment of ground forces is necessary to achieve the conquest and occupation of a territory consolidated as a result of a Military operation.

Given these developments, it is clear that the United States should use special operations forces to fight the Islamic State. A key element in current U.S. defense policy is the use of SOF, which have gained significant importance in modern war, mainly due to the capabilities they can deploy, their rigorous training, their organizational flexibility, the types of missions they carry out, the impact of their actions, and the characteristics of the new threat where uncertainty and asymmetry prevail.

Given the SOFs’ ability to provide rapid and normally covert actions with a reduced volume of units, they are particularly suited to carry out Military operations in response to various threats. The multiplicity of tasks that such forces can execute – in war and in military operations outside of war – make them a suitable instrument for fast and flexible Military responses, unlike conventional forces that can cause or aggravate an escalation of a crisis.

It will also be very important for the United States to properly plan for the SOFs’ commitment to combat missions. This implies a proper and thorough assessment and taking into account the risks to the force itself due to the possibility of casualties and further difficulties of recuperation based on the time and costs involved in replacement. But the political, strategic, and operational consequences that could be brought about by an unsuccessful mission also need to be considered. Therefore, before committing to a potential mission, commanders and advisers must conduct thorough planning and take into account any future effects.

It is precisely in this context that one of the special operations forces’ main challenges arises: developing a flexible and versatile force capable of fighting and overcoming conventional threats in a typical scenario of interstate conflict and dealing with non-state organizations, such as terrorist groups, paramilitary organizations, etc., based on the each country’s reality and legal rules.

As we can see, the varied and contradictory combat scenarios that may be encountered by a force of this nature demand detailed knowledge of the range of skills they possess – confirming the special operations forces’ importance as an appropriate Military response instrument in times of peace, crisis, and war.

Lieutenant Colonel Rocco Vergara Lancellotti is the Deputy Director of the Chilean Army’s War Academy.