Two Years After bin Laden Raid, the Future of Special Operations

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Warrick Page / Getty Images

Osama bin Laden's lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan, shortly after Navy SEALs killed him on the top floor. It has since been demolished

The raid that took out Osama bin Laden two years ago Wednesday was only a few minutes old when it nearly fell to pieces.

We’ve all heard the story: one of the helicopters lost lift and crashed into an animal pen before Navy SEALs were even inside the compound. A national-security staffer in Washington, watching on a video feed, later said that when he saw the helicopter go down, he thought he might vomit.

But the man on the other end of that video was cool and collected, as if it were just a small glitch in a training exercise. “He was almost like the voice of Walter Cronkite, completely calm,” Michael Leiter, who was present as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told TIME.

Completely emotionless, William McRaven told the nervous observers, “As you see, we have a helicopter down.” And then, “We’re going to push the QRF,” the quick-reaction force. The SEALs, including those who had crash-landed in the helicopter, stormed the compound and killed bin Laden less than an hour later.

(PHOTOS: Navy SEALs in Action)

The success of that mission wasn’t divine providence or luck, although both probably played a role. American commandos were able to fly deep into Pakistan and kill the world’s most wanted terrorist because of years of selection, training and operational experience. The helicopter pilots, members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the famed Night Stalkers, drove the nose of the helicopter into the ground and prevented the aircraft from tipping over. They had practiced this probably thousands of times before.

The bin Laden raid was the culmination of a decadelong reorganization where the budget for special operations quadrupled from $2.3 billion in 2011 to $10.4 billion this year. Since Sept. 11, special operators have conducted thousands of raids and operations to kill and capture terrorists and insurgent leaders, as many as a dozen a night during the heights of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since the bin Laden raid, they haven’t exactly slowed down; nearly 12,000 special-ops troops are deployed at any one time, about half in Afghanistan and the rest scattered across nearly 70 countries. But two years after the bin Laden raid, policy experts are taking a hard look at the future of special operations, where and how they can have the greatest strategic impact on America’s national security and what is the most sustainable role for the highly talented troops that make up their ranks.

A new report from the Council on Foreign Relations by Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at the Rand. Corp., dissects the current role of special operations and how they should be used in the future. “Without greater clarity, there is a serious danger that special-operations forces will be employed in a permanent global game of whack-a-mole and in other tactical and episodic ways,” Robinson writes, “rather than as part of deliberate campaigns that can achieve lasting outcomes.”

(MORE: Homeland Insecurity: After Boston, The Struggle Between Liberty and Security)

Special operations, by design, are usually small-unit tactical operations, but the idea that they can have a great strategic impact has been around for decades. For years, Austin Long, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, taught the 1976 Entebbe raid as the textbook case for a special-operations direct action. During that mission, Israeli commandos stormed the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, and rescued 105 hostages held by pro-Palestinian hijackers.

One of the reasons he taught that operation in the course, Long told TIME one year ago, is that the Entebbe raid was “fundamentally a special operation that had strategic as well as tactical consequences.” In this way, the bin Laden raid was similar. “They show that special operations can have a tactical impact but also a strategic impact,” Long said.

One of the shortfalls of U.S. Special Operations Command, Robinson argues in her report, is that “it has failed to develop and disseminate a clear and pathbreaking doctrine for strategic employment of special-operations forces.” Robinson argues that producing such a doctrine should be one of the Special Operations Command’s highest future priorities. “This doctrine should include a theory of special operations that describes how they can achieve strategic or decisive impact, particularly by affecting the political level of war,” she writes.

For years, special-operations leaders have argued that a unilateral or “direct” approach (raids, killing and capturing terrorists) only buys time for longer-term “indirect” approaches (training and advising armies, working with partners) to work. A clearer doctrine would clarify how those two approaches can work together to support larger security goals.

(MORE: Pentagon Hires Outside Help to Train bin Laden Raid Pilots)

Any planning for the future of special operations should include discussion of how best to use the highly trained men and women that make up the force. On a broad, strategic level, there is a danger in seeing special-operations forces as a panacea for future war. “Special-operating forces have been so effective, that there’s the great danger that they will become the easy button for every situation,” retired General Stanley McChrystal, former head of Joint Special Operations Command, told TIME earlier this year. Unilateral and direct-action missions often have broad geopolitical consequences that can impact security and diplomatic operations in other countries.

And then there are the operators themselves, men and women who spent years working their way into the military’s elite units, then additional months and years training and doing dangerous missions all over the world. “It’s important people understand special-operating forces,” McChrystal said. “They’re not supermen. They’re not the shadowy figures, that dark knight with big biceps and absolute courage, and they’re not hard-drinking mercenaries either. What they are is they’re family people.” He described operators with kids in high school and a few with grandchildren. One of the troops under his command who was conducting raids every night even lost a son in combat somewhere else in the war.

In her report, Robinson also makes several budgetary and organizational recommendations designed to help special-ops units work better with one another and with security forces around the world. Those ideas merit serious discussion. Over the next few years, as the anniversaries of the bin Laden raid pile up, it will be important for military and civilian policymakers to have many discussions and debates about the future of special operations, keeping in mind how important they are to America’s current security and the role they should play in the decades to come.

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