Irregular Warfare: Counterterrorism Forces in Support of Counterinsurgency Operations

October 8, 2012

On 19 October 2001, a joint special operations task force parachuted onto Objective Rhino, a remote desert landing strip southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan. This was the overt insertion of counterterrorism (CT) forces into the country. For the next seven years the CT force operated in the shadows, protecting information about all facets of its organization and operations from U.S. and coalition forces as vigorously and competently as it protected that information from the enemies it targeted. Despite the innate culture of secrecy that permeated early CT force operations, the counterinsurgency operating environment demanded greater transparency if the CT force was to sustain effects or achieve the increased effects desired. The CT force aggressively responded to the environment and dramatically and continuously increased internal and external coordination and cooperation in order to increase its freedom of action—ability to operate—and achieve sought effects. This effort will focus on unclassified actions taken by the CT force to increase its freedom of action and thus effects in two very different counterinsurgency operating environments—Afghanistan and Iraq. Generic inferences will illuminate, and ideally help preserve, the CT force efforts and lessons without compromising ongoing efforts and effects.

“Counterterrorism force” is a purposefully generic term that will be used throughout this paper to discuss United States Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM’s) counterterrorism forces. The sub-units that comprise the CT force do not warrant identification in this forum and that information would add nothing to the narrative. It is relevant to acknowledge that as a unified command, USSOCOM is a joint headquarters responsible for:

approximately 57,000 active duty, Reserve and National Guard Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and [Department of Defense] civilians assigned to the headquarters, its four components and one sub-unified command. USSOCOM’s components are U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM), Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC). The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is a USSOCOM sub-unified command.

Further, USSOCOM develops special operations strategy, doctrine and tactics and, as directed by the Unified Command Plan, is responsible for synchronizing Department of Defense (DoD) plans against global terrorist networks. USSOCOM receives, reviews, coordinates and prioritizes all DoD plans that support the global campaign against terror. Among special operations forces core activities are counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.

Terrorism and CT, as defined by Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, allow very local entities to be classified as terrorists and possibly requiring attention from a CT force. Conversely, a decade of conflict lent experiences to the U.S. government and U.S. military that have been used to inform U.S. national security strategy documents and joint doctrine development and updates. The U.S. national security apparatus has acknowledged that CT forces, special operations forces and conventional forces have a role in irregular warfare—of which CT is one of five principle activities. CT operations are no longer an exclusive domain for a single national CT force but also a requirement for special operations forces and conventional forces.