JSOC-ing Al Qaeda Around The World

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

JSOC_emblemAs indicated by a Washington Post story earlier in the week on the U.S. military’s clandestine involvement in operations in Yemen and the news that more special forces are headed there, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has been playing an increasingly central role in U.S. national security in many corners of the globe.

The clandestine nature of JSOC’s activities mean public information on its work is scant. But if you carefully look into press accounts from the world’s conflict zones — Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia — you will find JSOC there, among other places.

Conservatives who prattle on about President Obama’s being weak on terrorist groups fail to recognize that the Obama administration has used JSOC forces with increasing frequency around the world. The Obama administration may no longer use the phrase “global war on terror,” but one year into office, it’s clear that it hasn’t let up on aggressively pursuing terrorist networks around the world. Whether these efforts are making America safer in the overall is simply unknown — more than eight years after the 9/11 attacks, America still lacks empirical metrics to determine whether any of our global efforts are reducing these threats.

JSOC falls under the umbrella of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which has about 60,000 personnel. A Congressional Research Service report from last year offers a few useful facts about USSOCOM. The 2004 Unified Command Plan gave USSOCOM responsibility for synchronizing Pentagon plans against global terror networks and conducting global operations. It plays an important role in countering terrorist finance. In 2008, USSOCOM was assigned the role of synchronizing the Pentagon’s security force assistance programs around the world, and this is what David Ignatius was referring to in his column earlier this week. These security force assistance programs are a central national security policy tool, though one with real downsides if not managed properly. As my colleague Peter Juul noted in this post on Pakistan, if America’s bilateral military relationship is not handled properly, it could cancel out efforts to change the “transactional” nature of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

Relatively little public information is available on USSOCOM, but two recent speeches — one by Admiral Eric T. Olson, the USSOCOM’s top military commander last year and another in 2008 by Michael Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict — present an informative picture of just how wide-ranging the activities of USSOCOM are, including things that fall into categories that civilian agencies are charged with, too.

JSOC is just one component of the Special Operations Command efforts. Given its increasingly central role, however, it deserves more oversight from Congress and more attention in our national security discussions.