On January 14th, the White House announced that Gen. Joseph Votel - the current head of U.S. Special Operations Command – will take over as the head of U.S. Central Command, a position which will place him in charge of America’s wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The symbolism of the appointment could not be clearer. As Foreign Policy noted,
“With 3,000 special operations troops currently hunting down Taliban militants in Afghanistan, and another 200 having just arrived on the ground in Iraq to take part in kill or capture missions against Islamic State leadership, Votel’s nomination underscores the central role that the elite troops play in the wars that President Barack Obama is preparing to hand off to the next administration.”
The growing use of special operations forces has been a hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, an attempt to thread the needle between growing public opposition to large-scale troop deployments and public demands for the United States to ‘do more’ against terrorist threats, all while dancing around the definition of the phrase ‘boots on the ground.’ But the increasing use of such non-traditional forces – particularly since the start of the Global War on Terror – is also reshaping how we think about U.S. military intervention overseas.
It’s not just the growing use of special operations forces. New technologies like drones permit America’s military to strike terrorist training camps and high value targets abroad with limited risk to operators. The diffusion of terrorist groups and non-state actors across the globe enables terrorist groups and their affiliates to be present in many states. And the breadth of the 2001 Congressional Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) – which permits attacks on any forces ‘associated’ with Al Qaeda – has permitted the executive branch to engage in numerous small military interventions around the globe without congressional approval or much public debate.
The result has been a series of conflicts which are effectively invisible to the public. Indeed, depending on your definition, America is currently fighting between three and nine wars. Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are obvious. But U.S. troops are also actively fighting in counterterrorism operations in Somalia, Nigeria, and Uganda. The United States is conducting drone strikes in Pakistan, Libya, and Somalia. And our commitment to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is even more ambiguous: though the U.S. is not engaged in fighting, it is certainly providing material support in the form of logistical and intelligence support.
On January 25th, Cato is hosting a panel discussion on the issues raised by the growth of these small, ‘invisible’ wars, and by the growing ubiquity of U.S. military intervention around the world. Moderated by Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, and featuring Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council, Charles Schmitz of Towson University and Moeed Yusuf of the United States Institute of Peace, the event will seek to explore three key ‘invisible wars’ - Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia – and the broader questions they raise. What is the nature and scope of America’s involvement in such conflicts? Does lack of public awareness impact U.S. national security debates? And does U.S. involvement actually serve U.S. interests?
The event will be held on January 25th at 11am. You can register here.