Over the past 16 years, a profound transformation has been underway in how America wages war. Starting under George W. Bush after 9/11, and accelerating under Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Special Operations Forces—once a small, secretive subset of the military used for highly specialized tasks—have been transformed into the primary instrument of American military power and foreign policy. In the process, they have been put in an impossible position.
In a 2013 report for the Council on Foreign Relations, Rand Corporation scholar Linda Robinson outlined this already well-advanced trend when she noted, “[Special Operations Forces] have doubled in size and been deployed more often and for longer periods than ever before. They have more generals and admirals leading their ranks—almost 70, compared with nine a dozen years ago.” And according to a recent TIME magazine report, there are currently 8,000 members of these forces deployed around the world at any given moment, up from 2,900 in 2001.
Often known by the abbreviation SOF, Special Operations Forces is the umbrella name covering the gamut of commando and unconventional warfare units across the armed services. These include the Navy SEALs who carried out the Osama bin Laden raid in 2011, Army Special Forces like the kind operating in Africa—where three Americans were killed in an ambush this October—and a bevy of other elite units and their support personnel.