The irony is that SOF are victims of their own successes in the post-9/11 era. A fringe element in the U.S. military at the time of the September 11 attacks, the aftermath saw them immediately thrust into the limelight, when Green Berets, partnered with the CIA and Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, brought down the Taliban regime. But it was the fight against the insurgency following the 2003 Iraq invasion that cemented the rise to preeminence within the entire U.S. military of SOCOM’s most valued organization: Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC, or “jay-sock”), the secret outfit that runs “direct action” missions such as raids and hostage rescues involving SEAL Team 6, Delta Force, the 75th Ranger Regiment, and other highly specialized units.
As Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq group threatened to overwhelm the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, JSOC was its most formidable opponent, tracking down and killing Zarqawi with an air strike in June 2006. By the end of the George W. Bush administration, the urgent need to fight al Qaeda in Iraq, a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, and burgeoning Islamist militant groups in Africa, had swollen SOCOM’s budget from $2.3 billion in September 2001 to $9.3 billion, while the number of personnel assigned to the command had grown from 45,650 to 54,500, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw.
But although the Bush administration set JSOC and, by extension, SOCOM, on the path from middling bit player to shining star (“JSOC is awesome,” Bush told Bob Woodward), no president has relied upon special ops as much as Barack Obama. Although high-profile one-off missions, such as the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips and the killing of Osama bin Laden, have captured the headlines, JSOC and the other U.S. special operations forces came into their own under Obama by giving him the ability to maintain concurrent military campaigns in half-a-dozen countries while keeping those battles off the front pages.
Under Obama, SOCOM has added more than 15,000 personnel, and its budget has increased to $10.4 billion from $9.3 billion, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw (who noted that the 2006 and 2010 Quadrennial Defense Reviews drove the growth). In Iraq and Syria, JSOC is targeting ISIS leaders and external operations, while the 5th Special Forces Group and other U.S. SOF work with Iraqi security forces, Kurds, and Syrian Arab guerrillas. Elsewhere, SOF quietly operate in Libya, maintain a task force in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, and form a significant slice of the 8,400 U.S. troops left in Afghanistan. The number of special operators deployed at any one time is actually down to 7,500 from a peak of between 12,500 and 13,500 at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet as the shrinking U.S conventional forces largely return to a peacetime training regimen, the operational tempo for SOF has not let up.