Unconventional Warriors

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In “Not a Good Day to Die” (2005), Sean Naylor brilliantly recounted a battle between American forces and Islamic extremists in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Intimately detailed, the book showed how tangled lines of authority and the fog of war prevented American troops from annihilating their foes. Although even-handed, Mr. Naylor generated controversy by naming the officers responsible for needless American deaths and by describing sensitive operational techniques and technologies.

In “Relentless Strike,” Mr. Naylor informs and provokes in much the same manner, though his mission is broader this time around: to provide a history of the Joint Special Operations Command, America’s most elite military organization. His interviews with inside sources endow the narrative with a wealth of information, and the book benefits from Mr. Naylor’s familiarity with the subject matter, the result of a long career covering special operations as a journalist.

The first part of “Relentless Strike” chronicles the first 20 years of the Joint Special Operations Command, from the organization’s founding after the abortive Iran hostage raid of April 1980 to the end of the 20th century. The problems of inter-service coordination during the Iran fiasco led Defense Secretary Harold Brown to create an independent counterterrorist task force with its own personnel and equipment. The service chiefs, averse to ceding control of elite units like Delta Force and SEAL Team 6 to a separate command, raised protests, but to no avail.

For its first two decades, Joint Special Operations Command saw combat in only a few places, including Somalia in 1993, where it occupied center stage during the “Blackhawk Down” disaster, and in Colombia, where it helped the government’s commandos kill drug lord Pablo Escobar. At century’s end, it was a small, niche force. To the national leadership, it was a “Ferrari in the garage,” seldom driven lest it get scratched.

Mr. Naylor’s chapters on the 21st century are the most interesting and valuable, because the Joint Special Operations Command took off during that period. His granular account deftly demonstrates how a few key personalities drove the organization’s transformation from a Ferrari in the garage to the long-haul truck of the global war on terrorism.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked Gen. Charles Holland to become “the global commander” of the war against al Qaeda. At the time, Gen. Holland was head of U.S. Special Operations Command, which trained and equipped troops for JSOC but did not have operational control over them once they deployed. Gen. Holland might have seized the chance to assert operational control, but when Mr. Rumsfeld’s office pressed him to strike back at al Qaeda, he merely referred the inquiries to the Fort Bragg headquarters of the Joint Special Operations Command.

The JSOC commander at the time, Gen. Dell Dailey, was only marginally better suited than Gen. Holland to come to grips with the menace of al Qaeda. He shunned risks and insisted upon doing things by the book. When operators recommended different tactics in the interest of speed and stealth, he dismissed them out of hand. In the fall of 2001, we learn, Gen. Dailey delayed sending JSOC troops into Afghanistan until the military could position search-and-rescue helicopters nearby.

Mr. Naylor’s reporting makes clear that JSOC could have easily remained an underachiever were it not for the appointment of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as JSOC commander. Taking the helm in 2003, Gen. McChrystal replaced a culture of risk aversion with one of risk acceptance and innovation. Invoking a mandate from Mr. Rumsfeld to hunt down Saddam Hussein and other figures from the deposed Iraqi regime, Gen. McChrystal expanded the command’s presence in Iraq exponentially. He ditched large, set-piece operations, sent small teams to conduct most of the raids and tapped into the intelligence community’s gold mine of intercepts.

In May 2005, Gen. McChrystal encountered strong internal opposition to his plan to broaden JSOC’s target lists to include low-level Iraqi insurgents. Delta Force veterans argued that the nation’s most expensive forces ought to be reserved for its most formidable enemies. But Gen. McChrystal chose to press ahead. Later events appear to have vindicated his decision, since the expansion of the target lists helped bring both Sunni and Shiite insurgents to their knees.

The targeting of low-level insurgents continued when JSOC shifted resources from Iraq to Afghanistan in 2009. But the enemy’s continual replacement of losses with recruits from Pakistan and unpacified eastern Afghanistan eventually eroded JSOC’s morale. One Ranger officer tells Mr. Naylor that, by 2011, morale had sunk to the point that he had to yell at his noncommissioned officers just to go out on operations. With the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, JSOC shifted its attention to other countries, engaging mainly in training and reconnaissance rather than combat.

“Relentless Strike” does not delve deeply into larger questions of strategy and policy, such as the Obama administration’s use of precision counterterrorism strikes as a substitute for larger campaigns. Nevertheless, Mr. Naylor succeeds splendidly in showing how and why the Joint Special Operations Command evolved—and why it will remain a valuable weapon against the extremists who run rampant in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other dangerous places.

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