For America, 2016 Was the Year of the Commando

Special Operation Soldiers of the United States Army Special Operations Command
Courtesy USASOC News Service/Flickr. CC BY 2.0

This article was published by War is Boring on 5 January 2017.

They could be found on the outskirts of Sirte, Libya, supporting local militia fighters, and in Mukalla, Yemen, backing troops from the United Arab Emirates. At Saakow, a remote outpost in southern Somalia, they assisted local commandos in killing several members of the terror group Al Shabab.

Around the cities of Jarabulus and Al-Rai in northern Syria, they partnered with both Turkish soldiers and Syrian militias, while also embedding with Kurdish YPG fighters and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Across the border in Iraq, still others joined the fight to liberate the city of Mosul. And in Afghanistan, they assisted indigenous forces in various missions, just as they have every year since 2001.

For America, 2016 may have been the year of the commando. In one conflict zone after another across the northern tier of Africa and the Greater Middle East, U.S. special operations forces — aka SOF — waged their particular brand of low-profile warfare.

Surveillance and American Liberty

Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty at dusk. Photo: gimmeahug/flickr.

CAMBRIDGE – Ever since Edward J. Snowden disclosed the National Security Agency’s ongoing collection of massive amounts of electronic-communications data generated by United States citizens and non-citizens alike, attention has been lavished on his personal status. But the more important issue, even before Russia granted him temporary asylum, is the status of American civil liberties. Is the US guilty of hypocrisy, as Russia, China, and others have charged?

To answer that question, it is important to distinguish between two issues that have become conflated in public debate: electronic espionage against foreign entities and domestic surveillance of a government’s own citizens.

Learning Intelligence

Chris Pallaris of i-intelligence explaining intelligence tools to ISN staff, image: Emilie Boillat/ISN

In order to be able to offer increasingly intelligent services, we are educating ourselves. This week, the ISN team is taking a workshop on “Skills in Intelligence Collection and Analysis.”

Let’s start with an intelligence problem. Thinking about the US mid-terms, we wondered about the future of the US during a coffee break. Our (bold) question: Might the US disintegrate over the course of the next decade?

Applying the methodology taught by Chris Pallaris of i-intelligence, we’d first analyze the problem by taking it apart. Intelligence analysis is problem-solving. As any good intelligence problem, our question asks for a predictive answer. Intelligence IS prediction.

The first step would be to make our assumptions concerning the US and its future explicit by writing them down. Assumptions are key to our thinking but need to be watched closely and examined critically because they may lead us to a  biased answer. Next, we would formulate hypotheses. As many as possible. We would develop indicators to monitor the stability and future prospects of the US. We would need to have a collection plan to guide the accumulation of information. In doing this, ‘source awareness’ helps us look for information in the right places.

Our problem may not demand an immediate answer. It may, as Chris put it, be a “wicked problem” that has no neat answer at all. We needn’t hurry. The tension between an accurate prediction crafted with care and time, and the limited amount of time available for decision-making and action, however, is always there. The longer we wait in answering the question at hand, the less time there is for our government to look for new allies and to do contingency planning.

Do you think our speculations are unrealistic? Well, intelligence is also about thinking the unthinkable.

We hope the ISN keeps inspiring you and catering to your intelligence needs with the resources we offer in the Digital Library and the analyses we provide with ISN Insights.