Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. Special Forces played a major role in the U.S.-led attack of Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Thanks in part to their efforts, by early December 2001 Kandahar, Afghanistan, the Taliban's last stronghold, fell to coalition forces. During the Iraq War, U.S. Special Forces were once again front and center, securing several large areas of the country. In this excerpt from the Introduction to John C. Fredriksen's Fighting Elites: A History of U.S. Special Forces, the author discusses the recent evolution of U.S. Special Forces into one of the key components of current U.S. military strategy.
Modern American special forces are a far cry from their historical antecedents, but threads of continuity persist in their tactical mastery of unconventional warfare. Moreover, the extreme dangers posed by the Soviet Union and Red China to the United States finally triggered a lasting resurgence in terms of special operations doctrine and, for once, the American military not only raised new special forces units, but also grudgingly maintained them as part of the standing military establishment. These include not only storied formations such as the Army’s Green Berets and Rangers, and the Navy’s SEALs, but also lesser known entities like the Air Force’s Air Resupply and Communications Command, the Marine Corp’s Force Recon companies. All performed dutifully during the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts, assuring that, while special forces may not enjoy wide popularity within military institutions, they were no longer considered expendable and subject to immediate disbandment at the end of hostilities.
The United States received an abject lesson in the utility of possessing appropriate special operations units for each service and every contingency following the disastrous Iranian hostage rescue attempt of 1980, which exuded dramatic remedial effects to that end. The interval between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War against Terror found special forces employed in minor fare like hunting war criminals in the Balkans and Somalia, tasks for which they are trained to do, but they acquired little distinction. However, the attack against the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, again spelled in stark relief the growing and sometimes dire necessity of recruiting, training, equipping, and preserving a viable special operations capabilities. That the cruel Taliban regime in Afghanistan and their al-Qaeda terrorist consorts were run out of that rugged country in only three months proffers incontrovertible proof that U.S. Special Forces are a potent factor to reckon with. They currently operate everywhere around the globe, wherever American interests and security are threatened, and scores of dead terrorists offer mute testimony to their deadly effectiveness. Given the implications of terrorism to national security, there is little wonder that, over the past two and a half centuries, America’s special forces have evolved steadily from episodic tactical novelties into battlefield force multipliers and standing strategic necessities. The 21st century may very well prove itself to be a golden age of unconventional warfare, and high-tech, special warriors to wage it.
John C. Fredriksen, PhD, is an independent historian. He is the author of 30 books and reference encyclopedias on military history, most recently Fighting Elites: A History of U.S. Special Forces. His other publications include ABC-CLIO's American Military Leaders: From Colonial Times to the Present and America's Military Adversaries: From Colonial Times to the Present. Fredriksen has also authored a series of chronologies detailing the histories of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.