Yemen to Syria to Central Africa, the Trump administration is relying on Special Operations forces to intensify its promised fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups as senior officials embrace an Obama-era strategy to minimize the American military’s footprint overseas.
In Africa, President Trump is expected to soon approve a Pentagon proposal to remove constraints on Special Operations airstrikes and raids in parts of Somalia to target suspected militants with the Shabab, an extremist group linked to Al Qaeda. Critics say that the change — in one of the few rejections of President Barack Obama’s guidelines for the elite forces — would bypass rules that seek to prevent civilian deaths from drone attacks and commando operations.
The global reach of special operators is widening. During the peak of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 13,000 Special Operations forces were deployed on missions across the globe, but a large majority were assigned to those two countries. Now, March 2017, more than half of the 8,600 elite troops overseas are posted outside the Middle East or South Asia, operating in 97 countries, according to the Special Operations Command. Still, about one-third of the 6,000 American troops currently in Iraq and Syria are special operators, many of whom are advising local troops and militias on the front lines. About a quarter of the 8,400 American troops in Afghanistan are special operators.
In Africa, about one-third of the nearly 6,000 overall troops are Special Operations forces. The only permanent American installation on the continent is Camp Lemonnier [Djibouti], a sprawling base of 4,000 United States service members and civilians in Djibouti that serves as a hub for counterterrorism operations and training. The United States Air Force flies surveillance drones from small bases in Niger and Cameroon.
Elsewhere in Africa, the roles of special operators are varied, and their ranks are small, typically measured in the low dozens for specific missions. Between 200 and 300 Navy SEALs and other special operators work with African allies to hunt shadowy Shabab terrorists in Somalia. As many as 100 Special Forces soldiers help African troops pursue the notorious leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony. And Navy SEALs are training Nigerian commandos for action in the oil-rich delta.
The United States is building a $50 million drone base in Agadez, Niger, that is likely to open sometime in 2018 to monitor Islamic State insurgents in a vast area on the southern flank of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal to Chad. Mr. Trump’s tough talk on terrorism has been well received in Chad, where American Special Operations and military instructors from several Western nations finished an annual three-week counterterrorism training exercise last week.
Excerpts from AERIC SCHMITT, Using Special Forces Against Terrorism, Trump Seeks to Avoid Big Ground Wars, Mar. 19, 2017