Wall Street Journal on September 2, 2015, published a review by Mark Moyar of “Relentless Strike” by Sean Naylor (St. Martin’s, 540 pages, $ 29.99).
Moyar noted that in “Relentless Strike,” Mr. Naylor…provides 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Mr. Moyar, a visiting scholar at the Foreign Policy Initiative, is the author of “Strategic Failure: How President Obama’s Drone Warfare, Defense Cuts, and Military Amateurism Have Imperiled America.”
Comment: This new book clearly demonstrates how important JSOC is in the fight against international jihadist terrorism and that the organization under Gen. Stanley McChrystal has evolved greatly since the failed Iran hostage raid ordered by President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. The US unconventional warriors are doing an excellent job but more anti-terrorist ground troops are needed in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. These ground troops need not be American. They could come from the counter-terrorist coalition partners of the United States. The US administration has made a great mistake in not stationing American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan when withdrawing. The result is a devastating civil war in Syria and the rise of the extreme ISIS in northern Syria and Iraq. Recent news that Russian troops are participating on the side of Assad demonstrates how dangerously flawed US policy in the Middle East is during the present administration.