Max Boot: The Afghan Mission and the SEAL Tragedy

Roundup: Historians' Take

Mr. Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is completing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

 I recently visited a Special Operations headquarters in the Middle East—the location, along with other details, must remain classified. I received an incredibly impressive briefing on how U.S. commandos generate intelligence, locate targets, and then swoop down on them. The "operators" are the model of manly understatement. They don't brag but convey a quiet confidence that they know what they are doing—and they do.

As has been reported in several outlets, the Joint Special Operations Command—which comprises Navy SEALs, the Army's Delta Team, the Air Force's "Night Stalker" helicopter crews and other, even more clandestine forces—carries out a dozen operations a night in Afghanistan alone. Other JSOC contingents carry out raids in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and other lands where al Qaeda and its ilk operate. Most of these operations go so smoothly—resulting in a "jackpot," a wanted suspect killed or captured—that there is no mention of them in the press.

JSOC—and the entire U.S. Special Operations Command, of which JSOC is only one element—has come a long way since the 1980s. It was formed then in the wake of Operation Eagle Claw, the Iranian hostage rescue mission that resulted in disaster at a rendezvous point code-named Desert One.

Robert Gates was working at the CIA at the time, and as secretary of defense earlier this year he feared that the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden would turn into another Desert One. His fear was understandable but misplaced. Such operations have become much more routine than they were in 1980. Since 9/11, JSOC has become the most experienced and capable special-operations force the world has ever seen.

Yet things can still go wrong, especially when the element of surprise is lost... 

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