Special Forces Find Victory Through Defeats

“America loves a winner, and will not tolerate a loser, this is why America has never, and will never, lose a war.” General Patton, the legendary Californian leader of the Third Army during World War II is said to have uttered.

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I was reminded by that when, in the light of the recent failed U.S special forces raid in Somali last weekend, some analysts rushed to describe the raid as more than a simple failure. Yet, that the raid on the Al-Shabaab stronghold of Barawe failed in its mission to capture Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, a senior commander of that Somali terrorist group.

The American public and journalist should be forgiven for this. Hollywood movies like Zero Dark Thirty and a line of Disney toys have built an image that Special Forces and the U.S Navy Seals are super-human. Yet, we should recall SEAL Team 6 is made of real people.

According to one released version of the raid, an Al-Shabaab fighter on a smoke break noticed the SEAL team. After puffing his cigarette calmly, he withdrew without acting like he’d noticed the SEAL team and alerted his fellow terrorists. This version of events is intriguing, Al Shabaab has, in the past, banned the smoking of cigarettes and other drugs in regions it control. So this version of events, if true, could reveal just another layer of hypocrisy common to this most motley of terrorist groups. Indeed Al-Shabaab is so poorly trained, organized and armed that even Osama Bin Ladin was against letting Al-Shabaab into Al-Qaeda. Until its spectacular raid on Westgate mall in Nairobi — which had East Africans as far away as Burundi glued to their television screens — the group was thought to be nearly routed.

After their discovery, the SEALS withdrew, in part because of the large number of civilians. It is possible, of course, to see the raid as a victory which demonstrates that Al-Shabaab leaders are never safe — but, Al-Shabaab can claim a similar propaganda victory. Rather we should applaud the commanders who rightly decided to withdraw rather than risk civilians or engage in a firefight against superior numbers. A failed U.S raid to capture another Somali warlord in 1993 resulted in a dramatic firefight and the capture of a U.S helicopter pilot, events portrayed in the book and film “Black Hawk Down”.

Perhaps the archetypal successful Special Forces raid was the 1976 Israeli assault on Uganda’s Entebbe airport, an effort that succeeded in freeing the bulk of Israeli hostages held by the PLO and the Ugandan Army of Idi Amin. The vast majority of the hostages were rescued unharmed; the only Israeli casualty was Yonatan Netanyahu, a young officer and the brother of the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During my recent trip to Uganda, my cab-driver (born years after the event) could still point out the building where the hostages were held.

During the 1970s, however, a number of U.S. Special Forces raids went awry. These eventually caused a reevaluation and paved the way for futures successes. During the height of the Vietnam War, the Son Tay Raid, or “Operation Ivory Coast,” was launched in 1970 to free some 70 American POWS held by the North Vietnamese. Despite helicopter problems (sound familiar?), the U.S Special Forces team seized the compound with minimal resistance. Then, they realized the real problem a bigger problem: there were no prisoners. The raid had failed due to faulty intelligence. Prior to the raid, the flooding of the nearby Song Con River had prompted the Vietnam’s communists to move the prisoners to Dong Hoi, a new prison nicknamed “Camp Faith”.

Other Special Forces raids in the era suffered from different difficulties. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge – Cambodian communists who committed genocide against their opponents — made the mistake of stopping the American container ship SS Mayaguez, which they claimed had violated Cambodian territorial waters. The U.S reaction was swift: President Gerald Ford launched a Marine operation to find the crew. One team was sent recapture the ship and while another stormed the island of Koh Tang, where the crew was thought to be held. Unfortunately, the Khmer Rouge had heavily-fortified the island to ward off a possible North Vietnamese invasion. The U.S suffered some 15 killed and another 41 wounded in the fight. The conflict took place four hours after the Khmer Rouge, who wanted to avoid a fight with the Americans, had released the crew of Mayaguez. But, communications difficulties plagued the operation. Worst of all, three U.S Marines were left behind on the island and eventually executed by the Khmer Rouge communists, their names were the last names inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial.

Finally, “Operation Eagle Claw” or “Operation Rice Bowl” launched under President Jimmy Carter in a failed attempt to free the U.S Embassy hostages held by in Tehran. The raid turned into a debacle when several helicopters involved encountered technical difficulties. As a result the military request and received permission from President Carter to abort the mission. One wonders if the tone of Iranian-American relations today would be if the raid had been successful. Instead the hostages would endure 444 days of captivity before being released minutes after President Carter left office.

These final two failures provoked great debate within the military establishment about Special Forces raids. A subsequent internal investigation produced the Holloway Report. The report, citing a lack of inter-service communication and unclear mission planning, resulted in a reorganization of the command-and-control apparatus for such missions and a reorganization of the Defense Department. This reorganization paved the way for a more robust and successful U.S special operations capacity during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — most notably, of course, in the raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Indeed, what makes America great is not that we succeed in every mission we launch or every battle we undertake. Rather, it is our resiliency, and that old cliché “American ingenuity.” This ingenuity can only be maintained through a realistic assessment of failures. Thankfully, American defeats like those described above are rare. In fact, Navy SEALS launched a successful raid in 2009 attacked on Barawe that killed six Al-Shabaab fighters, including a senior commander.

America’s success as a nation derives, in part, from our ability to be frank and not delude ourselves. If we learn the lessons of flawed assaults, we avoid such mistakes in the future. Thus, the recent attack on Barawe presents an opportunity for improvement. (Thankfully, we took no casualties.) Winning is as American as cherry pie, but sometimes we must experience the bitter test of defeat on the way to a larger victory.

Joseph Hammond is an American writer based in Cairo, Egypt. U.S. soldier image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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