President Obama greets service members after speaking about counterterrorism at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. (Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Given the turf wars and interagency rivalries that have long surrounded U.S. Special Operations forces, President Obama probably didn’t do the commandos any favors when he delivered his last big military speech at the base in Tampa where they’re headquartered.

Obama’s visit Tuesday to MacDill Air Force Base, home of U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, was in many ways an endorsement of its mission to combat terrorism. For all Obama’s wariness about using conventional military power, he has embraced the role of “covert commander in chief,” most notably in the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Obama’s Tampa trip came as the Pentagon and CIA were buzzing about what critics claimed was a power grab by the Joint Special Operations Command, the super-secret group that manages most military counterterrorism strikes. The flap centered on a Nov. 25 Post article that said JSOC had received “expanded power to track, plan and potentially launch attacks on terrorist cells around the globe.”

Military officials deny that there’s any formal expansion of authority for JSOC or its parent organization, SOCOM. But the clandestine military unit has indeed become Obama’s preferred instrument for killing terrorists, filling a role once played mainly by the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. The Trump administration will doubtless make its own judgments about the respective missions.

JSOC’s role is rarely discussed publicly. But Defense Secretary Ashton Carter opened a window when he said at an Oct. 25 news conference in Paris: “We have put our Joint Special Operations Command in the lead of countering [the Islamic State’s] external operations. And we have already achieved very significant results both in reducing the flow of foreign fighters and removing [Islamic State] leaders from the battlefield.”

President Obama gave a speech on foreign policy achievements after receiving a Central Command security briefing and thanked troops for their service in the Middle East. (Reuters)

The U.S. assaults cited by Carter have been far deadlier than is generally recognized. Military sources say that drone strikes have killed between 20,000 and 25,000 Islamic State operatives in Iraq and Syria. U.S. conventional attacks have killed about 30,000, for a total body count of more than 50,000.

The interagency flap about SOCOM’s “expanded” role is said to have begun after a National Security Council “deputies committee” meeting, in which a White House official asked which agency was targeting “external operations” by Islamic State operatives. A senior military official answered that it was JSOC. This apparently triggered protests that the CIA should have such coordinating responsibility.

The CIA’s concern was apparently roused partly by a JSOC intelligence fusion operation, known as Gallant Phoenix, in an Arab country bordering Syria. That effort, begun about two years ago, now has more than a dozen member countries. It has fed information about foreign fighters to counterterrorism officials in Spain, Germany, France, Portugal and other countries, military sources said.

The CIA and JSOC both conduct roughly the same number of drone flights every day. But the sources said that the military’s drones conducted more than 20,000 strikes over the past year, in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, while the CIA is said to have struck fewer than a dozen targets over that period.

Since the bin Laden raid, Special Operations forces may have become too visible for their own good. The celebrity of SEAL Team 6 and other special units spawned jealousy from conventional military units that felt their role was being ignored. This sort of intra-military rivalry with commando units has existed since Gen. Maxwell Taylor helped to popularize the Green Berets as a counterinsurgency force during the early 1960s.

The CIA oversaw much of the United States’ drone warfare during the first half of Obama’s presidency, when it was targeting al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. But the agency’s focus on such counterterrorism “direct action” appears to have diminished over the past several years.

A U.S. official said the agency “continues to play a very significant role in CT efforts,” including targeting Islamic State external operations.

Obama’s Tampa speech highlighted his preference for Special Operations forces and their “small-footprint” tactics, as opposed to big conventional assaults. He said the United States had attacked Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria “not with American battalions but with local forces backed by our equipment and our advisers and, importantly, our special forces.”

Obama took credit, too, for the drone attacks that have proved so deadly against extremist targets. “In a dangerous world, terrorists seek out places where it’s often impossible to capture them. . . . And that means the best option for us to get those terrorists becomes a targeted strike.”

One unlikely legacy of Obama’s presidency is that he made the secret, once-impermissible tactic of targeted killing the preferred tool of American counterterrorism policy.

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