Tom O’Connor — Newsweek May 5, 2017
The head of U.S. Special Forces told Congress Thursday that constant deployments and unrealistic mission expectations were taking a major toll on his troops. Army General Raymond Thomas, top commander of Special Operations Command (SOCOM), testified before the Senate Armed Service Committee, saying his elite forces had been engaged in “continuous combat over the past 15 and half years.”
From taking on jihadist militant organizations such as Al-Shabab, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in the Middle East and Africa, to preparing for potential showdowns with Russia in Europe and North Korea in Asia, Thomas said the current pace of operations was unsustainable and had already taken a psychological impact on the Special Forces in the form of historically heightened suicide rates.
During Thursday’s testimony, Thomas also criticized “media circles” for promoting the idea that Special Forces could solve any issue around the world. Special Forces, about 8,000 of which are currently active in an estimated 80 nations, are not a “panacea” to remedy all global conflicts, he argued. About 700 personnel are on the frontlines in Iraq and Syria, where they assist local forces fighting ISIS and thousands of other Special Forces soldiers are engaged in various missions ranging from combat to training around the world.
“We are not the ultimate solution to every problem, and you will not hear that coming from us.” he said, according to the Military Times.
In 2016, Special Forces were deployed to 138 countries, or about 70 percent of the world, according to information provided to The Nation Institute’s Tom Dispatch earlier this year. While the U.S. military already operates at least 800 conventional military installations in over 70 nations, according to a 2015 estimate by Politico, Special Forces often conduct covert missions deep behind enemy lines. The heightened risks of such operations were highlighted in January when Navy Seal Ryan Owens was killed by Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen in a firefight that also wounded several other Seals and marked the first military action authorized by the administration of President Donald Trump. Last month, Special Forces suffered several fatalities fighting ISIS in Afghanistan.
A day after Thomas spoke to members of the Senate, the U.S. military command in Africa revealed that a soldier was killed during an “advise and assist mission” supporting local security forces against Al-Shabab in Somalia. While the identity and service branch of the soldier has not yet been released, Special Forces are active in the region and their role in the conflict against the ultraconservative Sunni Muslim group was expanded last month by a directive given by Trump.
The casualty would mark the first U.S. military death in Somalia since the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, when two Black Hawk helicopters were downed by militants, forcing U.S. troops and their allies to fight their way out of areas that had become hostile after a U.S. aerial attack earlier that year killed dozens of civilians in a home the Pentagon said it believed was a militant safehouse.