Special Operators in Action

Special operators have conducted missions in dozens of countries since 2001, according to the Age of Special Warfare Project's database. On this map, countries in blue appear in the Top 20 of the

Of the 20 highest-ranked unstable nations — the 2010 Failed States Index — special operators are found in 14 (70%). If you were to overlay a world-wide map of Special Operations from this project’s database onto the Failed States map, special operators would appear in nearly all of the volatile regions, ranging from South Asia, where they are training Pakistani paramilitary officers, to the Caribbean, where they have helped hurricane victims in Haiti and elsewhere. Special operators have also conducted missions in relatively stable countries. They have, for example, taught marksmanship to Bangladeshi troops.

The database and maps created for this project track 346 missions around the world, from 2001 to 2010, and illustrate the scope of Special Operations (a summary of each event is in document at right. Also, via a map).

Some of the missions were more successful than others, and the database illustrates how journalists have attempted to track the operations that were misguided. An all-too-representative example, and subsequent media coverage, occurred during an assault in Surkhrod, Afghanistan, in May 2010. As The Los Angeles Times reported in “Two Outlooks Collide in the Afghan Night”, the U.S. military claimed that the mission had gone well and that eight individuals, including a Taliban commander, were killed; meanwhile, Afghan villagers claimed that nine individuals, including a 16-year-old boy, were killed in a raid that they characterized as ill-conceived.

The truth about what happened in Surkhrod is difficult, if not impossible, to sort out based on one newspaper account of the military operation and it highlights the importance of improved, and sustained, reporting on Special Forces. (The Project analyzes an example of a botched raid that occurred in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, in February 2010, in a media case study.)

Many articles about Special Forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in another countries hint at underlying issues but do not have the space to explore them; journalists who are given an opportunity to follow these issues for a longer period of time and are expected to report not only on the raids but also on their aftermath, as well as on policy issues in Washington, will convey to their readers a deeper understanding of the role of Special Forces in the Afghan war and on a global scale.

The accounts of these operations are based on first-hand interviews with sources (nearly all of whom wished to remain anonymous) and open-source documents, including human-rights reports, memos that appeared on the WikiLeaks website, articles in U.S. newspapers and magazines, and statements issued by the U.S. Department of Defense.

A glossary defines some of the more obscure terms in the database, such as Civil Affairs Operations, Foreign Internal Defense, and Special Reconnaissance, as well as others that are used among people in Special Operations.