WEST POMFRET, Vt. — At the U.S. Special Operations Command in Florida, two new interagency centers, one for operations and one for intelligence, are up and running. Under Gen. Bryan D. "Doug" Brown, the SOCOM commander, they oversee a growing cadre of clandestine anti-terrorism commandos and intelligence operatives.
A highly classified field unit called Joint Task Force 121 has been activated to coordinate the hunt for "high-value targets." Its organization and structure have been streamlined to improve its ability to concentrate on real-time hunter-killer missions against terrorist leaders and cells. A three-star command is also being designed to oversee the most clandestine elements of U.S. special operations, according to senior officers close to the community. And everywhere, final preparations are being made for the much-whispered-about "spring offensive" to kill or capture Osama bin Laden along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
This is the heart of the Bush administration's strategy for the war on terrorism -- centered in the Pentagon, and on the deadly magic of special operations. "Hunt them down and kill them one at a time" is the strategy in a nutshell.
It's an approach that has born fruit. It is also deeply flawed, not least because it offers neither a comprehensive strategy nor a long-term solution to a problem that is unquestionably both broad and deep-rooted. Beyond better airport screeners, tighter monitoring of border crossings and other such "homeland security" measures, the administration's principal response has been to develop ever-faster, ever-more-lethal special operations capabilities to destroy individual terrorists and terrorist organizations.
Enormous effort has gone into transforming the Pentagon's Special Operations Command -- which was little more than a low-profile training and coordinating operation prior to 9/11 -- into the lead force for conducting anti-terrorism operations worldwide. Information now flows faster from intelligence gatherers to analysts to strike forces. Decision times are shorter. Strikes can be launched in hours or minutes, not days or weeks as before.
Saddam Hussein was rooted out of his spider hole in Iraq as a result of improved intelligence capabilities and new levels of coordination between Joint Task Force 121 and the regular occupation troops in Iraq. Yet despite high-profile success, the administration's approach is a ticket to nowhere. For one thing, despite all the reorganization and improvement, despite better tools and a lot more money, special operations have serious limitations in just how much they can cover and do. For another, U.S. officials have labored to perfect an instrument that will almost certainly prove insufficient.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, whose love for special operations is legendary, may soon have "the fastest gun in the West." But the problem of terrorism is not going to be solved just by winning the gunfight at the OK Corral.
Rumsfeld's obsession with being able to pull the trigger faster and faster creates a blind spot: The administration continues to neglect other military and nonmilitary weapons in the national arsenal -- including the kinds of diplomatic and economic pressures that helped bring victory in past wars.
The very secretiveness of special operations makes it hard for the public, or even members of Congress charged with oversight, to keep informed about the new tactics or to measure their effectiveness. That's not good.
Policy decisions stand up best and longest if the public and its representatives have some idea what's being done and what costs and benefits to expect. Almost none of this has been provided on the decision to put so many of the country's anti-terrorism eggs in the gunfighter basket.
"Though most Americans may know little about your truly remarkable exploits, they do take comfort in knowing that you're in the fight," Rumsfeld said at Brown's assumption of command last September. "That same knowledge, which so comforts the American people, at the same time strikes fear in enemies." That may be good stump rhetoric, but such talk serves no purpose other than expanding the ranks of the terrorist fighters wanting to show they're not afraid to take on America. And "trust me" is a slender reed to lean on in a world of weapons of mass destruction.
In addition, Rumsfeld himself relies on the mystique of special operations and the secretiveness to cover the cool reality that there are far fewer American trigger pullers than his macho rhetoric suggests. And that their status is by no means as healthy as it looks at SOCOM's fabulous headquarters.
Since the events of Sept. 11, special operations forces have shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden, but they are fewer in number than you might imagine. And they are stretched exceeding thin.