Courtesy Reuters

The Rise of the Shadow Warriors

AFTER IRAQ

The recent war in Iraq was, among other things, a powerful advertisement for the effectiveness of the United States' storied special operations forces. Americans are just now learning what role these commandos played in the conflict, but already it has emerged that, during the early days of the fighting, they managed to secure crucial airfields in western Iraq, protect the country's oil fields from saboteurs (fewer than 10 Iraqi oil fields were ignited, compared to the more than 700 Kuwaiti fields that were set ablaze in 1991), and, most famously, rescue Private Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital.

Yet these achievements, although impressive, do not fully explain the unprecedented prominence currently enjoyed by special operations forces within the U.S. military. True, such troops may have been well suited to the kind of missions they were given in Iraq. But they also happen to fit precisely into the model of a leaner, more flexible military that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is fighting to create at the Pentagon. And Rumsfeld has made no secret of his plans to thrust special forces into the lead role in the war on terrorism, by using them for covert operations around the globe.

The special forces' success in Iraq has also obscured a more ominous consequence of their newfound popularity: that expanding their role in the way Rumsfeld intends could be very dangerous for U.S. foreign policy. Thanks to the vagueness of U.S. law governing covert action, using the military for such operations is -- at least under one interpretation of the law -- much easier than using the CIA. And this facility seems to appeal to Rumsfeld. It also means, however, that the Defense Department (at least according to its interpretation of the law) can conduct covert operations abroad without local governments' permission and with little or no congressional oversight or recourse. If Rumsfeld gets his way, administration hawks may soon start using special forces to attack or undermine other regimes on Washington's hit

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