When al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks, it also thrust the United States on a decade-long (and counting) search for the best way to combat the unconventional threat posed by terrorism. That search evolved into a competition of sorts between the military’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the paramilitary operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the prestige and resources that went with leading the fight against terrorism. Within less than a decade, however, various officials involved in counterterrorism policy were trying to combine the two groups of operators in a way that maximized the advantages and minimized the risks and constraints of each group.
Many critics of the George W. Bush administration’s wholehearted push into the realm of shadow wars – covert operations in countries with which the United States was not at war – assumed that the situation would improve when Barack Obama became President. To the surprise of many, if not most, of his campaign supporters, however, President Obama has, in some ways, become an even more ardent supporter of shadow wars than his predecessor. And, as this article will show, just about every indication points to a further expansion of this hybrid military and intelligence activity in countries beyond war zones. It is imperative, therefore, that we more clearly understand how these shadow wars are being conducted and by whom, and whether they are subject to adequate oversight and accountability.