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The Egyptian State: A ‘Non-Regime?’: New Age Islam’s Selection From World Press, 27 October 2015

New Age Islam Edit Bureau

27 October 2015

The Egyptian State: a ‘Non-regime?’

By H.A. Hellyer

A leaderless people


Tug of war over Syria


Iraq, Afghanistan, And Other Special Ops “Successes”

By Nick Turse


The Egyptian State: a ‘non-regime?’

H.A. Hellyer

26 October 2015

Coverage of Egypt continues to exist in a broad variety of media outlets – both regionally in the Arab world, but also internationally in the broader international community. Since 2013, with the military’s removal of then president Mohammed Mursi from office following widespread protests, Egypt’s political authorities are invariably described as the ‘Egyptian regime.’ That’s particularly the case in the English language media worldwide – but is the word ‘regime’ really applicable in Cairo’s case?

In a heated exchange between myself and a senior Iranian official a couple of years ago, I described Iran’s authorities as the ‘Iranian regime’ – a regime I felt had egregiously supported rather nasty policies in Syria. The Iranian official’s indisputably humorous disposition notwithstanding, he objected to the use of the word ‘regime’, claiming it was a word that was a ‘slight’ upon his country’s authorities. (I didn’t stop using the word.)

He had a point, in that one seldom finds the use of the word ‘regime’ in a positive fashion when applied to a state’s authorities. On the contrary – the subtext of such a word is going to always be negative in one shape or form. But in one way, it is certainly a compliment – because a ‘regime’ is one that runs, and rather cohesively at that.

Regime or not?

Can one describe Cairo’s ruling authorities as a ‘regime’? Analysis of the country’s ruling authorities is not the easiest to engage in nowadays – but rather than use the word ‘regime’, one might consider three models of organization to explain how this particular political dispensation does – or does not – function.

The first is a rather historical one, and familiar to Egypt. I cannot take credit for it – a colleague of mine, though under Chatham House rules, expressed it – and that was the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt. It’s an interesting model to ponder to understand how Egypt functions – because in Mamluk Egypt, the Sultans might have had the largest number of mamluks (soldiers), but the lesser powerful Amirs could have some troops as well. If we imagine the mamluk as an embodiment of power, then it is clear to identify that there was no single power centre in Mamluk Egypt – and sometimes-conflicting power centres, while an overall agreement on a basic trajectory.

In Cairo today, many observers also agree that power is certainly disparate and not altogether well strewn into a single web – while a ‘regime’, on the other hand, would certainly be far more cohesive. Even after the Mamluk Sultanate was taken over, the Mamluks continued to hold a great deal of power – one of the reasons Muhammad Ali in the 19th century essentially declared war upon them as a class was due to their feudal power. They owned, in real terms, much of the country – and that would interfere with Muhammad Ali’s vision for control. (It didn’t end very well for the Mamluks, history records. Not at all. Muhammad Ali wasn’t exactly kind with them.)

The second is another state model, but a much more contemporary one – and that is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. At the height of the Mamluk Sultanate (and the record does vary over hundreds of years), it represented a pinnacle of political, economic and cultural grandeur in the medieval era. One can’t really say that for Mr Putin’s Russia in the slightest.

Russia is certainly powerful on the world stage, but Putin has hardly made the country a bastion of great attraction for the world. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin is a rather popular figure in Russia. Under his predecessor, there was a massive financial crisis, a declining GDP, a substantial increase in poverty, and security anxieties via militant activity.

Putin took over from Boris Yeltsin, imposed order, and was blessed by high oil prices. For the average Russian, if only due to comparing their lives under Putin to what they had before, it’s not hard to see why he gained popularity.

The Egyptian Don?

Moreover, the concern around stability and order, even if at the expense of civil rights, is a very critical issue to keep in mind – and that is true in Egypt today as well. The presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is one that came into office on a promise of order – and by and large, the majority of the Egyptian population, particularly given the security situation in the country, as well as more regionally, view him as providing that stability. It may be an unsustainable kind of ‘order’ – many make that argument with a forceful degree of evidence to back it up – but perceptions needn’t always be true, and the perception is that this dispensation works (for now).

Additionally, the disparate power centres within Russia itself also make for some interesting parallels to be drawn with Egypt. Nevertheless, none of those parallels are particularly flattering – at the end of the day, after all, Russia is hardly viewed as a paragon of virtue. It is 122nd out of 167 countries in the Democracy Index, and the World Justice Project views it as 80th of 99 countries in terms of the ‘rule of law’.

But if the Russian comparison is one that many might draw with regards to Egypt, there is one final one to consider – and it is an Italian one. It is not, alas, the current Italian state – that would be nice indeed. It would be good to think of Egypt as comparable to the third largest economy in the Eurozone, with a remarkably high level of human development and the highest life expectancy in the European Union.

No, unfortunately, the comparison is far more baser – the Sicilian mafia. (Point of interest – Sicily used to be an Arab-Muslim sultanate, and some historians argue the word ‘mafia’ comes from the Arabic ‘marfud’. But I digress. )

The notion of the ‘Godfather’ was popularised through a variety of films by the same name – but it wasn’t a media creation.

The concept was certainly controversial for some historians, who argued that the ‘capo dei capi’, or ‘boss of bosses’ was a fiction – but others insist that the concept had genuine currency. It’s an interesting concept – because, again, many observers of Egyptian affairs argue that rather than the cohesiveness that the word ‘regime’ might imply, it’s far more useful to see the current political dispensation in the country as being much more about disparate power centres, with an eponymous figure on top of that structure. In that regard, there are some parallels.

In the Sicilian case, each power centre (or ‘family’) has its ‘boss’ or ‘don’. An individual power centre has a certain degree and level of autonomy, to be sure – and it uses it – but there is a veto power to be employed by the ‘capo dei capi’. The question is – when does he use it, and is he able to maintain a level of consensus on key issues, or not.

If he can, and the other families do not rebel, then the ‘Godfather’ remains. It doesn’t mean he runs the show with full dictatorial powers, where all simply pay heed and obey – but it does mean the rules are more arbitrary than based on integrity, and the system is founded on power dynamics, more than they are on justice. That’s not exactly a grand system of respect for fundamental rights and responsibilities.

It would seem, thus, perhaps, the Egyptian political dispensation is not, indeed, a ‘regime’ after all. The irony is, if only relatively speaking, it might be better if it were.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.


A leaderless people


Published — Tuesday 27 October 2015

Saeb Erekat is an enigmatic character. Despite minimal popularity among Palestinians, he is omnipresent, appears regularly on television and speaks with the moral authority of an accomplished leader whose legacy is rife with accolades and an astute, unwavering vision.

When the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC) polled Palestinians in August, just prior to the current Intifada, only three percent approved of his leadership — compared with the still meager approval rating of 16 percent of his boss, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Even those who are often cast as alternative leaders — Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, and former Gaza-based Hamas Government Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh — were nowhere near popular, achieving 10.5 and 9.8 percent of the vote respectively.

It was as if Palestinians were telling us and their traditional leaderships, in particular, that they are fed up with the old rhetoric, the constant let-downs, the unabashed corruption and the very culture of defeat that has permeated the Palestinian political elite for an entire generation.

Abbas has operated his political office on the assumption that, so long as Palestinians received their monthly salaries and are content with his empty promises and occasional threats — of resigning, resisting against Israel, lobbing bombshell speeches at the UN, etc. — then no one is likely to challenge his reign in Areas A and B — tiny cantons within the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Jerusalem.

Erekat has been the primary enabler of that PA charade, for he is the “chief negotiator,” whose protracted term in that precarious post has negotiated nothing of value for the Palestinians.

In 2002, I followed the Israeli invasion of the supposedly self-autonomous PA areas in the West Bank, when Erekat made an appeal on Al-Jazeera Arabic television to the Israeli government to exercise sanity and common sense. The entire display of the PA leadership was beyond tragic, proof that it had no real authority of its own and no control over the events on the ground as Palestinian fighters battled the re-invading Israeli army. He appealed to Israel as if he felt genuinely betrayed by its military onslaught.

When Al-Jazeera released thousands of secret documents in January 2011, revealing discussions behind closed doors between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, Erekat held the lion’s share of blame. With a clear mandate from his superiors, he appeared uninterested in many Palestinian political aspirations, including Palestinian sovereignty in occupied East Jerusalem. He offered Israel the “biggest Yerushalaim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarized state… what more can I give?” he was quoted in the Palestine Papers.

What is particularly interesting about Erekat, and equally applicable to most PA leaders and officials, is that, no matter how devastating their roles — which they continue to play out, whether through political incompetence or outright corruption — they do not seem to go away. They may change position, hover around the same circle of failed leadership, but they tend to resurface and repeatedly regurgitate the same old language, clichés, empty threats and promises.

After retreating for a few weeks as Intifada youth took to the streets to protest the Israeli occupation, PA spokespersons, including Erekat, are now back on the scene, speaking of squandered opportunities for peace, two states and the entire inept discourse, as if peace was ever, indeed, at hand, and if the so-called “two state solution” was ever a solution.

In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera’s “UpFront,” Erekat warned that the PA was on the verge of shutting down, as if the very existence of the PA was a virtue in itself. Why is Erekat warning of the PA collapse as if the sorry leadership in Ramallah is the center of everything that Palestinians have ever aspired for?

“Soon enough Netanyahu will find himself the only (one) responsible between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean because he is destroying the Palestinian Authority,” Erekat said. So what? According to the Geneva Conventions, which designate Israel as the occupying power, Netanyahu is, indeed, responsible for the welfare, security and well-being of the occupied Palestinians, until a just political solution is assured and enforced by the international community.

Using the same tactic which, along with Abbas and other PA officials, was utilized repeatedly in the past, he vowed that “soon, very soon, you’re going to hear some decisions” about disbanding the PA.

It matters little what Erekat and his Ramallah circle determine as the proper course of action. Not only has his language become obsolete and his references irrelevant, but the entire Oslo “peace process” travesty was dead a long time ago.

Palestinian Intifadas do not liberate land but liberate people who assume their role in the struggle for national liberation. For the current Intifada to achieve a degree of initial success, it must find a way to entirely dismiss those who took it upon themselves to negotiate Palestinian rights and to enrich themselves at the expense of the impoverished and oppressed Palestinian people.

If the Intifada is to be true to itself, it must seek to break not just the hegemony over the Palestinian political discourse, which is unfairly championed by Erekat and his peers, but to break political boundaries as well, uniting all Palestinians around a whole new political agenda.

There are many opportunists who are ready to pounce upon the current mobilization in Palestine, to use the people’s sacrifices as they see fit and, ultimately, return to the status quo as if no blood has been shed and no oppression still in place. After reiterating his support for the two-state solution, which is now but a fading mirage, Erekat told Al-Jazeera, “We are fully supporting our people and their cry for freedom.”

I think not. Twenty years is long enough to show that those who have taken part in their people’s oppression, cannot possibly be the advocates of their people’s freedom.


Tug of war over Syria


Published — Tuesday 27 October 2015

Enough engaging in one-upmanship! There is a lot more at stake than which bullyboy on the block has the biggest fist. Syrians are dying and fleeing; their babies are drowning or suffering from hypothermia on freezing, wet European roads. Their needs should take priority over all else.

Washington and Moscow should rise above their strained relationship over Ukraine to prove they can be a force for good despite their disparate regional interests.

Russia’s military intervention has embarrassed the White House. US efforts to decimate the Daesh in both Syria and Iraq have been exposed as half-hearted, which is why the Iraqi government was keen to invite Russia to join the fray until America warned that such an invitation would render Iraq its enemy. Numerous pundits, American and otherwise, have said that the Russian strategy has been far more forceful and cohesive than that of the Obama White House.

In light of the way America’s shoddy approach has been put to shame, the US-led coalition has greatly ramped-up its bombing campaigns and is cooperating with Kurdish forces — a move that’s garnered strong objections from Turkey that sees certain Kurdish groups as its enemy number one.

Why it took Russia’s entrée to galvanize President Obama to take meaningful action is anyone’s guess.

The good news is that at the very least the two competitors for regional influence are now holding talks on the issues together with major interested parties — Saudi Arabia and Turkey — and there are hopes that an expanded coalition against Daesh can be formed. Jordan, a member of the US-led coalition have now agreed to coordinate their airstrikes with Russia in southern Syria to ensure the rebels it supports won’t be struck.

Russia has also agreed to give air cover to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) battling Daesh on the grounds that it is a patriotic opposition force. Whether or not that protection will be extended to other western-backed anti-regime rebels (as Al-Jazeera reports) fighting under the banner of “The Army of Conquest” isn’t clear.

If so, the Russian air force will be in the unusual position of defending opposing sides. In reality, Russian President Vladimir Putin is defending his country’s interests in Syria just as Obama has been primarily focused on preserving America’s own.

Working together, instead of pulling in different directions, Russia and America are capable of bringing longed-for peace to this stricken land. Moscow insists that the UAE, Jordan, Egypt and Iran should be invited to take part in talks to agree upon a political framework. How they get the foreign ministers of Egypt and Turkey to sit at the same table will be challenging at best, explosive at worst when the relationship between those countries have been bordering on outright hostility since 2012.

But the sticking point seems to be disagreements over the future role of President Bashar Assad, who could have avoided his country’s descent into civil war by stepping down in 2011. Tragically, he chose to permit Syria’s cities to be turned into Armageddon-type movie sets and breeding grounds for terrorists of all stripes.

There is no room for Assad when at last weapons are exchanged for peace, but Russia says his removal now would dismantle the state leaving a void swiftly filled by feuding terrorist groups on the lines of the Libyan experience. Putin also does not want to be seen throwing his increasingly inconvenient ally under a bus, which would not go down very well with Assad’s friends in Tehran and neither would it bolster Russia’s credibility with its other global partners.

However, to his credit, Putin is softening his stance by no longer calling for elections in which Assad is free to participate. Russia wants Assad along with all other moderate opposition forces to engage with the transitional process on the understanding that he’ll go.

US Secretary of State John Kerry agrees that he must, but says the timing is negotiable. That does not fit with the wishes of Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, who demands Assad’s immediate exit. He thinks all other options are tantamount to a climb-down making him look weak in the eyes of voters who will soon be re-heading to the ballot box.

Let’s face it, if major global and regional powers are unwilling to make compromises then how can anyone expect the warring parties to capitulate on any of their demands? Russia and the US must put their differences aside to shine a torch on a path to peace before others involved can get into step.


Iraq, Afghanistan, And Other Special Ops “Successes”

By Nick Turse

26 October, 2015

They're some of the best soldiers in the world: highly trained, well equipped, and experts in weapons, intelligence gathering, and battlefield medicine.  They study foreign cultures and learn local languages.  They're smart, skillful, wear some very iconic headgear, and their 12-member teams are “capable of conducting the full spectrum of special operations, from building indigenous security forces to identifying and targeting threats to U.S. national interests.”

They're also quite successful.  At least they think so.

“In the last decade, Green Berets have deployed into 135 of the 195 recognized countries in the world. Successes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Trans-Sahel Africa, the Philippines, the Andean Ridge, the Caribbean, and Central America have resulted in an increasing demand for [Special Forces] around the globe,” reads a statement on the website of U.S. Army Special Forces Command.

The Army's Green Berets are among the best known of America's elite forces, but they're hardly alone.  Navy SEALs, Air Force Air Commandos, Army Rangers, Marine Corps Raiders, as well as civil affairs personnel, logisticians, administrators, analysts, and planners, among others, make up U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF).  They are the men and women who carry out America's most difficult and secret military missions.  Since 9/11, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has grown in every conceivable way from funding and personnel to global reach and deployments.  In 2015, according to Special Operations Command spokesman Ken McGraw, U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to a record-shattering 147 countries -- 75% of the nations on the planet, which represents a jump of 145% since the waning days of the Bush administration. On any day of the year, in fact, America's most elite troops can be found in 70 to 90 nations.

There is, of course, a certain logic to imagining that the increasing global sweep of these deployments is a sign of success.  After all, why would you expand your operations into ever-more nations if they weren't successful?  So I decided to pursue that record of “success” with a few experts on the subject.   

I started by asking Sean Naylor, a man who knows America's most elite troops as few do and the author of Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command, about the claims made by Army Special Forces Command.  He responded with a hearty laugh.  “I'm going to give whoever wrote that the benefit of the doubt that they were referring to successes that Army Special Forces were at least perceived to have achieved in those countries rather than the overall U.S. military effort,” he says.  As he points out, the first post-9/11 months may represent the zenith of success for those troops.  The initial operations in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 -- carried out largely by U.S. Special Forces, the CIA, and the Afghan Northern Alliance, backed by U.S. airpower -- were “probably the high point” in the history of unconventional warfare by Green Berets, according to Naylor.  As for the years that followed?  “There were all sorts of mistakes, one could argue, that were made after that.” He is, however, quick to point out that “the vast majority of the decisions [about operations and the war, in general] were not being made by Army Special Forces soldiers.”

For Linda Robinson, author of One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare, the high number of deployments is likely a mistake in itself.  “Being in 70 countries... may not be the best use of SOF,” she told me.  Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, advocates for a “more thoughtful and focused approach to the employment of SOF,” citing enduring missions in Colombia and the Philippines as the most successful special ops training efforts in recent years.  “It might be better to say ‘Let's not sprinkle around the SOF guys like fairy dust.'  Let's instead focus on where we think we can have a success... If you want more successes, maybe you need to start reining in how many places you're trying to cover.”

Most of the special ops deployments in those 147 countries are the type Robinson expresses skepticism about -- short-term training missions by “white” operators like Green Berets (as opposed to the “black ops” man-hunting missions by the elite of the elite that captivate Hollywood and video gamers).  Between 2012 and 2014, for example, Special Operations forcescarried out 500 Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions in as many as 67 countries, practicing everything from combat casualty care and marksmanship to small unit tactics and desert warfare alongside local forces.  And JCETs only scratch the surface when it comes to special ops missions to train proxies and allies.  Special Operations forces, in fact, conduct a variety of training efforts globally.

A recent $500 million program, run by Green Berets, to train a Syrian force of more than 15,000 over several years, for instance, crashed and burned in a very public way, yielding just four or five fighters in the field before beingabandoned.  This particular failure followed much larger, far more expensive attempts to train the Afghan and Iraqi security forces in which Special Operations troops played a smaller yet still critical role. The results of these efforts recently prompted TomDispatch regular and retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich to write that Washington should now assume “when it comes to organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies, that the United States is essentially clueless.”

The Elite Warriors of the Warrior Elite

In addition to training, another core role of Special Operations forces is direct action -- counterterror missions like low-profile drone assassinations andkill/capture raids by muscled-up, high-octane operators.  The exploits of the men -- and they are mostly men (and mostly Caucasian ones at that) -- behind these operations are chronicled in Naylor's epic history of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the secret counterterrorism organization that includes the military's most elite and shadowy units like the Navy's SEAL Team 6 and the Army's Delta Force.  A compendium of more than a decade of derring-do from Afghanistan to Iraq, Somalia to Syria, Relentless Strikepaints a portrait of a highly-trained, well-funded, hard-charging counterterror force with global reach.  Naylor calls it the “perfect hammer,” but notes the obvious risk that “successive administrations would continue to view too many national security problems as nails.”

When I ask Naylor about what JSOC has ultimately achieved for the country in the Obama years, I get the impression that he doesn't find my question particularly easy to answer.  He points to hostage rescues, like the high profile effort to save “Captain Phillips” of the Maersk Alabama after the cargo ship was hijacked by Somali pirates, and asserts that such missions might “inhibit others from seizing Americans.”  One wonders, of course, if similar high-profile failed missions since then, including the SEAL raid that ended in the deaths of hostages Luke Somers, an American photojournalist, and Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher, as well as the unsuccessful attempt to rescue the late aid worker Kayla Mueller, might then have just the opposite effect.

“Afghanistan, you've got another fairly devilish strategic problem there,” Naylor says and offers up a question of his own: “You have to ask what would have happened if al-Qaeda in Iraq had not been knocked back on its heels by Joint Special Operations Command between 2005 and 2010?”  Naylor calls attention to JSOC's special abilities to menace terror groups, keeping them unsteady through relentless intelligence gathering, raiding, and man-hunting. “It leaves them less time to take the offensive, to plan missions, and to plot operations against the United States and its allies,” he explains.  “Now that doesn't mean that the use of JSOC is a substitute for a strategy... It's a tool in a policymaker's toolkit.”

Indeed.  If what JSOC can do is bump off and capture individuals and pressure such groups but not decisively roll up militant networks, despite years of anti-terror whack-a-mole efforts, it sounds like a recipe for spending endless lives and endless funds on endless war.  “It's not my place as a reporter to opine as to whether the present situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen were ‘worth' the cost in blood and treasure borne by U.S. Special Operations forces,” Naylor tells me in a follow-up email.  “Given the effects that JSOC achieved in Iraq (Uday and Qusay Hussein killed, Saddam Hussein captured, [al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab] Zarqawi killed, al-Qaeda in Iraq eviscerated), it's hard to say that JSOC did not have an impact on that nation's recent history.”

Impacts, of course, are one thing, successes another.  Special Operations Command, in fact, hedges its bets by claiming that it can only be as successful as the global commands under which its troops operate in each area of the world, including European Command, Pacific Command, Africa Command, Southern Command, Northern Command, and Central Command or CENTCOM, the geographic combatant command that oversees operations in the Greater Middle East.  “We support the Geographic Combatant Commanders (GCCs) -- if they are successful, we are successful; if they fail, we fail,” says SOCOM's website.

With this in mind, it's helpful to return to Naylor's question: What if al-Qaeda in Iraq, which flowered in the years after the U.S. invasion, had never been targeted by JSOC as part of a man-hunting operation going after its foreign fighters, financiers, and military leaders?  Given that the even more brutal Islamic State (IS) grew out of that targeted terror group, that IS wasfueled in many ways, say experts, both by U.S. actions and inaction, that its leader's rise was bolstered by U.S. operations, that “U.S. training helpedmold” another of its chiefs, and that a U.S. prison served as its “boot camp,” and given that the Islamic State now holds a significant swath of Iraq, was JSOC's campaign against its predecessor a net positive or a negative?  Were special ops efforts in Iraq (and therefore in CENTCOM's area of operations) -- JSOC's post-9/11 showcase counterterror campaign -- a success or a failure?

Naylor notes that JSOC's failure to completely destroy al-Qaeda in Iraq allowed IS to grow and eventually sweep “across northern Iraq in 2014, seizing town after town from which JSOC and other U.S. forces had evicted al-Qaeda in Iraq at great cost several years earlier.”  This, in turn, led to the rushing of special ops advisers back into the country to aid the fight against the Islamic State, as well as to that program to train anti-Islamic State Syrian fighters that foundered and then imploded.  By this spring, JSOC operators were not only back in Iraq and also on the ground in Syria, but they were soon conducting drone campaigns in both of those tottering nations.   

This special ops merry-go-round in Iraq is just the latest in a long series of fiascos, large and small, to bedevil America's elite troops.  Over the years, inthat country, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, special operators have regularlybeen involved in all manner of mishaps, embroiled in various scandals, andimplicated in numerous atrocities. Recently, for instance, members of the Special Operations forces have come under scrutiny for an air strike on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Afghanistan that killed at least 22 patients and staff, for an alliance with “unsavory partners” in the Central African Republic, for the ineffective and abusive Afghan police they trained and supervised, and for a shady deal to provide SEALs with untraceable silencers that turned out to be junk, according to prosecutors.

Winners and Losers

JSOC was born of failure, a phoenix rising from the ashes of Operation Eagle Claw, the humiliating attempt to rescue 53 American hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1980 that ended, instead, in the deaths of eight U.S. personnel. Today, the elite force trades on an aura of success in the shadows. Its missions are the stuff of modern myths.

In his advance praise for Naylor's book, one cable news analyst called JSOC's operators “the finest warriors who ever went into combat.”  Even accepting this -- with apologies to the Mongols, the Varangian Guard, Persia's Immortals, and the Ten Thousand of Xenophon's Anabasis -- questions remain: Have these “warriors” actually been successful beyondbudget battles and the box office? Is exceptional tactical prowess enough?  Are battlefield triumphs and the ability to batter terror networks through relentless raiding the same as victory? Such questions bring to mind an exchange that Army colonel Harry Summers, who served in Vietnam, had with a North Vietnamese counterpart in 1975.  “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,” Summers told him.  After pausing to ponder the comment, Colonel Tu replied, “That may be so. But it is also irrelevant.”

So what of those Green Berets who deployed to 135 countries in the last decade? And what of the Special Operations forces sent to 147 countries in 2015? And what about those Geographic Combatant Commanders across the globe who have hosted all those special operators?

I put it to Vietnam veteran Andrew Bacevich, author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country. “As far back as Vietnam,” he tells me, “the United States military has tended to confuse inputs with outcomes. Effort, as measured by operations conducted, bomb tonnage dropped, or bodies counted, is taken as evidence of progress made. Today, tallying up the number of countries in which Special Operations forces are present repeats this error. There is no doubt that U.S. Special Operations forces are hard at it in lots of different places. It does not follow that they are thereby actually accomplishing anything meaningful.”

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Nation Institute. A 2014 Izzy Award and American Book Award winner for his bookKill Anything That Moves, his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Intercept, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly atTomDispatch. His latest book is Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.

Copyright 2015 Nick Turse