The recent news of a possible shift in the operation of drones from the CIA to the Department of Defense was by and large received with a shrug. Given that the programme would likely be operated by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and under conditions of strictest secrecy, and probably launched from inaccessible “floating bases” on especially configured naval vessels, the shift is not an indicator of a change in the US’ assassination policy. And to the putative victims of the drone strikes, it is largely an irrelevant organisational change.
The reason, however, that the shift is of relevance more broadly is that it signals the irresistible rise of the special operations community in the post-counterinsurgency era. More than a year ago, in January 2012, President Obama inaugurated the US Defense Strategic Guidance. The document was strategically significant because it announced the “pivot to Asia” alongside continued commitments to the oil sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf.
Militarily, it clearly signalled the end of large-scale invasion and occupation of troublesome or intransigent countries in favour of the kind of operations in which the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and its counterterrorism component, the JSOC, excel. This ascendancy is confirmed by the planned expansion of the SOCOM by around 7.5 percent by 2015, from 66,100 civilian and military personnel in 2011 to 71,100 by 2015.
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