WASHINGTON -- Sharpened by combat over more than a decade of intense counter-terrorist operations across Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. special operations forces are well-poised to mount a rescue mission if ordered against Islamist terrorists holding Western hostages deep in Algeria's Eastern desert.
But the extensive U.S. experience in operating against Islamist militant groups offers a sobering caution against any expectations that American commandos could quickly dispatch the al Qaeda-linked terrorists expanding their grip on neighboring Mali and elsewhere in Northern Africa.
Senior U.S. officials have described both the hostage seizure in Algeria and the Islamist rebellion in neighboring Mali as evidence of a metastasizing threat from al Qaeda, with terrorist franchises under the umbrella of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) erupting across parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East from Algeria to Syria. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this week that the United States should "do whatever we can to try to stop the momentum of AQIM."
That might include targeting and killing the ringleader of the Algerian group behind the hostage-taking, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed militant who fought in Afghanistan and is known as "Mr. Marlboro" for his one-time pastime of smuggling cigarettes. Removing a charismatic terrorist leader can collapse a small, tight-knit organization, especially under the high stress of a hostage situation.
U.S. forces have often used such "decapitation" strikes against senior terrorists, in raids or with armed drones -- but with imperfect results. In relatively new terrorist groups, the sudden death of a leader can have a devastating effect, Army Maj. Bryan C. Price, director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, reported in a new, detailed study.
But al Qaeda leaders killed in drone strikes often have been replaced quickly. "What we found with al Qaeda was they could regenerate their leadership faster than we thought," Craig Nixon, a retired Army brigadier general who commanded counter-terrorist operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, told The Huffington Post.
U.S. Army Rangers, as well the Navy's SEALs, SEAL Team 6 and the Army's Special Operations Detachment D, have become adept at launching from a near-cold start with limited intelligence, poring over target imagery and building and rehearsing an attack plan in-flight.
U.S. officials said a counter-terrorist unit organized under the U.S. Africa Command following the debacle at Benghazi, Libya, last September has been alerted for a possible mission against Belmokhtar and the Algerian branch of al Qaeda. Although France is expected to take the lead, other U.S. counter-terrorist units under the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, headquartered in Tampa, Fla., are also monitoring the situation.
Sustained counter-terrorist operations against AQIM in Mali, for instance, may require a longer commitment of time and military force than the Obama administration so far has been willing to consider.
But as former CIA chief Panetta told reporters this week, "You know, as we've often found in these kinds of wars, it isn't something where you can kind of throw your hands up and say it's all over. This is -- this is the kind of war that's going to require continuing pressure over a period of time."
In Iraq, for example, the U.S. counter-terrorism task force that was built under the direction of then-Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal got good at finding and killing senior al Qaeda leaders, but found the organization's ability to mount terrorist attacks was undiminished. In his recent account, My Share of the Task, McChrystal explains how he and others methodically worked to shorten the time it took for them to receive and process intelligence, plan and execute raids, and quickly act on new intelligence from interrogation of prisoners or from material gathered in the raid.
"We built a network to defeat their network," said Nixon, who commanded Task Force Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2005. "It was a structure that allowed for smart autonomy -- enabling our small forces to react extremely fast, which kept them inside the decision cycle of terrorists who were widely dispersed. Operations that would have taken days to plan and get approved were being done in hours," he said. The task force was able to increase its operational pace from one raid every few nights to 12 or more each night.
For the terrorists, Nixon said, "there is a crossover point where they are spending more energy just trying to survive than trying to accomplish their objectives."
But in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan, Task Force Ranger and other counter-terrorism units had the luxury of nesting inside ongoing U.S. conventional military operations, giving them easy access to bases, air support and medical facilities, quick reaction forces and other assets.
Moreover, Nixon's troops could maneuver alongside ongoing U.S. conventional operations, allowing them to move less visibly. In sharp contrast, Nixon said, in Somalia in 1993, his Ranger troops were operating nearly alone, meaning that every time they launched from a secure base they were highly visible. "It was difficult to maintain any kind of surprise," he said.
But given the Obama administration's demonstrated reluctance to take on new foreign military missions, conventional U.S. military support is not likely to be available in Mali, an historic African empire and former French colony whose vast desert stretches have defeated previous military forces.
Apart from the White House phobia against new military expeditions, the Pentagon is well aware that in Iraq and to some extent in Afghanistan, the presence of large conventional U.S. forces caused a backlash of popular resentment against "foreign infidels" that made it easier for anti-U.S. militias to recruit fighters.
"When the United States and its allies have used overwhelming force and deployed large numbers of conventional soldiers, al Qaeda has benefitted through increased radicalization and additional recruits," writes Seth Jones, a RAND expert and former senior adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command, in a new book, Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11.
At present, AQIM, bountifully armed largely with weapons leaking from post-Gaddafi Libya, controls roughly the Northern half of Mali, making it the largest area controlled by al Qaeda in the world. France is landing a military force that will eventually build to a modest contingent of 2,500 soldiers backed by strike jets and helicopter gunships.
The most effective strategy against al Qaeda, Jones told The Huffington Post, is a combination of counter-terrorist missions against the local al Qaeda leadership, combined with training and advising local government forces to conduct conventional military operations to seize and hold ground.
That may not eliminate the al Qaeda group, but constant pressure from special operations forces will reduce the threat to manageable proportions -- a state Jones called "mowing the grass."
A fitful effort has been made to train Malian military forces through annual multi-national exercises named Atlas Accord and Flintlock, according to the U.S. Africa Command, which is based in Stuttgart, Germany. Scheduled exercises in Mali this year were cancelled because of the war.