In 2006, US special operations forces had drawn up plans to capture al-Qaida terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, but sources say the plans were vetoed as the Algerian was seen by some decision-makers as a mere cigarette dealer.
Last year, having risen to head his terrorist offshoot, Belmokhtar masterminded the attack on an Algerian gas facility, killing 40 and taking 800 hostage.
That incident alone offers essential lessons as the Obama administration puts the finishing touches on its 2015 defense budget request and on the latest quadrennial defense review, which will map the strategy and structure of the US military for years to come.
First, protecting special operations forces from budget cuts is critical as America winds down its presence in Afghanistan and widens its focus on Asia.
Special operations forces will be just as important in the next decade as it has been for the past decade.
Since 9/11, special operators have become best known for targeted direct action, such as killing Osama bin Laden or capturing other most-wanted terrorists, such as Anas al-Libi, the Libyan accused of planning the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 and injured more than 4,000.
But just as important is the role special operations forces play in engaging with and training partner nations worldwide, quietly helping to solve security problems and building relationships and insights that prove invaluable over the long haul.
Second, the military services must also shield spec ops-specific support elements and ensure that regular forces are ready and capable. Spec ops units depend on the conventional forces for critical fire support, transportation, logistics, intelligence and more.
In fact, spec ops forces pull their operators from the services, so as force structure contracts, the number of potential spec ops recruits shrinks.
Third, spec ops must retain its best talent, protect them from overuse and invest in technologies to improve intelligence, communications, firepower and mobility.
Fourth, America must work with its allies to ensure they retain complementary capabilities. Special operations skills developed over the past decade are valuable, but perishable.
Absent planning, America and its allies could be left with a hodgepodge rather than a coherent portfolio of useful capabilities.
Finally, America must remain globally engaged to shape security outcomes.
It’s understandable that after a dozen years of costly wars, there’s reluctance to commit US forces.
But the world remains a dangerous place, as conflicts over the past decade continue to generate ever more experienced extremists faster than efforts to eliminate, capture or reeducate them.
Here, special operations forces, with their broad capabilities and light footprint, make them ideally suited to shape long-range outcomes, especially when combined with other tools of national and international smart power.
As we have seen with Belmokhtar and bin Laden, engagement and action to confront today’s small problems can help avoid tomorrow’s nightmares.
Indeed, a failure to act is often the surest way to a more problematic future.
Special operators are fond of pointing out the importance of considering the second and third order consequences of every action and reaction.
Given there are more bin Ladens and Belmokhtars out there, it’s just as critical to consider the second and third order consequences of action and inaction, misreading emerging threats and making cuts that hurt key future capabilities.