Monday, December 28, 2015
With the Middle East in tumult, radical groups holding swaths of territory in Africa, and a presidential campaign fanning fears of a growing terrorism threat, the White House has steadily expanded the global missions of American Special Operations troops.
Even as Mr. Obama has repeatedly said that he opposes American “boots on the ground” in far-flung parts of the world, his administration continues to carve out exceptions for Special Operations forces — with American officials often resorting to linguistic contortions to mask the forces’ combat role.
The Obama administration long ago showed its inclination to rely on Special Operations troops and clandestine missions as an alternative to large wars of occupation. But the spread of the Islamic State over the past year — from its hubs in Syria and Iraq to affiliates in Africa and South Asia — has led the White House to turn to elite troops to try to snuff out crises in numerous locations.
These deployments, as well as other missions being considered, have upended the Obama administration’s goal of withdrawing from countries that for more than a decade have been crucibles of combat for the American military.
The White House is now considering a Pentagon proposal to maintain at least one base in Afghanistan for years to come, according to American military officials. Senior officials spoke about issues related to Special Operations forces only on the condition of anonymity because most of the specifics of their missions are classified.
This plan would run counter to Mr. Obama’s original pledge to remove all troops from Afghanistan except for a counterterrorism force and the troops guarding the United States Embassy in Kabul. Mr. Obama revised his withdrawal plans in October, saying that about 5,500 troops would remain in the country through the end of his term in early 2017.
The proposal would use that Afghanistan base as a hub for Special Operations troops and intelligence operatives throughout Central and South Asia, part of a larger network of bases the Pentagon is envisioning in part to tackle the Islamic State and its more than half-dozen affiliates in countries like Libya, Egypt and Yemen.
Special Operations officers are gaining influence elsewhere in the administration’s fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, even as discussions of expanding their role threaten to reinvigorate historical rivalries with the military’s conventional forces and with other parts of the government.
In another new initiative, the State Department is poised to expand its long-faltering campaign to counter the Islamic State’s propaganda machine, and one of the candidates being considered to lead the effort is Michael D. Lumpkin, a retired member of the Navy SEALs who is the Pentagon’s top Special Operations policy official.
The effort to overhaul the agency responsible for countering Islamic State messaging, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, could draw on Mr. Lumpkin’s understanding of covert operations to improve the State Department’s efforts.
During the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 13,000 Special Operations forces were deployed on missions across the globe, but a large majority were assigned to those two countries. Now, roughly half of the 7,500 elite troops overseas are posted outside the Middle East or South Asia, operating in 85 countries, according to the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM).
There is other, subtler, evidence of the sway of senior Special Operations officers.
When Mr. Obama appeared before reporters in the Pentagon briefing room this month to discuss his administration’s strategy for fighting the Islamic State in Syria, he was flanked by a coterie of top national security officials, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Standing beside them was Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of the Special Operations Command, whose presence raised eyebrows at the Pentagon.
The threat from the Islamic State has become more prominent in the presidential campaign since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., and many candidates have proclaimed a need for more Special Operations troops to be deployed far and wide. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, has talked about embedding Special Operations troops with Iraqi soldiers on the front lines, and Hillary Clinton said she would consider sending more special operators to Syria than the 50 that Mr. Obama recently authorized to assist rebels fighting Islamic State.
These calls for more American Special Operations troops have come even as some of the same candidates said they opposed boots on the ground in places such as Syria. Mr. Obama himself tried to draw a distinction during an interview this month with CBS News, when a reporter asked if recent Special Operations deployments in Iraq and Syria meant that he was reversing his pledge.
“You know, when I said, ‘No boots on the ground,’ I think the American people understood generally that we’re not going to do an Iraq-style invasion of Iraq or Syria with battalions that are moving across the desert,” he said.
Defense Secretary Carter, in a discussion this month about a new deployment of as many as 200 troops, including scores of Special Operations forces, to Iraq to conduct raids and gather intelligence, spoke in Pentagon jargon. He called it a “specialized expeditionary targeting force.”
Senior American officials disagree on what exactly these troops will be doing, with top aides to Mr. Obama playing down any fighting role. “This is not a combat mission,” one senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal directives to the Pentagon. “This is to enable partners.”
But in a conference call with reporters on Dec. 2, Col. Steven H. Warren, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said, “I mean, a raid is a combat operation. There is no way around that. So, yeah, more Americans will be coming here to Iraq, and some of them will be conducting raids inside of both Iraq and Syria.”
Critics say using Special Operations troops this way is a half-step.
“The problem is that the expeditionary targeting force can easily become a waste of U.S. blood and money,” Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote recently. “The Obama administration reacts to every new problem with ISIS by making a limited increase in military force that is too little and too late.”
The same criticism has been leveled at the administration’s decision to send up to 50 Special Operations forces to advise and assist rebels against the Islamic State in eastern Syria.
The White House is also relying on Special Operations troops elsewhere. About half of the 3,500 American forces in Afghanistan are special operators and have recently fought pitched battles in Helmand Province against the Taliban.
Mr. Obama announced in October that he had ordered 300 troops, most of them special operators, to Cameroon to work with soldiers from Cameroon, Chad, Benin, Niger and Nigeria to counter the Nigeria-based extremist group Boko Haram. The American troops, Mr. Obama said, would provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for the region, largely by operating unarmed surveillance drones. The troops would not engage in combat, he said.
As these deployments widen, General Dunford recently directed the Special Operations Command, or SOCOM to update for the first time in several years its role in coordinating a global response by commandos to terrorist activities — with a particular eye on the Islamic State. The directive has echoes of an effort begun more than a decade ago by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to put SOCOM in charge of the global hunt for Qaeda operatives.
That effort was thwarted in part by regional military commanders who bristled at losing their autonomy in the areas they oversaw. Now, as the influence of the Islamic State spreads, some military experts think SOCOM is well suited to the mission.
“Regional solutions will be limited solutions, thus the need for a global approach, led by SOCOM as the motivating force behind a global network to defeat the Islamic State,” said James G. Stavridis, a former four-star admiral who is now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts.
But others are less certain, seeing peril in trying to fight the Islamic State with a military-centric model similar to the one adopted to combat Al Qaeda.
“This is an inordinately more complex situation than with Al Qaeda after 9/11,” said Jeffrey W. Eggers, a former Navy SEAL who worked on national security affairs at the Obama White House and is now a fellow at the New America Foundation. “We need a little humility about Socom’s ability to get its arms all the way around this problem.”
Article by the New York Times