Tag Archives: McRaven

The New Army: United States Special Operations in 70 Countries

SEALS_wearing_diving_gear. Image from wikipedia

Not long after Adm. William H. McRaven led the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, he was put in charge of the nation’s entire contingent of Special Operations forces, and set to work revamping them to face a widening array of new threats as America’s combat role in the Middle East and southwest Asia winds down….Admiral McRaven’s goal is to recast the command from its popular image of commandos killing or capturing terrorists, and expand a force capable of carrying out a range of missions short of combat — including training foreign militaries to counter terrorists, drug traffickers and insurgents, gathering intelligence and assessing pending risk, and advising embassies on security.

But along the way, the ambitious Admiral McRaven has run into critics who say he is overreaching, or as one Congressional critic put it, “empire building” at a time when the military is shrinking its footprint in Afghanistan and refocusing on other hot spots around the world. Congress has blocked, at least temporarily, an idea to consolidate several hundred of the command’s Washington-based staff members in a $10 million-a-year satellite office here, saying it would violate spending limits on such offices.

At the same time, Admiral McRaven has also faced criticism that he is encroaching on the turf of the military’s traditionally powerful regional commanders. Shortly before leaving the Pentagon, former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta granted Admiral McRaven new authority to make staffing decisions in the Special Operations units assigned to the regional commanders. While they will still have the final say on missions in their region, Admiral McRaven will now have the ability to allocate the much sought-after 11,000 deployed Special Operations forces where he determines intelligence and world events indicate they are most needed.

Indeed, in the past year, the command has conducted three classified exercises to determine where it can expand Special Operations forces in regions where they have not operated in large numbers for the past decade, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

As for the office he has sought in Washington, Admiral McRaven couches his plans to consolidate the command’s disparate operations into a new “National Capital Region” office in similar reform-minded terms, telling Congress in April that it would “better support coordination and decision-making” with other federal agencies.  Supporters described the plan as a management efficiency for the 373 people serving as liaison officers scattered in dozens of executive branch departments and the intelligence community, as well as members of a legislative affairs office that has operated here since the mid-1980s.  If the plan is approved, an additional 70 Special Operations personnel could be assigned to the Washington office. By comparison, the Central Command, which oversees the Middle East and South Asia, has just 15 people in Washington. The Africa Command has 10. The headquarters would be overseen by a three-star officer and is envisioned to have an annual budget of $10 million, although some of that money is already in the command’s budget for staff assigned to duties here.

Admiral McRaven’s proposals have run afoul of Congress before. Last spring [2012], the Special Operations Command sought approval for new authority from Congress to train foreign internal security forces that had been off limits to the American military… Statistics provided by Special Operations Command noted that in any given week, its personnel were operating in more than 70 countries. During one week in March (2012), for example, the command had teams in 92 nations.  Until now, those troops have been financed through the geographic commands in the Middle East, Africa, Europe or Latin America….The goal, command officials say, is not just improving their quality but also improving their coordination with foreign troops and diplomats. The command has sent liaison officers to 10 United States embassies worldwide – Australia, Canada, Britain, Jordan, Poland, Colombia, France, Turkey, Kenya and Italy – to advise indigenous special forces and coordinate activities with those troops.

Nearly a decade ago a similar experiment to place small teams of Special Operations troops in American embassies to gather intelligence on terrorists and to prepare for potential missions to disrupt, capture or kill them, backfired.  In one case, members of the “military liaison elements” in Paraguay were pulled out of the country after killing an armed robber who attacked them. The shooting had nothing to do with their mission, but the episode embarrassed senior embassy officials, who had not been told the team was operating in the country.

Admiral McRaven says those early problems have been ironed out, and his troops carry out missions only with the approval of the regional American commander and the United States ambassador in that country.

ERIC SCHMITT and THOM SHANKER, A Commander Seeks to Chart a New Path for Special Operations, New York Times, May 1, 2013

See also the Power of the US Special Operations Command

Let them Kill Each Other, the US Doctrine on Afghanistan

The head of the U.S. special forces has revealed a likely controversial plan to triple the number of armed Afghans paid by NATO to protect their villages under a plan once described as “a community watch with AK-47s”.  In a rare meeting with journalists Saturday, (Dec. 10, 2011) Adm. William H McRaven, the architect of the daring U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, said the plan could go into effect over the next two years.

The number of Afghan Local Police, or ALP, could go up from 9,800 to 30,000, if the Afghan government supports it.American commanders consider the groups a local and cost-effective solution to shoring up security in Afghanistan’s sprawling and lawless rural communities. They were active in 57 districts now, but could cover 99 by the end of 2013.  “The real advantage for the ALP and what it provides you as opposed to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police is the ability for Afghans from their local districts to protect their own homes,” he said. “The ALP allow guys to stay at home and protect their families and their villages.”  The ALP created “a network out there that can respond to any potential threats,” he said.  Former NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, first introduced the plan 17 months ago, describing it to the U.S. Congress as “a community watch with AK-47s.”

But Human Rights Watch accused the groups of “committing serious human rights abuses” and not being held accountable by the Afghan government.  These reports have raised fears that the armed groups might turn on the communities they protect or neighbor, particularly if their coalition wages falter after the NATO drawdown.  There are also concerns they could enter into rivalries with neighboring groups, instead worsening security for local Afghans. McRaven said he had only heard anecdotal talk of these groups fueling local tribal rivalries, but has not seen evidence on the ground to support that.

Col. John Evans, deputy commanding officer of Combined Forces Special Operations, said at 30,000 in number, the groups would cost an estimated $170 million to maintain annually, making them significantly cheaper than the police or army as an Afghan method of providing security locally.  While he said the ALP could not provide all the same skills as the police and army, he added: “There is an economy aspect for the ALP for a government of Afghanistan that is going to continue have to meet financial commitments as a young democracy. It does give them some options.”

Evans added that basic training and local accountability were in place to keep the ALP in order. “There are several check and balances: a vetting at the local level by the Shuras”, or groups of village elders  “It allows for people to say that a man would be a good guardian for them as they have known them all their lives. And secondly if this young man turns out not to be an honest man now he is accountable to that village elder as that’s how the culture works.”  Evans added the ALP were under the remit of the Afghan Ministry of Interior and answerable to local police chiefs.

McRaven defended NATO’s controversial tactic of night raids in Afghanistan, which have become a sticking point in negotiations over the US’s long term military presence in the country. He said there have been 2,800 raids on insurgents in the country in the past year alone, only 15% of which fired a shot.  McRaven added that of all the casualties caused by coalition special forces raids, only 1% were civilians killed in error. The intrusive nature of the raids, and the civilian deaths they cause, have made them deeply unpopular in the nation. President Hamid Karzai has frequently demanded that they stop.  “I think you would find that night raids are very valuable when you are trying to get somebody who is trying to hide,” McRaven said. “It’s an important piece of security and I think we have to continue to have this discussion with the Afghans. I’m not sure I know if it’s essential but I know that it’s important.”

On special forces raids in general in Afghanistan, McRaven said: …..”A common mission of for the guys is they will helicopter into an area and the Afghans will get on bullhorns and they will say “please come out we are coalition forces.”  Previous reports have suggested raids happen on average 10 times a night, but sometimes as often as 40. McRaven’s remarks lower that average slightly, but still provide an official confirmation of how common such operations have become.  McRaven said moves are under way to ensure that future night raids are led by Afghan commandos, a possible compromise in the face of complaints here from the presidency. McRaven insisted elements of the Afghan government were in favor of raids.

McRaven also addressed the changing nature of the insurgency after a decade of war in Afghanistan. An operations officer with his team said that since the bin Laden raid and other operations, al Qaeda’s “relevance in Afghanistan is becoming less and less. Their leadership has been impacted significantly. Each time they try and put somebody up there, we take them down. That has really put a hurt on al Qaeda.”  Afghan insurgents “see al Qaeda more as a liability now. They [the Afghan Taliban] see it was a mistake to ever partner with” al Qaeda, he said.

McRaven added the Haqqani network – a sophisticated part of the insurgency considered responsible for various raids into Kabul and believed to have significant Pakistani military support – were tough fighters who are well-supplied.  But he added the network was not entirely dependent on Pakistani support.  “I think the Haqqanis are fairly autonomous. That’s not to say that support that they get living in Pakistan certainly makes them more difficult for us to get at. They have been around for quite some time. So they have developed a pretty extensive network in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. I don’t think they would go away quickly regardless who went after them.”…

Excerpt, By Nick Paton Walsh,Tripling Afghanistan’s ‘community watch with AK-47s’, CNN, Dec. 11, 2011

Secret+Cheap Modern Wars

Four months ago, Admiral William McRaven commanded the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. Now, as the new head of U.S. special forces, he argues that his shadowy, secretive warriors are increasingly central to how America and its allies fight.  When the suntanned, towering SEAL testified to the Congressional House Armed Services Committee in September, just a few weeks after he took over his new role, he used posters detailing the growth of his forces. In the decade since Sept. 11 2001, U.S. Special Operations Command personnel numbers have doubled, its budget tripled and deployments quadrupled.

The Bin Laden takedown is simply the tip of an iceberg of fast-growing, largely hidden action by the United States and its allies. Those with knowledge of such operations say this changing state of warfare could spark a range of unintended consequences, from jeopardizing diplomatic relationships to unwanted, wider wars.  That’s not entirely new. Secret wars against communism in Southeast Asia in the 1960s helped spawn larger conventional conflicts. In the 1980s, the “Iran-Contra” arms-for-weapons scandal embarrassed the Reagan administration, while support for Islamist guerrillas fighting Russian occupation in Afghanistan helped produce Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.  And it’s not just western powers. Just last week, the United States accused Iran of a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador.

The appeal of such tactics is clear. Military operations are far more politically palatable if you keep dead bodies off TV screens. A computer worm planted in Iran’s nuclear program, secret help to rebels in Libya, drone strikes to cripple Al Qaeda — all can achieve the desired effect without massive publicity.  In an era of budget cuts, they are also cheap — particularly compared with the cost of maintaining and deploying a large conventional military force. McRaven said his 58,000 operatives cost a mere 1.6 percent of the Pentagon’s predicted 2012 budget.

“Put simply, (they) provide a tremendous return on the nation’s investment,” McRaven told the unclassified portion of the Congressional hearing. “The special operations forces have never been more valuable to our nation and allies around the world than they are today, and that demand will not diminish for the foreseeable future.”

The CIA has long retained its own, much smaller band of paramilitary operatives, sometimes operating with military special forces. Their numbers have also risen sharply in recent years to hundreds or even thousands, security experts say. Under its new director, General David Petraeus, the agency is expected to further increase such deniable operations as assassination and sabotage.

Britain, Israel and others are also believed to have renewed their focus on specialist, hidden techniques, and are ploughing resources into emerging fields such as cyber warfare.  As the Iraqi and Afghan campaigns ramp down, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines and Mexico are all touted by security and intelligence experts as potential theaters for new operations. U.S. special forces are now deployed in some 75 countries, where their missions range from training to assassinations.

Yet even some supporters of the new tactics worry about the lack of public discussion.  “We may find ourselves fighting more wars with fewer people,” says John Nagl, a former U.S. Army officer who wrote its counterinsurgency manual and now heads the Centre for New American Security, a think tank. “That raises some interesting questions — like whether we have the right to do that. There is much less public debate. Society doesn’t pay the cost and so doesn’t ask the questions.”

Quietly, this approach is already redefining how conflicts are waged. Conventional troop surges might have dominated coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, but behind the scenes the generals were heavily dependent on secret, special operations. Intelligence operators, remote-controlled drones and troops from the SEALS, Delta Force, Britain’s SAS and other forces fought hidden campaigns against insurgent leaders and bomb makers, working with local communities to turn conflicts against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their allies.  “There has been a real renewed focus on special operations and clandestine services,” says Fred Burton, a former U.S. counterterrorism agent and now vice president for strategic intelligence firm Stratfor. “They were always there, of course, but they had become somewhat sidelined. That’s definitely changed now.”

To an extent, the shift is down to technology. This provides some entirely new weaponry — such as the cybermunition Stuxnet, which caused Iranian nuclear centrifuges to rip themselves apart. It also allows force to be more targeted.  “You change your ability to integrate information, which in many ways is at least as important as collection,” says Anthony Cordesman, a former senior U.S. intelligence official now at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “You have collation of information almost in real time. You can pull together the information and find the target.”

That is already changing the shape of western militaries. A drone can be flown remotely by just one pilot, but it takes around 20 analysts to interpret and assess the data it collects. This in turn produces a much larger array of potential targets. In Afghanistan alone last year, McRaven says his forces conducted some 2,000 raids against identified high-value adversaries.

To work with tribal groups and win their loyalty, language skills and cultural awareness are essential. Special forces helped shape both the “Sunni awakening”, which swept Al Qaeda and its allies from much of Iraq, and the more recent rebel victory in Libya. McRaven said he believed the Afghan “village program”, working with local communities and police, might prove his forces’ most important contribution to that war.  The need for such skills is not new, of course. McRaven demands all his officers and NCOs learn a second language. Others in the field read ancient histories or the writings of idiosyncratic English archeologist T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”.

But some argue the most important force driving the new tactics is an almost visceral objection to more conventional warfare in the wake of the Iraq conflict, and Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza.  “It’s almost always a matter of political will,” says Nigel Inkster, a former deputy chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). “The new technologies do give you some new options, but broadly these capabilities have always existed. The question is whether you choose to take the more covert route or send in the 101st Airborne.  Cash flow is also key. Those with knowledge of western strategy towards Libya say it was driven more by what could not be done than what could. A wider military intervention was politically impossible and financially unaffordable, yet politicians demanded something be done.   Some of the most successful strategies were not conventional. British officials say the secret “oil cell” that helped starve Muammar Gaddafi of fuel supplieswas key to rebel victory, yet involved the use of little or no military force.

Besides straining budgets, the global financial crisis has also made great powers more reluctant to risk the economic shock of serious conflict. One reason Stuxnet was such an appealing tool, security experts say, is that it carried less risk of Iranian military retaliation against shipping in the Gulf. That would have sent oil prices soaring.  A senior Israeli official has said cyber warfare offers a less politically dangerous option for nations in a media-saturated age. Israel suffered widespread international scrutiny and frequent condemnation for its wars in Lebanon and Gaza.

“War is ugly, awfully ugly,” Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor — who overseas spy services and nuclear affairs — told diplomats and journalists at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs in February. “War is all the time on television… people see this and can’t take it… Because it is difficult, one looks for other ways. One of these ways is the intelligence community … are trying to do things that don’t look that ugly, don’t kill people.”

But the secret campaign against Iran’s nuclear program has not been entirely bloodless. Sabotage might be relatively clean, but Israel’s Mossad is also suspected of being behind the killings of several of Tehran’s nuclear scientists.  With so much now taking place behind the scenes, a handful of critics is expressing concern that there is simply far too little scrutiny.  “The implications are vast,” says Patricia De Gennaro, a counterinsurgency expert and professor at New York University who has worked with U.S. forces in the Middle East. “There is no accountability. People have been basically brainwashed, with the help of the media and others in the Beltway, into believing we don’t have a right to know what their military is doing.”  In an era that may see heightened state-to-state rivalry — not least between older western powers and increasingly assertive emerging states such as China — any operations that go awry could heighten tensions further  The information revolution may also be making it harder to keep operations secret. The Bin Laden raid was reported by a local resident on Twitter within minutes of the helicopters touching down.  It would be a delusion to see covert operations as a simple solution to global problems. “This comes in cycles,” says Cordesman.  “There is a tendency to grossly exaggerate success and underestimate the cost… These things are never under control, not even in a democracy. Nothing you ever do with violence is going to be clean or simple. But sometimes you just have to look at the options, look at the consequences of not acting, and then do it.”

Peter Apps, The rise and rise of western covert ops, Reuters, Oct 18 2011


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