A Commander Seeks to Chart a New Path for Special Operations

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WASHINGTON -- 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.

His efforts to apply the lessons learned from more than a decade of fighting in the shadows of the larger wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have high-level support from a White House and Pentagon eager to avoid large-scale foreign interventions and to encourage allies to assume more of the burden of combating extremism and instability.

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.

"I don't command and control anything," Admiral McRaven said in an interview. "I hope to be able to influence some of their decisions. But I'm not going to move pieces around the chessboard."

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.

But Congress ordered that no money be set aside for the effort until Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's office provides a waiver that "describes the purpose of, and activities to be performed," by the new office as well as "an explanation of the impact of this proposal on existing activities" of Special Operations Command.

A command spokesman, Kenneth McGraw, said the waiver was being prepared but had not been submitted to the Pentagon.

Admiral McRaven's proposals have run afoul of Congress before. Last spring, 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.

In a rare rebuke to the admiral and his command, powerful House and Senate officials rejected the request, saying it was causing "unnecessary confusion and friction." Lawmakers told the command to use a contingency fund they had just created.

Advocates of the effort counter that the Special Operations Command is different from the war-fighting commands that oversee military operations in specific regions of the globe. 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, 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. Admiral McRaven's goal is to improve the quality of the troops and commanders assigned to the regional Special Operations units.

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.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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