Beneath its commitment to soft-spoken diplomacy and beyond the combat zones
of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration has significantly expanded a
largely secret U.S. war against al-Qaeda and other radical groups, according to
senior military and administration officials.
Special Operations forces have grown both in number and budget, and are
deployed in 75 countries, compared with about 60 at the beginning of last year.
In addition to units that have spent years in the Philippines and Colombia,
teams are operating in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and
Commanders are developing plans for increasing the use of such forces in
Somalia, where a Special Operations raid last year killed the alleged head of
al-Qaeda in East Africa.
Plans exist for preemptive or retaliatory strikes in numerous places around
the world, meant to be put into action when a plot has been identified, or after
an attack linked to a specific group.
The surge in Special Operations deployments, along with intensified CIA drone
attacks in western Pakistan, is the other side of the national security doctrine
of global engagement and domestic values President Obama released last week.
One advantage of using "secret" forces for such missions is that they rarely
discuss their operations in public. For a Democratic president such as Obama,
who is criticized from either side of the political spectrum for too much or too
little aggression, the unacknowledged CIA drone attacks in Pakistan, along with
unilateral U.S. raids in Somalia and joint operations in Yemen, provide
politically useful tools.
Obama, one senior military official said, has
allowed "things that the previous administration did not."'More access'
Special Operations commanders have also become a far more regular presence at
the White House than they were under George W. Bush's administration, when most
briefings on potential future operations were run through the Pentagon chain of
command and were conducted by the defense secretary or the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff.
"We have a lot more access," a second
military official said. "They are talking publicly much less but they are acting
more. They are willing to get aggressive much more quickly."
The White House, he said, is "asking for ideas and plans . . . calling us in
and saying, 'Tell me what you can do. Tell me how you do these things.' "
The Special Operations capabilities requested by the White House go beyond
unilateral strikes and include the training of local counterterrorism forces and
joint operations with them. In Yemen, for example, "we are doing all three," the
official said. Officials who spoke about the increased operations were not
authorized to discuss them on the record.
The clearest public description of the secret-war aspects of the doctrine
came from White House counterterrorism director John O. Brennan. He said last
week that the United States "will not merely respond after the fact" of a
terrorist attack but will "take the fight to al-Qaeda and its extremist
affiliates whether they plot and train in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia
That rhetoric is not much different than Bush's pledge to "take the battle to
the enemy . . . and confront the worst threats before they emerge." The elite
Special Operations units, drawn from all four branches of the armed forces,
became a frontline counterterrorism weapon for the United States after the Sept.
11, 2001, attacks.
But Obama has made such forces a far more integrated part of his global
security strategy. He has asked for a 5.7 percent increase in the Special
Operations budget for fiscal 2011, for a total
of $6.3 billion, plus an additional $3.5 billion in 2010 contingency funding.
Bush-era clashes between the Defense and State departments over Special
Operations deployments have all but ceased. Former defense secretary Donald H.
Rumsfeld saw them as an independent force, approving in some countries Special
Operations intelligence-gathering missions that were so secret that the U.S.
ambassador was not told they were underway. But the close relationship between
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
is said to have smoothed out the process.
"In some places, we are quite obvious in our presence," Adm. Eric T. Olson,
head of the Special Operations Command, said in a speech. "In some places, in
deference to host-country sensitivities, we are lower in profile. In every
place, Special Operations forces activities are coordinated with the U.S.
ambassador and are under the operational control of the four-star regional
commander." Chains of command
Gen. David H. Petraeus at the Central Command and others were ordered by the
Joint Staff under Bush to develop plans to use Special Operations forces for
intelligence collection and other counterterrorism efforts, and were given the
authority to issue direct orders to them. But those orders were formalized only
last year, including in a CENTCOM directive outlining operations throughout
South Asia, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.
The order, whose existence was first reported by the New York Times, includes intelligence
collection in Iran, although it is unclear whether Special Operations forces are
The Tampa-based Special Operations Command is not entirely happy with its
subordination to regional commanders and, in Afghanistan and Iraq, to theater
commanders. Special Operations troops within Afghanistan had their own chain of
command until early this year, when they were brought under the unified
direction of the overall U.S. and NATO commander there, Gen. Stanley A.
McChrystal, and his operational deputy, Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez.
"Everybody working in CENTCOM works for Dave Petraeus," a military official
said. "Our issue is that we believe our theater forces should be under a Special
Operations theater commander, instead of . . . Rodriguez, who is a conventional
[forces] guy who doesn't know how to do what we do."
Special Operations troops train for years in foreign cultures and language,
and consider themselves a breed apart from what they call "general purpose
forces." Special Operations troops sometimes bridle at ambassadorial authority
to "control who comes in and out of their country," the official said.
Operations have also been hindered in Pakistan -- where Special Operations
trainers hope to nearly triple their current deployment to 300 -- by that
government's delay in issuing the visas.
Although pleased with their expanded numbers and funding, Special Operations
commanders would like to devote more of their force to global missions outside
war zones. Of about 13,000 Special Operations forces deployed overseas, about
9,000 are evenly divided between Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Eighty percent of our investment is now in resolving current conflicts, not
in building capabilities with partners to avoid future ones," one official said.
The force has also chafed at the cumbersome process under which the president
or his designee, usually Gates, must authorize its use of lethal force outside
Although the CIA has the authority to designate targets and launch lethal
missiles in Pakistan's western tribal areas, attacks such as last year's in
Somalia and Yemen require civilian approval.
The United Nations, in a report this week,
questioned the administration's authority under international law to conduct
such raids, particularly when they kill innocent civilians. One possible legal
justification -- the permission of the country in question -- is complicated in
places such as Pakistan and Yemen, where the governments privately agree but do
not publicly acknowledge approving the attacks.
Former Bush officials, still smarting from accusations that their
administration overextended the president's authority to conduct lethal
activities around the world at will, have asked similar questions. "While they
seem to be expanding their operations both in terms of extraterritoriality and
aggressiveness, they are contracting the legal authority upon which those
expanding actions are based," said John B. Bellinger III, a senior legal adviser
in both of Bush's administrations.
The Obama administration has rejected the constitutional executive authority
claimed by Bush and has based its lethal operations on the authority Congress
gave the president in 2001 to use "all necessary and appropriate force against
those nations, organizations, or persons" he determines "planned, authorized,
committed, or aided" the Sept. 11 attacks.
Many of those currently being targeted, Bellinger said, "particularly in
places outside Afghanistan," had nothing to do with the 2001 attacks.