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US special operations expanding as wars recede

28 January, 2012

WASHINGTON: War is going secret again. That is the next-generation plan put forth by the special operations commander who led the Osama bin Laden raid and embraced at the highest levels of the Pentagon and the White House.

Big armies and land invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan will be replaced by fast and light special operations raids that leave little trace, or better yet, raids by friendly local forces the US has trained, helping fight mutual enemies side by side.

US officials say that is the plan offered by special operations chief Adm Bill McRaven, who started working last fall to sell defence leaders on a plan to strengthen his existing Theatre Special Operations commands to reposition staff and equipment for the post-Iraq and Afghanistan wars era.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta shared few details in the new Pentagon budget he outlined on Thursday, but officials explained the plan in greater detail to The Associated Press.

As the overall military force shrinks and special operations troops return from their 10-raid-a-night tempo in Iraq and Afghanistan, they will be redeployed to special operations units in areas somewhat neglected during the decade-long focus on al Qaeda because there were simply too few of them to go around, according to a senior defence official and other current and former US officials briefed on the programme. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the details of the proposal and timing are still being worked out.

While the idea is to work and train with foreign armies, the network would reinforce and reinvigorate special operations units in regions like the Pacific Rim.

That would enable them to launch splashy, unilateral raids like the one McRaven commanded last year that killed bin Laden in Pakistan - and the one on Tuesday that rescued an American hostage and her Danish colleague. That rescue served to drive home US President Barack Obama's national security achievements in his first term, as his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night effectively launched his bid for a second term.

The senior defence official, however, emphasised that the new plan would mean special operations troops could increase cooperation with foreign armies, working with them to defeat local threats instead of the US shouldering the bulk of such fights.

The idea tracks with the White House goal to transform the US military into a smaller, more agile force, able to respond to a variety of threats beyond traditional military enemies. Even as US officials outlined cuts to much of the military, Panetta has said funding for special operations and intelligence-gathering will increase - both emerging as the Obama White House's preferred way to confront many global threats after a decade of costly land invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The special operations command's main responsibility now is to provide resources and personnel to the geographic combatant commanders. Technically, the special operations command has limited authority to respond to worldwide threats, only taking charge of individual operations if directed by the president or secretary of defence. The strengthened overseas network could serve as a practical first step to give McRaven a greater say in those overseas operations on a more frequent basis.

Rather than adding troops to the overall force, McRaven wants to be able to more quickly dispatch some of the units where they are needed, according to a US official briefed on the plan. Now, such moves have to filter through a bureaucratic process and layers of Pentagon authority, which in some cases can delay deploying extra special operations troops or assets where they are needed by weeks or months.

Those troops could carry out raids or, more likely, work with local allies to teach them how to target regional enemies, as well as fostering long-term relationships, soldier to soldier, that can help defuse a crisis or coup years later.

The theater commands would also work to preserve close ties with allies from the NATO coalitions now breaking apart with the winding down of the wars, the officials said.


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