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
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 Central Asia.
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."
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 and beyond."
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."
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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
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 active there.
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
"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 war zones. 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
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
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
Many of those currently being targeted, Bellinger said,
"particularly in places outside Afghanistan," had nothing to do with
the 2001 attacks.