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U.S. 'secret war' expands globally as Special Operations forces take larger role

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 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 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.

Questions remain

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 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.

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