The selection of a special operations veteran to head Centcom represents a break with tradition. Typically the command overseeing the Middle East and Central Asia has been led by an Army or Marine general with a conventional background. The choice reflects the Obama administration’s reluctance to commit conventional ground forces to costly, unpredictable insurgencies and its growing dependence on Special Operations forces.
“This administration has seen Special Operations to be a very effective tool in counter-terrorism,” said Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and Pentagon official now at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
As leader of Special Operations, and of the more secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) before that, Votel has been closely involved with the kind of missions, often launched by small numbers of Delta, SEAL or other elite forces to hunt down militants, rescue hostages or undertake other risky activities overseas, that have become a hallmark of President Obama’s approach to dealing with militant threats.
Combined with drone operations and efforts to train skilled local partners, White House officials have seen those missions as more efficient and effective than the large-scale troop deployments that characterized former President George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Votel’s selection caps the Minnesota native’s swift ascent through the ranks of elite American forces. Both the Special Operations Command and JSOC roles gave Votel, who previously helped oversee Pentagon efforts to protect soldiers from roadside bombs and commanded troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, signficant exposure to senior White House officials. “This [choice] probably speaks to the level of trust they have with General Votel,” Scharre said.
Votel’s nomination, which was first reported on Wednesday by the Wall Street Journal, must be approved by the Senate.
If confirmed to replace Gen. Lloyd Austin III, Votel must grapple with an array of weighty challenges at Centcom. First among those is the need to accelerate the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. While local forces have made some headway against the extremist group, the United States has struggled to find effective partners in both Iraq and Syria. Despite a year and a half of U.S. air strikes, the group retains a large domain and has spawned affiliates across the region.
Scrutiny of Centcom’s management of the war has increased following a series of disappointments over the last year, including the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi in May and the failure of a high-profile plan to stand up a new moderate rebel force in Syria.
Military officials are also investigating allegations that intelligence analysts at Centcom provided overly upbeat depictions of the Islamic State conflict.
It’s widely expected that Army Lt. Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas III will take over for Votel at U.S. Special Operations Command, though it wasn’t clear whether his name had been formally submitted to the White House. Thomas now leads JSOC and has extensive experience in Washington, where he served on both the Joint Staff and as Assistant Director for Military Affairs at the CIA.
In 2007 and 2008, Thomas was a deputy commander in northern Iraq, a tour that gave him a deep knowledge of Mosul, a city that is currently under the control of the Islamic State and will likely be a major focus of Iraqi military operations in the coming year.
He spent even more time in Afghanistan, most recently as the head of special operations command based in Kabul. Thomas, like Votel, spent much of his career in the Army with the Rangers and its counter-terror forces.
The elevation of Votel to lead Central Command leaves Gen. John Campbell as the odd man out for the moment. Campbell, the top commander in Afghanistan, was a critical voice last fall in convincing Obama to abandon his pledge to withdraw American forces from the country by the end of his presidency.
Despite the Afghan army’s recent struggles against the Taliban and a deadly U.S. air attack on a civilian medical facility in October, Campbell has been praised as a steady leader by both senior Afghan officials and the White House. It’s unclear if Campbell, who is due to leave Afghanistan in the coming months, will be offered another four-star position or choose to retire.