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 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."'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 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."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.
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.
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