Special Operations Command’s Role to Grow With Covert Approach
By Susan Schmidt and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 18, 2002; Page A01
The Pentagon is preparing to consolidate control of most of the global war on terrorism under the U.S. Special Operations Command, according to government sources, signaling an intensified but more covert approach to the next phase in the battle against al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups.
The unprecedented move, discussed by senior Pentagon officials for months, comes in response to prodding by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for the military to take more aggressive steps to capture or kill members of al Qaeda, many of whom have fled since the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan began last year, the sources said.
The Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, which like the U.S. Central Command has headquarters in Tampa, has been ordered to come up with detailed plans in the next several weeks for how it will manage its expanded responsibilities, sources said. Traditionally, Special Operations Command has trained and equipped troops and turned them over to other commanders who have used them in military operations. Under the new plan, the Special Operations Command will have to directly oversee operations around the world.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke emphasized that no final decision on the change had been made by Rumsfeld and said she doubted that the change would be as far-reaching as described by some officers and counterterrorism officials. "It would be incorrect to say that henceforth that SOCOM would be the supported command," she said. "There will be individual decisions where that will be the case. It is absolutely true that there will be many cases where that will the case."
Another administration official said that the distinction being considered is to have Special Operations Command focus its limited manpower on "high value" leadership targets, while Central Command would continue to carry out mop-up operations against peripheral al Qaeda forces.
Special Operations units have been active in Pakistan for months and are training military forces in Yemen and Georgia. The presence of those training missions could provide a cover for conducting any covert raids and other actions against suspected al Qaeda members in the two countries.
The United States has also placed more than 500 Special Operations troops in the African nation of Djibouti, where they are near potential hot spots such as Yemen and Somalia, government officials said. Also, the USS Belleau Wood, an amphibious assault ship that carries attack helicopters and a handful of Harrier jump jets, has been stationed off the Horn of Africa for about six weeks, ready to carry those troops and some specialized helicopters.
The transfer of command was discussed last week at a meeting at Bolling Air Force Base attended by Rumsfeld and the top regional commanders in the U.S. military. Special Operations officers said it is their understanding that the planned move would make the Special Operations Command, which is headed by Air Force Gen. Charles R. Holland, the lead U.S. headquarters for most anti-terrorist actions around the world. Until now, each of the regional commanders in chief in the U.S. military had overseen all activities in their areas, whether conducted by conventional forces or Special Operations troops.
"The reason for this is Rumsfeld’s dissatisfaction with what the regional commanders have been doing," said one veteran Special Operations officer with extensive overseas experience. He said that he and his peers are "very enthusiastic" about the change.
Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the chief of U.S. Central Command, would continue to oversee all military operations in Afghanistan under the restructuring, though control of Special Operations units in neighboring Pakistan would be turned over to Holland. Franks would also oversee any war against Iraq.
Special Operations Command includes highly trained U.S. Special Forces troops as well as clandestine counterterrorism units that can conduct snatch or kill missions, among them Navy SEALs and the Army’s secret Delta Force. CIA paramilitary units, which have operated with Special Operations forces in Afghanistan, are expected to work with the Special Operations Command, one source familiar with the plans said.
Even before being finalized, the change already is having an effect beyond the U.S. military. Senior State Department officials were informed in a classified memo late last week that Special Operations Command’s expected new authority signals a significant intensification in the war on terrorism. Diplomats are being pressed to pass that message to some of the countries where terrorists operate, sources said.
"This is going to cause our ambassadors to think differently," said one source knowledgeable about the new military order. "Our ambassadors are going to have to deliver some tough messages." Diplomats, he said, will be pushed to tell some host governments that they must cooperate in the search for al Qaeda.
Most of the major anti-terrorist operations conducted by the U.S. military over the last year have taken place in the Middle East and the area around Afghanistan, so the commander most affected by the new military order is Franks, who has responsibility for that part of the world.
Franks is now focusing his energies on planning for a possible war against Iraq and dealing with residual problems in Afghanistan. "Quite frankly, I think Franks is tickled to have this off his plate," said one person who discussed the issue with the Central Command chief earlier this year.
Holland was given control of operations in Yemen and Pakistan, two areas that until now have been major concerns for Franks. Almost all U.S. military personnel in those two nations are Special Operations troops.
Yemen and Pakistan have been the focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in recent days and weeks. Raids last week in Karachi that netted nine al Qaeda members, including alleged Sept. 11 planner Ramzi Binalshibh, were the latest evidence that remnants of the network have found a haven there. Along Pakistan’s mountainous border with Afghanistan, U.S. and Pakistani military seeking to roust al Qaeda from hideouts have met with limited success because of resistance from local tribal populations.
Many al Qaeda members arrested in police actions around the world in recent weeks, including Binalshibh, are Yemenis. Tribal chieftains there reportedly have given sanctuary to several key al Qaeda members, and they turned back Yemen’s special forces in a bloody battle last December.
Holland, the Special Operations commander, was said to be somewhat reluctant about becoming the leader of the worldwide campaign.
"Holland was hesitant," the official said. In meetings with Rumsfeld last month, Holland warned that Special Operations Command would need more money and staff to take on its new role. "Now he has to reorganize, get more resources, and take on this role," the official said.