According to senior military and administration officials, the Obama administration has ramped up secret wars against al-Qaeda and other radical groups.
Special Operations forces are growing, where they are already deployed in 75 countries – compared to 60 at the start of 2010.
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. Secrecy allows Obama to appease both sides of Congress: both war-hawks and anti-war members.
Obama, one senior military official said, has allowed “things that the previous administration did not.” Special Operations commanders are more common in the White House then they were under Bush, where both operations were run through the Pentagon chain of command.
“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 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.”
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.”
Of about 13,000 Special Operations forces deployed overseas, about 9,000 are evenly divided between Iraq and Afghanistan.
“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.
Washington Post, 2010