Top US commando sees more demand for elite forces in Iraq
By ROBERT BURNS
AP Military Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — Even as the overall U.S. force in Iraq shrinks, the number of elite troops known as special operations forces is likely to grow, the military’s top commando told The Associated Press recently.
More of these specially trained, often secretive forces may be required in Iraq in order to fill a niche role in the development of Iraqi security forces as the number of conventional Army troops goes down, Adm. Eric T. Olson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said in an interview.
The total U.S. force in Iraq of about 158,000 troops — including about 5,000 special operations troops — is scheduled to drop to about 140,000 by the end of July as two more Army combat brigades leave.
“Nothing I’ve been told leads me to believe that there will be a reduction” in special operations forces in Iraq, “and the door is always open for an increase in demand, so we’re just trying to prepare for that the best we can,” Olson said.
In addition to their role in training Iraqi soldiers and police, U.S. special operations forces perform small-scale raids, long-range reconnaissance and other secretive operations in search of al-Qaida and other terrorist suspects. They also work quietly with Iraqi tribal leaders to undermine the insurgency.
It was the first interview Olson has given since taking the helm at the Special Operations Command last July. He is the first Navy SEAL to hold the post, which has largely been the province of Army generals.
Olson spoke for about 30 minutes in an office he uses when visiting the Pentagon; his headquarters is at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. Under his command are the elite forces from each of the military services, including Army Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Marine and Air Force commandos.
Olson made it clear he is not seeking a bigger role for special operations forces in Iraq. In fact his forces already are so heavily engaged there and Afghanistan that they are unable to fully perform their traditional mission in other parts of the world. To illustrate that point, Olson said that when the 7th Special Forces Group, whose normal area of focus is Latin America, rotates into Afghanistan for seven-month tours, it takes two of its three battalions there, leaving just one in Latin America.
“That leaves us underrepresented” in Latin America, the admiral said.
The situation is similar for special forces units that are designated mainly for Africa and Europe, he said, and to a lesser extent in the Pacific region.
Since the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, about 80 percent of the overseas deployments of special operations forces have been to the Middle East and Afghanistan, Olson said. That compares with 20-25 percent before Sept. 11, 2001.
“We’re going to fewer countries, staying for shorter periods of time with smaller numbers of people than historically we have done,” he added.
To reverse that trend, Olson is overseeing a substantial increase in the size of his total force. He is authorized by Congress to add five Army Special Forces battalions as well as three Army Ranger companies as part of a total increase of 13,000 troops over five years, starting this year.
“The reason we’re growing is not necessarily to enable us to surge more forces into (Iraq and Afghanistan); it’s really to get us back out into the rest of the world where we have been underrepresented” because of the heavy focus on the two-front war, he said.
There are now about 50,000 people in special operations forces. Olson’s command has seen its budget jump from $2.3 billion in 2001 to $7.3 billion this year, reflecting a conviction among U.S. leaders that heading off another major attack by al-Qaida requires a broad and long-term effort to not only hunt down and kill terrorist leaders but also to undermine support for extremist ideologies.
Olson, a French and Arab speaker who is a decorated veteran of the Somalia conflict in 1993, said he sees no sign that the strain of several years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is taking an excessive psychological toll on his elite forces. The regular Army, on the other hand, has seen a growing number of negative indicators, including a higher suicide rate.
“Our guys are generally older, they’re more stable in their lives — married at a higher rate, and a higher percentage of them have kids — and they’re better trained in general than most of the (other) forces,” he said. “So I don’t think the stress on the force affects us in the same way that it does other forces.”
Published in The Messenger 5.14.08