WASHINGTON – The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are making such heavy use of the nation's Green Berets and other elite warriors that they cannot fulfill their roles in other parts of the world, the military's top commando told The Associated Press.
"We're going to fewer countries, staying for shorter periods of time, with smaller numbers of people than historically we have done," Adm. Eric T. Olson said Monday in his first interview since becoming commander of U.S. Special Operations Command last July.
Olson, himself a combat veteran, saw little chance that the demand for his special operations forces in Iraq will decline anytime soon. Even as the overall American force there shrinks — from about 158,000 now to about 140,000 by the end of July — the number of special operations forces in the war zone is likely to increase, he said.
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, he said.
"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 forces perform small-scale raids, long-range reconnaissance and other secretive operations in search of Al Qaeda and other terrorist suspects. They also work quietly with Iraqi tribal leaders to undermine the insurgency.
Olson, a native of Tacoma, Wash., is the first Navy SEAL to lead Special Operations Command.
He 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 in 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, which is based at Fort Bragg, N.C., and whose normal area of focus is Latin America, rotates into Afghanistan for seven-month tours, it takes two of its three battalions, leaving just one in Latin America.
"That leaves us underrepresented" in Latin America, the admiral said.
In Latin America, as in other areas of greatest interest to the Special Operations Command, Green Berets deploy to friendly countries like El Salvador or Colombia to train local military forces.
Special operations units that are designated mainly for use in Africa and Europe, Olson said, also are under strength for their normal role in those regions because they, too, are tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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.
To deal with 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 Qaeda 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 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 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."