WASHINGTON – War is going back under wraps — that's the next-generation plan put forth by the special operations commander who led the Osama bin Laden raid and embraced at the highest levels of the Pentagon and the White House.
Big armies and the land invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan will be replaced by fast and light special operations raids that leave little trace, or better yet, raids by friendly local forces the U.S. has trained, helping fight mutual enemies side by side.
U.S. officials say that's the plan offered by special operations chief Adm. Bill McRaven, who started working last fall to sell defense leaders on a plan to beef up his existing Theater Special Operations commands to reposition staff and equipment for the post-Iraq and Afghanistan wars era.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta shared few details in the new Pentagon budget he outlined Thursday, but officials explained the nascent plan in greater detail to The Associated Press.
As the overall military force shrinks and special operations troops return from their 10-raid-a-night tempo in Iraq and Afghanistan, they'll be redeployed to special operations units in areas somewhat neglected during the decade-long focus on al-Qaida because there were simply too few of them to go around, according to a senior defense official and other current and former U.S. officials briefed on the program.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the details of the proposal and timing of implementation are still being worked out.
While the idea is to work and train with foreign armies, the invigorated network would reinforce and reinvigorate special operations units in regions like the Pacific Rim.
That would enable them to launch splashy, unilateral raids like the one McRaven commanded last year that killed bin Laden in Pakistan — and the one Tuesday that rescued an American hostage and her Danish colleague. That rescue served to drive home President Barack Obama's national security achievements in his first term, as his State of the Union speech Tuesday night effectively launched his bid for a second term.
The senior defense official, however, emphasized that the new plan would mean special operations troops could increase cooperation with foreign armies, working with them to defeat local threats instead of the U.S. shouldering the bulk of such fights.
The idea tracks with the White House goal to transform the U.S. military into a smaller, more agile force, able to respond to a variety of threats beyond traditional military enemies. Even as U.S. officials outlined cuts to much of the military, Panetta has said funding for special operations and intelligence-gathering will increase — both emerging as the Obama White House's preferred way to confront many global threats after a decade of costly land invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The special operations command's main responsibility now is to provide resources and personnel to the geographic combatant commanders. Technically, the special operations command has limited authority to respond to worldwide threats, only taking charge of individual operations if directed by the president or secretary of defense. The strengthened overseas network could serve as a practical first step to give McRaven a greater say in those overseas operations on a more frequent basis.
Rather than adding troops to the overall force, McRaven wants to be able to more quickly dispatch some of the units where they are needed, according to a U.S. official briefed on the plan. Now, such moves have to filter through a bureaucratic process and layers of Pentagon authority, which in some cases can delay deploying extra special operations troops or assets where they are needed by weeks or months
Those troops could carry out raids or, more likely, work with local allies to teach them how to target regional enemies, as well as fostering long-term relationships, soldier to soldier, that can help defuse a crisis or coup years later.
The theater commands would also work to preserve close ties with allies from the NATO coalitions now breaking apart with the winding down of the wars, the officials said.
Eventually, the far-flung special operations commands could also serve as a framework for boosted U.S. interagency cooperation, fusing not just regional allies, but U.S. agencies like the CIA, FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Proponents of the plan say this could preserve the close working relationship among various agencies that has built up in the war zones.
The notion of a stronger special operations network drew a mixed review from Human Rights Watch, which has called on the Obama White House to turn over the CIA's covert action against terror suspects to military control.
"If it means handing more over to the military, it could be an improvement from a transparency perspective," said Andrea Prasow, counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch, which has also pushed for the White House to make public how a suspect ends up on the target list. "But if the public still cannot find out what's happening, it's not good enough."
United States Special Operations Command: http://tinyurl.com/3qs3vqw
Human Rights Watch Letter to Obama: http://tinyurl.com/85z6whu
AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier can be followed on Twitter (at)kimberlydozier.