WASHINGTON – First in and last out — that's the current plan for elite U.S. forces in Afghanistan, according to Adm. Bill McRaven.
The top U.S. special operations commander said his troops could be tapped to lead the mission in Afghanistan, while also increasing their numbers in places like Africa and the Pacific.
But he stressed that no final decisions had been made.
"I have no doubt that special operations will be the last to leave Afghanistan," the commander of last year's Navy SEAL raid against Osama bin Laden told a Washington audience Tuesday.
"As far as anything beyond that, we're exploring a lot of options," he said of the still-evolving war strategy.
U.S. officials say the White House is considering handing the entire Afghanistan campaign back to special operations teams as conventional U.S. forces draw down after a decade of war, according to multiple officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the confidential deliberations.
McRaven would say only that the Pentagon is considering handing more of the day-to-day running of the war to a senior special operations officer.
Senior administration officials have described turning the mission over to special operations troops as a possible way to provide security with a smaller U.S. footprint, because of special operations' ability to work in smaller numbers and with local forces on such missions as night raids or village patrols. Administration officials believe that smaller presence will be less offensive to the Afghans.
Under such a scenario, a continued force of hundreds of CIA officers would provide intelligence on militant networks, as well as continuing to train Afghan intelligence officers, the officials said.
"Could we use a few more years with the U.S. in the lead? Of course," added Michael Sheehan, assistant defense secretary for special operations, speaking at the same meeting of the National Defense Industrial Association. "But ... now is as good a time as ever to push the Afghans out in front," with special operations advisers training the locals to secure their own territory.
The admiral confirmed that the roughly 9,000 special operations forces in Afghanistan would combine their targeting and training operations this summer to prepare for a smaller overall U.S. presence and a stepped-up effort to train Afghans.
The idea is to streamline special operations in Afghanistan, blending the village security operations with the elite Joint Special Operations Command's terrorist-hunting cell based at Bagram Air Base, which is working on degrading the Taliban militant network with focused raids.
"We feel like we have to become not only more effective but more efficient," McRaven said.
Under the current system, if the special operations terrorist hunters have five potential insurgents to hit in a given area, they will probably choose to strike a high-value target instead of spending their time hunting lower-level insurgents menacing a local village that fellow Army Green Berets are trying to secure, according to a U.S. military official.
With one commander in charge of all special operations, he could decide to clear out those lower-level insurgents to secure the village, leaving the high-value target for another night.
During McRaven's remarks at a Washington area hotel, there was an outburst from a retired special operations general who was angry at media coverage of special operations missions, such as last year's SEAL raid in Pakistan that killed bin Laden, and the recent SEAL rescue of two Western hostages in Somalia.
Retired Lt. Gen. James Vaught shouted at McRaven to "get out of the media."
McRaven calmly responded that avoiding media coverage was almost impossible in the 24-hour news cycle, and that while he objected to revealing sensitive tactics, the media could be useful, especially when reporting operations gone wrong.
"Having those failures exposed in the media helps us do a better job," McRaven said.
The admiral said he was working to give his 66,000-person force — expected to grow to 70,000 over the next few years — more predictable schedules to reduce strain on families.
He also spoke of working to break down the stigma of combat stress.
"If you have been engaged in this war for any length of time, you are fundamentally changed," he said. But special operations troops typically don't seek help for emotional problems.
"I encourage them to come in. We're not going to pull their security clearances," McRaven said. "We're going to take care of them."
National Defense Industrial Association: www.ndia.org/meetings/2880
Kimberly Dozier can be followed on Twitter (at)kimberlydozier.