WASHINGTON (April 1, 2010) – U.S. special operations forces in Iraq will remain at current levels even as the number of American troops there is nearly halved over the next five months, the top special operations commander said.
As the 98,000-strong force in Iraq is reduced to 50,000 by Aug. 31 in accordance with a U.S.-Iraqi agreement, roughly 4,500 special operations forces will maintain a presence there, military officials said.
“The special operations forces are not experiencing a drawdown in Iraq,” said Navy Adm. Eric Olson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. “Supporting them is a continuing mission of the rest of the force.”
Olson said his assessment of the future special operations forces footprint in Iraq was based in part on conversations with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
“All indications, including my conversations with General Petraeus and General Odierno,” he said, “is that the special operations forces will be sustained at about their current level.”
While revealing no specific details about ongoing operations, Olson today provided a rare glimpse at a component of the U.S. military that typically operates in near-total secrecy. His public remarks came at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy think-tank based here.
In addition to direct combat and counterterrorism, special operations forces – among them Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Air Force special operations personnel and Marine operators – conduct an array of indirect missions. These include psychological operations and the training and support of paramilitary forces to help achieve U.S. aims, such as when special operations forces partnered with the Northern Alliance to undermine the Taliban in Afghanistan before the American invasion began in earnest in 2001.
“The United States Special Operations Command deliberately leans forward to ensure that proper resources and tools are being applied in these regions. We call it ‘Being ahead of the sound of guns,’” said Olson, the first Navy SEAL to ascend to a four-star officer rank.
“As proud as we are of our ability to respond quickly to gunfire when it occurs,” he continued, “we are at least as proud of our ability … to prevent that sound ultimately from occurring in places that are at risk.”
As of last week, he said, special operations forces were engaged in 79 countries globally, including six “at-risk” countries where danger is probable, if not imminent. The number of forces engaged around the world was about 12,000 – about 10,000 of which were assigned to U.S. Central Command, an area of operations that includes Afghanistan, Iraq and the greater Middle East.
Based on those figures, U.S. special operations forces still represent a fraction of the overall American presence in the Central Command region. A defense official said “thousands” of special operations forces are in Afghanistan, where the number of overall U.S. troops is set to overshadow the American presence in Iraq this summer, according to military officials.
Driving the eclipse is the 30,000-troop surge President Barack Obama announced for Afghanistan in December, roughly half of which is in place, and with 18,000 of the additional forces expected to be in Afghanistan by late spring as troop levels in Iraq continue to drop. Currently, 87,000 American and 44,000 allied forces are in Afghanistan, a defense official said.
Speaking about Afghanistan, Olson expressed optimism that U.S. special operations forces are working well with their allied counterparts from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. He praised changes to the command-and-control structure at NATO that would better coordinate those operations.
“There are a few military concepts that seem to be catching on around the world: one of them is jointness, another one is special operations. And, of course we embody both,” he said. Joint operations are carried out cooperatively among service branches. “Our relationships with other nations are quite good,” the admiral said.
Of 58,000 total special operations personnel, 52,000 are uniformed military members, Olson said, and more than half of that uniformed force is Army Special Forces soldiers.
Roughly 20 percent of the organization comprises National Guardsmen or reservists – down from about a third in 2005. A third of the force is composed of career special operations personnel, while two-thirds serve temporary assignments to special operations forces missions during the arc of their military tenure.
The average age of special operations servicemembers is 30, Olson added, and 70 percent of the force is married. About half of the force, he said, joined since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.