ASPEN, Colo. — The kind of mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May is “routine” for U.S. special forces, who conduct a dozen or so such missions every night in Afghanistan and Iraq, their commander said Wednesday.
“Depending on how you count them, there were 3,000 to 4,000 missions of that type last year alone,” U.S. Special Operations Command chief Adm. Eric T. Olson said during a presentation at the Aspen Security Forum.
He also said that he would welcome the participation of women in combat positions in the Navy Seals and other special forces units.
In his first public comments since the May 1 operation in Abbotabad, Pakistan, that killed bin Laden, Adm. Olson said special forces troops get into helicopters and go somewhere “a dozen-ish times a night” — “in many cases just to knock on the door and invite someone to give themselves up.”
But he added, “Sometimes they are more kinetic kinds of action.”
“For the people involved,” said the admiral, who will retire next month, the attack on bin Laden’s compound was “just another mission on another target.”
Such capture or kill missions, he said, were “conducted from a template which is pretty well established,” with “variations from that depending on where or who” the target is.
He told The Washington Times later that, although special operations forces were working in 65 countries around the world, operations of the type that killed the al Qaeda leader were carried out “exclusively” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Asked whether there were similar raids in Yemen and Somalia, he replied, “I have to be cagey about that.”
In most of the other countries where special forces were engaged, they were involved in a training and support role for local forces, he said.
The admiral was also tight-lipped about the details of the operation that killed bin Laden. “The Department of Defense has not acknowledged the participation of any particular unit in that operation,” he said, in an oblique reference to the anger of some in the military about the level of detail provided to the news media by White House officials, who publicly identified U.S. Navy Seals as having conducted the raid.
For special forces themselves, he said, who prefer to operate in the shadows, “The 15 minutes of fame [from the bin Laden slaying] has lasted at least 14 minutes too long.”
Asked whether he would like to see women in combat roles in the Seals and other special forces units, Adm. Olson said, “I would.”
“As soon as policy permits it, we’ll be ready to go down that road,” he said.
Currently, he said, women — who are banned by Department of Defense policy from roles in front line combat units — serve as intelligence analysts, linguistic or cultural specialists and other non-combat roles in special forces.
“We graduated 56 last week,” he said, adding that the women concerned would shortly be deployed to Afghanistan.
But there were things women or mixed sex units could do that men alone could not, he said, even in combat.
“It’s not just how many push-ups you can do,” he concluded.
Adm. Olson, who is currently the longest-serving Navy Seal, with 38 years of service, also compared his job to that of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
“There’s a lot of warlord management,” he said, of the need to coral senior officers from the different military services. “They all have their tribes and sub-tribes.”