U.S. special operations forces’ Afghan role could expand

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. admiral said Tuesday that special operations forces in Afghanistan are preparing for a possible expanded role as American forces begin to withdraw after a decade of war.

Adm. Bill McRaven, the special operations commander who led last year’s Navy commando raid against Osama bin Laden, confirmed that special operations forces would be the last to leave under the Obama administration’s current plan and that the Pentagon is considering handing more of the Afghan war responsibility over to a senior special operations officer as part of that evolution.

Adm. McRaven said special operations would combine targeting and training operations this summer to prepare for a smaller overall U.S. presence, but he stressed that no final decisions have been made.

“I have no doubt that special operations will be the last to leave Afghanistan,” Adm. McRaven told a Washington audience, though he said he did not expect their numbers to rise.

“As far as anything beyond that, we’re exploring a lot of options,” he said.

The White House is considering handing the entire Afghan campaign back to special operations forces — an evolution expected to stretch well past the drawdown of most conventional NATO troops in 2014, according to multiple officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the still-evolving plans.

Senior administration officials have described turning the mission over to special operations forces as a possible way to provide security with fewer U.S. troops because of their ability to work in smaller numbers and with local forces on such missions as night raids or patrolling villages. Administration officials believe that a smaller presence will be less offensive to the Afghans.

Afghan participation in the controversial night raids against insurgents has not stopped Afghan President Hamid Karzai from criticizing them and blaming the U.S. for unnecessary civilian casualties, but U.S. officials believe his criticism will be more muted as his forces take on a greater role.

The administration’s emphasis on partnering with Afghan forces is driving Adm. McRaven’s streamlining of special operations in Afghanistan, blending the village security operations with the elite Joint Special Operations Command’s terrorist-hunting cell based at Bagram Airfield, 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,” Adm. McRaven said.

Under the current system, if the special operations terrorist hunters have five potential insurgents to hit in a given area, they likely will choose to strike a high-value target instead of spending their time hunting lower-level insurgents menacing a local village that fellow U.S. 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 Adm. 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 last year’s raid in Pakistan by Navy commandos known as SEALs that killed bin Laden, and the recent SEAL rescue of two Western hostages in Somalia.

“Get the hell out of the media,” retired Lt. Gen. James Vaught shouted at Adm. McRaven.

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