- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Even as the overall U.S. force in Iraq shrinks, the number of elite troops known as special-operations forces is likely to grow, the military’s top commando told the Associated Press yesterday.

More of these specially trained, often secretive forces may be required in Iraq in order to fill a niche role in the development of Iraqi security forces as the number of conventional Army troops goes down, Adm. Eric T. Olson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said in an interview.

The total U.S. force in Iraq of about 158,000 troops — including about 5,000 special-operations troops — is scheduled to drop to about 140,000 by the end of July as two more Army combat brigades leave.

“Nothing I’ve been told leads me to believe that there will be a reduction” in special-operations forces in Iraq, “and the door is always open for an increase in demand, so we’re just trying to prepare for that the best we can,” Adm. Olson said.

In addition to their role in training Iraqi soldiers and police, U.S. special-operations forces perform small-scale raids, long-range reconnaissance and other secretive operations in search of al Qaeda and other terrorist suspects. They also work quietly with Iraqi tribal leaders to undermine the insurgency.

It was the first interview that Adm. Olson has given since taking the helm at the Special Operations Command last July. He is the first Navy SEAL to hold the post, which had long been the province of Army generals.

Adm. Olson spoke for about 30 minutes in an office that he uses when visiting the Pentagon, as his headquarters is at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. Under his command are the elite forces from each of the military services, including Army Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Marine and Air Force commandos.

Adm. Olson made it clear that he is not seeking a bigger role for special-operations forces in Iraq. In fact, his forces already are so heavily engaged there and in Afghanistan that they are unable to fully perform their traditional mission in other parts of the world. To illustrate that point, Adm. Olson said that when the 7th Special Forces Group, which normally focuses on Latin America, rotates into Afghanistan for seven-month tours, it takes two of its three battalions there, leaving just one in Latin America.

“That leaves us underrepresented” in Latin America, the admiral said.

The situation is similar for special-forces units that are designated mainly for Africa and Europe, he said, and to a lesser extent in the Pacific region.

Since the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, about 80 percent of the overseas deployment of special-operations forces have been to the Middle East and Afghanistan, Adm. Olson said. That compares with 20 percent to 25 percent before Sept. 11, 2001.

“We’re going to fewer countries, staying for shorter periods of time with smaller numbers of people than historically we have done,” he added.

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