The military’s elite Special Operations Command has stepped back from a controversial plan that gave it the authority to carry out secret counterterrorism missions on its own around the world.
The decision culminates four years of misgivings within the military that the command, with its expertise in commando missions and unconventional war, would use its broader mandate too aggressively, by carrying out operations that hadn’t been reviewed or approved by regional commanders.
A new Special Operations commander, Adm. Eric Olson of the Navy SEALs special force, has now said publicly that he intends to play a different role, and will instead continue the command’s new mission as coordinator of the military’s counterterrorism efforts around the world.
The shift reverses what Donald Rumsfeld put into place as defense secretary in 2004, when he said he wanted the Special Operations Command, based in Tampa, Fla., to operate unilaterally. He believed that it would be more aggressive in hunting down terrorists than the regional commanders, who are tied most closely to conventional forces.
Roger Carstens, a 20-year veteran of Special Operations missions who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C., policy institute, said the Special Operations Command finally “came to the conclusion that its role is not to be that of a global Lone Ranger who shows up at the last second to dispatch the bad guys.”
“That just can’t be done,” Carstens said, “or rather, it should not be done.”
The change is the latest rejection of initiatives that Rumsfeld set forth during almost six years as defense secretary, before stepping down in 2006.
His successor, Robert Gates, has increased the size of the ground forces, a move Rumsfeld resisted; signed off on a plan to keep more troops in Europe than Rumsfeld had envisioned; and called for future budgets to focus on the weapons needed to fight insurgents and terrorists today, rather than on investments in next-generation technology advocated by Rumsfeld.
Gates, a former director of central intelligence, has also reined in some Pentagon intelligence operations and has otherwise sought to ease tensions caused by what intelligence officials saw as Rumsfeld’s attempts to give the Pentagon a more dominant role in American spying efforts.
In many ways, Rumsfeld’s goals for the Special Operations Command are being carried out by a subordinate unit, the Joint Special Operations Command.
That command is in charge of the armed forces’ most secretive counter-terrorism units, and is credited with capturing or killing many of the most wanted terrorist or insurgent leaders, including Saddam Hussein. This elite command operates in full coordination with the regional commanders in the Middle East, East Asia and other parts of the world.