WASHINGTON — As traditional military operations are cut back, the Pentagon is moving to expand the worldwide reach of the U.S. Special Operations Command to strike back wherever threats arise.
U.S. officials say the Pentagon and the White House have embraced a proposal by special operations chief Adm. Bill McRaven to push troops that are withdrawing from war zones to reinforce special operations units in areas somewhat neglected during the decade-long focus on al-Qaida.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta shared few details in the new Pentagon budget he outlined Thursday, but officials explained the nascent plan in greater detail to The Associated Press.
McRaven started working last fall to sell defense leaders on a plan to beef up his existing "Theater Special Operations Commands," as they are known, to reposition staff and equipment for the post-Iraq and Afghan war era.
The stepped-up global network would put top special operations personnel closer to the problems they face, better able to launch unilateral raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden — and the one Tuesday that rescued an American hostage and her Danish colleague, a headline that served to drive home President Barack Obama's national security achievements in his first term, just as his State of the Union speech Tuesday unofficially launched his campaign for a second term.
The expanded presence means troops would be better able to partner with foreign armies for joint operations, according to a senior defense official who spoke to the AP and to other current and former U.S. officials briefed on the program.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the details of the proposal and timing of implementation are still being worked out.
The idea tracks with the White House goal to transform the U.S. military into a smaller, more agile force, able to respond to a wide variety of threats beyond traditional military enemies, often in partnership with local allies. Even as U.S. officials outlined cuts to much of the military, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said funding for special operations and intelligence gathering will increase — both emerging as the Obama White House's preferred way to confront many global threats, after a decade of costly land invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon's — and the White House's — embrace of the plan shows how the politically savvy McRaven has turned the chaos of looming defense cuts and his personal star power from leading last year's bin Laden raid into an opportunity to step up the Special Operations Command's reach and possibly its authority.
The special operation command's main responsibility now is to provide resources and personnel to the geographic combatant commanders. Technically, the special operations command has limited authority to respond to worldwide threats, only taking charge of individual operations if directed by the president or secretary of defense. The strengthened overseas network could serve as a practical first step to give McRaven a greater say in those overseas operations on a more frequent basis.
Rather than adding troops to the overall force, McRaven wants the autonomy to quickly dispatch some of the units where they are needed. Right now, such moves have to filter through a bureaucratic process through regional commands, which in some cases can delay deploying extra special operations troops or assets where they are needed by weeks or months, according to a U.S. official familiar with the process.
Those troops could carry out raids or, more likely, work with local allies to teach them how to target regional enemies, as well as fostering long-term relationships, soldier-to-soldier, that can help defuse a crisis or coup years later.
The theater commands would also work to preserve close ties with allies from the NATO coalitions now breaking apart with the winding down of the wars, the officials said.
The notion of a stronger special operations network drew a mixed review from Human Rights Watch, which has called on the Obama White House to turn over the CIA's covert action against terror suspects to military control.
"If it means handing more over to the military, it could be an improvement from a transparency perspective," said Andrea Prasow, counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch, which has also pushed for the White House to make public how a suspect ends up on the target list.
"But if the public still cannot find out what's happening, it's not good enough," Prasow said.
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AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier can be followed on Twitter (at)kimberlydozier.