WASHINGTON — Adm. Bill McRaven said Tuesday that special operations forces in Afghanistan are preparing for a possible expanded role as overall U.S. forces begin to draw down after a decade of war.
McRaven, the special operations commander who led last year's Navy SEAL 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.
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 had been made.
"I have no doubt that special operations will be the last to leave Afghanistan," 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 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 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, 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," McRaven said.
Under the current system, if the special operations terrorist hunters have five potential insurgents to hit in a given area, they will likely 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 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 Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan that killed Osama 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 McRaven.
McRaven calmly responded that avoiding media coverage was impossible in the 24-hour news cycle, and that while he objected to revealing sensitive tactics, the media could be useful, especially when reporting operations gone wrong.
"Having those failures exposed in the media helps us do a better job," McRaven said. "So sometimes the spotlight on us makes us better."
The admiral said he was working hard to give his 66,000-person force more predictability on when and where they would be deployed — the key request he heard from families and troops, to help them cope with the unrelenting special-operations deployments.
He also stressed that he was working to break down the stigma of seeking help to deal with combat stress.
"If you have been engaged in this war for any length of time, you are fundamentally changed," from the emotional effects of combat, he said. But special operators' typically don't seek help for emotional problems, he said.
"I encourage them to come in. We're not going to pull their security clearances," McRaven said. "We're going to take care of them."