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Special Operations Forces International Conference (Tampa, FL)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Tampa, FL, Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Admiral Olson, thank you very much for that introduction.
I have to tell you: I hate black ties. But then I thought, how do a bunch of Special Forces guys feel in mess dress? Talk about out of your element.
Admiral Olson, let me start by thanking all the men and women under your command – the special operators, the support staff, and, of course, all the families who have made sacrifices while their loved ones are deployed in combat zones.
And I’d also thank everyone at the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce for helping put together this event. You have done an excellent job.
It’s good to have with us so many friends from around the world – more than 70 nations are represented. Your presence this evening is a testament to our common interests – and common concerns – that bind our nations together as we face the dangers of the 21st century.
Of course, the international flavor of the evening – as well as the festivities, the cocktail hour, the wine with dinner – also reminds me of the risks of government officials drinking in public. Some years ago, a European foreign minister who shall remain nameless, and who was a notoriously heavy drinker, was on a trip to South America. He showed up at a reception in Peru and was quite drunk. There was music playing and he invited a passing guest in a flowing gown to dance. The guest somewhat haughtily replied, “First, sir, you are drunk. Second, this is not a waltz – it is the Peruvian national anthem. And third, I am not a woman. I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”
Well it seems to me the topic of this year’s conference, “Global Challenges, Sovereign Solutions,” is an appropriate one for this gathering, the second Special Operations Forces International Conference. It’s even more appropriate when one considers the complexities of the post-Cold War world, the current conflicts in the Middle East, and the outsized – indeed, central – role special operations forces are playing in the War on Terror. I’m sure the various discussions this week have provoked a good deal of thought, and maybe I can contribute that a little bit tonight.
Since taking over as secretary of defense a year-and-a-half ago, my top priority has been Iraq and Afghanistan – and getting us to a point where our strategic objectives are within reach in those two countries. Tonight, I want to talk about the broader struggle against violent extremism, but with a special emphasis on what has been learned both in Iraq and Afghanistan. The War on Terror has relied on, and will continue to rely on, the skill of our nation’s special operators for years to come – as well as the elite forces of many friends and partners. This is, after all, a war that more often than not will be fought within nations with which we are not at war.
So I should start with a formative event in my own professional life – one that was pivotal in the creation of the Special Operations Command. In early 1980, I was the executive assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. On the night of April 24th, 1980, the mission to rescue American hostages in Iran – dubbed Operation Eagle Claw – was launched. I was in the White House Situation Room with the Director of Central Intelligence that night. It was one of the longest nights of my life – and even longer for others, such as General Pete Schoomaker, who was on the ground in Iran.
Out of the ashes of Operation Eagle Claw – out of the tragedy and the loss – we all learned valuable lessons about the constant need to be prepared and vigilant, to maintain our armed forces even in times of peace, and always to look ahead to threats on the horizon, and even beyond. A few years later, in 1987, SOCOM was stood-up to make sure we would never find our ambitions and our needs thwarted by our capabilities.
This command in fact grew out of a tradition dating back to the earliest days of our republic. Asymmetric, irregular, low-intensity, unconventional war – however you refer to it – has always been a part of our military, from early American patriots like the “Swamp Fox” Francis Marion during the Revolutionary War, to World War II units like the Devil’s Brigade.
During the Cold War, special operations forces were given additional attention and support by President John F. Kennedy, who had a personal interest in the field – and also had to face a Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, who had come out in support of “wars of national liberation.” Kennedy greatly expanded U.S. Special Forces, and the late journalist David Halberstam called the special operators of that period, and I quote, “a romantic group indeed . . . all uncommon men, extraordinary physical specimens and intellectual Ph.D.s swinging from trees, speaking Russian and Chinese, eating snake meat and other fauna at night, springing counter-ambushes on unwary Asian ambushers who had read Mao and Giap.”
Other opinions of special operations forces weren’t always as flattering. After visiting Marine Raiders in the Pacific shortly after Guadalcanal and Makin, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt urged that they be quarantined before returning to civilian life.
Although the importance of special operators were proved beyond a doubt on the battlefields of Vietnam, their skills and techniques were largely pushed to the side in the aftermath of that conflict – as the military said “never again” and refocused on the conventional Soviet menace. What this command did two decades ago was formalize and centralize capabilities that had been scattered among the services – and had not always been embraced.
The question during SOCOM’s early days was what role, more broadly speaking, special operations should have in our nation’s mostly conventional defense posture. They were mostly viewed as a force to support or augment regular forces. There wasn’t much room for the “quiet professionals” who followed their own set of “truths,” one of them being that humans are more important than hardware. Or, as General Schoomaker said, guys who specialize in “creative solutions in ambiguous circumstances.”
During the 1990s, special operations forces continued to hone their skills – even if it wasn’t always clear how or when they would be used. As General Schoomaker put it: “It was like having a brand-new Ferrari in the garage, and nobody wanted to race it because you might dent the fender.”
But the tectonic plates of history shifted on September 11, 2001, when our country – and the rest of the world – recognized with shock that we faced a new kind of threat, a new kind of enemy. So for a moment, let this veteran of counter-terrorism, long before the first attack against the World Trade Center in 1993, describe the great differences between then and now.
First, most terrorist groups in the ‘70s and ‘80s were either directed or sponsored by governments – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and so on. And this considerable role by governments made it much easier for intelligence agencies to gather information about the groups and their plans – and for us to hold their state supporters accountable.
By contrast, terrorist groups today – al Qaeda and others – tend to be independent or free-lance. They get support or at least safe haven from a handful of governments or in failed or failing states, but the governments really aren’t directly involved in the planning or carrying out their attacks as was the case 20 or 30 years ago.
A second major difference between the terrorist threat of the ‘70s and ‘80s compared to now is in their objectives. In those days, most terrorist groups had a limited agenda, and it was political – whether it was Palestinian independence, or national liberation, or getting the Israelis and us out of Lebanon, and so on. Because they often had a specific political agenda and were trying to bring attention to a cause and to win support, they usually limited the scale of their violence and the number of innocent people who were killed.
Obviously, this is no longer true. Indeed, the violent extremists today and their objectives are new in that they are religiously motivated and profoundly revolutionary – to drive the United States and all western countries, as well as our influence, our companies, and our culture out of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East altogether; to overthrow the governments of all moderate Arab states; to destroy Israel; and to separate the Islamic nations from the rest of the world.
Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist terrorists are representatives of a new kind of terrorist – one motivated by religious fanaticism and with global ambitions that they plainly believe are achievable. And only we stand in the way.
A third and final difference between now and 20 or 30 years ago is the kind of weaponry potentially available to terrorists. Many U.S. security experts have focused on the likelihood of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction to maximize the loss of life. And so, we have spent years examining how chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and even cyber weapons might be used by terrorists against us and how to respond. Regrettably, this threat remains quite real and is growing.
Bin Laden described his mission quite clearly years ago: “to kill Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” This, then, is the face of our adversaries in this new war – very different foes than we or Europeans or others have ever faced in the modern era.
This new kind of foe has dramatically changed the SOCOM world – thrusting special operators into a new role as the lead component in the fight. The Ferrari is out of the garage. Special operations had for many years been training precisely for the kind of conflicts in which we now find ourselves: prolonged, messy engagements where tactical success does not necessarily yield strategic success; where cultural knowledge and language skills often mean a great deal more than raw fire power; where victory ultimately is measured not by how well we do the job but by how well we can train and empower other nations to protect themselves.
Six-and-a-half years into the War on Terror, we have a better idea of what we’re up against – about the strategies and thinking that we must pursue for many years if we are to prevail in this long war. And special ops will, as it has been, continue to be front and center – a reality reflected by SOCOM’s shift from being a force provider to a war-fighting, unified command. A reality also reflected by the growth of Army Special Forces by a third over the next few years – through the addition of a fourth battalion to each Special Forces group. Several other special operations units also are being expanded.
The United States has special operators in more than 60 countries today, in an arc that sweeps from Mindanao to Mosul and beyond. Working alongside partners of many of the nations represented tonight, they are carrying out their duties with honor and courage under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. And in this respect, I note the decision a couple weeks ago to name our latest destroyer the USS Michael Murphy, after the late SEAL who earned a Medal of Honor for his gallantry in Afghanistan.
As broad and as far-reaching as the War on Terror is, the center of gravity is clearly in the Middle East and Central Asia, in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it will remain for some time to come. More than 80 percent of our deployed special operators are in the Central Command area of operations. Considering that, I want to use the next few minutes to talk about what we learned from these conflicts that can be applied to the wider struggle.
These last years have been a time of tremendous learning not just for our military, but for our government as a whole. We have seen what is required to fight this kind of war – and what has often been lacking: an ability to coordinate across departments and bring to bear all the elements of national power so that military actions augment political and economic development and vice versa.
To be sure, there has been progress. The Department of Defense has worked out temporary arrangements with other departments and continues to find new ways to coordinate activities. SOCOM has often been on the cutting edge of that activity, and now has an advisor embedded with the United States Agency for International Development, which also has a senior liaison officer working for SOCOM. Where civilian capacity has been lacking, special operations forces have often picked up the slack – not always because it was their job, but frequently because they were the only ones who could do it.
Beyond ad hoc arrangements, there is bipartisan agreement that we must find new ways to make government work together – new institutions like those that were formed in the late 1940s and early 1950s to fight the Cold War.
I say this because the exceedingly complex challenge posed by religiously motivated and profoundly revolutionary international terrorism – as well as by failed and failing states, and by tribal and ethnic and sectarian conflicts – is not going to go away. As the upcoming 2008 National Defense Strategy states, the War on Terror will be a “long-term, episodic, multi-front and multi-dimensional conflict.”
Early success in these campaigns – disrupting command and control centers, taking away safe havens – have only yielded a franchised and networked enemy that is more diffuse, an ideological movement that is no longer tethered to any strict hierarchy. It has become an independent force of its own, capable of animating a corps of devoted followers without direct contact. And capable of inspiring violence without direct orders.
Over the years, it has been methodically built on an illusion of success. After all, about the only thing the extremists have accomplished recently is the deaths of thousands of innocent Muslims while trying to create discord across the Middle East. So far, they’ve failed. In some respects, they have been their own worst enemy. Our luck. Their horrific attacks have diminished support for their movement and their tactics across the Middle East. In many Muslim countries, support for suicide bombings or attacks on civilians has dropped by 40 percent in the last few years.
And so the task before us is to fracture and destroy this movement in its infancy – to permanently reduce its ability to strike globally and catastrophically, while also discrediting and deflating its ideology. And our best opportunity to do this is in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as the hollowness of Communism was laid bare by the collapse of the Soviet Union, so too would success in those countries strike a decisive blow against the ideological underpinnings of extremist movements.
It’s no easy task, as we learned. But neither is it impossible – as the gains in Iraq during the last year have demonstrated. At no small cost, our troops have taken to heart the lessons of the first years of the war and more widely applied many of the tactics that are second nature to special operators. Special operations have been central – in raids targeting terrorist leaders, in navigating the cultural landscape, in training the Iraqi Special Forces, and in many other areas.
In congressional testimony a few weeks back, I noted that we are now seeing what the end game in Iraq looks like – with our forces drawing down over time, in a series of very complex battlefield rearrangements that slowly cede more responsibility for day-to-day security operations to the Iraqis. It is a slow process – slower than many would have wished, including me.
But it is necessary if we are to get the endgame right. Earlier in the war, we tried to turn over provinces and areas to Iraqis before they were ready – based on overly rosy predictions that didn’t necessarily line up with reality. It was a set up for failure, and in the end a setback for progress. We must be realistic about the challenges still facing Iraq: al Qaeda remains a lethal force – a cancer – always looking to metastasize and regenerate; armed militias still undermine the rule of law; and the government, while making great strides, still has a lot to learn about how to deliver basic services and security to its people.
I fear that frustration over slow progress and dismay over sacrifices already made may result in decisions that are gratifying in the short term but are very costly to us in the long term. We are at war in Afghanistan today because of mistakes we made – I, among others, made – in the end game of the anti-Soviet war there in the late 1980s. If we get the endgame wrong in Iraq, I predict the consequences will be significantly worse.
However, the eventual drawdown in Iraq is not the end of the mission for our elite forces. Far from it. Even as our regular troops reduce their presence and are replaced by Iraqis, special operations force levels will remain fairly constant and be the connective tissue of the overall mission. They will be in Iraq and Afghanistan for an extended period of time – a force to hunt and kill terrorists and also as a force to help train Iraqis and Afghans.
Of course, the sine qua non, we also have to eliminate local and popular support for sectarian militias and terrorists, by bringing economic development, by bringing people into the political process. In that respect, Iraq has been a crucible for learning what we have to do elsewhere to destroy terrorist networks while simultaneously promoting development and good governance – to reduce the risk of attack while also altering the human landscape so that extremists cannot gain a foothold in the first place. Many of these are skills and tasks that used to be the province of special operators, but now are a core mission for the regular forces as a whole. One of the things we are trying to do in the U.S. military is better integrate and reconcile those roles and missions.
Last year, I visited an Afghan commando training facility just outside of Kabul – and I can tell you that there, as well as in Iraq, the commandos are a very lethal force capable of carrying out missions far and wide. In Afghanistan, U.S. Special Forces are helped by special operations forces from many other nations that have joined as part of the NATO-led ISAF mission – to fight and to train. Whether it’s the French, who helped train the first two classes of Afghan commandos, or the British, Canadians, and Australians, who are standing side by side with Americans, or other nations’ special forces like Romania, Lithuania, and Poland, who are in the thick of the fight – pound for pound, all these forces are punching well above their weight.
What we have seen across Iraq and Afghanistan in the last year through security training, military operations, and political and economic efforts is, to a degree, a model of the skills and techniques we will have to apply in many other places to gain the edge in the War on Terror.
To be sure, other fronts in the long war will not look the same but they will use the same basic tactics. They will, in all likelihood be on a much, much smaller scale – with special operations forces as the main component – focused on training elite indigenous forces, gathering intelligence, targeting ringleaders and support networks, and working with other elements of our government to help promote political, civil, and economic development.
The overall strategy has been called a new, 21st century form of “deterrence” – although “persuasion” may be a more accurate description of it. One of the key goals is to target and increase pressure on the network of enablers that allows terrorists to operate – the financiers, the recruiters, providers of safe houses, and so forth – to deter them by showing that their efforts are, in the end, futile. And, at the same time, to persuade the people in the middle, the everyday citizens, to reject extremism, terrorism, and violence – to support governments that are more responsible and more responsive.
If we do this right – if we work with partners early and often – then we can hope that local problems can be dealt with before they escalate to national or regional crises.
Across the Middle East, and across the globe, special operators under many flags will continue their mission: to go where others cannot or will not go; to partner with and train our friends to defend themselves; and to hunt down terrorists relentlessly and without reservation.
These are not easy tasks that have fallen to our special operators. The cost in lives and wounds has been huge. These are challenging times for our military, and for our nation. We are counting on you to take on the assignments, to accept the great burden, of fighting the War on Terror for as long as it takes to win. Rangers, Green Berets, SEALs, members of Delta Force, and Marine and Air Force commandos, along with all their comrades-in-arms across the globe, will continue to inspire in the hearts of our countrymen a deep sense of pride and patriotism – just as they inspire in the hearts of our enemies an abiding sense of fear and unease. For as long as our special operators are out there, those who wish to do our nations harm will never rest easy.
I thank you all for your service. And thank you for inviting me tonight.