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Special Ops Commander Supports Strategy's Focus on al-Qaida

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 1, 2009 – The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is becoming “increasingly dire,” but President Barack Obama’s strategy for dealing with the threat in the region is the right one, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command said here today.

Navy Adm. Eric T. Olson testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review.

Special Operations Command participated in the strategic review, and the admiral said he is pleased that the strategy “includes a clear focus on al-Qaida as the enemy, and that a whole-of-government approach is directed.”

How special operations forces operate will not change much as a result of a revised overall strategy, Olson said.

“Our units have been conducting both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency for several years,” he told the Senate panel. “We will continue to provide our broad capabilities to our fullest capacity in order to meet the needs of our elected and appointed civilian leaders and our military operational commanders.”

Al-Qaida has suffered losses from operations in the region, but remains a threat, Olson said. “Al-Qaida’s surviving leaders have proven adept at hiding, communicating and inspiring,” he said. “Operating in and from remote sites in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaida remains a draw for local and foreign fighters who subscribe to its extremist ideology and criminality.”

The Taliban also are an increasing threat in the region, not only because they shield al-Qaida, but also because they intimidate the local population, the admiral said.

“Operating in the guise of both nationalists and keepers of the faith, but behaving in the manner of street gangs and mafias, they have forced and intimidated a mostly benign populace to bend to their will,” he said. “Their methods run the relatively narrow range from malicious to evil.”

The campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan will take time, but it is time well worth taking, Olson said.

“We, as a nation and international community, must be prepared for an extended campaign – a campaign that must go well beyond traditional military activities,” he said. “Increasing the presence and capacity of civilian agencies and international organizations, to include sufficient funding and training, is essential to help develop and implement the basic functions of credible government in Afghanistan, and to assist Pakistan’s efforts to dismantle safe havens and displace extremists in its border provinces.”

Military, law enforcement, border security and intelligence training is also important in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as “it is ultimately they who must succeed in their lands,” Olson said.

Special operations forces were the catalyst behind driving the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001, operating alongside members of the Northern Alliance in the months after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Today, special operations forces missions range from high-tech man-hunting to providing veterinary services for tribal livestock, the admiral said.

“The direct-action missions are urgent and necessary, as they provide the time and space needed for the more indirect counterinsurgency operations to have their decisive effects,” he said. “Undertaken in proper balance, these actions address immediate security threats while also engaging the underlying instability in the region.”

In Pakistan, U.S. forces work to train the Pakistani military and Frontier Corps in counterinsurgency operations, and are prepared to do more, he said. “While we share much with them, our forces are in turn learning much about our common adversaries and the social complexities of the region,” Olson said.

Special operators are going after al-Qaida aggressively in Afghanistan, but the fundamental mission for most special operators is the enduring partnership with Afghan counterparts, the admiral said. U.S. Army Special Forces teams have trained Afghan commandos in the classrooms and on the firing ranges, and then moved with them to their assigned regions across the country.

“Living remotely with them on small camps, continuing the training and mentoring, and integrating with them on day and night combat operations has had great effect,” Olson said.

Supporting Afghans’ local development and assistance efforts has had perhaps even a more powerful impact, he said. The program has expanded to formally partner U.S. special operations forces with noncommando Afghan battalions. Olson said the program will consume most of the additional special operations forces that will deploy as part of the upcoming 21,000-strong troop increase.

More than 10,000 members of U.S. special operation forces are in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, Olson said. “About 2,000 others are in 65 countries on an average day,” he added. “Their activities, fully approved and coordinated, cover the broad spectrum of traditional military activities – well beyond the stereotypical one-dimensional gunslinger to encompass the three-dimensional warrior, equally adept at defense, development and diplomacy. Special operations forces bring soft power with a hard edge.”

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