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U.S. forces turning to ‘indirect’ war tactics

Almost six years after the worst attack ever on U.S. soil, special operations commanders believe that simply killing terrorists will not win a war against an ideologically motivated enemy.
/ Source: The Associated Press

So long, Rambo.

Almost six years after the worst attack ever on U.S. soil, special operations commanders believe that simply killing terrorists will not win a war against an ideologically motivated enemy.

That view is reflected in a series of transitions in special operations leadership posts. New senior officers are expected to give greater weight to an indirect approach to warfare, a slow and disciplined process that calls for supporting groups or nations willing to back U.S. interests.

Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld turned special operations forces into a "giant killing machine," said Douglas Macgregor, a former Army colonel and frequent critic of the Defense Department.

Now, with Rumsfeld gone and Navy Vice Adm. Eric Olson about to take control of U.S. Special Operations Command, Macgregor anticipates a return to the fundamentals drilled into Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other specially trained troops.

"The emphasis will be on, 'If you have to kill someone, then for God's sakes, kill the right people,'" Macgregor said. "In most cases, you're not going to have to kill people and that's the great virtue of special operations. That's been lost over the last several years."

'Demanding and sensitive'
Olson has been deputy commander since August 2003; Army Gen. Bryan Brown, the command's top officer for the past four years, retires from the military next month.

At defense industry conferences and in congressional testimony, Olson has said the manhunts that grab bad guys as well as headlines will continue to be necessary against terrorists.

"The nation expects to have forces that can emerge from darkness with precision and daring to conduct missions that are especially demanding and sensitive," Olson told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing June 12.

But these assignments, known as direct action, are means to a broader end.

"We understand well that it is the indirect actions that will be decisive," he testified.

Through the indirect route, support can be overt or covert. But it always is aimed at eliminating safe havens for terrorists. This is done by training foreign militaries, supporting surrogate forces or providing humanitarian, financial and civic backing to areas viewed as possible breeding grounds for terrorists.

It is not uncommon for a battle-ready Army special forces team to rumble into a remote village and spend most of its time painting mosques, drilling wells and running medical clinics.

"It's basically anything that doesn't involve combat operations against terrorists," said Andrew Feickert, a national defense specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. "As Admiral Olson has said, we're not going to kill our way to victory."

Criticism of 'sexier SWAT-style raids'
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing in June 2006, Max Boot, a national security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said critical indirect tasks had been "shortchanged by SOCOM in favor of sexier SWAT-style raids."

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism and unconventional threats, said the blame rests with the Bush administration. By choosing to invade Iraq, the administration gave special operations forces a heavy combat role.

"The main thing holding them back at this point is Iraq, which is pretty much all direct action," said Smith. "The desire has been there, and I think General Brown was trying to move it that way as best he could."

Brown, through a spokesman, said the command "has always emphasized the indirect approach because that is the approach that will ultimately prove decisive."

Formed in 1987 in the wake of the failed attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Tehran, Iran, Special Operations Command is now an extensive network of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who use unconventional methods against untraditional enemies.

Benefiting form a 'better understanding'
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the command has received more money, more people and more authority to go after terrorist networks.

In 2001, the command had an annual budget of $2.3 billion and roughly 46,000 military and civilian personnel. The command now has a budget of about $7 billion. By 2012, nearly 59,000 people will be attached to the command. Its headquarters is at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.

Two years ago, President Bush put the command in charge of "synchronizing" the global fight against terrorism. This new role has been a source of friction within the Defense Department.

More than half a dozen top special operations slots are changing hands over the next few months. These moves are driven by the regular rotation of officers as well as "a better understanding of the complexities of the type of 'war' we are involved in today," according to Pete Gustaitis, a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Beyond Olson, Gustaitis pointed to the upcoming promotions of Army Maj. Gen. David Fridovich and Air Force Maj. Gen. Donald Wurster as bellwethers.

"Both officers have been very vocal about using indirect methods," said Gustaitis, a retired Green Beret colonel.

Shake-up in Special Ops
Fridovich will run the Center for Special Operations, a 4-year-old organization located at MacDill that plans and oversees anti-terrorism campaigns. He will replace Lt. Gen. Dell Dailey, who has retired and been nominated by Bush to be the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism.

Fridovich has spent the past six years in the Pacific region helping guide what the military considers a successful effort against Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaida outgrowth in the Philippines.

In a recent edition of the military journal Joint Force Quarterly, Fridovich wrote that the U.S. "cannot simply enter sovereign countries unilaterally and conduct kill-or-capture missions. It must blend host nation capacity building and other long-term efforts to address root causes, dissuade future terrorists, and reduce recruiting."

This indirect approach, Fridovich added, "demands diplomacy and respect for political sensitivities."

‘Winning hearts and minds’
Money helps, too.

Earlier this month, the U.S. paid $10 million to four Filipinos who provided information that led to the killing of two top Abu Sayyaf leaders.

Wurster, a combat pilot with more than 4,000 flying hours, will run Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla. The current commander, Lt. Gen. Michael Wooley, is retiring.

Along with Fridovich, Wurster has substantial experience in the Philippines. From 2000 to 2003 he was the senior special operations officer at U.S. Pacific Command.

In a telephone interview, Wurster called the rewards a "pretty effective tool" that send an important signal. When people in a community are willing to turn in the enemy for cash, it means they are confident the white hats outnumber the black ones.

"That is when your campaign is properly structured and producing the desired effects," he said.

Rep. Smith, an enthusiastic backer of Brown and Olson, said it will be a major challenge to translate success in the Pacific to the volatile Middle East.

"Winning hearts and minds is one thing when you're coming into a relatively stable place where there's a minor insurgent problem," he said. "It's very hard to do those things in the environment that exists in Iraq."