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American intervention in war torn Syria “isn’t as easy as it may appear,” said Admiral William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations forces, during a rare public appearance Thursday afternoon.
Syria “isn’t Libya,” McRaven said at the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center. He focused on the challenges he faces in repositioning and recalibrating the country’s 66,000 special operations officers that work in 78 countries around the world.
“We have contingencies and plans we can provide” to President Barack Obama should he decide U.S. forces are required to intervene in Syria’s years-long civil war, McRaven noted.
McRaven discussed his efforts to reshape the Special Operations forces on the second anniversary of the mission that led to Osama bin Laden’s death. He said his biggest obstacle lies in navigating Washington’s increasingly unstable fiscal terrain.
“Probably the biggest challenge I have is supporting” the soldiers, sailors, marines, and others who “have been in the fight for 12 years,” McRaven said.
Most of these forces have “been in hard combat sometime in the last 12 years and most of those men and women multiple times,” he said. “And that has taken a toll on them and their families.”
Internal reviews have indicated “the force is frayed,” McRaven said. “Since I’ve had command, the fray has accelerated and we’re working hard to get ahead of that.”
However, rebuilding morale will require resources, many of which are hard to come by as massive budgetary cuts known as sequestration bear down on the military and its supporting agencies.
“I can tell you nobody in my organization believes as we go forward the U.S. Special Operations Command won’t have to participate [in these cuts] and as a result be tasked by the sequestration,” he explained. “Make no mistake about it, the budget will affect us directly or as it affects the [military] service it will affect us.”
McRaven has faced criticism from lawmakers and some at the State Department for his efforts to reshape the Special Operations into a supplemental force that helps train foreign militaries in counterterrorism and intelligence gathering.
“McRaven has run into critics who say he is overreaching, or as one congressional critic put it, ‘empire building’ at a time when the military is shrinking its footprint in Afghanistan and refocusing on other hot spots around the world,” the New York Times reported on Wednesday in an article detailing reaction to the admiral’s new strategy.
McRaven pushed back against these accusations during his remarks Thursday afternoon, maintaining many have misunderstood his mission.
“We do what the U.S. ambassadors and the policy makers want us to do,” he said. “In terms of building an empire, part of what I’m trying to do is build capability forward,” or help the Special Operations officers become a nimble force that can work with government’s across the globe.
“I’m putting the world’s finest Special Operations forces” out into the world, he said, allowing them to partner with friendly and unfriendly governments in a bid to prevent the U.S. from having to take large scale military action. “If that’s empire building then I’m guilty as charged.”
There is a misperception that Special Operations is a rogue actor that carries out clandestine kill operations on a whim, McRaven said.
“For me to do anything requires us to go up through the” various regional embassies and political bodies in Washington, he said. “There’s a very well delineated process.”
“The counter terrorism piece, the direct action piece of what we do is a very small part of our portfolio,” he revealed. “What I think is the more important part of what we do is building partner capacity” and working with foreign governments to improve security across the globe.
McRaven said he views himself as the chief chess master, strategically weaving forces across the globe in order to ensure America’s safety.
The goal is to position U.S. forces in such a manner “so that nations can deal with their own problems,” McRaven said. “So that we can help them deal with their own problems.”
McRaven also noted that more than a decade since terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the nation’s intelligence agencies have learned to increase cooperation with their military counterparts.
“The American people would be very pleased to see the inter-governmental relationship we have with all these agencies,” particularly with the CIA, he said.
“When you look at the magnificent work the CIA did with other members of the National Security Agency to find bin Laden, it will go down as one of the great operations in the history of intelligence agencies,” McRaven said.