The Pentagon is considering downgrading the U.S.-led military command in Afghanistan, which is currently headed by a four-star Army general, to a three-star special operations command, according to U.S. officials.
The new command would take over all military operations in Afghanistan from the current 50-member International Security Assistance Force.
Such a downgrade would reflect a major shift away from the use of conventional forces in counterinsurgency campaigns in favor of commando-led counterterrorism operations, a focus on the training of Afghan forces, and the use of semi-secret CIA activities against Taliban forces.
The change is being debated as U.S. and allied military planners are discussing what kind of forces will be needed to support local Afghan forces in the war-torn country in 2015, when U.S. ground forces will have left the country.
The Obama administration and other nations with troops in Afghanistan plan to cut ground forces by 40,000 troops by the end of this year. The administration is also debating whether to shift the focus of the military mission in Afghanistan from counterinsurgency operations and the training of Afghan forces to a lower-profile counterterrorism role.
A senior military source said it was premature to say whether the current command structure would be changed drastically and replaced by a senior special operations command.
Major changes in the Afghan force structure and mission are likely to be discussed at the NATO summit in Chicago set for May. The changes would likely be based on the status of the insurgency, allied plans for continued cooperation, and current U.S. and allied fiscal constraints.
To support Afghan military and security forces in the future, some conventional air support in the form of U.S. F-16 jets, and Army rocket artillery, will be required after U.S. ground troops pull out.
The military source said any shift to a three-star rank special operations command would depend on the commander, who would need experience leading conventional forces. Many special operations veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts currently have gained such skills.
The attempt to make a similar policy change in the 2005 time period was a failure, as it gave the Taliban insurgents time to build up their forces, the military source said.
"The shift from a four-star to a three-star special ops command would show clearly how we plan to carry out our part of the war up to our withdrawal in 2014," said retired Marine Lt. Col. Bill Cowan, a counterterrorism specialist.
"We’ll shift away from general engagements with the Taliban and from working with the local population, and focus instead on lighter, faster, more direct engagements with specific, well-identified targets," Cowan said in an interview.
Retired Army Gen. John Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff, said he supports the possible shift.
"This makes sense when the mission shifts from combat operations to a training and advisory mission while continuing to provide aviation, logistics, and intelligence support," Keane said.
A Pentagon spokesman had no immediate comment.
The administration has said all U.S. combat forces, currently numbering 90,000 troops, will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2014.
The International Security Assistance Force, which is comprised of forces from the United States and 49 other states, has 130,386 troops. The current commander is Marine Gen. John R. Allen. According to the ISAF web site, the military mission calls for "population-centric counterinsurgency operations in partnership with Afghan National Security Forces."
Adm. William McRaven, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, said in a Feb. 7 speech that commandos in Afghanistan are combining targeting and training missions later this year to prepare for a smaller conventional troop presence.
"I have no doubt that special operations will be the last to leave Afghanistan," McRaven said. "As far as anything beyond that, we're exploring a lot of options."
International troops are also training and equipping the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.
Key priorities for the military mission in Afghanistan are protecting the Afghan people, building up Afghan forces, countering the Taliban insurgency, and enabling stronger governance and development.
Special operations troops have been operating in Afghanistan since the beginning of the conflict in October 2001. They are known to carry out covert night raids against high-value targets.
The CIA also has large numbers of officers in the conflict in Afghanistan conducting intelligence operations and covert drone strikes.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 14 that the Pentagon plans to move special operations commandos to advise and assist other U.S. partners outside of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, "using additional capacity available due to the gradual drawdown from the post-9/11 wars."
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during the hearing that one of the lessons of the past 10 years of war is that "special operating forces have demonstrated their versatility and their capabilities, not just in the counterterror realm, but also in the building partner capacities/security force assistance."
"One of the things we've been talking about with the service chiefs is finding a new paradigm where we will partner differently with special operating forces to give us great capability, you know, the synergy—the sum is greater than the individual parts—and we're working on that," Dempsey said.
Despite severe budget cuts in other areas, "I can assure you there will be no degradation to our special operations community," he said.
The current budget request for special operations forces, announced in the budget request to Congress, calls for $10.4 billion for fiscal year 2013, which begins Oct. 1.
The request represents a 5 percent increase in funding for operations and maintenance. But the budget target of $401.9 million this year for research and development is $68 million less than last year’s budget. The Special Operations Command procurement request of $1.85 billion is $333 million less than last year. Operations and maintenance spending for commando operations is $7.6 billion in the budget, an increase of $400 million from last year.
Panetta said special operations commandos would be increased in number by 3,000. The commandos are agile, specialized, and can be deployed quickly; as such, they "represent a very important force for the future," he said.
Currently, there are about 66,000 special operations troops.