Moderator: Josh Gerstein, Reporter for POLITICO
Craig Nixon: If I could ask you all to move in and please take your seats, we can get started. Thanks. I am Craig Nixon, CEO of Academy, and it’s really my distinct honor to introduce this panel. We’re also a proud sponsor of the Aspen Security Forum. Clark, I really appreciate that you do it in alphabetical order, so our name change can work itself out, the plan’s really coming together. It’s our first year here participating, and although we’ve only been here for a year, we’ve been part of the network that I’ve heard talked about since 1997. We provide security and training, and we do it for US Government and institutions. As I look around the room, frankly, in a different name, we’ve provided personal protection for a lot of the members that are in this room. But I think security—as we’ve been talking about it all week—is not about reacting to it, it’s how you avoid it or how you prevent it. This is a perfect panel, and a perfect topic. I’ve had a lot of roles in a lot of different places, and I’ve had the distinct privilege to serve with a number of the panelists in combat. So with that, I’d like to turn this over to Josh Gerstein, and with that, it’s all yours. Thank you very much.
Josh Gerstein: Thanks Craig, good afternoon, everybody. I hope you all had a good lunch, and I hope the post-lunch stupor doesn’t set in during our panel. As you can see up here, Admiral McRaven seems to have brought some reinforcements, unlike last year. We have a panel of four people who are all working in the same area. I know that we heard again this morning about the Afghanistan example, the notion of what happened there in the 80s and 90s, and how the situation was allowed to sort of get away from us. It seems like there’s a commitment from the people on the panel and those in government to make sure that doesn’t happen again in places around the world that are seeing a fair amount of conflict and strife, some places that we consider to be failed states, but saying that we won’t take our eye off the ball and figure out what to do in those places, I think, are two very different things, and doing that in the current environment of trying to contain costs is also a pretty tricky thing to do. Both costs in terms of financial costs and costs in terms of the attention of policy makers and the attention of the American public. So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. I’m just going to introduce our panelists in order of sitting next to me—we’ll begin with Major General Tony Thomas. He’s the Former Commander of Special Operations Command, just returned a month ago out of Afghanistan, where he was the Special Operations Joint Task Force Afghanistan NATO Special Operations Component Command Afghanistan Commander there. He previously served as an Assistant Commander in Northern Iraq, where in August 2008, according to something I saw in Army Times, he was traveling in a vehicle near Mosul which was overran by a suicide bomber. He made it through that intact—the vehicle didn’t make it through intact, as I understand it—but it did its job, apparently.
Sitting next to him we have Ambassador Rick Barton, who is the Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations. He began working in diplomatic posts in the US Government more than two decades ago, working on democracy building with USAID in places like Bosnia, Rwanda and Haiti, and held a post-conflict reconstruction post at CSIS for much of the Aughts, the 2000s, and entered the Obama Administration, working at the UN before being confirmed in March of last year as the first head of the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. As a POLITICO reporter, I feel compelled to note that he spent some of his early career working in politics. He won the Democratic House primary in Maine’s first district in 1976, but was defeated by the Republican incumbent, 57-43, according to my research.
And the next gentleman needs no introduction, Admiral Bill McRaven, Commander of Special Operations Command since 2011, previously the head of JSOC, in which he oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abottabad, Pakistan. He commanded several SEAL teams and Special Operations teams before overseeing Special Operations Command under NATO in Europe.
And then we have Mr. Sheehan—Michael Sheehan is the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, serving in that post since September 2011. He’s had an incredibly broad career, serving in uniform as an Army Special Forces officer in Latin America, hostage rescue and counterinsurgency efforts, and peacekeeping in Somalia and Haiti, and the George HW Bush and Clinton National Security Councils at the State Department. After all that, he decided to become a cop, essentially, and become the Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism at the NYPD, serving in that capacity for three years before becoming a terrorism analyst for NBC, and before the Defense Department in this policy post that he has now.
I thought we’d start with General Tony Thomas here, because you’re just out of Afghanistan. Let’s talk about Afghanistan, how things are going there, what you were doing there in terms of trying to build up the capacity of the Afghan military—not simply the regular forces, but I understand you were working very closely with their commando units. Are they called commando units, or Kendaks (?) or Kendocks (?) or something close to that? How did that mission go, and how ready are those people to take over when we dramatically scale down our presence there, as we’re hearing in these last few weeks, maybe even go to a zero presence. What’s going to happen?
Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas: Thanks—do I have 55 minutes to answer that question? First of all, thanks for the opportunity to be here today. This has been incredibly enlightening, especially for someone who has been myopically focused on Afghanistan for the past year, so I do appreciate the opportunity to broaden my perspective a little bit. I run the risk—as a lot of previous commanders are stereotyped as—of saying “we were winning when I left.” There has been an extraordinary change in Afghanistan in the last year, and I would defer to the analysts, visitors we’ve had, very senior folks from the administration, from journalism, et cetera, over the last couple of months who have wandered away muttering, saying “something odd is happening here,” mostly attributable to the Afghans. It’s not the US military that continues to spout what we hoped to achieve this time, it’s Afghans saying that “we’re taking charge of our own destiny.” We have voted, vis a vis Afghan local police, to throw off the mantle of the Taliban, we desire a better life, and we sure hope you’re staying. This is part and parcel to the discussion—in time, the biggest battle that we have fought is the uncertainty of how this will end, and I personally don’t like the three-letter word “end,” because truly, it has got to be a transition, not abruptly end on December 14th. Nothing is going to end, but we’re going to transition to something, and therein lies the debate.
Over this last year, the change has been extraordinary. As General Allen pointed out in the Commanders’ conference, when we first got there, the challenge we had was the overarching perception that we aren’t winning, but we’re leading anyway, and that was truly what we were battling against. He defined winning for us in very specific terms, and so has General Dunford as we’ve continued this campaign—and you should know that there has been great campaign continuity. It has not been a new boss, new ideas, new changes deviating every other year, different ways of fighting the war. We—at long last—in the 08-09 timeframe, got into a collective campaign, a coherent design for where we wanted to be at the end of the day. It’s contingent of Afghans taking charge of their own security—they have done that in spades this year. I escaped Afghanistan a month ago, but I can’t help but go back to the early bird every day, or Stars and Stripes and see what’s the bad news coming out of Afghanistan, and I am very encouraged every day that I don’t see it. It’s almost gone to mute. Now, there’s a bad story to that, that we’ve won, that we can come home, that it’s all over, and really, we’ve just transitioned to an Afghan lead, but they are carrying the fight to the enemy. I commanded a formation of 14,000 Special Operations forces, about 11,000 American Special Operators from every walk of life, and about 2,500-3,000 allied from every walk of life, and when I say that, I’m talking about the United Arab Emirates, Jordanians, Brits, French, et cetera—all the normal characters—but a truly eclectic formation of about 25 different countries fully focused on the task. More importantly, we’re allied with over 14,000 Afghan Special Operations forces who are out every night taking the fight to the enemy, and it’s kind of ironic, because they want less and less of our help. They’re SOF guys, Special Operators, and it’s encouraging that they have this kind of animus, that they want to do this by themselves, and they’re shedding their need for us to support them out there.
The most extraordinary thing over there over the last year has been the advent of the local police. Last year, when I got there, it had been in its formative stages for over a year and a half. We were trying to get Afghans to assume control of that program—they own that program, by the way, that’s a Ministry of the Interior program—they nominate where they want to grow Afghan police. The tale of the tape, when you talk about classic counterinsurgency…if the population is the center of gravity, for nine years, we had Afghans that almost watched as a spectator sport of us against the enemy. Over this last year, in droves, the Afghans voted to join the effort and take up the fight in places like Zhari,Panjwai, Ghazni, places where the Taliban had run the roost for a long time.
The other part that I would offer to you is that the enemy is in utter disarray right now. Their great hope is that there’s just another 19 months that they have to suffer through—that we will leave at the end of 2014, and if they can just survive the incredible effort against them, they’ll live to fight another day. In fact, they anticipate celebratory gunfire on the backside of December 14th as we leave and they take over. So as we go through this period, and certainly General Allen is much more expert to be able to talk about the geostrategic situation and the bilateral security agreement—the zero option, as it has now been discussed—that is the great vagary right now. How will this transition over time? We have the opportunity for sustainable security in Afghanistan. More importantly, Deputy Secretary of Defense Carter was just out visiting us, the importance of stability in Afghanistan, it’s important for Afghanistan, but it’s a lot more important for where our vital interests lie in Pakistan. It is a platform for engaging Pakistan in the future, and we are in the midst of a trilateral arrangement between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US, but we’re fading to black. I was in enough conferences in Pesharu (?), Pakistan to know that we are still the big dog at the table, we are fading to a bilateral arrangement between the Afghans and the Pakistanis, so again, I think it’s trending in the right direction. I can’t talk to the challenges of talking to the government of Afghanistan on a daily basis, to wake up and expect a sovereign challenge today and you won’t be surprised, but from a security standpoint, we have made huge, huge progress over this last year, and it’s about time.
Josh Gerstein: So General, we’ll put you down as not in favor of the zero option. I know it’s not your decision to make.
Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas: That would not be something I want my name aligned against, certainly the options are what the Afghans need as a sovereign country, and that’s the professional dialogue that’s occurring right now. We’ve created from whole cloth an Afghan security force of 352,000 people. We have given them a lot of sophisticated equipment. In very short order, they’ve eclipsed the capability of countries in their immediate surroundings, but they do need our help, and it’s a matter of their government acknowledging that, and the right kind of agreements or authorities for us to stay.
Josh Gerstein: Can I ask you…do you think the police and security forces that you’re talking about are sustainable in the medium term with the current level of tumult, the sort of chaos, disorder and issues that we see from the Afghan government? I mean, building these institutions separate…is it something like the Egyptian military that is almost distinct from the governance in the country?
Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas: No, I mean, they’re demonstrating the capability. The challenge that we have on the Special Operations side is that we have a unified command that spanned all the various organizations. They don’t have that, so they’ll need their Ministry of Interior talking to their Ministry of Defense to talk to their National Director of Security. That’s a challenge—it was a challenge for us from an inter-agency standpoint, and it’s something that they’ve acknowledged that they have to do over time. To juxtapose their Afghan security gains and the standard of living right now, I’ll tell you that even as a Special Operator, the thing that gave me the most hope every day was watching thousands of schoolgirls going to school every day in Kabul and every place that I visit. 10 million Afghan students, less than 6,000 when the Taliban were in charge. They have really seized this opportunity. That’s on third of the population almost. They expect to have that kind of standard of living in the future. They’re hopeful that we will help them sustain it; it’s just the level of help that they request and that we ante up for.
Josh Gerstein: Admiral McRaven, let me move down to you, stick with the military issues for the moment, but try to broaden the picture out. We’re talking about Afghanistan, but we’re also seeing situations, particularly across Africa. There’s increasing involvement of the US Government in different ways with these affiliates of al Qaeda, and maybe non-affiliates that are just radical groups that we think could pose dangers for us. Could you talk a little bit—you’ve been doing some planning as I understand it for a 2020 vision of what the Special Operations Forces are going to be doing, what they’re going to look like…Can you talk to us a little bit about that? You can perhaps work in Afghanistan into that, as well, but how are you going to manage this in such far flung corners of the world? You’re doing a little of this already, but the metastasizing must pose a challenge to you.
Adm. McRaven: Let me go back to something that Tony Thomas said about the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and how we did the partnering piece from a Special Operations standpoint—frankly, how we were organized internally. Tony talked about how we were organized into strike forces, where we had three components in Afghanistan. We had the kinetic strike guys, we had the Civ-Soc Aid, the guys that build Afghan local police and do the engagement, and we had our NATO allies along with all our interagency partners. As we began to develop that command and control apparatus, that organizational apparatus, we began to see effects that we hadn’t seen in the previous decade. So we understood that organization is important, we understood that partnerships and relationships are important.
So how do you take the good things that you’ve learned and be able to export that? As we look at the partner relationships, the narrative that we’re trying to build for Special Operations is that we will always be able to do the kinetic piece, I think, better than anyone else in the world. When somebody needs to rescue Americans, or capture or kill the enemy, I think we have the best force in the world and we will for a long time. But that’s all a small part of what we do in the Special Operations community. The larger part of what we do is that we help build partner capacity. Right now, we are in about 84 countries around the world, with—Tony talked about the 11,000 SOF folks—we’ve got about another 3,000 folks that are, again, in places around the globe—some of them in small numbers, ones and twos working in an Embassy, some of them a couple hundred folks. But they are helping build partner capacity so that, frankly, we don’t have to come in later on and deal with the issue and allow the sovereign government to be able to deal with their own problems. And again, the lessons about how be we build a local police? How do you build commando kandaks like you were talking about? How do you build Special Forces in other countries? We’ve been doing this for a very, very long time, so any thought that this is a new idea is not correct. We’ve been partnering and building partner capacity since Mike was in Latin America, and well before that. It is one of our core capabilities. Now we’ve got to do it in a little bit of a more structured fashion, we have limited resources, and we need to figure out where to apply those limited resources. You talk about Africa, just to make a point, when I had Special Operations Command Africa, I had the European portfolio, but it was also before Special Operations Command Africa stood up, and at the time I had about 150 folks at any point in time on the African continent, and we were working with host nations there. There are now on any given day about 850 Americans in Africa because we recognize that that’s an area where they want our partnership and make sure everyone understands that this is at the request of the host government, with the approval of the US Ambassador, and with the approval of the Geographic Combatant Commander. I don’t do anything—we at Special Operations don’t do anything—that doesn’t have the approval of the Joint Staff OSD, the Secretary of Defense, and on the civilian side in-country, the approval of the US Ambassador, and the willingness and access of the host nation to get us in there. So again, the lessons that Tony was talking about in terms of command structures, how we partner, the forces that we’ve built, again, so that countries can go on an take care of their own security, now how do we take those lessons and apply them more globally?
Josh Gerstein: Can I ask you on a policy front, when you’re looking at the 2020 picture for Special Operations Forces, we’ve heard discussions at some of these panels at this conference about the AUMF, and how we’re 12 years into it…are you looking at those issues? Do you have any concerns that the legal authorities you have now to do what you are doing, or what you think you need to do in 2020, is everything fine? Can you just keep going on that front, exactly the way it is right now?
Adm. McRaven:This is why I have a great relationship with Mike Sheehan as our Assistant Secretary. When you take a look at Special Operations, Mike Sheehan is essentially my service Secretary, so he knows all the policy issues, so that’s a great question, Josh, and I’ll throw it to Mike.
Josh Gerstein: (Laughs) Ok, so let’s throw it to Mike.
Michael Sheehan: Do you want me to talk about AUMF?
Josh Gerstein: Sure, in the context of what this military needs to do, and the Special Forces more broadly, how confident are you that when we get to 2020, we’re going to have all the legal authorities to do what we need to be able to do?
Michael Sheehan: I think we have them, I think they’re intact. The famous AUMF, or Authority to Use Military Force, was an authority granted to the military after 9/11, particularly giving authorities to attack al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, really AQAP and some other ones. Even prior to 9/11, I was involved with attacking al Qaeda and other groups without that and under other authorities, so I think the authorities issue is not a big one. I think what’s more relevant for the Special Operations community is that the focus has been, over the last ten years, on our kinetic operations—and I don’t mean just aircraft, shooting on the ground, but our troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq. And meanwhile, as Admiral McRaven said, we were doing security assistance missions, training, advising, and equipping people around the world all through that period. This was relatively below the radar, because we had two major wars going on, and we’ve been doing it for quite a long time before that.
When I was a Captain in El Salvador, there were about 12 people in the field in our zone who were advising people in that country on a major war with very small amounts of US presence. In many ways, we’re going to go back to the future in terms of our basic mission set. For counterterrorism, I like to break it down into two categories: one is, which was talked about a little bit this morning, is that we have to deny sanctuary to terrorists or let them sit comfortably somewhere, or they will be able to attack us strategically, and secondly, we need to pressure the network. We need to attack their leaders, safe houses, training sites, assets, lines of communications, et cetera. Both of those missions have a SOF component to it. For denying space, that’s normally a SOF advisor, training, equipping, and planning to deny space to the enemy. To control cities, control spaces, ALP, the police forces, it’s more about controlling territory. So the SOF advisors need to have that skillset to be able to work with the locals to enable them to do that well. On the other side, we want to have the relationship, the training, advising, equipping, for the host country’s kinetic action, their direct action against the enemy. I think the key here for both missions, the art of the SOF operator, is how can they best enable the host country to do it—the training, equipping, advising—but the final act of violence be conducted by the host country. When we are successful in doing that, we have put ourselves into the secondary role, and allow the host countries to defend their own countries, so that’s our goal for the next ten years.
Josh Gerstein: I know that you’re deeply involved with a lot of the countries in Africa that are posing a security challenge at the moment. In that chain that you’re talking about between the training and the final act of violence, is it not a fact that in one capacity or another, we have contractors in that chain somewhere doing some type of training and advising those forces? What challenge does that pose? I’m quite confident that everybody under the command of these two officers here will do 99.9% of what they tell them to do, but I’m not sure if the same can be said if you have people who are not in a direct chain of command?
Michael Sheehan: First of all, contractors are a part of the landscape. From Somalia, to Northern Africa, to Afghanistan, to everything the government does, whether it’s running a mess hall for an infantry battalion, or whether it’s providing technology for cyber war. I do believe that in certain functions, however, positions should be preserved by US Government personnel. The closer you get to lethal action, the more it should be the sole prerogative of the US Government advisors, and I think that’s generally the case. However, when a host country is hiring contractors and consultants, it’s their decision. Often we’ll be in a place where we bump up against consultants and advisors that are hired by the host country. I don’t think it’s a major problem. We learn to manage that, and I think for us, in the US Government, the more important issue is how do we develop that relationship with the host country, how do we manage that risk of our people? We want to push them forward so that they can help enable the host country, yet we don’t want to go too far that they become a part of the action at the objective. If we can manage that risk, to me, that’s the most important challenge for our SOF operators, that have to have the maturity and the judgment to be able to provide that training, equipping and advising, and then let that partner go. That’s what Tony’s done in Afghanistan, and what we’ve been trying to do around the world.
Josh Gerstein: Ambassador Barton, when I was speaking to General Thomas earlier, I raised this question of how valuable is the police force and the military force if it’s standing up against a political structure that is very, very weak? Is that part of the area that you work in? What are the things we can do that aren’t strictly military or police that aren’t directly security-related that can improve the governance in some of these countries, or at least mitigate the chaos in some of these countries? And can you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing in Syria or other places that may be of interest to folks?
Ambassador Rick Barton: Sure, thanks very much. It’s good to be here. For those of you who don’t know, Mike is leaving federal service this week, and all of us who have had the pleasure of working with him for over 20 years should give him an ovation for the great service.
Yeah, for sure the police and the newly trained soldiers have to believe in the civilians that they’re working for. And if the civilians have offshored their spouses in London or Bethesda, that is not helpful in motivating the forces. There are some really basic elements here that we’ve got to pay attention to. As I listen to my colleagues here, there are three core principles that I’d like to reinforce.They are part of the charge that we’ve been given as a new bureau in the State Department, createdafter a number of Secretaries of State concluded that, for whatever reason, we weren’t doing as well in these places as we should.
What I heard Tony say at the beginning was the first core principle, which is that you’ve got to have local ownership, and in some cases it’s taken 5 or 10 years to get the kind of local ownership that we need. That’s just not going to work, because it tries the patience of our democracy and proves to our people that we’re not as effective as we could be.If we lose people’s confidence and we’re working with minority support domestically, it’s very hard to take on these efforts. But local ownership depends on knowing the place. Maybe there should be a new Powell Doctrine that says we need to know 100 people in a country—or maybe 1,000—before we can send an American soldier. The more you know, the better.
The Syria case is a classic example. We had a wonderful embassy there and a good ambassador, but then a revolution came pretty much out of nowhere. It was not the mainstream business of our embassy, and then, suddenly, our embassy is thrown out of the country. As a result, we’re working out of Turkey, somewhat out of Jordan, with a population of political players—not really leaders, because they were just becoming players—who nobody knew. And so the main task that we’ve had this past year, with the train, equip and basic programs, is this: Can we get to know a core group of the Syrian opposition well enough—do we know enough of them, do we know them well enough—that we can have some confidence that we know what’s actually going on? And these are not necessarily the people who show up in Qatar, or in Paris, or in Cairo for conversations. They’re people who are working their way through the country to make it to a training session, somewhere in Turkey, and then go back in.
So the second principle is that you have got to really know the place. Admiral McRaven and I have been talking about how we can get this vast information we have into places earlier and where we can really know a place better, because we have a bias in our system. That bias is that we spend a lot of money on terrorism, drugs, AIDS, and refugees, so guess what the intelligence system tends to feed you: Lots of information on those four subjects and a few others. It doesn’t mean these things are unimportant, but if you’re going to be effective in a place, you’ve got to have a sense of context and the balance.
And that’s the third principle:We’ve got to have much better political understanding.If we recognize a civilian leader that we’ve put on the white horse and said, “Ah, finally we’ve got somebody we can trust who is in charge of this country,” it rarely works out for us. (You could say this is the Karzai model without being too unfair.) In a place like Syria, if you were a promising political figure any time in the last 20 years, you were likely to end up dead, out of the country, converted, or you dropped your business. So nobody of any political promise could conceivably be a player in that space. That means you need a farm system model.
Josh Gerstein: Give me a sense of what that means in practice. I’m a little confused—I understand the theory that we need to get to know more people, know the systems…at least more than what our intel people are supposed to be doing, and our embassies in many cases. What does this mean in practice? Before we hand weapons to somebody in Syria, are we testing them in some way? Are we doing other things with them?What kind of training are you talking about?
Ambassador Rick Barton: I would say it’s woefully inadequate in almost every case, but it’s the best we can do given that we don’t work inside Syria. Obviously, parts of our government do work inside Syria, but it was not their main beat, and they were not that well-established, and they did not have the depth or the breadth that you would want if you were, say, the president. But what we have tried to do, initially, is train and equip, because we had a very narrow legal window, for members of the non-violent opposition. They were, after all, the people who started the revolution there, they were the ones who took to the streets, they were the students, they were the women and children who have all been somewhat lost in this phase of the conflict, but nevertheless, many of them had risked their lives. I’ve spoken to probably 200 Syrians, and of the 35 or so conflicts that I’ve been involved in, I’ve never seen a group of people who are more committed to the cause. This is not a recreational crowd. Almost every Syrian I have talked to has either lost a relative or spent time in jail, so there’s a Mandela effect that is a little more serious than what you would expect from some of these conflicts. But we brought them in, we gave them five days of training, we created an FM radio network all over the country—
Josh Gerstein: What kind of training? That’s what I’m trying to get at.
Ambassador Rick Barton: Initially, the training was on technical use of safe computers, safe communications media.We wanted to give them the capacity to communicate with each other inside the country and not get killed. So we had to train them on that. Over time, our training has shifted toward the responsibilities of being leaders of a so-called liberated area, opposition-controlled areas. There are thousands of defected police inside of Syria. They are credible in their communities because they defected. The act of defection was pretty risky, and they’ve been playing the role of police without any pay, because there’s no revenue stream in the opposition area—they don’t collect taxes, really. So we’ve just gotten clearance from the Senate to provide very modest stipends of about $150 a month, enough to keep somebody on the job. We’d rather keep a policeman who’s trusted by the community rather than have to bring in a new crowd, or bring in an international group that doesn’t know the place. So it’s obviously the shorter and easier route, although it’s hardly that. We’ve also given rule-of-law training, international humanitarian law.We have to run the people through a vetting system, and we can use the intelligence system to see who’s got a record on anybody, but these are tough places to really know who you’re talking about. Mike and I found this out when we were working in Haiti; there were a lot of Jean-Pierre Jeans, Jean-Pierre, Jean-Pierre Pierre…and they were all human rights abusers. It was a little bit like dealing with McCarthy lists. It was a tough business.
Josh Gerstein: Admiral McRaven, did you want to add something?
Admiral McRaven: I just wanted to add on the SOF side, because Rick’s exactly right—at the end of the day, when we put people into a country, they need to be culturally aware of what’s going on. So back to Mike Sheehan’s point about the “Back to the Future” sort of thing—as we’re looking at SOF 2020, a lot of this is about how do I realign various forces to various theaters? So post-Afghanistan, or whatever post-Afghanistan looks like, how do I make us more capable as the SOCOM commander? The purpose of a supporting commander is to provide support for the geographic combatant commanders, so we have sat down with all of the combatant commanders, have them tell us what the objectives are that they’re trying to achieve in their theater. So as we look, for example, at the First Special Forces group, out of Ft. Lewis, we are going to realign them or align them to the specific area. They being to learn the languages—they’re going to learn to speak Hangul again, Tagalog again, the various Indonesian languages, and they’re going to be culturally aligned to a specific geographic area. So again, when we send an NCO or an officer in there, hopefully, like Tony Thomas, when he was in Honduras—Tony’s a fluent Spanish speaker—these are the sort of things we did before 9/11. But when 9/11 happened, and we all shifted our focus to Iraq and Afghanistan, now everybody speaks Arabic, or Dari, or Pashtu, but we’ve lost a lot of those skill sets. So frankly, we are reinvigorating the language program, we are reinvigorating the cultural awareness program, and we are realigning it to the proper theaters, so the right people speak the right languages and understand the right cultures in the right regions.
Josh Gerstein: In terms of number of kinetic operations, does your 2020 plan project a decline from what’s going on now, and how dramatic?
Admiral McRaven: No, because we hope to never have to use a kinetic operation. A kinetic operation is if everything has gone wrong, then we’re kind of in the position to conduct a kinetic op. Back to Mike Sheehan’s point, if we want to allow…if a kinetic operation has to be done in a particular country, let the host nation do that. They need to be trained in order to do that, they need to be aware of the first, second order effects if they do that. We can coach them through it, but at the end of the day, let them do it. More importantly, let it become a law enforcement problem. Ideally, you want to take these violent extremist networks that have a regional reach, make it local, and then make it a local law enforcement problem. If you can do that, I think you can eliminate the terrorist threat as we know it today.
Josh Gerstein: I think that’s a good note to move down to Mr. Sheehan again. You were on Capitol Hill a few months ago—in May, I think—and talked about seeing a 10-20 year time horizon for the al Qaeda threat. I’m wondering if you can elaborate on that a little bit, and in light of what the Admiral just said, is it possible to contain that threat, and get that threat to a point where it could be controlled and consider a more traditional law enforcement method and we wouldn’t have to think about it so much as a military operation anymore, or a war on terror or terrorist groups?
Admiral McRaven:Before he answers, let me say that that is the ideal—when it gets to a law enforcement operation. Do I think we can get there in the near future? No, I don’t. Do I think we’re going to get there any time in the mid-future? No, I don’t think we will. But I think we need to strive to that, because I don’t think we want to revert back to our old kinetic way of doing business. We’ve had to change the paradigm for how we do business vis-a-vis the threats in certain regions. Sorry, Mike.
Michael Sheehan: I think it’s important to understand al Qaeda and Sunni radicalism in context. It started really in the early 90s, and really started to manifest itself with RamziYousuf in 1993 at the World Trade Center. That really was the beginning of it. This is a 25 year narrative that’s already gone on, and I think it’s going to be another 10 to 20 before it burns out, and I think it will, but I’m not sure exactly when that will happen. The narrative is very compelling to a certain amount of people. By the way, as it was mentioned today, when I was at the NYPD, we tracked the people in the United States. There are a lot of them in the United States that are attracted to this narrative and there are a lot of them that get arrested every year. Fortunately, not a lot of them are very capable, except for in Boston and with Major Hassan, in actually killing Americans. The narrative will be around for a long time, so remember that—this isn’t going away any time soon. Our ability to affect that narrative is really on the margins, so that’s number one.
And number two—I think it’s important to recognize how successful we have been since 9/11. We’ve already put al Qaeda on its heels dramatically. Their ability to attack us strategically has been pummeled in the last 10 or 20 years. I think it’s important to understand that, because if you always inflate your enemy, you play into their hands. So I think over the next ten or twenty years, if we continue to do things smartly, if we continue to transfer action to our partners around the world, we will continue to marginalize al Qaeda’s ability to attack us strategically, and over time, it will be the job of the host countries’ security forces to do that job, and I think that’s how it’s going to play itself out. But I agree with Admiral McRaven 100%, that we will remain active in this for quite a while, and if you look at the President’s NDU speech, which I really advise everyone to take a really hard look at—a very comprehensive, long speech. There’s a lot in there. A very important part of that speech was a very vigorous defense of retaining the option for unilateral US kinetic action. That was a major part of it. But the rest of it, and what we’re talking about here today, is how that is an option of last resort, as Admiral McRaven said, and how our challenge now is to push that action to the locals, and eventually this al Qaeda-ism will wind up in an ash heap of history, but that’s going to take a while—quite a while, in my view.
Josh Gerstein: And there are there no parallel threats that we have to be concerned about?
Mike Sheehan: al Qaeda is unique.
Josh Gerstein: I’m not talking about Islamic radicalism generally.
Mike Sheehan: al Qaeda is unique, and it’s important to understand why al Qaeda is unique—this is the importance of bin Laden. He not only shifted the narrative to the far enemy, he basically said that “all of us Muslims have been fighting these apostate regimes for years and years, but we can’t be successful until we take on the Americans.” So that was the first thing he did—it shifted the model with his fatwas in 1996 and 1998. The second thing he did was that he justified the indiscriminate killing of civilians in a religious context—that it’s too bad a lot of Americans died on 9/11, but it’s just collateral damage that is justified by their current vanguard of violence. So al Qaeda is unique in that they are determined to use violence and they are determined to kill civilians in broad numbers, in an unrestrained way that makes them unique from some of the other worst terrorist groups around the world.
Josh Gerstein: And when you say you see their narrative petering out over the next ten to twenty years, and that we can only affect it on the margins, is that on the downside and on the upside? Are there things that we could do to amplify their narrative or resurrect it?
Mike Sheehan: I think it’s worth trying and doing, and I honestly don’t think we have much to say about it. I think what’s interesting is if you watch the Arab Spring, how the al Qaeda narrative was absolutely absent from that entire action over a several year period, going from one end of North Africa all the way across the Arab world where al Qaeda was not even part of the conversation. Now they’ve taken advantage of some of the disruptions that have emerged resulting from the Arab Spring, but I think most of the Islamic world has rejected that vision of either the political vision that the Taliban manifest, or the violent vanguard that al Qaeda manifest.
Maj. Gen. Thomas: I think there are some very tangible examples of where this approach has already paid dividends. Three years ago, when I was Admiral McRaven’s deputy, the challenges of Somalia and Yemen loomed large. We had very little, if any, options. The options we had were purely kinetic, and we had nobody there on the ground. We didn’t see the threat as it blossomed, and the option to put boots on the ground was restricted. So you had one option: you could drop bombs, and so that was the option we pursued. By short order, we were working by, with and through the government of President Hadi there. They are carrying more of this load every day. Is it to the level that we think is satisfactory? No, and that’s why we need to continue to prod them. In Somalia it’s even more unique. With a very limited US presence on the ground, we’re working a lot with the Kenyans, with a lot of people who have a vested interest in their neighbors being stable with a light signature and a light touch, but keeping the pulse so we don’t have to respond in extremis. You hear “in extremis” all the time, and you start to think that’s how we’ve been responding—in extremis, as opposed to proactively seeing threats before they emerge, working partner nation capability, is the best of all worlds, as Secretary Sheehan mentioned, they handle their own business, whether they ask for help or not, and then worst case, we have to do our own bidding. But it’s a kind of continuum, not just a break glass if you need it tonight type of fare, which has been the default for a long time.
Josh Gerstein: You talked about a light touch, though, especially in Afghanistan, with the concerns of the Taliban and other groups, the concern there is that our footprint was large, and remains so large, that itself feeds a narrative. I think that President Obama has said this himself at different times, that it’s too easy to blame every problem on the United States, whether it’s an internal Afghan problem, a security problem, of lights not having any power, or whatever. Is that not a concern? When you’re talking about putting more boots on the ground in various places around the world, won’t we only face a backlash of a major military intervention like Iraq or Afghanistan, or are we going to face resentment and backlash in some of these other countries?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: I think it’s a balance, and there again I would reinforce what the Ambassador said and Admiral McRaven—we’re not doing anything unilateral anymore. I had several interactions with folks at the Pentagon who would challenge us all the time, the boogeyman authorities that you have as DOD to do things unilaterally, we don’t. And we would have to work it in concert with the respective Ambassador in the country, with a campaign design for whatever goals and objectives there are, and I think if there’s been anything good about this effort it’s that it’s galvanized this effort across the interagency to work together toward some common objective. Now, our political cycle wreaks havoc with that continuity sometimes, at least in terms of respective countries, approaches, and regional focuses, however, we’re a lot more coherent. And the military, with our resources, really offers that opportunity to provide those inroads.
Josh Gerstein: And just to finish on the Afghanistan point—do you think we could go to a lower profile there without suffering the backlash issues that we’re concerned about, that we could maintain a low profile there?
Maj. Gen. Thomas: We are already on that train. I think that most of you that by this time in February, we’ll be half as big as we are right now. That’s an inevitable path we’re on right now. We’re trying to balance that. Somebody mentioned that the Afghan capability stands up as we draw down, and as I mentioned, they’re much more prominent in terms of closing with the enemy and being on the front line, but commanders on the ground will give you the best estimate in terms of the pace of that. The surge was absolutely effective. It went to an end date instead of an end state, but it made a difference, and we’re trying to measure that through some sort of transition. Time will tell how we managed that.
Josh Gerstein: Ambassador Barton, could you make a quick comment, and then we’ll go to the audience.
Ambassador Rick Barton: Yeah, what I’d like to say is that over the course of the two days I’ve been here, I’ve heard a tremendous amount of creativity, much of it around containing a problem, and I think we’re not using our American ingenuity as intensively as possible to solve a problem and to get at it earlier. For example, even in the Syria case, you have 1.8 million Facebook users inside of Syria. You have 80,000 LinkedIn business people in Syria. We have ways of reaching people. You have the range of satellite television all over the place, so a regime-controlled message to the people is not absolute any longer. When ten million Syrians a day want to watch something else, they’re going to find it in the region. We’ve really got to exploit those openings. They’re all over the place.
I just spent a week in Nigeria. A lot of people are worried about Nigeria. Very quickly, what I’d say is that the society is twenty-plus years ahead of the government. That is not unusual. That desireand energy to get on with things is everywhere, and we have to capture it. We haven’t been structured to do that as creatively either, so we need to apply a lot of the creative energy that I’ve heard here on the civilian side, as well.
Josh Gerstein: OK, let’s go to some questions from the audience. This lady over here?
Laurie Sutton: Good afternoon, gentlemen. Laurie Sutton, here. As an old soldier, I am by the magnitude of the load that each of you is shouldering in your respective rucksacks, so thank you all for your leadership. Admiral McRaven, my question is for you: it seems that trust, or a lack thereof, has emerged as a dominant theme threading its way through so many of our discussions for the past couple of days. So I’m curious—what is your assessment of the trust factor in your command, and what is your strategy for keeping the faith in your SOCOM family for the long haul?
Admiral McRaven: Ok, well, first let me make sure I understand the question. Trust vis-a-viswho? SOCOM command and…
Laurie Sutton: Between the leaders and the led? Between family members and the community, and the people that will be carrying the load increasingly over the long haul.
Admiral McRaven: Thanks, I’m glad you asked the question. Frankly, I could talk for hours on this, because I’ve been asked—often—what is my number one concern as we move forward with the Special Operations Community? And my number one concern is the health of the force. Last year, we eclipsed the highest suicide rate we’ve ever had, and frankly we’re on track right now to eclipse that. That in and of itself is not an indicator of the force, but it is absolutely something that you have to pay close attention to. When you look at the indictors in terms of depressions, and domestic abuse, and marriages breaking up, none of the trend lines are good. So about two years ago—actually three years ago—my predecessor Admiral Eric Olsen put a task force together to take a look at the problems in the force, and that report landed on my desk literally the day I took command. So we—myself, my wife, my command sergeant and his wife, and the entire senior leadership—have gone out to pulse the force to find out what can we do to help you? And so we have this “Preserve the Force and Families” initiative, working with Capitol Hill and OSD and benevolent organizations to tailor programs to make sure we keep folks—the soldiers, airmen and marines—healthy, physically, mentally and spiritually, but the families as well. The services have the authority to take care of the families. What I’m trying to do is find out where the services have done magnificent work, but frankly, where can I help from a SOCOM standpoint to contribute to that.
I like to think that we’re making some progress in that area. I think the trust factor—and this is something that our command sergeant did our first trip about a year and a half ago—he said “you know, every SOCOM commander comes down to the troops and does an all-hands call and says that we’re here for you, we’re going to take care of you, and the families have been hearing that a long time, and the families have been trying to do that, but you can’t just talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk.” So we are making every effort possible to take care of the force and the families, and I like to think that is going to build that trust factor. I like to think it, and frankly, we test whether or not my thinking is correct, but I like to think we are making some progress and those trust factors are coming into play. We do virtual town halls every quarter. George and I were just on one a couple of weeks ago, and it’s great. You have interaction—and you were talking about the Facebook piece—and we do a Google Hangout, and the interesting thing about it is that the Google Hangout is open to everybody who wants to get on it. It’s unclassified. We set it up so that the components and the families can talk to us to tell us what their issues are, but this is the only way that I’m going to know. You can’t go completely through the chain of command, you’ve got to go talk to that young spouse who can say “Admiral, let me tell you what you’re not hearing,” that’s what I need to know, and that’s the way you build trust. You respond to what their concerns are, and we are absolutely committed to doing that. Are we going to be completely successful? I don’t think so. It is a function of scale, and degree of the problems, but we are putting forth a full effort to get at it. Thank you.
Josh Gerstein: How about this lady in the center?
Ellen Zabin(?): Hi, Ellen Zabin. I formerly served as the President of the Flying Doctors of Africa, which is the largest public health NGO in sub-Saharan Africa, and I really appreciated how much you all emphasized the need to culturally understand where we’re working, because Kenya, Somalia and a lot of the areas where we had 900 staff members were hot spots. My question is given that a lot of the Embassy staff transition on the quicker side, are you working with indigenous NGOs, or US or European NGOs that tend to be on the ground for a very long time…know the languages…and use them to your advantage? We’re in the refugee camps, we’re all over the place, we’re in the Rotary club…are you working with the NGOs?
Admiral McRaven: I’ll take a quick shot and pass this over to Rick. The answer is not nearly as much as we’d like. We have extended the olive branch, but many of the organizations are very reticent to work with the uniformed military. So frankly, what we are doing is partnering with USAID—in fact, I was with Raj Shah just about three weeks ago. We have an effort to figure out what does the problem set look like in the Sahel? We’ve got a full court press, we’re using USAID resources to understand the fragility of certain countries so then we can get back with the US AFRICOM commander and the Ambassadors out there and say “look, this is what we and USAID are seeing, would it help to have some civil-military affairs people on the ground to help build wells in this area? To bring them clean water? To develop schools?” The issue isn’t do we want to work with the NGOs—I’ll tell you, I would love to work with the NGOs—the issue is that the NGOs just don’t want to work with us, and we do understand that concern, but it does complicate our ability to be successful on the ground.
Josh Gerstein: Ambassador Barton, you also…you also talked about getting out and talking to the people and knowing all these people. How do you do this in a post-Benghazi context with extreme security concerns? A lot of these embassies are in dicey places where people aren’t even allowed to go out without a security detail. How do you make these dozens and hundreds of contacts across civil society?
Ambassador Rick Barton: It really is a challenge, and I’d like to tell you a quick story about something we did in Kenya that I think will be of interest, but the answer is yes, we do—we’re totally opportunistic, we’re shamelessly opportunistic about it, because you just have to find who’s the most capable. And that’s the answer to your question, as well. We wanted to do a review in Libya to see if it was possible to contain the militias through a more dramatic use of civil society, because we were already hearing that there were many local groups that were trying to contain militias in their own communities. We wanted to take advantage of that opportunity. We can’t get anybody into the embassy, we can’t get anybody into the country, and if we send them in, we’ve got to send them with an awful lot of security. So we found a Jordanian woman we trusted tremendously, and she went out and had 60 meetings, sitting down with every civil society group that she could. Then we brought her back to Washington and did about 40 meetings so at least some people would see how talented she was and what great work she had done. We introduced her to the new ambassador headed there, and we tried to get that information into play, because at the end of the day—we’re been hearing about it for two days—you’re only as good as what you know. Could I just quickly—I’ll try to make it quick, but I see I’ve got next to no time…
Josh Gerstein: We’re running out of time.
Ambassador Rick Barton: In Kenya, ourembassy asked us to work on of the issue of election-related violence. And we—along with the AID democracy and governance officer—decided that there were two hot spots that needed particular attention: the Rift Valley and the Coast. We got some people out there, with their own security, but I felt, after seeing them out there for two months, that there was no way that they were going to get literate and manage to be as effective as they needed to be in the time that we had leading up to the election. At the time, the United States Government was spending about $800 million a year in Kenya, the vast majority of itfor AIDS.At a meeting in the Rift Valley I asked , “What do you think is the most important problem facing your country this year?” And guess what they all said.“Election-related violence.” It was obvious that ifthere was a recurrence of the post-election violence that had exploded four years before, every program would be set back at least a decade, not just four years. Then I asked: ”Are you doing everything that you would like to do for that problem?” No. “Is there something that you guys might be able to offer?”Maybe.“Well, what do you have?” One guy ran a horticulture program, and he said, “I’ve only got 4,000 farmers in my program.” I’ve been involved with American politics, and I replied:“With 4,000 people to start, you can be elected governor of any state but Texas.” The next person to speak was from the AIDS program and said, “We visit 220,000 households a week in this area.”
Meanwhile, we had been told that the police were incompetent and there was no early-warning system to alert them to violent flare-ups. It sounded to us like an opportunity: If we could help strengthen the trust between citizens and police and encourage the flow of information about brewing trouble, there might be less trouble during the election season. They came together, formed Champions for Peace, and made a difference. We can’t take credit for the violence being negligible in this last election, but we can take credit for the good use of the talent.
Josh Gerstein: How about that gentleman back there? I think there’s a mic behind you.
John Doe: Thank you. My question is for Secretary Sheehan. Just to rephrase Josh’s question earlier, where he asked you if you had your authorizations under AUMF to do your Special Operations kinetic and non-kinetic. Let me ask you the question another way—would you be able to do your Special Operations, kinetic and non-kinetic, for counterterrorism without it? Without the AUMF?
Mike Sheehan: Yes, we did it before AUMF. There was counterterrorism before 9/11. We found and killed terrorists before that and before AUMF. I think AUMF brought a good deal of clarity and I thought the authority was very useful over the last ten or twelve years. Could it be revised? Perhaps, but I told Sen. Inhofe in testimony a couple months ago, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. He had mentioned that, and I said that I subscribed to that.
Josh Gerstein: Kim Dozier, down here.
Kim Dozier: Thanks, Kim Dozier, AP. The President, in his counterterrorism speech at the NDU said that he had a preference for counterterrorism to be carried out by the military, not the CIA. Considering your current jobs, I thought that was a good question to ask—so how do you take on more of that mission, considering you want to expand your stability ops role? Thanks
Admiral McRaven: Sounds like a policy question to me.
Mike Sheehan: Let me take a quick crack at that. I was asked in my hearings about that. The president made it clear at the NDU that over time, he’d like to see kinetic action done by the Department of Defense. However, he wasn’t going to do anything hasty that would upset our various operations that are going on around the world, and didn’t want to give any specifics other than that. I think that over time, that’s his intent—to move that type of lethal action to the Department of Defense, but it’s going to take a while.
I will say this, not only about DOD, but about our whole Government, and the Admiral and I have both talked about “Back to the Future.” The difference between the capability of US Special Forces, like when I was a Captain in El Salvador, compared to what it is now, is really a staggeringly, huge difference. Part of the reason has to do with a lot of the people in this room, on the business side. The technologies that we bring to bear in this fight, and particularly in the kinetic action, intelligence, and intelligence fusion, the ability to identify bad guys and then very selectively target them with minimal collateral damage is extraordinary. And I think it’s hard to underestimate how important that is in why al Qaeda suffered so much over the last ten or twelve years, because they have been literally decimated at the top. That has to do with the extraordinary professionalism of Admiral McRaven’s folks—JSOC, plus their other Special Operations community—combined with the technologies that we have now, both the intelligence and the weapons systems we have—puts an organization like al Qaeda, which is still using technologies from the 60s and 70s, perhaps some cell phones and computers from the 80s and 90s, at a tremendous disadvantage. If we can continue that advantage, we’re going to keep them on their heels.
Josh Gerstein: Thank you very much. We had a lot of discussion here, I think about a lot of various places in Africa on a panel later today with General Ham. I want to thank everybody on the stage for joining us today and for their service. (Applause) Thanks a lot.