Gen. Joseph Votel, who leads U.S. Special Operations Command, is the top candidate on a short list to succeed Gen. Lloyd Austin next year as commander of U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, and oversee the military’s fight against the Islamic State and terrorism across the Middle East and Afghanistan, Defense One has learned through multiple U.S. government sources.
It’s the latest sign of the times that the U.S. military, and President Barack Obama’s administration, continues to see elite counterterrorism and covert operations as the preferred way of warfare—now and into the foreseeable future—in a region where previously hundreds of thousands of conventional American troops once fought and then occupied two countries via massive counterinsurgency operations.
Austin was the final commander of the previous Iraq War, a Big Army general who oversaw the withdrawal of tens of thousands of U.S. troops through 2011. Votel is one of the nation’s most experienced commanders of elite special operators. At SOCOM, he is in charge of preparing the military’s special operations forces to be called upon. Previously, he commanded the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, which runs the U.S. military’s most elite missions to hunt and kill terrorist leaders, from June 2011, shortly after the Osama bin Laden raid. JSOC overseas units like the Army’s Special Forces, or Green Berets, Night Stalker aviation units, and Navy SEALs, which to rescue hostages and gather intelligence on terror groups such as the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Votel has overseen a swift rise in the special operations ranks. He took command of SOCOM just in August 2014. Previously, he served as deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and commanded the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment. He helped found the military’s internal agency dedicated to thwarting roadside bombs and served on the Army’s top staff in the Pentagon. CNN recently profiled Votel and his model training and fielding special operations forces to operate in the “grey zone” of today’s shadowy fights.
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Votel has competition on the short list, a defense official confirmed, as several of the U.S. military’s top combatant command positions are due next year for rotations or retirements, including Gen. Phil Breedlove, NATO supreme allied commander, and Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM.
Meanwhile, NPR’s Tom Bowman reports that Northern Command might soon welcome the first woman to lead a combatant command: “Two names on the shortlist are Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, who now commands U.S. Air Forces in the Pacific, and Adm. Michelle Howard, who today serves as the vice chief of the Navy.”
SpecOps Are Key
But on the ground, nothing seems more important to the mission of capturing and killing terrorists than special operations forces. In recent weeks, Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter have rejected renewed calls for a large-scale U.S. ground intervention with U.S. troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Instead, Carter announced this week the U.S. would increase special operations missions to conduct greater numbers targeted raids to kill or capture ISIS leaders, along with additional airstrikes, intelligence operations. Carter highlighted as an example how U.S. special operators and Iraqi and Kurdish forces last month rescued 70 hostages in Iraq, and May’s Delta Force raid into Syria to kill the Islamic State leader Abu Sayyef.
In what amounts to an escalation of the war, Carter told Congress on Tuesday that additional U.S.“expeditionary targeting” forces are deploying alongside Iraqi and Kurdish fighters. Carter said Tuesday evening at Harvard University in Boston the units are “a force that will essentially do raids throughout the territory of Syria, including unilaterally, and in Iraq with the approval of the Iraqi government.”
“The objective there will be to take out ISIL leadership, to capture ISIL leadership, to rescue hostages, as we’ve done, to gather—as you know, we did a similar raid—to collect intelligence. And to make ISIL wonder, as the way I put it today was, when they go to bed at night, who’s going to be coming in the window? And that takes advantage of the agility, the range, the mobility, the precision, the intelligence that only we have.”
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said Tuesday that American special operations units would fight in Iraq at that government’s invitation, and “unilaterally” inside Syria.
“It’s very important. We’ve obviously conducted such raids already,” Carter said of U.S. military raids into Syria.
“Our assessment is that this force and the operations this force will conduct will provide us additional intelligence that’ll make our operations much more effective,” Dunford said Tuesday.
Special operations forces are also finding, training and equipping local forces to fight ISIS themselves, which is a backbone of the Obama administration strategy. “We have found groups that already exist and are fighting and which we can enable with special capabilities and train people specially to accompany them or send Americans to accompany them,” Carter said, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.
Recently, defense leaders have criticized the lack of capable local special operations forces available from regional militaries to help the U.S. strategy. Carter recently called out Gulf States for complaining they are not in on the ground game, saying they have focused more on “fancy” jets than ground forces. Dunford on Tuesday said of Gulf state militaries: “When it comes to ground forces and special operations forces, there’s no question that they need to build those forces and wield them. They frequently complain to me, for example, about how capable the Iranians are. To which I say, yes, and you’re not in the same game — an effective game on the ground.”
Carter told Congress that Defense Department lawyers had determined that the expanded U.S. military operations—officials estimated around 200 troops would deploy—still fall within the existing authorization for the use of military force.
CENTCOM is one of the military’s nine combatant commands that divide the globe geographically and manage nuclear, transportation and special operations forces. Headquartered in Tampa, it oversees the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and across the Middle East. For the past decade, it has been commanded by generals who previously ran the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Austin was the final commander of the Iraq war overseeing the U.S. troops withdrawal in 2011. Prior commanders included retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis and Gen. David Petraeus.