Lawmakers Probe Role of Special Operations in Great Power Competition

A U.S. Navy special warfare combatant craft crew returns from a simulated mission to recover a hijacked tanker Apr 3, in Kuwait territorial waters as part of exercise Eagle Resolve 2017.

U.S. Army Photo by Master Sgt. Timothy Lawn

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A U.S. Navy special warfare combatant craft crew returns from a simulated mission to recover a hijacked tanker Apr 3, in Kuwait territorial waters as part of exercise Eagle Resolve 2017.

The two four-stars up to lead CENTCOM and SOCOM faced questions about how their commands will change under the National Defense Strategy.

As the Pentagon shifts its focus from fighting terrorism to countering China and Russia, the two generals tapped to lead the forces most closely associated with counterterror efforts faced questions about how their commands fit into that new strategy.

Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, tapped to lead U.S. Central Command, and Lt. Gen. Rich Clarke, up to head U.S. Special Operations, acknowledged on Tuesday that they may receive fewer resources to perform their missions.

“I recognize in my AOR in particular that there would be increased risk,” McKenzie told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee weighing his nomination. CENTCOM handles missions in the 20 countries that make up the Middle East, where the U.S. is embroiled in fights against ISIS, al Qaeda, and other violent extremist groups.

Clarke argued that SOCOM is positioned to be an important player in great power competition. Working with allies and partners that Russia and China do not have, he said, “we can counter some of their malign activities.” He offered no specifics, and lawmakers did not press him.

Yet the repeated questions, from Republicans and Democrats, highlighted a hazy future for the two commands.

In the 17 years since the Sept. 11 attack, special operations forces have been at the forefront of what the Pentagon once called the Global War on Terror. Personnel numbers have increased by roughly half, to 70,000, and elite forces have deployed to more than 80 countries around the globe. In the Middle East, they have killed or captured scores of terrorists, including 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden. But critics began to complain that the military was wearing out its special forces. Last last year, for example, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said that he worried about “overuse of SOF.”

Clarke, asked about operational tempo, told lawmakers that the National Defense Strategy had helped relieve stress on the command by “relooking at all of our deployments” to ensure that they are “specific to special operations forces.”  

“I’m not advocating for additional resources but [rather] looking to make sure people are prioritized in the right places,” he said.

But the new focus on China and Russia and a series of public setbacks and scandals—such as the death of four American commandos last year in Niger and the investigation of Green Berets related to the death of an Afghan commando last month—has led to increased scrutiny of how the military uses its elite operators. The incoming Democratic chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, D-Wash., has said that he intends to conduct more oversight of special operations across the globe. And as the Defense Department has shifted its strategy, it has announced cuts to counterterror forces operating in Africa. (The 10-percent cut to forces operating most in West Africa raised some eyebrows; policy experts pointed out that both China and Russia are operating within Africa and see it as a strategic launching point for their own global ambitions.) Under current SOCOM head, Army Gen. Tony Thomas, the command has begun to subtly reshape itself into a more traditional service secretariat that trains, arms, and deploys units to regional combatant commands.

Lawmakers expressed concerns that the new emphasis on great power competition will divert attention from counter-terror campaigns in the Middle East, including the U.S. war in Afghanistan, where four service members died in a roadside bomb blast last week.

“In order to do [what is dictated in the new strategy] with the capability we have, we understand there are risks that will have to be taken,” said Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz. “Where are those risks? They fall right into your lap because they deal with the threats you have to deal with all the time.”

In Afghanistan, Mattis and other DOD senior leaders have insisted that the Taliban appears open to a negotiated peace; they insist that the strategy there is “working.” But a spate of recent high-profile insider attacks and a bloody siege on the city of Ghazni over the summer have hollowed out those assertions, putting a fresh spotlight on a conflict that is now older than the youngest U.S. recruits who could be sent there.

“We are still spending $45 billion a year in Afghanistan,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich. “How will you adjust requested requirements for Afghanistan given the focus on great power competition?”

McKenzie gave a grim picture of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, describing the conflict as “stalemated” and estimating the number of Taliban fighters at 60,000. Afghan security forces would not survive if the U.S. and coalition forces pull out now, he said. Under skeptical questioning from Peters, he insisted that direct U.S. engagement with the Taliban, led by Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad, could herald a positive turn in the war.

“Senator, I believe this is a new thing,” he said.

The hearing ran just an hour and forty minutes, with lawmakers raising few concerns specific to the two nominees themselves. Republicans also pressed both men on Iranian threats and DOD’s budget; Inhofe, faced with Trump’s maybe-order to cut defense spending by 5 percent, has begun talking about the planned $733 billion budget for 2020 as a “floor.” Democrats worked through a number of regional concerns, including the military mission of troops in Syria and American support for Saudi Arabia’s controversial involvement in the war in Yemen.

McKenzie told lawmakers that he supported ongoing U.S. support for the Saudi coalition, despite the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

“I believe the best solution in Yemen would be a negotiated solution,” McKenzie said, referring to the ongoing political process led by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. “I believe our ability to participate and drive those discussions require we remain in contact with the UAE and Saudi Arabia.”

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