The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

Special Operations Chiefs Quietly Sway Afghanistan Policy

Last updated: 07/31/2020 08:00 | 11/10/2009 03:22
Kenzo Norman

Vice Admirals William McRaven and Robert Harward ( Vice Admirals William McRaven and Robert Harward (

Two senior military officers from the shadowy world of Special Operations are playing a large and previously unreported role in shaping the Obama administration’s Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy, a move that underscores that the internal debate has moved past a rigid choice between expansive missions to provide security for Afghan civilians and narrowly tailored missions to find and kill terrorists.

[Security1]Navy Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command  (JSOC) at Ft. Bragg, N.C., and Vice Adm. Robert S. Harward, the deputy leader of the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., are attending and informing the strategy meetings that the White House began in September to refine its approach in Afghanistan. Both men have deep ties to Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in the war. They are said to favor large infusions of U.S. troops to Afghanistan for performing counterinsurgency operations in select population centers, but they also advocate marshalling forces to pursue terrorists across Afghanistan’s rugged, mountainous terrain — a task in which McRaven plays a key role.

Debate about a “purely counterterrorism strategy” advocated by Vice President Joseph Biden was “bounced around at one point, but that has been cast aside,” said a National Security Council staffer who attends the meetings and who asked for anonymity because the debate is still ongoing, “mostly because JSOC has said ‘We’re going to do this anyway.’ And it’s not like they’re going to be in a supporting role.” Biden’s advice, which had practically no support from the armed services, was that the military should shy away from protecting the Afghan people and helping build Afghan governing institutions, and instead focus on the JSOC specialties of going after terrorists directly.

Yet the fact that JSOC veterans like McRaven, Harward and McChrystal favor an overall counterinsurgency strategy with a counterterrorism component demonstrates that the military no longer believes distinguishing between the two is tenable in the Afghanistan war. “Special Operations Forces that were traditionally used for counterterrorism better understand how their capabilities fit into a counterinsurgency campaign than perhaps they did when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began,” said Andrew Exum, a veteran of both wars and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who over the summer advised McChrystal in a review of Afghanistan strategy.

More directly, McRaven and Harward share a professional fraternity with McChrystal. Before McRaven took over JSOC — an entity that operates almost entirely in secret — McChrystal ran it for five years, supervising stealthy teams in Afghanistan and Iraq that tracked down and killed senior terrorists like al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. One of McChrystal’s deputies during that period was Harward, and the bonds between the officers remain strong. “General McChrystal and Vice Admirals McRaven and Harward have established relationships through the special operations community,” said McChrystal’s spokesman, Air Force Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis.

In his Afghanistan review, McChrystal said that a key goal for him would be to increase coordination between his NATO command and the independent command of JSOC, which suggested that the dichotomy between using Special Operations Forces for counterterrorism and conventional forces for counterinsurgency was eroding. “One of General McChrystal’s priorities is seeking greater unity of effort across all military activities in Afghanistan, which includes regular interaction with ISAF Joint Command, regional, and task force commanders,” Sholtis said, using the acronym for NATO’s military command in Afghanistan.

As a result, McChrystal is turning to McRaven and Harward for critical tasks in Afghanistan. McRaven runs a secretive detachment of Special Forces known as Task Force 714 — once commanded by McChrystal himself — that the NSC staffer described as “direct-action” units conducting “high-intensity hits.” In an email, Sholtis said that because Task Force 714 was a “special ops organization” he “can’t go into much detail on authorities, etc.” But the NSC staffer — who called McRaven “McChrystal Squared” — said Task Force 714 was organized into “small groups of Rangers going wherever the hell they want to go” in Afghanistan and operating under legal authority granted at the end of the Bush administration that President Obama has not revoked.

In a move signaling his own importance to McChrystal, Harward will arrive in Afghanistan later this month to command a new task force, known as Task Force 435, that will take charge of detention facilities in Afghanistan, “primarily the new one at Bagram that will open this month,” Sholtis said. In his famous August strategy review, McChrystal wrote that detention operations are “critical to successful counterinsurgency operations” and need to work toward “the long-term goal of getting the U.S. out of the detention business” through transition to Afghan control — a counterinsurgency task not traditionally given to a Special Operations veteran like Harward. McChrystal’s strategy recommended creating a new command, which Harward will now lead, of “approximately 120 personnel” focused on “defeat[ing] the insurgency through intelligence collection and analysis,” prisoner de-radicalization, and working with the Afghan corrections apparatus to “employ best correctional practices [and] comply with Afghan laws.”

Last month, McChrystal delivered a request for additional troops to the Obama administration for the Afghanistan war. The request, structured as a palette of options from which the president could choose, included so-called “high-risk” options of numbers as low as 10,000 new combat troops and a so-called “low-risk” option of an 85,000-troop reinforcement. Participants in the discussions have said on background that they viewed the 85,000-troop request as an unserious option meant to clear the way for Obama to approve a middle course of around 40,000 new troops.

But while the media has typically discussed a counterterrorism approach in Afghanistan as a low-troop option, the two counterterrorism-experienced admirals are both said to favor “as many troops as we can muster,” according to the NSC staffer, who specified that McRaven and Harward were pushing for McChrystal’s largest resource option of 85,000 new troops. A senior administration official who requested anonymity said that the Obama administration was not considering a troop escalation of more than 40,000 combat troops. (It is possible that support and logistical units could increase any troop number that the administration cites as the total estimate, as happened when President Bush announced a troop surge to Iraq of about 20,000 troops in January 2007 but about 28,000 new troops actually deployed.) On Saturday, McClatchy Newspapers reported that Obama is leaning toward an increase of 34,000 troops. An announcement is expected shortly after Obama returns from a trip to Asia on Nov. 20.

The advice of McRaven and Harward to the White House strategy review, the staffer said, was to push for a “heavy, heavy, heavy COIN [counterinsurgency] presence” in select population centers like the capitol city of Kabul, while relying on new or expanded counterterrorism units like Task Force 714 for hunting and killing terrorists outside of those population centers — particularly in areas like the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a key transit point for Taliban and al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents.

“They’re focusing on the main population centers that they think they can save with manpower on the ground, and everything else will be crossborder,” the NSC staffer said. An executive order signed by George W. Bush in mid-2008 and not revoked by Obama authorized special forces to, in some cases, cross the Afghan border into Pakistan in pursuit of top insurgent targets. “JSOC is already ramping up for that. … These are what they call kinetic, direct-action task forces,” military terminology to describe intense fighting with small units. The prospect of crossborder raids by U.S. military forces has been greeted in Pakistan as an offensive violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

The two admirals are also said to be influential with Jim Jones, Obama’s national security adviser. McRaven, at least, worked with Jones in a previous assignment, commanding Special Operations Forces in Europe in 2006 while Jones was ending his tour of duty as NATO commander. “A lot of people think Jones is not taking military counsel, that he’s anti-surge, he’s this, he’s that,” said the NSC staffer. “In reality, he’s taking counsel from pretty much a purely military palette of people, including McRaven.”

Asked about McRaven’s role in the strategy debates, Ken McGraw, a spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees JSOC, said, “It would not be appropriate for us to comment on who may or may not be involved in discussions at the White House or what may or may not have been the substance of conversations at the White House.” A spokesman for the Joint Forces Command did not return repeated phone and email messages seeking comment about Harward. A spokesman for the National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment about Jones’ interactions with Harward and McRaven.

The bonds between McChrystal and the two admirals may not have been widely known because of the secrecy surrounding almost all aspects of JSOC, but the Obama administration is getting a sense of their strength. “Harward and McChrystal were running JSOC,” said the NSC staffer, “and all three of them [have been] in the nether regions forever.”

Kenzo Norman | Kenzo is a journalist-turned-marketer who is fascinated by how storytelling and targeted marketing can result in content that changes businesses. He is responsible for implementing inbound marketing strategies that help his clients raise brand awareness, generate leads, and gain new customers as an Account Executive. Jason enjoys reading on the beach, tracking down mono records, and playing guitar when he is not working.


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