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McChrystal Consolidates Control of Special Forces in Afghanistan

Buried on page B-2 of an annex in Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Aug. 30 strategic assessment of the Afghanistan war is a vague promise about how he will run it. “Draft C2 guidance for command and control of special operations forces will be issued soon,” McChrystal writes. That forthcoming order will “direct the realignment of all SOF” to his command.

As a former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, McChrystal has deep experience with the autonomy that special forces can enjoy on a battlefield, answering to their own chain of command. The ability of Special Operations Forces to do their own thing can contribute to high-profile successes such as the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, perhaps McChrystal’s greatest success, and also to high-profile abuses such as the torture at Camp Nama in Iraq, perhaps the biggest stain on McChrystal’s reputation (and something for which he claims not to have been aware.)

I had no luck finding out if McChrystal ever issued that guidance regarding SOF. Over the past several months, though, it appeared as if JSOC was still doing its own thing, as prominent incidents of civilian casualties implicating special forces accumulated, contradicting McChrystal’s most important strategic directives. And it also appeared as if JSOC used the pursuit of high-value terrorist targets in “remote areas” of Afghanistan as a supplementary force to McChrystal’s efforts at securing Afghan population centers.

But two chains of command in a war rarely work, especially when one command isn’t concerned with protecting a population that the other calls “strategically decisive.” And so The New York Times reports today that McChrystal has finally consolidated control of Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. It probably helps that he has what his staff calls “established relationships through the special operations community” with Vice Adm. William McRaven, the current JSOC commander. But according to the Times, he doesn’t have total control:

Only detainee operations and “very small numbers of U.S. S.O.F.,” or Special Operations forces, are exempted from the directive, Admiral Smith said. That is believed to include elite groups like the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s Seals.

It’s unclear to me why those exemptions exist — especially for detainee operations, which is a red flag. I have emails out and will update when I know something. McChrystal’s chief of detainee operations, Vice Adm. Robert Harward — himself a JSOC veteran — told me in January that all detainees under his command “have access to the International [Committee of the] Red Cross.” But he couldn’t speak to what happened to those outside his command. I’ll update when I know more about why this exemption exists.

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