WASHINGTON - With the its war effort failing, the U.S. military is planning to elevate Special Operations forces' role in Afghanistan while shifting away from combat to a mission of advising Afghan forces and conducting raids to kill top insurgent leaders, The Washington Post reported Monday.
The new command would be led by Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas, the deputy commander of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the military’s elite counterterrorism forces around the world, the report said.
The new Special Operations command in Afghanistan could eventually take over responsibility for the day-to-day war effort as U.S. troop levels drop in the country and as the United States moves away from its traditional combat role to an effort focused primarily on training and advising Afghan forces.
The plan, which is still being considered, would mark a major change in the war effort, built around big American conventional units working alongside Afghan army and police forces to clear areas of insurgents and reestablish Afghan governance. In many aspects, it resembles a plan advocated by Vice President Joseph Biden in 2009 to focus U.S. efforts on training Afghan forces and killing high-level insurgent leaders.
Biden’s proposal was largely rejected because U.S. military commanders said they needed additional conventional troops to push the Taliban out of major population centers and reverse its momentum.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta referred in broad terms to some of the changes last week when he said that the United States hopes to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by the middle of next year, more than a year earlier than scheduled.
Although Thomas is expected to go to Afghanistan as early as this summer to lead the new Special Operations command, senior U.S. officials cautioned that there has not been a final decision to send him.
The next step in the plan, which involves consolidating all NATO military daily operations of the war under a command led by a Special Operations officer, is still the subject of broad debate in the Pentagon and White House, U.S. officials said.
The move to shift more of the war effort in Afghanistan to Special Operations units was first reported online Saturday by the New York Times on Sunday.
There is still broad debate within the military and the White House over how quickly the United States can shift away from its combat mission and turn over primary responsibility for security to Afghan forces that are still weak.
Although Panetta said the United States hopes to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013, in some parts of eastern Afghanistan, conventional U.S. units could still be involved in heavy combat through 2014 and even into 2015, according to senior military officials in Washington and Kabul.
The Obama administration has said it will bring home about 22,000 troops by September, cutting the overall size of the American force to 68,000. There will be heavy pressure on military commanders to continue the troop reductions into 2013, the Post said.
Currently, the Afghan forces partner with similarly sized U.S. units in areas where the fighting is heaviest. U.S. forces patrol regularly alongside Afghan units and take a leading role when insurgents launch attacks.
As American troop levels drop, U.S. commanders will by necessity have to rely more heavily on Afghan units to operate with minimal support from big, conventional Army and Marine units.
Senior military officials said they will begin pairing up small, U.S.-led advisory teams with the more capable Afghan forces this spring. The full complement of U.S. advisory teams should be in place by early 2013, according to the report.