Outlining a more detailed version of America's endgame in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that as conventional forces slowly withdraw, U.S. special operations units will continue to "hunt and kill" militants and help train Iraqis.
The special operations forces play a central role in Iraq and Afghanistan and are the "connective tissue" between the different military missions, Gates said.
About 5,000 special forces are in Iraq and 3,000 in Afghanistan, accounting for more than 80% of such U.S. troops overseas.
"They will be in Iraq and Afghanistan for an extended period of time," Gates said, as "a force to hunt and kill terrorists, and also as a force to help train Iraqis and Afghans."
Gates and military commanders have described plans for U.S. forces to gradually cede security responsibility to Iraqis and slip into a supervisory role. But Gates' remarks Wednesday, especially on the role of special operations forces, provided new details.
In a speech to a conference of U.S. and international special operations officers, Gates said U.S. officials moved too fast earlier in the war to hand responsibility to Iraqis based on "overly rosy predictions that didn't necessarily line up with reality."
Gates acknowledged frustration over the slow pace of U.S. troop reductions but said a quicker withdrawal could overtax Iraqi forces and erode gains made in the last year.
Top U.S. special operations commanders have said in recent months that they expect to remain in vigorous numbers in Iraq as other U.S. forces decline.
Army Maj. Gen. John Mulholland, who overseas special operations in the Middle East, said it would fall to American special operations forces to provide support to Iraqi units. In addition to advice, he said, the special forces will help provide medical evacuation, communication, intelligence and other support to the Iraqi military.
"We are a natural force to continue to stay in place to train, advise, assist, mentor our counterpart force as conventional forces draw down," Mulholland said.
In years to come, Gates said, involvement of conventional U.S. forces in military conflicts "will, in all likelihood, be on a much, much smaller scale -- with special operations forces as the main component."