Weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, a small team of Green Berets was quietly sent to the Philippine island of Basilan. There, one of the world’s most virulent Islamic extremist groups, Abu Sayyaf, had established a dangerous haven and was seeking to extend its reach into the Philippine capital.
But rather than unleashing Hollywood-style raids, as might befit their reputation, the Green Berets proposed a time-consuming plan to help the Philippine military take on the extremist group itself. Seven years later, Abu Sayyaf has been pushed out of Basilan and terrorist attacks have dropped dramatically.
“It’s not flashy, it’s not glamorous, but man, this is how we’re going to win the long war,” said Lt. Gen. David P. Fridovich, the Army officer who designed the Philippine program.
Fridovich is part of a quiet but significant transformation taking place within the most secret of the U.S. military’s armed forces, the Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, which encompasses the Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Delta Force and similar units from the Air Force and the Marines.
SOCOM Commander Adm. Eric T. Olson, who was appointed to the post in July 2007, is shifting emphasis away from the high-profile raids that were the hallmark of the early years of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. Instead, Olson has stressed “indirect action”: training friendly militaries to better fight terrorism and violent separatists within their own borders.
In his first extended interview since becoming SOCOM leader, Olson acknowledged that secretive “direct action” operations remained “urgent and necessary.”
But, he added: “They are not by themselves decisive in the long term.”
Olson is renowned within the tightly knit SOCOM world as leader of a team that in 1993 led trapped Army units out of a fierce firefight in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu, a rescue retold in the book “Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War.”
Shortly after that, he headed SEAL Team Six, the Navy’s super-secret anti-terrorism unit.
An internal debate
Yet Olson has argued that headline-making U.S.-led attacks can be counterproductive, angering locals and undermining domestic leaders.
“We pride ourselves, for good reason, on our ability to respond to the sound of guns,” Olson said in the interview at his headquarters on a sprawling Air Force base on the outskirts of Tampa, Fla. “We also pride ourselves on our ability to move ahead of the sound of guns. If we can move ahead of the sound of guns, and prevent them, we’re all better off.”
The debate over whether American strategy should focus on direct or indirect action is a central point of contention within the Bush administration and among counter-terrorism experts at the Pentagon and the CIA, and the tensions are most acute in U.S. policy toward Pakistan.
Advocates of more frequent unilateral U.S. action there have bumped up against those urging “strategic patience” when dealing with the new government in Islamabad.
Olson declined to discuss his views on Pakistan, as did his subordinates at SOCOM headquarters who cited ongoing discussions among policymakers.
Pentagon officials familiar with internal debates said that Olson has not shied away from direct action in Pakistan when it is backed by solid intelligence. But he also has advocated for improvements in training and support for Pakistani forces so they could themselves better deal with militants, the officials said.
“He’s a realist,” said one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely with Olson on Pakistan issues. “Some of these guys are not realists. They want to do something just so it appears we’re doing something.”
Supporters of Olson’s approach point to progress in the Philippines and elsewhere. The dramatic rescue of 15 hostages by the Colombian military in July was similarly striking because that military has trained for years under U.S. Special Forces teams to combat the leftist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The success of indirect action depends on strong, long-term ties to foreign militaries. But the demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it more difficult to cultivate those relationships. Nearly 80% of Special Operations deployments go to the Middle East or central Asia, representing a “vacuum that’s sucked away some of our forces from other countries,” Olson said.
Olson also must contend with the fallout from pre-Sept. 11 U.S. sanctions against countries plagued by terrorism that barred the U.S. military from working with local armed forces.
“You can go ahead and figure out where those places might be, but there’s opportunity we might have missed there,” said Fridovich, who declined to name specific countries.
U.S. officials in the past punished Indonesia for military abuses in East Timor and targeted Pakistan for unauthorized nuclear testing.
Olson’s views on strategy are especially significant because SOCOM has been given a central role in the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. In a series of directives, culminating in the classified “CONPLAN 7500,” the military’s contingency plans for the global war on terrorism, SOCOM has become the Pentagon’s lead agency for synchronizing planning among the military’s regional commanders. (Olson has put Fridovich in charge of the synchronization effort.)
The role does not give SOCOM direct command of troops fighting in war zones; however, Olson and Fridovich help shape Pentagon priorities.
In August, for instance, Olson was among a small group of American officers who secretly met on a U.S. aircraft carrier with top Pakistani military officials.
Even with their new power, SOCOM leaders acknowledge that others remain skeptical of the slow, persistent approach. But Olson said those opinions were changing, partly because of the success of new approaches in Iraq.
“I think there’s much less institutional resistance now than there might have been a few years ago,” Olson said.