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Likely leaders in the battle against Islamic State will have JSOC connections

By Howard Altman | Tampa Tribune, Fla. | Published: January 18, 2016

TAMPA (Tribune News Service) — At some point this year, probably after the current commanders deliver their last annual statements to Congress, the stars will have aligned for Joint Special Operations Command — the Fort Bragg, North Carolina, headquarters of the nation’s hunter-killer apparatus.

Assuming they are all approved by the Senate, it will mean that for the first time, the top three commanders in the battle against the so-called Islamic State, and against other jihadi groups, will all be connected to JSOC.

The most significant change leading to this JSOC Trifecta is the choice of Army Gen. Joseph Votel as head of U.S. Central Command in Tampa, which oversees U.S. military operations in Iraq, Syria and 18 other nations in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

Votel lives next door to the current CENTCOM commander, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III at MacDill Air Force Base, where both commands are headquartered. He will become the first CENTCOM commander to have come from the ranks of Special Operations Forces.

Army Lt. Gen Raymond “Tony” Thomas III is likely to follow the route of JSOC commanders stepping up to take over Socom. Votel and his predecessor, retired Adm. William McRaven, were both JSOC commanders before taking over Socom.

And Maj. Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, current commander of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, will likely get his third star and take over JSOC.

A lot has been said about how this alignment is a signal of the primacy of special operations forces in the nation’s military toolbox.

But even Votel cautions that commandos are but one of many tools.

“I think special operations forces provide a very unique capability and approach to the way we do things, and I think that’s what you see us trying to leverage there,” Votel told reporters Thursday at a MacDill press conference. “That said, I would just tell you that special operations forces, U.S. or otherwise, aren’t in this by ourselves. We are very dependent on our conventional forces, and in fact, we couldn’t do anything without the conventional force support that we get from Gen. Austin and the rest of his components there that is absolutely vital to the things we do.”

Repeating a refrain I’ve heard from his predecessors, Votel said, “we don’t go out and do anything by ourselves, we’re one part of a bigger team.”

JSOC represents one facet of special operations forces — think of the raid by Navy SEALs that took out Osama Bin Laden — or, as McRaven liked to point out, the 11 other direct action missions that night.

Clearly, Obama’s preference, in Iraq, Syria and in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Africa as well (and Yemen before we got kicked out) has been JSOC raids and drone strikes.

While those raids make the headlines, the bulk of what commandos do is train, advise and assist in jobs performed traditionally by Green Berets, the thought being to teach others to fight so we don’t have to.

Beyond the military, Obama has moved the special operations forces ethos over to the State Department. Michael Lumpkin, a retired Navy SEAL who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and became the Pentagon’s point man on special operations, has been moved over to State to take over a sputtering and ineffective messaging campaign against Daesh. The folks at Foggy Bottom have long been adverse to the militarization of the message, but they weren’t getting the job done.

What this will ultimately mean to the nation’s wars against jihadi groups and other violent extremists remains to be seen, however. The JSOC Trifecta will be in place just about a half year before everything changes on Nov. 8.

That’s when the nation elects a new president. And no matter who it is, it won’t be Barack Obama. And on Nov. 9 or sometime very shortly thereafter, whoever wins will have his or her transition team on the phone with the offices of all three commanders, trying to get a handle on the way ahead.

So just as Votel, Thomas and Miller are settling into their new roles, a new boss comes in and hits the reset button.

Not that anyone is fretting. All battle-hardened commanders, they move at the speed of special operations forces and will adapt.

The new commander-in-chief may have a different idea about how to use special operations forces. A new crisis with near-peer adversaries like Russia or China might shuffle the deck altogether.

But whatever happens, whatever the decisions are and whoever is making them, the infrastructure for a special operations forces-influenced military will be there. Just like some presidents try to stack the Supreme Court before they leave, Obama has stacked the military with commanders who will lead a fight that will continue long after he leaves office.

It will be Obama’s legacy, enduring at least through most of the first term of his successor.

haltman@tampatrib.com

©2016 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.)
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Gen. Joseph Votel, left, is expected to replace his next-door neighbor, Gen. Lloyd Austin III, as head of U.S. Central Command.
Stars and Stripes photos

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