Fewest number of special ops forces deployed since 2001 as Pentagon reviews decisions to draw down troops

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 25, 2021

There are now fewer special operations forces deployed around the globe than at any point since the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the commander of U.S. special operations said Thursday.

Some 5,000 U.S. special operators were deployed in about 62 countries as of Thursday, Army Gen. Richard Clarke, the SOCOM commander, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. The deployment total represented about a 15% decrease in forward special operations forces compared with 2020 levels, he said.

The decreasing deployment of special operations forces is representative of several recent changes. Among them is an attempt to reduce the demand on special operators following a culture review last year that Clarke ordered to address high-profile discipline issues among his elite troops. The smaller deployment numbers are also reflective of efforts by former President Donald Trump to scale back U.S. military forces in several countries.

Some of those Trump administration actions, including its decision after the 2020 election in November to remove nearly all American troops from Somalia, are under review by President Joe Biden’s national security team, said Christopher Maier, the acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.

The United States had some 700 troops, mostly special operators, deployed to Somalia to aid local forces battling the al-Qaida-aligned al-Shabab terrorist network that is prominent there. While some of the troops removed from Somalia were relocated to Kenya or other nearby countries, some were removed from Africa, a decision Maier said the Pentagon is revisiting. He did not indicate whether he expected additional special operations troops to return to Somalia, but he said he believed there was “significant downside” to the withdrawal.

Maier, who testified alongside Clarke on Thursday, served as the Pentagon’s point person under Trump in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group until he was forced out of his job after the election in November. The Biden administration in January tapped him as the top civilian to oversee special operations until it nominated a permanent person for the position.

There are likely fewer special operations forces working in other locations now than in recent years, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Trump also ordered post-election troop drawdowns. Neither Clarke nor Maier said specifically how many special operators remained in those countries and the Pentagon did not immediately return a request Thursday for such data.

Clarke, however, said Afghanistan’s special operations forces, which have long been considered the nation’s most effective troops against the Taliban and terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida, still require U.S. special operations support. He told senators that the capabilities that U.S. special operators provide Afghan special forces were “critical to their success” against the Taliban when asked if Afghan forces could hold off the insurgent group if all American troops left the country.

The United States faces a May 1 deadline to remove its forces from Afghanistan under an agreement forged with the Taliban by the Trump administration. However, top U.S. officials, including Clarke on Thursday, have said the Taliban have failed to live up to their commitments in that February 2020 pact and have increased violent attacks on Afghan forces since reaching it.

Biden has yet to say publicly whether he will remove troops by May 1. He said last week that it would be “tough” to meet it, and he has previously advocated for keeping a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan. On Thursday, however, Biden told reporters at the White House that he did not envision U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2021.

Despite the two-decade focus on counterterrorism operations largely in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa, Clarke testified Thursday that SOCOM has increased its focus on the Pentagon’s primary objective countering the growing power of strategic competitors, namely China and Russia.

For special operations forces, some of which primarily work to train partner-nation militaries, the access and influence often works to counter Chinese and Russian efforts to expand their own influence, the general said.

Clarke used the example of the Philippines, where continued U.S.-Filipino counterterrorism work deters attempts by other powerful nations to influence that country.

“With both access and placement in other countries around the globe, counterterrorism can also equate to great-power competition,” he said. “In some place like in the Philippines, where we have access … helping the Filipinos fight ISIS, it allows us also to be involved in great-power competition there.”

Some 40% of deployed special operations forces are focused now on great-power competition, Maier said.

Meanwhile, he said, SOCOM leaders are working to get special operators more time at home stations, where they can be with their families.

Some 90% of the SOCOM force is now spending twice as much time at their home station than deployed, which Maier characterized as a major improvement within the force.

The improvement in what is known as deployment-to-dwell time comes among other improvements that SOCOM leaders have tried to instill since Clarke’s review of ethics and culture in the community found, among other issues, that special operators were focused too much on deployments and combat missions “at the expense of the training and development of our force.”

That review came after a series of high-profile cases involving special operators, including accusations of war crimes and sexual assaults committed downrange. In one case, Navy SEALs and Marine Raiders were accused of killing a Green Beret in Mali. Two of those SEALs and one Raider have since pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges in the 2017 death of Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar. In exchange, they received prison sentences ranging from one to 10 years. One Marine Raider still awaits trial in the case on charges that include murder.

Clarke’s review concluded the deployment-to-dwell ratio imbalance was one in a series of factors that “set conditions for unacceptable conduct to occur due to a lack of leadership, discipline, and accountability.”

He has since deployed smaller teams overseas, he said Thursday, to allow special operations leaders more time with their units at home station to oversee training.

“The [deployed] leadership was not engaged and present,” Clarke said. “At the end of the day … it's about engaged leadership to reduce the amount of incidents that SOF was having.”

Twitter: @CDicksteinDC