So while Central Command has been well-staffed to orchestrate special operations since 9/11, other theaters have had to plan and organize on a relative shoestring. "We probably made a bit of a mistake by not treating Colombia, the Philippines, Yemen, Pakistan as 'campaign quality' problems that we ought to put the same quality of staff [planning and resources] against," said Brig. Gen. Ferdinand Irizarry, deputy commander of the Army's Special Warfare Center, at the NDIA conference. That's a level of attention now needed for Mali, he said.
Since 9/11, the once-marginalized Special Operations Command has nearly doubled its personnel to over 60,000, quadrupled its budget to over $10 billion, and played a starring role in the movieZero Dark Thirty. But, except for a few top-priority missions like the raid that killed Bin Laden, the Special Operations Command doesn't actually run most special operations.
Instead, SOCOM lends out most of its special operations forces to theater commanders around the world, who manage the vast majority of missions. The problem is that -- outside of Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees Iraq and Afghanistan -- those theater headquarters are short of both SOF units to conduct missions and SOF-trained staff officers to plan them. And to compound the problem, the rules under which special operators operate vary from theater to theater and even country to country.
"Too much of the time, we are asking people in the field to get their lawyers together and navigate through some legal morass in order to get the job done," Thornberry said in a recent speech to a special operations conference hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association. Sorting through the technicalities, he said, "your head can start to swim."
"The hearing this week is a beginning," Thornberry told AOL Defense in a follow-up interview. HASC staff aren't drafting any specific proposals yet. In fact, given how complexly the legal and organizational issues cross jurisdictional boundaries -- between the Pentagon and the State Department, between the military's global Special Operations Command and its geographical theater combatant commanders, and between different panels on the House Armed Services Committee itself -- "it may take two years," Thornberry said.
So before Congress is finished, some of the authorities authorizing SOCOM and other military missions may actually expire. As the military draws down in Afghanistan and seeks both to "pivot" to the Pacific and reengage around the world, critical funding lines and legal authorities are limited in space and time to the war against al-Qaeda. Many depend, ultimately, on the Sept. 18, 2011 "authorization of the use of military force... against those nations, organizations, or persons [which] planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."
"There may come a time when the core al-Qaeda responsible for 9/11 doesn't really exist anymore," Thornberry told the NDIA conference, "[but] we have not yet been successful in updating the authorization for the use of military force."
Of course, civil libertarians, peace activists, and those anxious about what they call the militarization of American foreign policy would happily let these authorities expire. Thornberry, however, argues that assisting foreign partners around the planet would actually reduce the pressure for the US itself to play the world's policeman.
"I would prefer that it's not the US military that has to be everywhere," said Thornberry -- but, at the same time, "[that] we don't just wait until it hits us here at home like on 9/11." Instead of sending large US forces abroad, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, Thornberry would rather send small special forces teams to train friendly countries to secure their neighborhoods themselves.
That so-called "indirect approach" has become increasingly attractive to policymakers appalled by the human and fiscal costs of having large US forces in direct combat for a decade.
"We don't need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad or occupy other nations," President Barack Obama said last night in his State of the Union address. "Instead, we'll need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat."