Why you should care
This is the guy who made the plan to get Osama bin Laden — and he’s fighting for the future of counterterrorism to go down the way he thinks it should.
Legend has it that when an American stealth helicopter went down in Osama bin Laden’s backyard that fateful night in Pakistan three years ago, Adm. William McRaven’s pulse didn’t even quicken. McRaven, the man who orchestrated the now-famous raid, was monitoring its progress from Afghanistan and watched video of the crash, which could have jeopardized the entire mission, unfold in real time. Describing the incident himself the following summer, the four-star Navy admiral recalled simply being too busy to let nerves creep in.
“I mean, we had a backup plan,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer at a session of the Aspen Security Forum in July 2012. “We executed the backup plan.”
“And it worked,” Blitzer chimed in.
“It worked,” McRaven nodded, his tone clipped, matter-of-fact.
That “I do this every day” attitude is not a front. McRaven — now the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command or SOCOM, overseeing all of the military’s special forces — pointed out at the Aspen forum that on the night of the bin Laden raid, his forces conducted 11 other clandestine raids to nab bad guys in Afghanistan. The bin Laden operation, he quipped, was just “a little more sporty.”
Pair that bone-dry sense of humor with the self-assuredness that comes from being a former Navy Seal — and the military cachet that comes with being the commander in charge of all of America’s elite special forces soldiers, and you can start to see why McRaven has emerged as something of a rock star — in the same way that four-star Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal were once regarded (before their falls from grace).
The news out of Washington this week is that McRaven has been approved for retirement from SOCOM; the president has already nominated a successor. But at just 58 years old, it’s hard to see the charismatic military leader stepping away from public life. While the Pentagon has been mum on his future plans, one could easily picture him being appointed to a top civilian post, like Petraeus was at the CIA. Or maybe even a run for political office?
McRaven is bringing the full force of his position and his personality to a new fight: shaping the future of America’s battle against terror worldwide.
It doesn’t hurt that he looks like he’s straight from a 1950s Navy recruitment poster — square jaw, cleft chin, a lanky build that hints at his University of Texas track team days, and a booming bass voice that, had he not pursued a military career, almost certainly would have landed him a job anchoring the local evening news. “When you’re in the room with him, you have this sort of sense that the man is incredibly confident, incredibly capable and incredibly lethal,” says Janine Davidson, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who overlapped with McRaven at the Pentagon. “You just sort of feel it.”
Now, the bin Laden raid in his rearview mirror and the war in Afghanistan winding down, McRaven has been bringing the full force of his position and his personality to a new fight: shaping the future of America’s battle against terror worldwide. And he’s up against not just foreign jihadis but military bureaucracy and conflicting priorities here in the United States as defense funding continues to drop. To help pursue his vision, the admiral has tried to expand his authority over both the budget and the special forces stationed around the globe, with mixed success thus far. But the trend he’s set in motion is likely to outlast his own time at SOCOM.
It was only a few months after the bin Laden raid that McRaven assumed the helm of the Special Operations Command.
One of nine commands in the U.S. military, McRaven refers to it as “the department of defense’s synchronizer for the war on terrorism.” Specifically, SOCOM is responsible for coordinating the specially trained fighters in each service branch (Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Green Berets, and so on) capable of going behind enemy lines and conducting other highly sensitive operations. In the military, euphemisms like “irregular warfare” or “kinetic” activity or “direct action” describe what special forces do. But it all means pretty much the same thing: taking the fight to the Taliban, Somalia’s al-Shabab or Yemen’s al-Qaida branch on their home turf, and using lethal force if necessary.
It’s a tactic that’s been on the rise since Sept. 11, 2001, though the command itself has been around since its creation under President Kennedy. Special operations forces were the first to go into Afghanistan, coordinating with like-minded Afghans to overthrow the Taliban late in 2001, and continued to play a key role both in the war there and in Iraq. In addition to these lethal operations, they’ve been tasked with interacting with local forces not just in Afghanistan and Iraq but throughout Africa, the Middle East and South America (more than 75 countries total), winning over the populations and helping train foreign fighters to combat terrorists in their midst.
Since taking over, McRaven has argued that these small-scale, “light footprint” operations, combined with training partnerships, are the future of U.S. counterterror strategy. The way to keep the pressure on extremists, he told members of Congress in a hearing this week, “is by building partner capacity so that the host nation where the extremists live, they can take care of their own security problems.”
He added, however, “We’re always going to have to be in a position to conduct direct action against those irreconcilables.”
Translation: taking out the bad guys ourselves.
It’s an approach that has a distinct appeal on Capitol Hill and in the White House, where politicians are all too aware of the public’s war fatigue and are looking for narrow, low-cost ways to tackle security challenges while still demonstrating to Americans that they’re tough on terror. As Davidson puts it, special operations tactics offer the promise of “big effect, small cost.” And McRaven makes for a compelling salesman.
“His goal of building up capacity in indigenous populations that have the willingness to take on radical Islam is invaluable,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said in an interview last week. “He’s not a cowboy.… He’s probably the most measured guy I’ve ever met. He’s got the heart of a SEAL and the mind of Henry Kissinger.”
Given the uncertain budget environment, there are no guarantees that McRaven’s special forces will be able to maintain the sort of global reach he envisions.
President Obama, too, “is a huge fan of SOF (Special Operations Forces) and definitely views it as one of the tools in his toolkit,” says Dr. Kathleen Hicks, a former undersecretary of defense in the Obama administration. “You’ll see that in his speeches, you’ll see that in his national security strategies.”
You can also see it in the budgets, where funding for special ops has nearly quintupled since 2001, according to a report published last year, despite the fact that defense spending as a whole is going down. That growth is slowing now but is still above the rest of the service branches. And while the Pentagon is looking at cutting Army personnel levels back to pre-World War II levels, special operations personnel are slated to increase over the next five years.
Given the uncertain budget environment, however, there are no guarantees that McRaven’s special forces will be able to maintain the sort of global reach he envisions to combat an increasingly fragmented terrorist threat. The competition for resources is intense, and American efforts to focus attention in Asia, where the main threat is major conflict with China, could render special operations capabilities less relevant. And then there are doubts about special forces’ ability to effectively train thousands of foreign security forces.
McRaven also lacks the authority he would need to truly deploy special forces around the world — that’s up to the commanders who oversee the six different regional commands that cover the globe. His push to expand his power has ruffled feathers both within the military and among some in Congress.
Supporters, however, say leaders have to stir the pot to get anything done in Washington. Graham and others see his aggressiveness as a good thing and argue for expanding his authority.
With no end to the Pentagon budget cuts in sight, the military is in for a pretty radical reinvention, one way or another. If McRaven continues to secure the kind of political support to expand his budget and his authority, he and his special forces could come to define the way the U.S. military conducts counterterrorism for decades to come. And he may just secure another promotion while he’s at it.
Updated July 2 to reflect Adm. McRaven’s pending retirement from the military’s Special Operations Command.