This being an election year, the most oft-quoted line of SOCOM Commander Adm. William H. McRaven’s discussion July 26 at the opening of the 2012 Aspen Security Forum which ended Saturday is likely to be his comment that “the president of the United States is fantastic.”
“Again, I am not a political guy,” McRaven continued. “I’ve worked in both administrations. I very, very much enjoyed working for President Bush, and I very much enjoy working for President Obama. And this isn’t about politics. This is about a commander in chief who I have the opportunity to engage with on a routine basis, and watching him and the decisions he makes, along with his national security team. They’re an impressive group of guys and gals. So as an operational commander, I feel comfortable that when we present our best military advice to the president and his team, they take it very seriously. They consult routinely with the senior leadership of the military, and they do the best they can to make the right decision.”
That quote is just a small, if notable, part of what his far-ranging discussion, moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer covered. Of more interest to those who follow defense news were his views on Afghan forces and the role special operations forces play across the globe.
McRaven’s discussion, titled “At the Point of the Spear: The Role of Special Operations Forces in America’s Post-9/11, Post-Iraq/Afghanistan Defense Strategy,” opened the three-day forum, whose aim is to debate the key issues of the day related to homeland security, counterterrorism, national security, and foreign policy. With the increasingly high profile role that U.S. special operations forces are taking across the globe there was no one better than McRaven to open the forum. He has discussed some of the things he touched upon in previous interviews and at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) in Tampa, Fla. this past May, but McRaven also covered some new ground.
“We Trust Them 100 Percent”
With recent cases of “green-on-blue” shootings between Afghan forces and NATO allies making headlines, McRaven was asked about the quality of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Referring to the ANSF, McRaven said, “when you spend time with the guys that we spend time with, you realize they are just as patriotic, just as committed, just as tough, just as courageous as the American soldier that’s partnered with them.”
That is high praise for security forces that have faced persistent doubts from politicians, military leaders, and the general public of a host of nations. McRaven went on to mention that he trusts the Afghan forces 100 percent and that, “for the folks that we work with, I don’t think trust has ever been an issue.” Even with the developing capability of Afghan special operations forces, that comment is sure to elicit some debate.
“You Can’t Surge Trust”
McRaven also broke down the role special operations forces play worldwide. He repeatedly emphasized that special operations forces are deployed to 79 countries and that the majority of their missions are not combat, but rather capacity-building. “There is a whole spectrum of things that special operations do that rarely get the press’s attention because it’s not ‘sexy,” McRaven said. Some of those less sexy operations are building infrastructure, training foreign militaries, and civil affairs. These types of missions may not grab the headlines, but help prevent partner nations from spinning out of control. “We’re trying to teach other nations how to deal with their own problems so they don’t grow violent extremists,” McRaven said.
McRaven touched on another mantra of the special operations community when he said, “you can’t surge trust.” By that McRaven means everywhere SOCOM goes it focuses on building trust and maintaining human relationships with partner nations. This is something that U.S. special operations forces are especially equipped to handle with a “small footprint, we don’t take a lot of guys to do that, and pretty cost effective,” McRaven said.
One thing that made McRaven’s discussion unique was having it moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. That and some of the audience questions opened the range of topics to include things that McRaven doesn’t make a habit of commenting on. Some examples of this had to do with gays in the military, the Arab Spring, and women in the military.
On gays in the military McRaven gave a very straightforward answer that, “at the end of the day, all we care about is whether you carry your rucksack and you do your job.”
Regarding the Arab Spring that has encountered some rough patches recently McRaven gave an opinion that shows his obvious knowledge of history. “It took us a long time as a nation to build a strong democracy, and it will probably take them some time,” he said.
When he was asked about women in the military, McRaven highlighted their roles in SOCOM and gave them high praise. “We have a lot of females who serve in special operations,” he noted. “They do a fantastic job across the board. … We couldn’t do the job without them.” In the macho world of the military and especially special operations the roles women in uniform play are sometimes overlooked. Not so with McRaven.
If you want to watch the entire discussion it’s available for viewing on the Aspen Institute’s website.