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The commander of U.S. Special Operations Command painted a bleak picture of the war in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of operations, but said he was encouraged by the priorities laid out in the Obama administration's strategy for the region, which he said his command fully supports.
The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan "is increasingly dire," Adm. Eric Olson testified during an April 2 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. "Al-Qaida's surviving leaders have proven adept at hiding, communicating and inspiring. Operating in and from remote sites in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaida remains a draw for local and foreign fighters who subscribe to its extremist ideology and criminality."
Meanwhile, the "pervasive" Taliban, "although not militarily strong … have forced and intimidated a mostly benign populace to bend to their will," using methods more akin to "street gangs and mafias" than the "nationalists and keepers of the faith" they pretend to be, Olson said in his prepared remarks.
"Our strategy in Afghanistan must secure the primary urban areas and main routes so that life and legitimate business can begin a return to normalcy," he said. "But Afghanistan is not Iraq, and most of the population is not urban. Security must be felt in the hinterland, provided by Afghan forces supported by small teams of U.S. and NATO troops and enhanced by civilian agencies in a manner that improves local life by local standards. I am encouraged by the prioritization of this approach in the new strategy."
Olson outlined the contributions of special ops forces in each country. In Afghanistan, "special operations activities range from high-tech man-hunting to providing veterinary services for tribal livestock," he said. Reiterating a theme of his tenure in command at SOCOM, Olson said victory in Afghanistan will require both sets of activities, but that the indirect action missions — typically conducted with Special Forces, Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations units working with host nation forces — will be "decisive."
"The direct action missions" — those aimed at capturing or killing enemy fighters - "are urgent and necessary, as they provide the time and space needed for the more indirect counterinsurgency operations to have their decisive effect," Olson said.
An important part of the new administration's strategy is the creation of more "formalized partnerships" between U.S. and Afghan units, he said, noting that a program that pairs U.S. Special Forces 12-man operational detachment — alphas, or A-teams, with Afghan commando units has recently been expanded to "formally partner" SF teams with non-commando Afghan battalions. This expansion "will consume most of the additional special operations force that will be deployed as part of the 17,000 troop increase" to Afghanistan, he added.
Turning to Pakistan, Olson made clear that his command could be doing more in that country, if only the Pakistanis would let them.
"In Pakistan, we continue to work with security forces at the scale and pace set by them, and we are prepared to do more," he said.
Small numbers of U.S. special operators are training Pakistani trainers in that country's North-West Frontier Province, a process that benefited both sets of troops, according to Olson. "While we share much with them, our forces are in turn learning much about our common adversaries and the social complexities of the region," he said. "We stand ready to continue to work with Pakistani forces, and to stand by them for the long term."