Special Ops Staying Put in the Horn – For Now



The United States’ top special operations officer raised eyebrows Jan. 27 when he suggested that America might replace its special operations forces in the Horn of Africa, a hotbed of Islamist fighters, with conventional troops — a major shift that could make it harder for the United States to track and kill some of its most dangerous adversaries.

At issues are the elite troops, including Navy SEALs and operators from the Army’s Delta Force, who have spent years in the Horn fighting al Qaeda’s East Africa cell and al-Shabab, the Islamist militant group that controls large swaths of Somalia. They have conducted missions ranging from installing signals intelligence gear in Mogadishu, positioning high-tech cameras along the Somali shoreline, and launching direct action raids against leading Islamist commanders, such as the September 14, 2009 helicopter attack that killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an al Qaeda leader in East Africa.

Joint Special Operations Command, which controls the most elite special ops units, also keeps a force in Djibouti ready for missions across the Bab-el-Mandeb strait into Yemen, so a complete special ops withdrawal from the Horn would also complicate the counterterrorism fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, where a U.S. drone strike Thursday killed Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari, AQAP’s spiritual leader, and three other militants.

Now, military spokespeople are trying to walk back the comments, insisting that Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), “was just stating an opinion” and that the elite forces won’t be leaving anytime soon.

“There are no major changes planned in the near term, and there will likely be a role for SOCOM forces in each region over the long term,” Army Col. Mark Cheadle, the spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, told Foreign Policy.

The issue arose during a question-and-answer session with Votel after a speech he gave to the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict symposium in Washington. Votel was asked about conventional troops taking over missions that traditionally belonged to special operations forces (SOF).

“As I look at areas like the Horn of Africa, where we’ve had SOF forces for some time now, I think we are beginning to get to a point where we can in fact take our SOF forces out of there and allow conventional forces … to come in and assist with those longer-term efforts to sustain security and capability with our partners down there,” Votel said.

In an email reply to questions from Foreign Policy, Cheadle said that Votel “does not want to take all SOF” out of the Horn of Africa. U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Army Col. Thomas Davis said that there was “no plan or initiative” to pull special ops out of the Horn and that any decision about the future would be made by Army Gen. David Rodriguez, the head of Africa Command.

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