WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Four months ago, Admiral William McRaven commanded the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. Now, as the new head of U.S. special forces, he argues that his shadowy, secretive warriors are increasingly central to how America and its allies fight.
When the suntanned, towering SEAL testified to the Congressional House Armed Services Committee in September, just a few weeks after he took over his new role, he used posters detailing the growth of his forces. In the decade since September 11 2001, U.S. Special Operations Command personnel numbers have doubled, its budget tripled and deployments quadrupled.
The Bin Laden takedown is simply the tip of an iceberg of fast-growing, largely hidden action by the United States and its allies. Those with knowledge of such operations say this changing state of warfare could spark a range of unintended consequences, from jeopardizing diplomatic relationships to unwanted, wider wars.
That's not entirely new. Secret wars against communism in Southeast Asia in the 1960s helped spawn larger conventional conflicts. In the 1980s, the "Iran-Contra" arms-for-weapons scandal embarrassed the Reagan administration, while support for Islamist guerrillas fighting Russian occupation in Afghanistan helped produce Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
And it's not just western powers. Just last week, the United States accused Iran of a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador.
The appeal of such tactics is clear. Military operations are far more politically palatable if you keep dead bodies off TV screens. A computer worm planted in Iran's nuclear program, secret help to rebels in Libya, drone strikes to cripple Al Qaeda -- all can achieve the desired effect without massive publicity.
In an era of budget cuts, they are also cheap -- particularly compared with the cost of maintaining and deploying a large conventional military force. McRaven said his 58,000 operatives cost a mere 1.6 percent of the Pentagon's predicted 2012 budget.
"Put simply, (they) provide a tremendous return on the nation's investment," McRaven told the unclassified portion of the Congressional hearing. "The special operations forces have never been more valuable to our nation and allies around the world than they are today, and that demand will not diminish for the foreseeable future."
MORE WARS, FEWER PEOPLE?
The CIA has long retained its own, much smaller band of paramilitary operatives, sometimes operating with military special forces. Their numbers have also risen sharply in recent years to hundreds or even thousands, security experts say. Under its new director, General David Petraeus, the agency is expected to further increase such deniable operations as assassination and sabotage.
Britain, Israel and others are also believed to have renewed their focus on specialist, hidden techniques, and are plowing resources into emerging fields such as cyber warfare.
As the Iraqi and Afghan campaigns ramp down, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines and Mexico are all touted by security and intelligence experts as potential theaters for new operations. U.S. special forces are now deployed in some 75 countries, where their missions range from training to assassinations. Yet even some supporters of the new tactics worry about the lack of public discussion.
"We may find ourselves fighting more wars with fewer people," says John Nagl, a former U.S. Army officer who wrote its counterinsurgency manual and now heads the Center for New American Security, a think tank. "That raises some interesting questions -- like whether we have the right to do that. There is much less public debate. Society doesn't pay the cost and so doesn't ask the questions."
A MODERN WAY OF WAR
Quietly, this approach is already redefining how conflicts are waged. Conventional troop surges might have dominated coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, but behind the scenes the generals were heavily dependent on secret, special operations. Intelligence operators, remote-controlled drones and troops from the SEALS, Delta Force, Britain's SAS and other forces fought hidden campaigns against insurgent leaders and bomb makers, working with local communities to turn conflicts against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their allies.