U.S. Commanders Cite Pandemic As They Pull Back Elite Units Around The World

U.S. Commanders Cite Pandemic as They Pull Back Elite Units Around the World

The New York Times · by Thomas Gibbons-Neff · April 3, 2020

The move means the withdrawal of Special Operations troops from some conflict zones and shuttering longstanding missions.

U.S. Special Forces personnel in February in Mauritania. The Pentagon is examining whether to scale back the military’s presence in West Africa.Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — American military commanders are using the restrictions imposed by the spread of the coronavirus to reshape the deployment of Special Operations troops all over the world, according to military officials. The decisions mean the withdrawal of elite commandos from some conflict zones and shuttering longstanding missions.

The directives, the officials said, serve two purposes: to reduce the strain on a small but often-deployed portion of the U.S. military after more than 18 years of war, and to contend with the risk of operating alongside local forces in countries flooded with the coronavirus.

These initiatives, started by a handful of generals, provide a preview of what the entire American military might look like in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis. The actions also reflect the thinking of some commanders who see the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic as an opportunity to streamline their forces, cut missions they view as unnecessary and reorient commandos to higher priority operations.

“The crisis is a good opportunity to review our priorities and the value and opportunity costs of all of our efforts,” said Col. Mark E. Mitchell, a retired Green Beret commander who until November was the Pentagon’s top Special Operations policy official.

The moves align with the philosophy of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who has long pushed for ending American missions in far-flung parts of the globe to better focus forces toward Russia and China. But it has created some strains within commands that have been reluctant to lose troops.

In Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of American forces there, is looking to cut down troops even more from the current goal of 8,600 by withdrawing some of those assigned to train and work with Afghan forces. Nearly a half-dozen Special Forces teams — each with roughly 12 Army Green Berets — have been cut since February.

The move was prompted by expectations that cases of the coronavirus would most likely continue to emerge within the Afghan ranks for an indefinite period, presenting a danger to American troops and their relatively small medical infrastructure that was not worth the risk, military officials said.

In Iraq, the American-led coalition has handed over three bases to Iraqi security forces in recent weeks, allowing commanders to pull Special Operations forces back to a handful of larger bases or assign them outside the country.

In a statement, the coalition headquarters in Iraq attributed the drawdown to threats from the growing coronavirus pandemic and a winding down of efforts to train Iraqi forces in the fight against pockets of remaining Islamic State fighters throughout much of the country’s west and northwest.

“To prevent potential spread of Covid-19, the Iraqi security forces have suspended all training,” the coalition said in a statement on March 20. “As a result, the coalition will temporarily return some of its training-focused forces to their own countries in the coming days and weeks.”

Months before the pandemic, U.S. commanders in Iraq, at the urging of Mr. Esper, had drawn up plans to cut American presence in the country to about 2,500 troops from more than 5,000 now.

Those plans took on greater urgency after Iranian-backed militias stepped up deadly rocket attacks against American forces on Iraqi bases, leading to the drone strike in early January at Baghdad International Airport that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a top Iranian commander. General Suleimani’s killing prompted many in Iraq’s Parliament to call for an ouster of U.S. troops from the country, and spurred the Shiite militias to again ramp up their rocket attacks.

Against this backdrop of increased security risks, a pandemic and political tensions, American commanders are taking hard looks at what “mission critical” tasks still remain for their forces in Iraq.

The question of prioritizing Special Operations missions, and not wanting those elite troops idled by a pandemic or political tensions, is one that American commanders worldwide are weighing in secure video conferences with staff on a weekly basis, one senior American general said. The discussions are an inevitable byproduct of a 60-day global no-travel order, issued by the Pentagon, that has allowed many commanders to look at their array of missions and question which are worth continuing.

But some operations with local security forces continue.

In Somalia, for instance, American Special Operations forces are conducting airstrikes and helping Somalian security forces carry out ground raids against Shabab militants aligned with Al Qaeda, considered the most dangerous terrorist threat on the continent. “We are not taking our focus off our operations,” Brig. Gen. Dagvin R.M. Anderson, who commands all American Special Operations forces in Africa, said in an interview.

Even before the pandemic, Special Operations commanders had started re-examining many of their missions with more rigor than previous periodic reviews, officials said.

One main reason is that Mr. Esper is in the early phases of reviewing global deployments that could reshuffle thousands of troops, including Special Operations forces.

Among them, Mr. Esper is weighing proposals for a major reduction of American forces in East and West Africa. An overhaul of deployments in Latin America is also underway.

In West Africa, the primary mission for Special Operations forces has been to train and assist West African security forces to try to suppress Islamist groups like Boko Haram and offshoots of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Mr. Esper’s team has questioned the value of those efforts and wants to scale back missions to counter militants who lack the demonstrated ability and intent to attack the United States on its own soil, the officials said. No terrorist group operating in West Africa is said to meet this heightened assessment standard.

In the past year, the Pentagon has shrunk its forces in Africa by reducing several hundred Special Operations troops on the continent as part of the troop shift.

  • Answers to Your Frequently Asked Questions

    Updated March 24, 2020

    • How does coronavirus spread?

      It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • What makes this outbreak so different?

      Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • What if somebody in my family gets sick?

      If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      Experts are divided on how much protection a regular surgical mask, or even a scarf, can provide for people who aren’t yet sick. The W.H.O. and C.D.C. say that unless you’re already sick, or caring for someone who is, wearing a face mask isn’t necessary. The New York Times and other news outlets have been reporting that the wearing of face masks may not help healthy people, noting that while masks can help prevent the spread of a virus if you are infected, most surgical masks are too loose to prevent inhalation of the virus and the more effective N95 masks, because of shortages at health centers worldwide, should be used only by medical personnel. But researchers are also finding that there are more cases of asymptomatic transmission than were known early on in the pandemic. And a few experts say that masks could offer some protection in crowded places where it is not possible to stay 6 feet away from other people. Masks don’t replace hand-washing and social distancing.

    • Should I stock up on groceries?

      Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • Should I pull my money from the markets?

      That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.

The New York Times · by Thomas Gibbons-Neff · April 3, 2020

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