A U.S. Special Forces Soldier in Afghanistan in a 2016 photo. (US Army/Connor Mendez)

WASHINGTON: The commander of US special operations forces believes that the global terrorist threat has “metastasized” and counterterrorism operations remain a requirement for his forces, even as the Defense Department shifts its focus to the Pacific.

“The threat — I think a good description is metastasized,” Army Gen. Richard Clarke told the Oct. 29 Military Reporters and Editors Association conference. “It’s gone into areas of Africa, where they could seek sanctuary and where there may be some areas of sanctuary that we have to look at. And when I say it is not diminished, I think it’s spread.”

Clarke’s comments come just a few months after the United States’ frantic withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending nearly two decades of war against the Taliban and resulting in the Taliban’s takeover of the country. As the US military pivots to focus on the threats posed by China and Russia, SOCOM’s need to undertake counterterrorism operations “is still a requirement,” Clarke said.

“What we have to be focused on, and I think it’s really important is, what are those specific threats to our interests and our homeland? And while I think we degraded the threats out of Afghanistan, it then spread into other areas of the globe where they could seek sanctuary,” Clarke said. “What we have to prevent is that sanctuary allowing for a future Afghanistan … When I say it’s not diminished. I think it’s actually expanded.”

He told reporters that terror groups in Africa, particularly Al-Shabab in Somalia, are high on the command’s radar. Al-Shabab, an Al-Qaeda-linked group, has demonstrated that its capable of striking outside of Somalia with a string of attacks in recent years in Kenya, including one that killed three Americans at a Kenyan Air Base. Clarke called Al-Shabab the “best resourced, most capable group” inside Africa.

“I don’t see a direct threat to the homeland today, but I think it’s something that we have to be aware of,” Clarke said.

As the military grapples with the aftermath of 20 years of conflict, Clarke said that SOCOM has started a review of lessons learned from Afghanistan. Clarke didn’t go into further detail on the review, saying only that it was an effort to see “what we could have done better in support of the joint force.” The four-star added that parts of the report would be classified and couldn’t commit that a public version would be released, but stressed that the findings will shape SOCOM moving forward.

“We got to take those lessons learned, and where applicable to conditions somewhere else, we have to be able to apply those,” Clarke said.

A common criticism lobbed at Pentagon leaders over the last two months revolve around how the US spent $83 billion since 2002 on training and equipping the Afghan military, only for those forces to rapidly collapse. Given SOCOM’s hand in training special forces units, that’s one area Clark expects to find lessons learned.

“We don’t necessarily need to train with partner forces for what we want them to do,” Clarke said. “We need to train for partner forces of what they need to do for their country and their environment. I think that’s the biggest lesson that we have to take from this, writ large.”

For example, Clarke said that when training special forces in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, the focus is on counter-aggression against a great power. In Africa, partner forces are more likely fighting terrorism and using direct action raids to fight, Clarke said.

“That’s where it’s really important to go what specifically they need,” he noted.



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