By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Military chiefs planning the U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan must be careful not to undercut special operations forces by removing too many of the regular units that support them, leaders of the elite service said on Thursday.
Admiral William McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, told a House of Representatives panel his force was heavily dependent on other military services to provide logistics, intelligence, reconnaissance and other support.
"Consequently, as we look at the drawdown in Afghanistan, ... we need to make sure the appropriate infrastructure and enablers remain in place to make SOF (Special Operations Forces) as effective as possible on that battlefield," McRaven told a House Armed Services subcommittee.
Special operators, like those involved in the raid into Pakistan that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, are involved in targeted attacks on the Taliban's leadership and are likely to be among the last to leave Afghanistan.
McRaven said some 10,000 special operators were stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan -- about 85 percent of the number deployed overseas. The remaining 3,000 are stationed in more than 75 countries, helping to develop military capabilities of U.S. partners so they can better deal with their own security.
The size of the U.S. special operations force has grown to 58,000 over the past decade from 33,000, and the importance of the unit is expected to increase in coming years.
Some U.S. leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, have called for a shift away from the kind of counterinsurgency and nation-building strategies practiced in Afghanistan toward the smaller-scale counterterrorism tactics employed by special operators.
But McRaven and Michael Lumpkin, acting assistant defense secretary for special operations, underscored that Special Operations Forces were heavily dependent on the Army, Navy and Air Force to provide logistics and support.
Asked how special operations would be affected by planned budget cuts over the next decade, Lumpkin expressed concern about the impact on the main service branches.
He said the special forces viewed the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines as a primary "talent pool" from which to recruit their members. The other services also supply most of the logistics.
"They provide the support that we need to execute our mission," he said. "While we do have the need for organic combat support and combat service support, we do rely heavily on the general purpose forces."
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Anthony Boadle and Peter Cooney)