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

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

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

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.