The United States has secretly taken steps to increase the effectiveness of its military forces in fighting Al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups, according to a report carried today by "The New York Times."
The report quotes U.S. officials and military documents as revealing that the head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, signed a directive on September 30 authorizing clandestine military activity to gather intelligence and build ties with local forces.
The directive authorizes the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa – including key countries like Iran.
Neither the Defense Department nor the White House are commenting, but "The Times" quotes unnamed officials as saying that the intelligence-based military activities are meant to build clandestine networks that can "penetrate, disrupt, defeat, or destroy" extremist organizations.
It envisages small teams of special operations soldiers working inside both hostile and friendly countries to improve intelligence knowledge of Al-Qaeda and other terror groups likely to attack the United States.
Teams are also authorized to develop contacts with dissident groups within various countries which could be useful in the event of future military offensives against Al-Qaeda and other threats emanating from those countries.
"The Times" says the directive appears to authorize specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the country’s nuclear program or identify such dissident groups. It gives no further details on this point, but it says the seven-page directive does not appear to authorize any offensive strike in any country.
President Barack Obama's administration says that, for now, it is committed to penalizing Iran for its nuclear activities only with diplomatic and economic sanctions. Nevertheless, the Pentagon has to draw up detailed war plans in advance, in the event that Obama ever authorizes a strike.
Some Pentagon officials are reportedly worried about the special forces soldiers falling into a "grey area" where, if captured they could be treated as spies, instead of standing under the protection of the Geneva Conventions as soldiers.
"The Times" says early fruits of the directive may be seen in the surge of American military activity in Yemen that began soon after the order was signed.
Special Operations troops worked with Yemen’s military with the aim of dismantling Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Pentagon carried out missile strikes from Navy ships into suspected militant hideouts, and it plans to spend more than $155 million equipping Yemeni troops with armored vehicles, helicopters, and small arms.
written by Breffni O'Rourke, with agency reports