By Barbara Starr
The head of U.S .Special Operations Command recently held a closed-door secret meeting at his Florida headquarters to discuss the future of special operations forces in Afghanistan after the U.S. formally withdraws at the end of 2014.
The Tampa meeting was called by Adm. William McRaven, commander of SOCOM. It involved some of the most senior officers in the military, as well as officials from U.S. intelligence agencies, two U.S. military officials told CNN.
Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan; Gen. James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Central Command, as well as Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were just some of the participants, the officials said.
The officials declined to be identified because what was discussed at the meeting is considered highly private by the participants prior to key decisions being made about the future role of special operations forces.
For McRaven, the essential question is the number of forces Special Operations need and the mission they will perform in Afghanistan as conventional forces added last year as part of a 'surge' of troops are withdrawn by the end of 2012, and all combat troops are removed by the end of 2014. The meeting was not aimed at coming to any decisions, but rather a discussion at the highest levels about how to proceed in the coming months, CNN was told.
The meeting included discussing various options for the command structure to oversee commando operations as well as the need to keep other conventional units in the country to assist them, according to the sources.
For example, even if only several thousand commando troops are kept in Afghanistan, they will still need other troops to provide helicopters, medical evacuation, support at bases, transportation and other key needs, the officials explained. Support forces could range up to three times the number of actual commandos on the ground.
Current military planning calls for special operations forces to remain after combat troops withdraw in 2014 with the primary mission of hunting down terrorists.
If they stay beyond 2014, a new agreement with the Afghan government would have to be reached.
The U.S. and President Hamid Karzai's administration are negotiating a status of forces agreement, but it's been held up over disagreements about handing over control of some prisons to the Afghan government and concerns about night raids, an official in Kabul said.
Officials have previously confirmed plans for a new high level command in Afghanistan to be headed by Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas, currently the deputy commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, which overseas all military counter terrorism operations. But sometime around 2013, if the bulk of the forces fall under SOCOM, then command of the entire war could fall under that element.
There are currently 89,000 US troops in Afghanistan, about 8% are special operations forces. McRaven Tuesday told the Senate Armed Services Committee the number is expected to increase even as the conventional forces are drawn down through 2014.
McRavens' forces not only conduct raids against terrorism targets, but also oversee operations to assist local villages with their security and establishing local Afghan police for those areas. So far, special operations forces have recruited and trained nearly 11,000 local police.
McRaven also told the committee that virtually all raids conducted at night now are led by Afghan forces so cultural sensitivities to foreign forces do not flare up especially in remote areas. The raids, McRaven told the committee, are vital.
"We think the night raids are essential for our task force to go after high value individuals. The high value individuals that we pursue during the course of a 24-hour period or days or weeks generally bed down at night," McRaven said on Tuesday. "They are much more targetable at night and in fact, I think if you look at it tactically, what you'll find is the Afghans are actually much safer if we target an individual at night because there aren't so many people out and about the little villages."