General worries US special forces ‘fraying’

The Obama administration’s nominee to lead the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) on Thursday expressed concerns about the physical and mental health of the troops he could soon command.

Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the 67,000 special operators force could be “fraying” after being “operationally active for a long time.”

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However, the troops “remain effective in the tasks” assigned to them and can continue offering “unique solutions to challenging problems,” he added during his confirmation hearing.

Special Operations Command has taken a prominent role in military operations ever since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The command has been at the forefront in carrying out counterterrorism operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq and has also helped train the special forces in those countries.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) noted SOCOM operators have being going “flat out for more than a decade now ... at mach speed.”

Votel said the operational pressure put on troops is “not exclusive” to SOCOM but that the increased secrecy about their activities is unique to them because they can’t discuss the dangers with family or friends.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) also voiced concern about "exhausting" troops and told Votel that "in a future of unconventional, non-state forces, your people are going to be the point of the spear."

Votel said he would aim for SOCOM to be effective with a "light touch" and rely on the capabilities and resources of the military branches.

The three-star general also said the command has enough troops and would be able to continue its mission in Afghanistan as the U.S. role there transitions from combat to an advisory capacity.

After December, a force of 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan. That force will eventually draw down to half of that by the end of 2015, and then to several hundred by the end of 2016. 

About 2,000 of those troops will be from SOCOM and about 980 will be focused on counterterrorism operations in the country, Votel told lawmakers.

—This story was updated at 11:04 a.m.