ASPEN - The commander of U.S. Special Operations told an Aspen audience Wednesday that "dozens" of missions similar to the one that took out Osama bin Laden are undertaken each night.
"There were between 3,000 and 4,000, depending on how you count them, operations of this nature conducted in 2010 alone," said Adm. Eric T. Olson.
The vast majority of those operations are in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said. Every night "a dozenish" missions involve ground forces flying by helicopter to take some action against a target. His forces might learn of a plot for a specific person to set off an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) the next day, so they take action.
"In many cases, it's just a knock on the door and invite somebody to give themselves up and in some cases it's to take a more kinetic action," Olson said.
Olson was making the point that the mission that resulted in the killing of bin Laden was not all that different from other missions the forces are undertaking - the target was just more visible.
Martha Raddatz, chief foreign correspondent for ABC News, was interviewing Olson. She said it was hard to swallow that this was just another mission. "Whatever you say about routine and how often you do this, this was big. This was Osama bin Laden," Raddatz said. She asked how the commanders and the ground team dealt with the pressure of such an important mission with such a big prize.
"For the people involved, it was another mission and another target," Olson insisted. "They understood it was a more important target, but they always try to do the best they can."
Olson credited the U.S. for creating the special operations force 25 years ago, combining the best personnel from the various branches of the military. It was the result of the failed Army Delta force effort in 1980 to rescue 53 American hostages being held in Iran. Decisions made 10 to 15 years ago on everything from equipment purchased to the training for troops led to the success on the bin Laden mission, he said.
According to Olson, special operations has 60,000 members and a budget of $10 billion. There are about 13,000 members of its forces deployed on any given day, with many on peaceful operations. They are constantly using lessons from the field to improve their tactics, Olson said, and that was reflected in the success of the bin Laden mission.
"This is not a force that sits on the second deck of the fire station waiting for the bell to ring," Olson said. "This is a force that every day is better than the day before."
Olson's presentation was part of the Aspen Institute's Aspen Security Forum, which launched Wednesday, and the McCloskey Speaker Series. The presentation was titled "The Role of Special Operations Forces in the Global War on Terrorism." He spoke in the Greenwald Pavilion to a standing-room-only crowd in excess of 500 people.
Olson swatted away several attempts by Raddatz to get him to divulge details of the bin Laden raid. "It was successful because nobody talked about it," he said. They didn't talk about it before and they shouldn't talk about it after, Olson said, because doing so puts troops and their families at risk as well as the tactics employed.
Olson said al-Qaida is "winded and bloodied" after several years of jabbing by the U.S. military and its allies, "but it's still fighting." The Arab spring was a "roundhouse" blow to al-Qaida because it showed that violence wasn't necessary to overthrow a government.
"The death of bin Laden was the upper cut to their jaw. It just knocked them off their heels," Olson said. "I do believe that al-Qaida version 1.0 is nearing its end, but I'm very concerned about what al-Qaida version 2.0 will be."
He foresees it morphing, becoming more "westernized" with diverse leaders in different places. He said Anwar al-Awlaki, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Yemen, poses one of the greatest threats.
"He's a threat because he wants to be and he has the capability to be," Olson said. "He's a savvy guy and he knows how to hide from us pretty well. ..... He understands us much better than we understand him."
Olson said he believes that the special forces will continue to play a critical role in the fight against terrorism because the small, specialized forces can have a lower profile role in countries that require aid than a brigade of infantry.
But the continued role of the special forces comes at a price. Olson said he has gone on record previously as saying his forces are "fraying around the edges" after such intense action in the decade since 9/11.