Retiring SOCom leader asks for patience on Iraq

Published June 21, 2007

TAMPA - As he nears retirement, the chief of the U.S. military command heading the fight against terrorism said he's still frustrated that Osama bin Laden hasn't been brought to justice.

"I don't think he's irrelevant at all," Army Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown, who commands U.S. Special Operations Command, said on Wednesday. "I think it's important to capture him. I don't think he's the centerpiece of our entire strategy."

Upholding a tradition in secretive Special Operations, Brown just smiled and shook his head when asked to elaborate.

No comment.

In a brief interview at his headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Brown spoke in generally upbeat terms about his command's accomplishments and SOCom's transformation since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to the lead agency in the battle against terrorism.

On July 9, Brown steps down as SOCom commander and is expected to hand the reins to his deputy, Vice Adm. Eric Olson. The Senate is expected to confirm Olson, perhaps this week.

Brown, 58, has headed SOCom for about four years and is the agency's longest-serving commander.

The change of command will mark the end of Brown's 40-year Army career. He started as a Vietnam-era private who rose through the ranks to become a four-star general at the helm of one of the military's premier military commands.

With an annual budget of nearly $7-billion and almost 50,000 personnel, SOCom reinvented itself when President Bush named it to lead the fight against terrorism.

"Our people have stepped up to the plate and done a very good job," Brown said. "Quite frankly, there was no instruction manual for it."

For all the controversy of Iraq war policy and sagging American public opinion on Iraq, Brown said special operations forces are doing "very well" there.

He said Americans should remain patient about a troop surge designed to quell the Iraqi insurgency.

"I don't know if it's doomed to fail or if it's going to be a success," Brown said. "But we've got to give it time. We've got smart people. We've got well-trained troops. So I think we've got to give it a little while and see if the strategy will pay dividends."

While SOCom forces are expert fighters, Brown said they work just as hard on their "indirect" mission in Iraq and Afghanistan, the training of foreign militaries, the civil affairs work of rebuilding a broken society, the winning of hearts of minds. "It's about changing people's minds," he said. "That takes a long time."

Olson told the Senate that SOCom's elite units were still hampered by uncertainties over who coordinates and who has authority over special forces, the kind of turf battle military leaders have long struggled with.

Brown said it's the normal growing pains of SOCom's constantly evolving mission.

"It's just a matter of adjusting," Brown said. "It may not surprise you, but there is some bureaucracy in the Department of Defense. And sometimes fighting through it can be pretty frustrating."

But Brown said he gets the support he needs from the nation's military leadership and offers no complaints.

Brown said SOCom troops and equipment have weathered the pounding of years of continuous action, though he acknowledged it has been a strain.

"For a soldier in the battlefield, he's got everything he needs," Brown said. "He's got the best weapons money can buy. He's got the best body armor money can buy. He's very well cared for."

Even with growth, Brown said, SOCom is still focused on quality above quantity. And the general said the pace of expansion is sometimes slowed because special operations won't relax its standards.

"And that's okay," Brown said. "I'm fine with that."

Uncertain about his retirement plans, Brown said he does want to stay in the Tampa Bay area.

For a general who until December still occasionally jumped from airplanes with his troops, Brown said he will most miss the people he worked with every day.

"I'm constantly amazed at how good they are," he said.