The Obama administration had been reluctant to allow such an expansion of nontraditional military activities in countries where the U.S. formally has no presence. That practice was unfavorably associated with the Bush-Cheney administration's disregard for international norms.
But political imperatives, the threat of terrorism, and the knowledge of what the U.S. military can accomplish if its strings are cut away has slowly changed the minds of some of Obama's senior advisers. It is helpful that Congress has generally given the military a wide berth to conduct activities that intelligence agency paramilitaries would find objectionable.
The authorization to write the orders allow combatant commanders to put together task forces for almost any purpose, and draw from almost any existing military unit. JUWTFs are not classified and are in regular use. But until last summer, they tended to be formed for temporary and limited purposes. Even during the Bush administration, the military did not insert American personnel into Iran, which is what the Avocado execute order now permits.
Not surprisingly, the larger counter-terrorism task forces tend to be full of operators from the clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), as well as contractors from companies like L3. But JSOC is not the executive authority for these missions, as one might suspect. Rather, the commanders, like CENTCOM's Petraeus, have direct authority.
Military commanders began to circulate drafts of the secret orders in the summer of 2009, a few months after U.S. Navy SEALS rescued sailors aboard the hijacked marine vessel the Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia.
At the time, news reports suggested that the SEALS were mobilized from a base in the United States. But that was false. The SEALS, part of the fabled DevGru special mission unit, or SEAL Team Six, were 45 minutes away at an operational base in Manda Bay, a resort beach town in Kenya.
That operation, and the delay in standing up the SEALS, laid the groundwork, officials said, for a series of meetings involving senior counter-terrorism and intelligence officials, about the possibility for a coordinated worldwide unleashing of U.S. military assets.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, at the time the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised President Obama to allow combatant commanders more latitude to combat terrorism using task forces. Coming from McChrystal, it was a surprising endorsement of a policy that would shift responsibility for unconventional warfare from JSOC, which he had commanded, to the combatant commanders.
In September, two task forces of American commandos surveilled and killed two top Al Qaeda operatives in Somalia, even though they had the opportunity to capture and imprison the two men. The authority to execute the terrorists was given to the commander of one of the squadrons. A task force operating in Yemen has helped Yemeni forces kill terrorism suspects, but it has also carried out unilateral operations.