Military leader is mind behind mission
In the next few days, Army Maj. Gen. Ken Tovo will hop a plane at MacDill Air Force Base bound ultimately for Jordan, where he will lead a complex military training mission involving 10,000 troops from 17 nations, many from the Middle East.
As commanding general of Special Operations Command Central, Tovo is in charge of U.S. special operations forces in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
A few days before the United States and Afghanistan would sign an agreement outlining the future of American involvement in the Islamic republic, Tovo — in the first interview he has given since taking over the command nine months ago — talked about how that future may look.
Sitting in his office in one of the newest buildings on base, Tovo said a spate of controversies involving U.S. forces in Afghanistan shouldn’t interfere with the exercise he is about to oversee, or the daily special operations missions in the country where our nation is fighting its longest war.
“Human nature is human nature,” said Tovo, when asked about the fallout from controversies such as the alleged massacre of Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier in March, the desecration of remains and the burning of Qurans by U.S. forces.
“Our allies judge us on what they see as what the 99.9 percent of our forces do during the other 99.9 percent of the time.”
A military leader widely praised for his innovative approach to dealing with some of the world’s deadliest ethnic and religious conflicts, Tovo said that allies such as those attending Operation Eager Lion in Jordan “know that abhorrent behavior is not representative of who the U.S. military is.”
Allied military leaders want to know that the United States is not brushing these issues aside, Tovo said.
“What they want to see is that this is being handled in accordance to the U.S. military judicial process and to know that as a nation we are taking this seriously.”
Despite harsh rhetoric from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who demanded that U.S. forces be confined to their bases after the March massacre, Tovo said special operations missions dependent on being in direct contact with Afghan villages are still under way.
“I don’t know that Karzai’s public comments have been turned into policy,” Tovo said.
High-profile kill-or-capture missions such as the one that took out Osama bin Laden get most of the attention around the world. But special operations forces spend the bulk of their time on non-headline-grabbing missions training locals how to protect themselves.
Those missions, such as the Village Stability Operations, in which special operations forces are training Afghan police to take over the role of local security, are ongoing, Tovo said.
“The forces at VSO sites are still doing the job,” he said. “There are no changes.”
As troops continue to leave Afghanistan, there is no indication the operational tempo of special operations forces will drastically diminish. In fact, the opposite is likely true.
Those who know Tovo say he is the right commander to lead special operations efforts in the 20-nation swath of the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia.
“MG Ken Tovo is one of the most talented officers in our Army’s senior ranks and clearly is one of our nation’s Special Operations Forces’ superstars,” CIA Director David Petraeus said in an email to the Tribune.
* * * * *Tovo, 51, first made his mark in the special operations world after Saddam Hussein crushed a Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq and the fleeing Kurds found themselves in refugee camps in freezing conditions with little food, water or medicine.
At the time a captain with the 10th Special Forces Group, Tovo helped organize the camps so the Kurds could survive.
That mission, he said, “is the most personally satisfying of my career. They were dying every day from lack of water and lack of food. The special forces troops came in and organized the camp. We are able to change the lives of about 100,000 people for the better.”
Before returning to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom, Tovo gained experience untangling strife in Bosnia during some of the worst ethnic violence Europe had seen since World War II.
By then a major, Tovo “helped his teams navigate some of Bosnia’s most neuralgic hotspots,” according to Linda Robinson in “Masters of Chaos,” one of the leading histories of special operations forces.
Tovo’s understanding of the delicate nature of human relations in places where people kill each other for being different came to the fore in Iraq during Operation Viking Hammer. As a colonel in charge of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, he helped organize Iraqi forces to defeat al-Qaida in Anbar Province.
“That was my most professionally satisfying mission,” he said.
Viking Hammer highlighted Tovo’s skills in dealing with intractable insurgencies, says Robinson, a journalist, former senior adviser to U.S. Central Command’s Afghanistan-Pakistan Center and now Adjunct Senior Fellow for U.S. National Security and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“He is the first person I ever heard use the phrase, ‘You can’t kill your way to victory,’ ” Robinson said. “I am pretty sure he coined it.”
Beyond realizing that success cannot be measured in body counts, Robinson said Tovo’s biggest accomplishment in Iraq was helping create and build Iraqi special operations forces in a nation still torn by ethnic, religious and tribal strife.
As commander, Tovo is still dealing with Iraqi special operations forces.
Even though the United States ended military operations there last year, there is still one American special operations forces adviser in Iraq who works through the State Department.
“We plan to enhance relations and add more advisers,” Tovo said.
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Before taking charge of Special Operations Command Central, Tovo served as chief of staff of Army Special Operations Command; deputy commanding general of Special Operations Command Europe; and deputy commanding general of the 1st Armored Division in Germany. He said one of the most important things a special operations commander can do is to determine what is working and what isn’t.
As a lieutenant colonel attending the Army War College in 2005, Tovo wrote a thesis looking at successes and failures during special operations missions in Vietnam and how those lessons could be applied.
Success, he wrote, cannot be measured merely by tallying up the numbers of insurgent leaders killed. Some leaders are more important than others, he wrote. Beyond that, coalition forces must attack the insurgent infrastructure as well.
“U.S. strategic leadership must acknowledge the nature of this war,” Tovo wrote. “A militant Islamic insurgency, not ‘terrorism’ is the enemy. … By focusing solely on the operational element of the insurgency, the United States risks paying too little attention to the ‘other war’ and thus, repeating the mistakes of Vietnam.”
To better gauge success, Tovo has created an “assessment cell” that includes how U.S. special operations forces are training their Afghan counterparts.
“I don’t want to just generate guys who shoot well, but know how to think beyond the tactical level,” he said.
* * * * *
Under the agreement signed by President Barack Obama and Karzai in Kabul last week, it appears that U.S. special operations forces likely will have a presence there well beyond 2014, when Afghans are slated to take control of their own security.
Among other things, the nine-page agreement states that “beyond 2014″ the U.S. mission will be “training, equipping, advising and sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces” with the goal of Afghanistan being able to defend itself and “help ensure that terrorists never again encroach on Afghan soil and threaten Afghanistan, the region and the world.”
These are missions that traditionally fall to special operations forces charged with assisting with foreign internal defense and leading the fight against terrorism.
U.S. military leaders have maintained that there will be a special operations presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
Ultimately, the future of U.S. special operations forces — “how much, when and what operational methodology” — in Afghanistan depends a lot on what Karzai wants, Tovo said.
“As we saw in Iraq, we can provide options, but it has to be in the framework of the host nation’s desires,” Tovo said.
With waning public appetite to continue American presence in Afghanistan and diminishing resources to do so, there is another huge issue to consider.
“Cost is another factor,” Tovo said, in determining “how much assistance and advice” U.S. special operations forces may provide.
A week later, Tovo’s assessment proves to be right on point.
Obama and Karzai may have struck a deal, but Congress will have to fund it.
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