WASHINGTON — The White House will nominate a veteran Special Operations commander to lead U.S. Central Command, underscoring the Obama administration's affinity for using secretive elite military forces in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
Senior officials this week approved Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who has headed U.S. Special Operations Command since Aug. 2014, as the White House nominee to command Centcom, said a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal decisions.
The selection of a special operations veteran to head Centcom represents a break with tradition. Typically the command overseeing the Middle East and Central Asia has been led by an Army or Marine general with a conventional background. The choice reflects the Obama administration's reluctance to commit conventional ground forces to costly, unpredictable insurgencies and its growing dependence on Special Operations forces.
''This administration has seen Special Operations to be a very effective tool in counter-terrorism,'' said Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and Pentagon official now at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
As leader of Special Operations, and of the more secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) before that, Votel has been closely involved with the kind of missions, often launched by small numbers of Delta, SEAL or other elite forces to hunt down militants, rescue hostages or undertake other risky activities overseas, that have become a hallmark of President Barack Obama's approach to dealing with militant threats.
Combined with drone operations and efforts to train skilled local partners, White House officials have seen those missions as more efficient and effective than the large-scale troop deployments that characterized former President George W. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Votel's selection caps the Minnesota native's swift ascent through the ranks of elite American forces. Both the Special Operations Command and JSOC roles gave Votel, who previously helped oversee Pentagon efforts to protect soldiers from roadside bombs and commanded troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, signficant exposure to senior White House officials. ''This [choice] probably speaks to the level of trust they have with General Votel,'' Scharre said.