1. Military

CentCom's role has evolved since 9/11

TAMPA — Like the rest of the world, U.S. Central Command was never the same after a shadowy jihadi group called al-Qaida turned airliners into deadly missiles the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

But CentCom has emerged as the focal point for the nation's response to the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, growing and changing like no other U.S. military headquarters as the battle against jihadis spread from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Egypt and others in the 20-nation CentCom region.

The command, based at MacDill Air Force Base and now led by Army Gen. Joseph Votel, saw headquarters personnel increase nearly fivefold at its peak. At the peak of operations, CentCom oversaw more than 165,000 troops in Iraq and nearly 100,000 in Afghanistan during conflicts that have claimed nearly 7,000 U.S. lives and cost more than $4 trillion.

What's more, 15 years later, there is no end in sight for the forces that have made necessary this rise of CentCom.

The command faces a new kind of enemy that fights guerilla-style warfare and melts into civilian populations while using the Internet for command and control, messaging, recruiting and fundraising.

These new threats spurred a new U.S. response, with counter-messaging via social media and a greater reliance on special operations forces whose training and provisioning also are coordinated from MacDill, by the U.S. Special Operations Command.

One indication of CentCom's rise in prominence since 9/11 is the stature of its leaders. David Petraeus and James Mattis, two of Votel's predecessors, are among the nation's best-known military leaders and once were touted as presidential candidates.

• • •

It had been a decade since CentCom was at the center of a storm. That one was whipped up by charismatic Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who, as CentCom commander in Operation Desert Storm, kicked Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and gained global notoriety for his entertaining press briefings.

It took about a month to send Hussein's forces packing back to Iraq, but the fight against him never went away, simmering — as did the pace of life at CentCom and MacDill — at a low boil.

That would change quickly.

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, started out as just another day for the 1,100 men and women at CentCom. They were largely focused on military planning for the Middle East, Southwest Asia and the Horn of Africa.

"The headquarters immediately went to full-blown wartime footing," says David Dawson, the CentCom historian. A memo immediately went out telling those at CentCom that "60-hour workweeks were the standard."

On Sept. 13, then-CentCom commander Tommy Franks brought orders from President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

In three months, the number of personnel working at CentCom increased threefold, to about 3,000, Dawson says. Initially, most were military personnel, though later, contractors would play a greater role.

Within a month, a key difference in the doctrine of former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell and then-Vice President Dick Cheney became evident.

Whereas Powell amassed a force of a half-million U.S. troops, supplemented by those from other nations, to dislodge Hussein from Kuwait, the new leadership favored a small cadre of Green Berets and CIA operatives, formed up with Afghans opposed to the Taliban.

Combined with modestly sized units of Marines and Rangers, they quickly routed the jihadi government in Afghanistan, forcing al-Qaida and the Taliban into a long and deadly insurgency.

But even bigger challenges were yet to come.

• • •

In the coming months, CentCom planners turned to a new target, Iraq, to neutralize what the Bush administration called weapons of mass destruction. On March 18, 2003, the United States and its allies invaded, but shock and awe quickly dissipated into a protracted insurgency and Muslim sectarian warfare between the Sunni and Shia.

It was largely quelled through special operations forces relying on intelligence they gathered, along with drones and assistance from the CIA. Then came a surge of 30,000 troops in 2007, a pattern repeated later in Afghanistan.

Around this time, and reflecting U.S. reliance on partnerships in battle, an international coalition was established at CentCom that brought military representatives from more than 50 nations.

"There is no substitute for having this level of trust, interaction and personal relationships," Dawson said.

In 2008, with the creation of U.S. Africa Command, control of the Horn of Africa was shifted away from CentCom, leaving it with 20 nations in its region.

But in addition to challenges on the battlefield, CentCom personnel began looking for ways to confront an ancient element of warfare: propaganda, using communications via the Internet.

By 2004, Army Gen. John Abizaid, who replaced Franks as CentCom commander a year earlier, ramped up efforts to counter enemy messaging, something that has continued to challenge the United States and its allies.

Florida provided one of those challenges, Dawson says.

"You have a pastor in Gainesville who decides to burn Korans, and the next thing there are riots in Afghanistan," says Dawson, referring to mustachioed gadfly Terry Jones. "That's not something that would have happened 20 years ago. Nobody in Afghanistan would have found out."

Abizaid is credited with coining the phrase "long war" to describe the nature of the conflicts faced by CentCom.

"Abizaid took a lot of grief," Dawson says. "But President Bush took that up. The point of long war is dealing with issues in the CentCom region will take a sustained commitment by the United States."

That doesn't mean hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground for years, Dawson says. It does mean "staying significantly engaged for years and years."

• • •

There were also big changes at the other major command headquartered at MacDill.

SOCom, which provides trained and equipped commandos and synchronizes the global war on terror, saw its budget grow from $2.3 billion in 2001 to $10.4 billion this year. Personnel jumped from 45,700 to 69,900.

And, as the wars ramped up, so did the pace of operations for Navy SEALs and special boat crews, Army Delta Force, Green Berets and Rangers, and Air Force and Marine commandos.

In 2001, about 4,700 commandos were deployed weekly, said Air Force Capt. Brian Wagner, a SOCom spokesman. By the end of that year, they were found in more than 130 countries. After combat operations began in Afghanistan and Iraq, the average number of commandos deployed weekly in the CentCom region grew to about 12,500.

Since combat operations in Iraq ended and the need for commandos in Afghanistan declined, Wagner said, the average number deployed weekly has fallen to about 7,800, while countries they're sent to has grown to 85.

The toll of the high pace of operations has led the command to create innovative programs like Preservation of the Force and Families and the Care Coalition to take care of those who serve and those they leave behind.

• • •

With more than 1,300 days as CentCom commander, Abizaid had the longest run of the 13 men who've held the job since the command was founded in 1983. He was followed by Adm. William Fallon, Petraeus, Mattis, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III and former SOCom commander Votel.

Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey and Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen served as interim commanders.

Each man faced the military's toughest challenges, highlighted by the ongoing insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, jihadi attacks in and from Pakistan, and problems elsewhere in the region.

Fallon oversaw the surge in Iraq, as did Petraeus, who was widely credited with helping to make it work as an on-the-ground commander in Iraq before coming to CentCom. Mattis oversaw the surge of about 30,000 additional troops in Afghanistan as well as the drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. Austin, on-the-ground commander for that mission, oversaw the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the end of that war in 2014.

That didn't mean things calmed at CentCom, Dawson says. Planning takes place there for one of the world's most complex regions, where Iran plays a major role, assisting the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Gaza falls under the auspices of U.S. European Command.

In spring 2014, CentCom once again found itself in the eye of the hurricane as a Sunni jihadi group calling itself the Islamic State took over parts of Syria and Iraq, leading to a new infusion of troops there. The United States now has about 5,000 troops in Iraq and a few hundred in Syria.

CentCom came under fire in August when a Republican congressional task force found that the command's intelligence analysis had painted a rosier picture of the battle against the Islamic State than the situation on the ground warranted. In their own report, Democrats said there was no evidence CentCom conformed its analysis to fit a White House agenda.

In addition, after Votel took command from Austin in March, President Barack Obama changed his mind about how many troops to leave in Afghanistan through the end of his term, boosting the number from the 5,500 planned to 8,400.

At the moment, Votel is focused largely on the looming battle to recapture Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and the thorny issue of how Sunnis, Shia and Kurds work together there.

All this plays out against a backdrop of concern over an estimated 100,000 Shia militia members in Iraq. They are largely aligned with Iran, which has recently increased its confrontations with U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz despite last year's nuclear deal.

The future of CentCom will be set by the next president.

Hillary Clinton, speaking Wednesday at an Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America forum, said she would largely stay the course and promised not to put troops on the ground in Iraq or Syria. Trump, at the same forum, said his plans are secret.

For his part, Votel told the Times and a group of reporters on a trip to Kabul in July that if it were up to him, U.S. presence in Afghanistan would endure.

"I think we have made a commitment and I think my personal opinion is we do have to kind of see this through," Votel said. "I do think it is important to stick with our partners and make sure they are capable of long-term sustainable capability."

Contact Howard Altman at or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.