By David Trulio

Close partnerships and trust built over time – within the U.S. Government and with foreign partners – were key themes as Admiral William McRaven, Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, kicked off the 2012 Aspen Security Forum this week here in Aspen, Colorado.

Consideration of security matters can often quickly gravitate toward such specifics as personnel, budgets, and weapons systems, but McRaven emphasized what are sometimes overlooked fundamentals to an audience of homeland security and counterterrorism professionals, as well as interested citizens.

In addressing a question about what is involved when special operations forces train foreign military units, McRaven explained the importance of understanding the “human domain” – the broader cultural and physical environment in which operations take place. Whether it is in Africa, the Middle East or somewhere else, the learning is a two-way street. He added, “We’re learning what their culture is, so next time we come back in, they understand who we are, we understand who they are. You’ve got to build that trust. You can’t surge trust.”

But before special operations forces ever go into a foreign country – and McRaven noted that they are in approximately 79 countries – partnership and alignment within the U.S. Government is the starting point.

“The first thing we do,” he said, is to “sit down with the country team, the chief of mission, the ambassador, [and] make sure that our goals are consistent with the ambassador’s goals…Everything we do supports the embassy mission.”

Given his central role in leading the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, it was no surprise that that raid was a subject of great interest. Despite frequent discussions in Washington about the interagency community’s challenges and dysfunctions, McRaven pointed out that the American people may not fully appreciate “how great our interagency process is.”

McRaven explained that, “as we went into the bin Laden raid, this thought that this was going to be difficult pulling the military and the CIA together, along with the support we had from the National Security Agency and NGA and others,” was wrong – in fact, “It was easy for us because for the last ten years, we’ve been doing this, we’ve been building this interagency team, and I’ve got to tell you, today it hums.” While acknowledging problems at the margins of interagency relationships, McRaven separately noted that the players “are all talking to each other all day long, making sure that the information they’ve got, the intelligence they’ve got is right.” He added later, “We’ve known each other all for a long time. We are not only colleagues, we are friends. And so when you have that trust, everything else is easy.”

A great deal was packed into the discussion that lasted more than an hour. Among the many additional points made were that the overall special operations force is not crumbling, but it is “fraying,” and that is worsening. When it comes to women in special operations, “we couldn’t do the job without them” – McRaven said that twice.

Other topics included America’s Afghan partners (whom McRaven said U.S. forces trust “100 percent”), drones, night raids, and national security-related leaks. The discussion, along with the three additional days of panels and conversations should be available on the Forum’s website, and will undoubtedly be a source of rich insights and lively debates.