Magazine article National Defense

Will Special Ops Success, 'Change the Face of War?'

Magazine article National Defense

Will Special Ops Success, 'Change the Face of War?'

Article excerpt

Although deployed in small numbers, U.S. special operations forces played a key role in the war in Afghanistan, one that could reshape the way that the United States uses its armed services in future conflicts, according to experienced observers.

"This was the first time that special operations had such a central role in a military campaign," retired Special Forces Col. John "Scot" Crerar, now an analyst for the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command in Alexandra, Va., told National Defense.

In fact, nearly all of the U.S. ground action involved units trained in special operations, officials noted.

"It's fair to say, at least for the ground portion, this was a special-operations war," said retired Maj. Gen. William C. Moore, chairman of the Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict Division of the National Defense Industrial Association.

At the very beginning of the Afghan campaign, President Bush told reporters that it would be "a different kind of war," explaining: "There will be a conventional component to the conflict, but much of what takes place will never make it to the TV screens."

U.S. air power provided much of the campaign's punch. Wave after wave of Air Force, Navy and Marine combat aircraft pummeled al Qaeda and Taliban fortifications throughout Afghanistan, dropping thousands of bombs.

Unlike the comparatively well-televised air campaign, the U.S. ground element of the war was conducted, as much as possible, in secret. "I hope you'll understand that I'm not going to discuss any operational derails regarding ground forces," the Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, told reporters.

It was not until mid-November that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld admitted: "We have had modest numbers of U.S. military forces on the ground in Afghanistan for weeks."

Initially, Rumsfeld said, just a few hundred troops trained in special operations were deployed to Afghanistan itself By mid-December, that figure had climbed considerably.

Why the focus on special operations? You don't fight terrorists "with conventional capabilities," Rumsfeld told reporters. "You do it with unconventional capabilities."

There was another reason, as well. U.S. commanders wanted to avoid repeating bitter British and Soviet experiences in the country. In the winter of 1842, a force of more than 16,000 British and Indian troops and their camp followers was virtually wiped out. In 1989, a Soviet army of 120,000 troops was forced to withdraw after losing 14,500 of their number over 10 years.

With that history in mind, the United States limited the combat role of its ground troops, using special operations personnel to focus sharply on advising anti-Taliban forces and improving the accuracy of air strikes.

In the North, U.S. Special Forces teams assisted Northern Alliance elements with communications, coordinating air strikes and bringing in ammunition, food, medical supplies and winter gear.

In the South, other Special Forces teams did the same with tribes from that region. Additional U.S. outfits trained in special operations, including Army Rangers, Marine expeditionary units (MEU), SEALs and Delta Force, conducted raids, reconnaissance and other combat missions. Eventually, they were joined by small numbers of special operations troops from such U.S. allies as Britain, Australia and Canada.

In mid-October, Rangers parachuted into Southern Afghanistan, raiding an airfield and Taliban command and control facilities. Then, a month or so later, special operations trained Marines from the 15th MEU helicoptered in several hundred miles from their ships in the Arabian Sea to seize the same airfield and set up a semi-permanent forward operating base, which they dubbed Camp Rhino.

At first, anti-Taliban forces, initially confined to a small corner in the north of the country, were outnumbered, with perhaps 15,000 Northern Alliance troops facing as many as 65,000 Taliban and up to 4,000 al Qaeda fighters. …

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