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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Copley News Service September 20, 2002

War against terror led by U.S. special forces

By James W. Crawley

Word came over the satellite phone: "Mullah K has left the building."

The commandos had been waiting for weeks to glimpse Mullah Khairullah Kahirkhawa, an elusive, high-ranking Taliban official, and now he had been spotted by a Predator drone.

Capt. Robert Harward, a San Diego-based Navy SEAL commanding Task Force K-Bar in Afghanistan, and his small staff working at an austere base nearby immediately called up Army Apache attack helicopters, briefed several dozen commandos and dispatched them within an hour.

Minutes later, in the middle of the night, two groups of commandos seized the mullah and a safe house where he had been hiding. Overhead, infrared cameras on unmanned drones captured the action and transmitted it to command posts in Afghanistan, U.S. headquarters in Florida and the Pentagon. Taking down "Mullah K," who remains a U.S. prisoner, was just one of 65 missions conducted from October to March by U.S., Australian, Canadian, Danish, German, New Zealander, Norwegian and Turkish commandos under Harward's command.

Such actions in Afghanistan have brought a new prominence - and potentially a changing face in the war against global terrorism - in the military's hierarchy for special operations forces, or SOF, including SEALs, which are headquartered in San Diego.

For the first time, commandos are the primary combat force in a war - not only advising coalition forces, but also calling in airstrikes and capturing enemy forces and materiel.

"That was a big shift in paradigms," Harward said during a recent interview. "It was a SOF-centric war."

In essence, Pentagon officials are turning over planning and control of many key military operations in the war to the commandos instead of the traditional regional commanders. The move may signal a vigorous, globe-spanning, in-the-shadows fight against al-Qaeda and other terror groups.

The most obvious sign of higher standing for special operations is a bureaucratic shift in the chain of command, military officers and defense analysts said.

Recently, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the status of the Special Operations Command, known as SOCOM, changed from being a "supportive" combatant command to a "supported" organization, sources said.

In the past, SOCOM, which includes Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets and Rangers and Air Force special tactics units, primarily had been a "force provider." It supplied commandos to regional commanders, such as the Central Command's Gen. Tommy Franks, who oversees the forces in Afghanistan and is preparing for possible war against Iraq.

Regional commanders decided how to use the commandos and served as intermediaries among commandos and Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Battle plans and requests for personnel and equipment were filtered through intermediate staffs before reaching the Pentagon for final decision.

Now, for many operations, and particularly anti-terrorism missions, SOCOM will have a direct line to the Pentagon.

Special operations commanders in the field, like Harward, will work directly for Air Force Gen. Charles Holland, SOCOM commander in chief. In turn, Holland will get his orders from the Pentagon.

"This is a case of the organization chart catching up with reality," said defense analyst John Hillen, a former special forces officer. "This has been a special operations war."

Officials at SOCOM's headquarters in Tampa would not discuss the command's new status on the record, but a high-ranking officer familiar with special operations said, "The senior leadership is very receptive to special operations forces."

Local officers, who would only speak anonymously, were enthusiastic about the change, saying it could increase the Navy SEALs' role and stature in the war effort. The Navy has about 2,300 SEALs, and four of the SEALs' eight teams are based in San Diego, along with the headquarters and training facility.

For decades, conventional soldiers have often derided special operations forces, referring to them as "snake eaters" for their secretive and unorthodox tactics.

With the command change, plus the recent victories in Afghanistan, local SEALs hope that special operations will take on a higher profile. One advantage, several said, is that senior commanders who are familiar with special operations capabilities and limitations will now call the shots.

However, Dick Couch, a retired SEAL and author who writes about commandos, said the impact remains uncertain. "Whether this will work, only time will tell," he said.

New responsibilities may create new problems for commandos. Their units already are in great demand, with little chance of increasing manpower quickly. While it takes less than a year to fully train an infantry soldier, SEALs and Green Berets can take two to four years to train.

The Special Operations Command will be equal to such front-line organizations as CENTCOM and the Hawaii-based Pacific Command, which oversees U.S. military forces from San Diego to the Indian Ocean.

Next month, the Pentagon starts up a new group, the Northern Command, which will be in charge of homeland defense.

Unlike Desert Storm, Somalia and Haiti - three operations with significant commando action - the war in Afghanistan has been primarily waged by special operations forces.

During the first six months of Operation Enduring Freedom, commandos were divided into two task forces - Harward's K-Bar, operating in southern Afghanistan, and Dagger, commanded by an Army officer and operating in the north.

Harward led more than 1,300 troops in Afghanistan and an additional 1,500 support personnel in nearby nations. He detailed the task force's operations during a recent interview in San Diego.

One K-Bar commando, an Australian, was killed in action and two were wounded. Of the enemy, more than 115 died. K-Bar's SEALs and others captured 107 suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees, called "keepers" by the commandos. Most were sent to a detention camp at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Many times, commandos infiltrated an area to observe enemy forces for later "direct action" missions or for calling in airstrikes.

"It's high-risk to put that man on the ground, but that man can do a lot of things (satellites and aerial surveillance) can't," Harward said. "It can confirm exactly what that guy's intent (is) and what he's doing."

Identifying the enemy from civilians in a country where nearly every man carries an assault rifle or rocket-propelled grenade launcher was the greatest challenge.

"The million-dollar question: Are these good guys or bad guys?" Harward said.

Afghanistan confirmed that commandos are well-suited for anti-terrorism operations and searching for weapons of mass destruction, said John Pike of Global Security, a Washington think tank.

"When they are the only force in a country, they will be supported," Pike said. "But it's obvious they'll be supporting (other forces) in a big war."

Copyright 2002 Copley News Service