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
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
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 details 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
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. Exact numbers were unavailable.
But bolstered by precise U.S. air strikes and the Special Forces
advisors, the opposition swarmed over the weakened Taliban defenses,
quickly taking the cities of Masar-e Sharif, Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad,
Konduz and finally Kandahar. After weeks of calling upon his forces
to fight to the death, the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar,
In mid-December, opposition forces, calling themselves the Eastern
Alliance, cornered hundreds of al Qaeda troops in their last stronghold,
a vast, mountain complex of caves and tunnels called Tora Bora,
near the Pakistani border.
During fierce combat and U.S. aerial bombardment, guided by U.S.
special operations teams, hundreds of al Qaeda fighters were killed
or surrendered. Many others—possibly including Bin Laden himself—slipped
away toward Pakistan. Finding them could take weeks or even months,
In this war, U.S. special operators rarely have participated directly
in combat. But they often have played major roles in the victories
of opposition forces. For example, a detachment from 5th Special
Forces Group, working with the forces led by Afghanistan’s
interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, helped save a provincial capital
called Tirin Kowt from the Taliban. Karzai’s troops arrived
in the town just six hours before the Taliban sent a convoy of 500
men to retake the town.
The Taliban “were moving up there to basically slaughter
the town,” to kill men, women and children, said the detachment’s
commander, Capt. Jason Amerine, in a telephone call with reporters.
The detachment called in U.S. close air support.
“We began bombing the convoy pretty heavily,” Amerine
said. “After several hours, the Taliban finally figured it
out ... and they turned back and ran.”
U.S. special operations forces have performed their unconventional
roles for generations. The United States has reorganized and expanded
them repeatedly to accomplish constantly changing missions.
For decades, special operators helped the nation compete with the
Soviet Union in a long, twilight struggle for the Third World. They
played a major role in the Vietnam War.
In the 1980s, as the Soviet Union collapsed, special operators
found themselves defending U.S. interests in an evolving world of
rogue states, international drug smugglers, ethnic strife and terrorism.
Special operations units remained assigned to their separate services
until a series of events pointed out a need for greater coordination.
First, in 1980, an attempt to free 53 hostages from the U.S. embassy
in Iran failed spectacularly. Two aircraft collided on the ground
at an isolated site called Desert One, and eight men died. The failed
mission helped undermine public confidence in President Carter,
who was defeated in his bid for re-election later that same year.
Then, in 1983, a U.S. invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada—which
relied heavily on special operations forces from all services—was
plagued by command-and-control problems.
A New Command
To correct these flaws, Congress in 1987 combined all special operations
units from the Army, Navy and Air Force into the U.S. Special Operations
Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, in Tampa, Fla.
While the Marine Corps has units trained in special operations,
they are not part of this command.
In 1989, special operators played a major role in the invasion
of Panama and the arrest of its dictator, Manuel Noriega. In 1990,
they deployed to the Persian Gulf to help drive Saddam Hussein out
In 1993, U.S. special operators were part of a United Nations peacekeeping
force that tried to broker peace between warring tribes in famine-stricken
Somalia. When Army Rangers and members of Delta Force tried to arrest
Somali warlord Mohamad Farah Aidid, the U.S. task force was surrounded
by heavily armed clansmen, now believed to have been trained by
In the ensuing firefight, 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis
died. One American’s body was dragged through the streets
of Mogadishu. The images were captured by western television news
cameras and broadcast all over the world, resulting in the withdrawal
of U.S. forces from Somalia.
In the Balkans—first in Bosnia, then in Kosovo—special
operators performed combat search and rescue, psychological operations,
humanitarian missions, civil reconstruction assignments and tracking
and seizure of suspected war criminals. In 1999, special ops helicopters
rescued the only two U.S. downed pilots in the air war against Serbian-controlled
In Afghanistan, special operators used a mixture of high and low
technology to help defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda. Employing handheld
laser target designators, forward air controllers or “spotters”—serving
with anti-Taliban forces—enhanced the accuracy of U.S. precision-guided
munitions. With their help, U.S. bombers were able to destroy enemy
fortifications, bunkers, convoys and headquarters. Such tactics
were credited with killing some of Bin Laden’s senior aides,
including Muhammad Atef, al Qaeda’s chief of military operations.
U.S. bombs, however, did not always hit their intended targets.
Three Special Forces soldiers from Amerine’s detachment were
killed, and 19—including Amerine— were wounded by a
stray U.S. bomb in Kandahar. Despite intense U.S. efforts to avoid
“collateral damage,” several bombs accidentally hit
concentrations of civilians.
There were other U.S. casualties, as well. A CIA agent was killed
in a bloody prisoner rebellion near Mazar-e Sharif. Two soldiers
died when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Pakistan. A Special
Forces sergeant perished in a firefight, and seven Marines were
lost when their KC-130 went down.
On the whole, however, the war has progressed very well, thus far,
U.S. officials said, and they gave much of the credit to special
operators. “These very special people have changed the face
of war,” said Robert Andrews, principal deputy assistant secretary
of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.
“The special operations forces and air power are a combination
that the defense intellectuals are going to have to digest over
the coming months and years,” Andrews said. “The special
operations forces dramatically increased the effectiveness of the
air campaign, and on the ground, they turned the Northern Alliance
into a conquering army.”
The strategy has worked so well that U.S. leaders are considering
using it again in other countries that have harbored international
terrorists. “The Afghanistan campaign, of course, is not the
only terrorist problem in the world,” Rumsfeld said told reporters.
“There are other terrorist networks that threaten us and threaten
The United States already is providing assistance and special operations
advisors to the Philippines in that country’s campaign against
the Abu Sayyyaf terrorist group, which has links with Bin Laden,
has beheaded at least one American and holds others hostage. In
Yemen—scene of Bin Laden’s attack on the USS Cole, which
killed 17 U.S. sailors in 2000—Yemeni special forces, U.S.
trained and armed with tanks, helicopters and artillery, have attacked
a local al Qaeda organization. Other potential targets include Somalia,
which is believed to continue to host terrorists, and Iraq, which
is suspected to be developing weapons of mass destruction.
Over the long haul, analysts said, it will be difficult for U.S.
special operators to keep up the pace they have set in Afghanistan.
“They have been running on empty for too long,” said
Crerar. “They just cannot find the people they need.”
In fact, to keep its numbers stable, the Army in early December
invoked a stop-loss program preventing Special Forces soldiers and
aviators deemed “essential to national security” from
voluntarily retiring or leaving the service.
Consideration is being given to assigning some conventional units—such
as airborne elements—to special operations. But Crerar doubts
that many could meet special ops standards. “They lose about
50 percent of their applicants during the selection process and
another 10 percent during training.”