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International Special Operations Forces 2010 Year in Review

In an era when there has been unprecedented pressure on special operations forces (SOF), with more SOF deployed in a wider range of theaters and taking a greater number of casualties than ever before, 2010 proved to be a significant milestone. Having been in Afghanistan continuously for nine years, allied SOF remained as fully engaged as ever, with U.S. Army special operations personnel committed in increasingly large numbers, having tripled in size and taken over almost completely the principal role of pursuing and destroying the Taliban and foreign insurgents, but at a high cost in killed and wounded.

Key to the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF’s) tactics has been the development of a SOF capability within the structure of the Afghan National Army (ANA). A lengthy investment in an ANA SOF program, based at Camp Morehead in Wardak province, Afghanistan, produced the first graduates in 2010, and they were formed into Team 1111, which was posted to Khakrez District in Kandahar province to enhance “village stability” operations designed to protect local communities from the enemy and generate local trust.

The second prong to the SOF prosecution of the conflict was Task Force (TF) 373, a unit created from the 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., to track down enemy combatants identified on a Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL), the equivalent of the high-value targets (HVT) scheme pioneered in Iraq. The JPEL, amended weekly and drawn up with intelligence input from Amrullah Saleh’s Afghan National Directorate of Security and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, assigned serial numbers and code names to specific suspects, who would then be the subject of intensive research, culminating in a Predator drone attack, a strike by F-15E strike aircraft or, in the last resort, a night-time assault by a TF 373 mission despatched from one of its three bases at Kabul, Khost, or Kandahar. In the event of a JPEL target being detained during a 373 operation, he was usually flown to the Bagram Theater Internment Facility for interrogation.

The allied offensive in 2010 intended to capture and retain the Taliban strongholds of Marjah, the last town in Helmand province under enemy occupation, and Nad-e-Ali, was codenamed Operation Moshtarak (“Together”) and run by some 3,000 troops from the British base of Camp Bastion and the neighboring U.S. Marine Headquarters at Camp Leatherneck. The hope was for a frontal approach and confrontation, with the deliberate sacrifice of the element of surprise, but in the event the Taliban simply melted away, avoiding a set piece, pitched battle in which the exercise of ISAF air superiority would pick off any concentrations of resistance. Nevertheless, the operation’s impact was noticeable almost instantaneously, with just seven British soldiers killed in August, compared to 20 in June and 16 in July. During the first two weeks of August, 19 were wounded, down from 40 during the same period in July. Even taking account of Ramadan (the ninth and most holy month for Islam), the change in the security environment was dramatic, and was reflected across the other NATO contingents.

Working in parallel with the U.S. SOF were the British, with the Royal Navy’s Special Boat Service (SBS) taking over much of the burden from Sabre squadrons from 22 and 23 Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment, which have suffered appalling losses of 68 seriously wounded and 12 killed, a statistic that represents a sixth of the Britain’s entire SOF capability. The 12 included one SBS member, one SAS officer, three SAS reservists, four from the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), and one member of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR). This almost doubled the casualties of the Iraq campaign, in which seven SAS were killed and 30 suffered serious injuries. According to the SBS’s commanding officer, “Many of our team have been almost continually fighting our country’s enemies since 2001 and it is likely that our current scale of effort will continue for some time.”

To compensate for the unsustainably high rate of attrition, the SBS has been expanded, with the creation of X Squadron, bringing the British SOF contribution to about 500 altogether, drawn from the SRR, the SFSG, 18 Signals Regiment, 7 and 47 Royal Air Force Special Duties Squadrons, and the Army Air Corps 7 Flight and 657 Squadron. Despite the heavy casualties, Gen. David Petraeus stated in September 2010 that overall, allied SOF was taking out an average of six Taliban targets a day. The SBS’ budget increased from $27.7 million in 2001 to $261.5 million in 2010, and during the winter, the unit’s Arctic warfare skills were applied to tracking the Taliban commanders above the snowline in the Hindu Kush. The 2010 “surge” reached a peak in July when an estimated 160 insurgents were killed and 500 more detained, among them 53 confirmed Taliban leaders, bomb makers, and military commanders. In consequence, the number of improvised explosive devises (IEDs) laid in Helmand dropped by 25 percent, a reduction accomplished in part by Task Force 42, a SOF unit created to eliminate the roadside bombers.

The senior British commander in Afghanistan, then-Col. Richard Kemp, noted “an increasing reluctance of senior Taliban fighters to step into the shoes of those who have been killed or captured because they think they will be next. I would not say it is a special forces war but this is very much a growth industry. … As always with special forces, their punch is disproportionate to their numbers. They have access to top-level intelligence and their focus is on the top targets.” Other allied SOF in the region included an Australian Special Operations Task Group; the Canadian Joint Task Force-2 (JTF2); the 601st Czech Special Forces Group in Uruzgan province; the Norwegian Marinejegerkommandoen and Haerens Jegerkommando, and their counterparts from Germany, the Kommando Spezialkräfte; Denmark, the Jaegerkorpset; France, the 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment and the 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment; Netherlands, the Viper teams in Uruzgan province at Tarin Kowt, Kamp Holland, and Deh Rahwod; Poland, the 1st Special Commando Regiment at  Ghazni and Paktika; Italy, the 9th Parachute Assault Regiment in Herat; Romania, the 33rd Mounted Infantry Battalion in Zabul; and Portugal, the 3rd Commando Company “Cobras.” Seventy-one members of the New Zealand SAS (NZ SAS), based in Kabul, enjoyed a hugely successful year in 2010, credited by then-ISAF and U.S. Forces Afghanistan Commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal (who held these posts until June 23, 2010) with foiling four raids on Kabul, taking 60 high-value Taliban prisoners, and seizing 20 enemy arms caches. Between September 2009 and January 2011, the NZ SAS undertook three rotations, and were the initial responders to the January 2010 suicide attack on the presidential palace in Kabul.

The greater reliance on SOF reflected a conscious change in doctrine articulated in the Capstone Concept strategy review, completed in December 2009 by Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command since November 2008, when he was promoted from commander of Special Operations Command-Central at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. The wider SOF role included force-protection operations, in response to sniper and mortar attacks on isolated outposts, which tended to act as a magnet, attracting hostile fire. In the volatile Arghandab River Valley, U.S. SOF began raids around the Taliban sanctuary areas of Khosrow-e Sofia to relieve the effective siege of the garrisons at Jelawar, which had inhibited the soldiers’ ability to mount regular patrols. In response, local defense groups were armed and trained, with support from contingents of ANA SF. By the end of the year, 15 of these rural “security bubbles” had been established by Operational Detachments-Alpha organized through Special Operations Task Force-East after lengthy negotiations held with district leaders at traditional shuras, the gatherings of village elders. In return for assurances about the harboring of insurgents, and future support for partnered patrols with ANA Commando Kandaks in the neighborhood, the designated areas become eligible for humanitarian aid and prioritized infrastructure investment, such as the construction of new wells, roads, schools, and even cell towers to extend telephone coverage.

A Canadian CH-146 helicopter provides close air support to Coalition forces on the ground during a clearing operation involving Afghan National Army Commandos and soldiers of Special Operations Task Force-South Sept. 21, 2010, in the village of Chalgor, Panjwa’i District, Kandahar province, Afghanistan. The combined force conducted the operation to clear the town of insurgent elements and clear improvised explosive devices in order to make the area safer for local villagers and Coalition forces. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jesse LaMorte/Special Operations Task Force-South

In all, some 55 sites across the country were selected for what became termed the Afghan Local Police program, sponsored by the Ministry of the Interior to increase the influence of the National Police and Border Patrol to deny safe havens to the enemy, a strategy reminiscent of Robert Thomson’s “White Areas” introduced during the 1950 Malayan Emergency. The objective was to win the trust of local residents, help tribes to resist intimidation, and collect intelligence to identify drug depots and weapon caches. The schemes also included the innovation of local medical clinics managed by SOF medics and the evacuation to provincial hospitals of villagers requiring more serious treatment. Funding for indigenous forces, made under Section 1208 of the National Defense Authorization Act 2005, reached $40 million, out of a total annual budget of $6 billion for U.S. special operations forces, with a further increase of 5.7 percent allocated for 2011.

However, critics of this extension of the SOF mission suggested that the change tied down an entire brigade on activities that were hard to assess, and that there was a danger of creating yet more well-equipped militias, a commodity that has bedevilled the country over many decades. Moreover, the greater allied visibility offered further opportunities to plant landmines, mount ambushes on foot patrols, and scatter deadly roadside IEDs in the path of vulnerable vehicles. Nevertheless, there was a perceived value in these enhanced force-protection missions, and at Combat Outpost Nolen a significant victory was achieved with the assistance of firepower from an AC-130 Spectre gunship that decimated a party of insurgents that had rained rockets onto the base for weeks.

A further, important development during 2010 was the authority granted in February for coalition SOF to engage in hot-pursuit operations over international frontiers, thus denying insurgents sanctuary in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. This approval led to a significant increase in U.S. 3rd SFG activity north of Kunduz. Consequently in September, when a group of militants crossed the Panj River from Kunduz province into Tajikistan, NATO SF followed and in the resulting skirmish, an estimated 20 terrorists were killed for the loss of a single Tajik soldier. Naturally, such incursions are not publicized, but the necessary underlying political agreements become a matter of public record and were confirmed by U.S. Special Operations Command’s boss, Adm. Eric T. Olson, U.S. Navy.

In a military discipline characterized by brawn, resilience, and overwhelming firepower, SOF has undergone a distinct change, and become more cerebral. The winning of the hearts and minds of a population is hardly a new concept, but the reliance on high technology, such as remotely piloted drones armed with extraordinarily accurate Hellfire missiles, and the exploitation of astonishingly current and accurate intelligence, has reduced some of the physicality conventionally associated with SOF operations. Inevitably there will always be circumstances in which heavily defended compounds will have to be stormed, and hostages will have to be liberated, but the background planning has become far more sophisticated in an effort to minimize risk.

Although Afghanistan was the principal focus of SOF operations conducted during the year, U.S. SOF were deployed in 60 countries across the globe, including Romania, Mali, India, and Bangladesh, as well as the more familiar territories of El Salvador and Colombia, where training and mentoring units have been operating for many years on regular rotations of duty. The major development in terms of SOF commitments was in the Indian Ocean, where Somali pirates escalated their seizures of vessels, taking 20 ships and holding more than 300 hostages, thereby prompting a more robust response from the flag carrier nations. U.S. Navy SEALs off the destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96), based in Djibouti, had intervened in 2009 to free the captain of the container ship M/V Maersk Alabama, but the pirates had been undeterred, and more NATO special operations forces were deployed into the Gulf of Aden to patrol a transit corridor 12 miles wide.

The result, in February 2010, was an operation conducted a hundred kilometers from the African coast by 10 Task Force 150 Danish SOF personnel from the flagship HDMS Absalon (L 16) who stormed the M/V Ariella, a Slovenian merchantman, to free the crew of 25 and arrest five Somalis, following an alert picked up by an Indian warship, the Tabar. A French reconnaissance aircraft attached to the European Union maritime protection force had made a visual check of the situation and monitored the attack while a Russian frigate, the Neustrashimiy, captured a skiff with seven more armed hijackers. While there had been other instances of French SOF attempting to recover captured ships, the Absalon’s intervention was the first to take place while a hijacking was under way, but in May 2010, Russian SOF were winched aboard the disabled Liberian-flagged tanker Moscow University from helicopters off the destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov to kill one pirate and capture 10 of his companions, freeing the crew of 23.

With few disincentives, the skilled Somali pirates, often originally trained as government coast guardsmen until the chaotic Mogadishu administration collapsed into anarchy, continued to plunder the commercial sea lanes, confident that no international rules of engagement had been settled and that release in a Kenyan port was the most likely consequence of interdiction. For as long as the kidnap and ransom insurance market has thrived, the pirates knew their business would prosper, despite the occasional encounter with NATO SOF.

Elsewhere in the world, a major focus of SOF operations during 2010 was in Colombia, where American and British mentoring has created an impressive SF capability, which in October was sent into Fusagasuga Cundinamarca, a city 40 miles south of Bogotá that had come under increasing pressure from the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Known as the Sumapaz Task Force, the Colombian regulars quickly took control of the region and began an offensive that was intended to isolate the narcoterrorists. Trained by U.S. Rangers and a British SAS cadre, the Colombian Agrupacion de Fuerzas Especiales Antiterroristas Urbanas y Rurales (AFEAUR, which translates roughly as Antiterrorist Urban and Rural Special Forces Group) is widely regarded as a model for such operations. Similar training units have been attached to the Bangladeshi 1st Para-Commando Battalion; Georgia’s Sackhere Tactical Mountain Combat Section; Guatemala’s Kaibilies; India’s 1 Parachute Commandos; and, more auspiciously, Indonesia’s Kopassus.

The resumption in July 2010 of U.S. SOF support for Jakarta’s elite Komando Pasukan Khusus (Special Forces Command), abbreviated as Kopassus, after a ban lasting 12 years, was indicative of the Obama administration’s confidence that the unit had shed its image for ruthlessness and involvement in well-documented atrocities committed in the suppression of various separatist groups in Papua, Aceh, and East Timor. Although contact with the rest of the Indonesian army was re-established in 2005, the 1997 prohibition on cooperation with the 5,000 strong Kopassus remained in place until Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates made the breakthrough.

The allied determination to pass on SOF skills to developing countries was manifested during 2010 and in trans-Saharan Africa culminated in an exercise, Flintlock-10, in which troops from Mali and Senegal exercised with 1,200 personnel from 14 African partner nations. With a foundation built by TF 103 at Bamako, Mali, U.S. SF have put a Malian airborne company through an intensive course to instill a core of expertise and professionalism that is intended to spread across the rest of the region’s military. These did not mentor soldiers in the field, nor participate in anything other than wargames; whereas TF 7, the U.S. SOF deployment in Mexico, was reported to have had direct involvement in that country’s conflict against narcoterrorists as part of the Merida Initiative funded with $410 million in 2010, and in particular was alleged to have been partly responsible for the arrest in December 2009 of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, a notorious drug cartel boss.

U.S. SOF links with Mexico’s nine SF battalions are politically sensitive, and the subject was especially delicate because almost a decade ago the late Lt. Arturo Guzmán Decena, renegade member of the Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFES, or Special Forces Airmobile Group), persuaded up to 40 of his men to desert and switch sides to work for the Gulf cartel as hired killers, later forming their own cartel. Known as Los Zetas, the cartel wreaked havoc and did lasting damage to the GAFES’s reputation, tainting any relationships across the border.

Potentially as controversial was the Pentagon’s decision to more than double to $150 million the SOF funding for Yemen’s military, including $34 million allocated to “tactical assistance” and $38 million for aircraft. The Yemeni National Security Agency, headed by Ali Muhammad al-Anisi, has an unsavory reputation for human rights abuse, making the regime in Sana’a a slightly dubious partner in combating the local al Qaeda affiliate in the Arabian Gulf. However, expediency and the necessity to prevent President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s teetering state from failing altogether made Yemen a priority for the deployment of some 200 U.S. SOF employed on creating an indigenous counterterrorism organization. While drones continue to operate in Yemeni airspace without protest, occasionally eliminating targets, the U.S. SF advisers limit their activities to liaison duties.

The emphasis on training has been reflected in the encouragement given to developing countries, with the Nigerian army announcing in 2010 that a special forces battalion, commanded by Col. Adebola Adefarati, had been created and stationed at Makurdi, with the intention of expanding to a further four battalions, trained by a 225-strong cadre of Green Berets from Fort Bragg. The increased Nigerian SOF capability grew out of the airborne branch that had operated in the Niger Delta, the Bakassi peninsula, and the Mandara Mountains. This SF capability complemented the long-established Nigerian Special Boat Service, modeled on its British counterpart and led by Capt. Apochi Suleiman. Based in Lagos, the Nigerian SBS had been occupied by protecting the country’s vulnerable offshore oil installations. Nigeria’s example followed the widening allied doctrine of investing resources in SOF as the most cost-effective method of mounting counterinsurergency operations in an era when asymmetric warfare is the rule, rather than the exception.

This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2011-2012 Edition.

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Nigel West is considered the dean of intelligence writers. He often speaks at intelligence seminars...