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International Special Operations Forces 2008-2009

There is now universal recognition that the kind of asymmetric warfare conducted in Afghanistan since 2001, and then with rather greater success in Iraq, remains the only viable counterinsurgency strategy, but during 2008 the burden of that combat on special operations forces (SOFs) reached critical mass.

American Special Forces (SF), organized into five active-duty (and two Army National Guard) Special Forces Groups (SFGs) to cover all seven regions of the world, concentrate on particular regions, with the 3rd and 7th SFGs in Afghanistan. The 10th SFG, usually deployed in Europe, is working alongside the 5th SFG in Iraq, with the 3rd SFG focused on West Africa and the 7th SFG on Latin America.

In Colombia, the principal SF operational area in South America, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has been put on the defensive after suffering a pair of stunning setbacks. In March, Colombian SOF units conducted a precision bombing raid on a terrorist camp in Ecuador, killing the FARC’s deputy commander, Raúl Reyes. Even more importantly, the Colombian ground forces sent in to assess the damage found a pristine laptop computer loaded with information that has nearly crippled the FARC’s worldwide membership and fundraising.

The second blow came at the end of June when former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who had been held hostage for six years, was released with 14 others during a raid based on intelligence developed by U.S. SF support. Among those freed were three American Department of Defense contractors – Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, and Thomas Howes – who had been seized by the FARC in 2005 while they were engaged on counter-narcotics air operations. While it is too soon to predict the demise of the FARC, the long-term policy of training and supporting local elite troops is now allowing the Bogotá government to challenge the terrorists in their sanctuaries.

During 2008, about 5,500 U.S. Special Forces were in Iraq and 3,000 in Afghanistan, accounting for more than 80 percent of such U.S. troops overseas, but while reductions in numbers are anticipated elsewhere among the conventional forces, the reverse is likely to be true for the SF personnel who operate closely with the local police and national army, both in a support and training role. Thus, as other troop numbers decline, the SF presence is bound to increase proportionally.

Australian Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) soldiers during an operation in Oruzgan province, Afghanistan. The SOTG has been operating deep in what the Taliban perceive as safe havens, disrupting Taliban command and control and supply routes. Photo courtesy of Australian Department of Defence.

In Iraq during 2008, U.S. SF were mainly grouped into two combined joint special operations task forces (CJSOTFs), with the CJSOTF-ArabianPeninsula being the umbrella for the headquarters of 5th or 10th SFGs. A separate JSOTF operates independently, to identify and neutralize the local al Qaeda leadership. In addition, across the Red Sea in Djibouti, JSOTF-Horn of Africa has been actively working counterterrorism and counter-piracy operations in East Africa and the Red Sea/Gulf of Somalia areas.

The two SF groups in Iraq have been rotated on an average of every seven months, and then-U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) chief Gen. Robert Wagner has said that the 5th and 10th groups would remain focused on Iraq for “a fairly long duration.” This rotation and level of commitment is clearly a consequence of planning for the long term, although since 2008 was a general election year in Washington, the subject remained a sensitive one, even after the results became known in November.

Nevertheless, the luxury of sharing the burden of the Arabian Peninsula task force between two SF group headquarters, thereby proving a constant supply of experienced, recently trained battle-hardened personnel, is not one that any other country can offer, especially as each group consists of three battalions, with a fourth for each now in preparation. Wagner noted, “We would prefer to have units be fully ready when they go there, being able to operate at a high level of tempo and mental awareness, and then replace them with somebody else who is equally sharp. I think we can maintain a high edge by the way we rotate the force.”

Within the U.S. SOF community there is anticipation of a realignment of forces as the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan are subdued, at least to a point where the local military and police can contain the violence, albeit with continued advice from allied SOF personnel. This is still some way off, as shown by the fact that during 2008, 112 Americans were killed in Afghanistan, the heaviest losses experienced since the intervention in 2001. Once this has been accomplished, the emphasis will change, theoretically allowing a shift of forces from North Africa and the Middle East to Southeast Asia and the East Asia littoral. Such SOF realignment would include specialist language and regional orientation on a scale that remains impossible while there is a high level of conflict in the Central Command area.

Another major change in U.S. SF doctrine concerns the forward deployment of units, contradicting the recommendations of the 2006 Special Operations Command Capstone Concept, drawn up during Gen. Bryan Brown’s command of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which foresaw a withdrawal of SOF personnel back to the United States, ready for deployment as part of an expeditionary task force. In the new SOCOM scheme, SOF units will be deployed forward on a permanent basis, augmented by routine rotations from the United States, a dramatic change in strategy that has been endorsed by Brown’s successor, Adm. Eric T. Olson.

There was concern, during Gen. David H. Petraeus’ “surge” in Iraq, that the temporary insertion of additional Special Forces, supported by helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), would undermine the long-term doctrine of providing support to the local police authorities. However, there has not been a corresponding drawdown of SF personnel, and the trend is in the opposite direction, with continuing participation in joint missions and additional support in the area of medical evacuation, intelligence, and communications. Then-Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, in overall command of U.S. SOF operations in the Middle East during most of 2008, has acknowledged that, “we are a natural force to continue to stay in place to train, advise, assist, mentor our counterpart force as conventional forces draw down.”

In July 2008, as a legacy to the next administration, President George W. Bush signed an executive order allowing MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles to enter Pakistani airspace and target terrorist suspects who had taken refuge in Waziristan. In addition, U.S. SOF units were authorized to conduct the occasional raid over the border, one of which resulted in the elimination of an estimated 24 insurgents who had taken refuge across the frontier. Although Pakistan’s armed forces chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, protested the infringement of sovereignty, there were no adverse consequences to the change in policy.

The other countries of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan have not followed the U.S. policy of trying to match conventional troop reductions with SOF replacements. However, on the credit side of the equation is the widening commitment of SOF units among the 53,000 troops from NATO, which are achieving impressive results, including the elimination of some 150 Taliban hardliners in 2008. The prolonged deployments are placing a great strain on allied SOF resources, and turning the doctrine of short, hard-hitting tactics into a blurring of the lines between intelligence operations, routine conventional military activities, and para-military policing. While the United States has around 3,000 SOF personnel in Afghanistan, and an estimated 5,500 in Iraq, the SOF units of other, less well-resourced countries are feeling the strain. This includes Great Britain, which has around 1,000 SOF personnel in Iraq, including a squadron of the 22nd Special Air Service (SAS).

During 2008, there were some disturbing manifestations of the failures of military establishments, especially in Great Britain, to keep up with the demands for greater logistical support for SOF units. In June, four members of “D” Squadron/23rd SAS were killed when their Land Rover struck a landmine in Helmand province. This incident prompted their squadron commander, Maj. Sebastian Morley, to resign his commission and write a letter accusing the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of, “chronic underinvestment” in equipment. In the incident, Cpl. Sarah Bryant of the Intelligence Corps died alongside Cpl. Sean Reeve and Lance Cpls. Richard Larkin and Paul Stout. Morley claimed that Whitehall officials and military commanders repeatedly ignored his warnings that people would be killed if they continued to allow troops to be transported in the vulnerable Snatch Land Rovers. He claimed that the four members of his squadron, including the first female SAS fatality, were killed in an incident that could have been avoided if their obsolescent, lightly armored Snatch vehicle, operating in support of the Afghan police, had been given the proper protection that had been requested from the MoD three years prior.

3rd Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment in Afghanistan with one of the vulnerable Snatch Land Rovers that have provoked resignations of SAS officers over chronic underfunding of British SOF units.

Morley’s bitter complaint followed other resignations from senior British SOF personnel, including Col. Stuart Tootal, Brig. Ed Butler, and 22nd SAS’s commanding officer. They and others have highlighted the loss of 34 soldiers in similar incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan in the inadequate Snatch vehicles, which were designed to cope with rioters in a Northern Ireland environment and are sometimes known as “the mobile coffin.” They have insisted the vehicles should be replaced at a faster rate. Whereas in previous conflicts, such matters would have been handled internally, a change in British law to require coroners to conduct inquests on the casualties of foreign wars has brought these policy issues before the public. The thin-skinned and noisy Land Rovers may have proved effective in Belfast, where the enemy was mostly rock-throwing youth, but in Helmand, a province inhabited by experienced jihadists, the need is for quieter, better protected all-terrain vehicles. Continuing reliance on the Land Rover restricts movements to the Afghan roads, a limitation ruthlessly exploited by the Taliban’s culvert bomb-makers.

The fact that a squadron from 23rd SAS, which is a reservist unit, has been almost permanently deployed in Afghanistan, is itself indicative of SOF overstretch, although that pressure is less of an issue than the question of supplying them appropriate equipment. This is a controversy that has raged since the MoD’s mishandling of distribution of body armor to front-line troops in Basra and a chronic shortage of night-vision sights and goggles. Incredibly, upward of 10 percent of SAS troopers were sent on night operations without this vital equipment. Paradoxically, while regular infantry units have enjoyed the new Mastiff bomb-proof vehicles, none were allocated to U.K. SOF units.

The situation in Afghanistan, exacerbated by the equipment crisis, has its roots in the scale of the burden being shouldered by principally American and British SOF units. There are, indeed, German KSK units in the north of the country, but their rules of engagement prevent them from using lethal force unless they are fired upon. In one embarrassing episode in March, the Germans were obliged to stand by impotently as a notorious Baghlan bomber was spotted in Pol-e Khomri. According to ISAF, he was responsible for the bomb in November 2007 that killed 79 people, detonating as local politicians and tribal leaders opened a sugar factory. He had been placed under surveillance by the elite Afghan NDS, but was able to escape through the KSK perimeter, as the soldiers were not authorized to open fire. Presently, some 2,500 Germans are deployed in the northwest’s nine provinces, between Faryab and Badakhshan, together with Hungarian, Italian, and Swedish troops and the Norwegian Quick Reaction Force.

The Australian Special Operations Task Group (SOTG), part of just over a thousand Aussie troops in Afghanistan, has been operating in the south since April 2007, although its activities went unpublicized until Sept. 2, 2008. Then news of nine Australian SAS casualties suffered in a Taliban ambush on their convoy as it returned to their base accompanied by Afghan and American HMMWVs leaked and was broadcast on a local radio in a propaganda exercise conducted by the Taliban in the Khaz Oruzgan region. This, incidentally, was the largest number of Australian troops wounded in a single action for more than 30 years, since the regiment’s deployment in Vietnam. However, in a contact firefight the previous day, rather more Taliban had been killed by soldiers from the same squadron.

Special operators of the NATO Quick Response Force conduct a medevac in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of NATO.

According to the SOTG’s commander, Australian SAS personnel conducted 355 separate missions, some of them in support of the Dutch contingent, and called in support 38 times. A total of four key Taliban leaders were killed during those 18 months, and another seven were captured, for the loss of four Australian SF soldiers and 50 wounded. Then, in early October, while the SOTG was involved in clearing a suspect compound, a high-level Taliban commander, Mullah Khairullah Shakir, was killed. According to ISAF intelligence reports, Khairullah was a top Taliban planner, coordinating and commanding attacks, facilitating the manufacture of IEDs, and implicated in the intimidation and murder of local Afghans. He also mentioned that “the SOTG regularly operate deep within known Taliban safe havens in order to disrupt the Taliban attempts to coordinate attacks from the perceived security of these locations. During one such operation, the commandos operated for over 40 days in a known Taliban safe-haven, successfully killing or capturing five Taliban leaders and killing or capturing dozens of Taliban fighters.” One of those captured was Ahmad Shah, who was in his bed and detained without a shot being fired.

The efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan involve SOF forces from many Allied nations, and since 2001 have included Norwegian Jaeger Kommando and Marine Jaeger Kommando, Australian and New Zealand SAS, and the personnel of Canada’s Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2). While JTF2 and other allied SOF units have scored some notable successes in 2008, the problem of cross-border support for Afghan and Iraqi insurgents from Iran and Waziristan remains a challenge, although in late 2007, the U.S. Congress agreed to a request from Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran. These operations, for which the president sought up to $400 million, were designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership by funding opposition groups, including the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi tribes and other dissident organizations.

Clandestine SOF operations conducted on or occasionally across frontiers carry the considerable political risk of SOF personnel being taken prisoner, but the opportunities to seize members of the Al-Quds commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for interrogation has clearly had a deterrent effect on Tehran, manifested in a marked reduction of ordnance originating in Iran. Similarly, some incursions into Syria have greatly inhibited cross-border infiltration, and the authorization of Predator strikes has eliminated the perception of insurgent safe havens. One of the earliest victims of the new policy was Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al Qaeda commander who was killed on Jan. 21, 2008, by a UAV-launched Hellfire missile, which also killed 11 others.

In Iraq in October 2008, a major helicopter-borne cross-border raid northwest of Ramadi eliminated Abu Ghadiya, a senior militant that had been active in Anbar province, a corner of Iraq that neighbors Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Some two dozen SOF troops landed at dusk in Black Hawks near the village of Suhhariyah, in the largest operation of its kind in the past five years, and conducted a significant clearance operation that prompted only a token protest from Damascus, with the foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, complaining of “aggression.” Abu Ghadiya was confirmed “neutralized,” meaning either captured or killed, after a brief firefight 6 miles inside Syria. He was later described as al Qaeda’s most prominent smuggler in Mesopotamia, suspected of having led an attack in May on a police station in western Iraq in which 11 Iraqis were killed.

Although the Syrians have paid lip service to the principle of denying foreign fighters refuge on their territory and interdicting the burgeoning traffic in weapons, money, and insurgents, the only obvious improvement would appear to be an enforcement of immigration rules to detain combat-age youths arriving at Damascus airport with one-way airline ticketing. Although SOF units in Iraq have always been able to transgress national sovereignty in hot pursuit, the slightly expanded legal interpretation of the self-defense doctrine enshrined in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter has left the target groups in both Syria and Pakistan vulnerable. The implied threat, of course, is that similar raids might be conducted against camps on Iranian territory, perhaps another factor in the perceptible recent change of attitude in Tehran. According to Petraeus, the inflow of foreign fighters into Iraq dwindled in 2008 to less than 20 a month, from a peak of more than 120 a month in 2007.

In a further development in 2008, SOF units have been deployed across the Horn of Africa to attack terrorist suspects in Somalia and Yemen. Both countries are devoid of any legal, administrative, or paramilitary infrastructure, making them attractive territories in which to establish sanctuaries and conduct training and indoctrination activities. These areas are no longer beyond the reach of armed UAVs or raiding parties, some of which reportedly have been conducted using surrogates and false flags as cover.

If the sanctuaries in ungovernable states are to become the new front lines for SOF worldwide, the ability of al Qaeda to cultivate and train new recruits will be considerably diminished, and the insurgency will become increasingly dependent on relatively inexperienced fighters. The old veterans will have succumbed to an ever-increasing rate of attrition, many to UAVs with ever-improving targeting based on real-time data fusion. Successful counterinsurgency operations of the past have owed some of what was achieved to a combination of “hearts-and-minds” activities, including medical and veterinary intervention, civil infrastructure improvement, good intelligence and communications, enhancement of local authorities, and the denial of access to sanctuaries on foreign soil. These are all objectives that allied SOF forces look on track to accomplishing, subject only to continuing political and logistical support, while ostensibly it would appear that overall conventional troops numbers deployed overseas are reduced.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2009 Edition.


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