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[] USNWR 19.05.03: The Men In The Shadows,

U.S. News & World Report
May 19, 2003

The Men In The Shadows

Why Special Forces are providing the model for a new kind of war

By Linda Robinson

Even before the war against Saddam Hussein ended, the Special Forces were 
putting their eyes on the next problem--Iran. At an S-shaped curve in the 
border between the two predominantly Shiite Muslim nations, the shimmering 
Iraqi desert rises to meet Iran's craggy, cloud-wreathed mountains. As 
Saddam's murderous regime was collapsing around him, a U.S. Army Special 
Forces sergeant and a former Iraqi Army captain helped American marines 
plot five border crossings to set up checkpoints. Carloads of Iraqis were 
streaming across the border to reclaim their homes while Iranian religious 
pilgrims and armed Islamic fundamentalists poured down the highways heading 
for Iraqi cities like Kut, not far away. "We're going to be here for years 
to come," said the sergeant, a 20-year veteran.

They didn't have the cinematic cavalry charge against enemy forces, as they 
did in Afghanistan, but special operations forces in Iraq played a key role 
in America's emerging model of precision, lightning-fast warfare. With the 
premium it puts on the use of real-time intelligence, pinpoint weapons 
targeting, and rapid transition from attack mode to stability operations, 
this new style of warfare plays perfectly to the unique skills America's 
special operators have been honing for years. Today, thanks in large part 
to the sweeping changes Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has demanded of 
the Pentagon's soldiers, aviators, and marines, thousands of them are 
reading from the special operators' playbook. In Iraq, many of their 
hundreds of missions will remain secret, to protect both collaborators and 
techniques. But a U.S. News reporter was granted access to special 
operations forces from before the start of the war through its conclusion. 
The magazine agreed not to publish details that might jeopardize the 
soldiers or reveal tactics. But this account nevertheless provides a unique 
portrait of America's most elite fighting forces and how they helped change 
not only the pace and prosecution of the war in Iraq but the way America 
will fight an enemy force in the future.

A key element of the special operators' success is flexibility. Typically, 
they are assigned the widest array of missions before, during, and after 
combat. They are sent ahead of the main fighting force, with little 
support, to conduct "black" operations, carry out secret commando raids, 
scout targets, gather intelligence, assess populations, recruit allies, and 
support friendly forces. Often, they take on unanticipated missions. That 
was certainly the case in Iraq. Months before the war began, U.S. Army 
Special Forces A-Teams, the basic 12-man fighting units, were each assigned 
a specific province and instructed to study its population, terrain, 
infrastructure, and society. The Green Berets are highly skilled soldiers, 
but within the hard-charging special operations community, this kind of 
preparation has also earned them the reputation of intellects. It also 
helps them react to fluid situations on the battlefield. "Seventy-five 
percent of my teams ended up where I planned for them to end up," says a 
major commanding a company of a half-dozen A-Teams in Iraq. "What they did 
was different than what we planned, but that's normal. . . . You have a 
bunch of smart guys reacting to the situation with some forethought as to 
what might happen."

On the first day of the war, the major and his 10-man command staff rolled 
forward in their desert mobility vehicles, known as dumvees, to Basra in 
southern Iraq. Nothing went according to plan. The British were to have 
seized the city, but instead Saddam's soldiers stripped off their uniforms 
and began fighting guerrilla style. At a bridge that came to be known as 
Ambush Alley, the Special Forces convoy encountered armed men in the 
gathering gloom. When they refused to drop their guns, the chief warrant 
officer, a veteran 50-year-old warrior, fired his 9-mm pistol over their 
heads. The Iraqis dropped to the ground but refused to release their 
weapons. The captain of an American civil affairs unit jumped out and 
shouted in Arabic: "Get up and run away right now, or we'll put a bullet 
between your eyes!" The Iraqis ran.

After three days on the run, the Special Forces company set up camp at the 
Basra airport, in the maintenance buildings. The offices were trashed, 
windows, wiring, and plumbing destroyed, but it would turn out to be the 
least primitive--and unhealthful--of all the camps the roving commandos 
pitched. They set up generators. A concrete wall served as a makeshift 
movie theater. gladiator was one of the more popular films shown.


One night a captain and his A-Team were assigned to capture two Baath Party 
members. They planned the raid minutely. On the final dry run, the captain 
opted for a soft takedown, in daylight. He knew his men would be 
disappointed. They specialized in direct action and had been outfitted with 
an unmanned aerial vehicle, mortars, and other weaponry. But these suspects 
had been lured out of their house readily during a reconnaissance mission 
earlier in the day. The captain's judgment was vindicated. The team fanned 
out; one knocked on the door and got the suspects outside on a pretext, 
then hustled them into waiting vehi- cles. When the soldiers searched the 
house, they found an infant in a downstairs bedroom--exactly the scenario 
that the captain had feared. "I have young children," he said, "and I 
would've run to their room at the first sound of intruders." The child was 
safe. No one was hurt.

That's called fire discipline. It's a big reason Green Berets are entrusted 
with risky missions. The company's warrant officer, "the Chief," praised 
the young captain's restraint. "All Special Forces operators are 
gunslingers," the Chief said, "and they all want to kick butt. But they are 
mature enough to know that it is the solution only 10 percent of the time."

A veteran special operator, the Chief personifies the type. Once featured 
in Green Beret promotional brochures, he can outshoot his Delta Force 
buddies and fire and repair 84 different weapon systems. In Tora Bora, 
Afghanistan, he spelunked into mountain caves hunting for al Qaeda 
terrorists alongside soldiers almost half his age. The Chief, who grew up 
with horses on ranches in California and Wyoming, says the secret of the 
Special Forces' effectiveness is simple: Go in bristling with firepower but 
use it surgically against only the intended target. The commandos' look can 
often avoid the use of any force at all. They rely on psychology as much as 
force. As one sergeant put it: "Other special ops guys go in and kill all 
the snakes. We go in, kill two snakes, then recruit two more to convert or 
kill the rest." This is the essence of precision warfare, writ small.


The Green Berets live on what they carry in their dumvees, a humvee altered 
to accommodate extra fuel, water, and weapons. A hole in the roof is a 
turret for the sergeant who mans a .50-caliber machine gun or MK-19 grenade 
launcher. In the open truck bed behind, another sergeant mans a mounted 
M-240 machine gun. The operators like it because of its long range and 
minimal kick. Their weaponry is rounded out by each man's two personal 
guns, several AT-4 antitank missiles, and a sniper rifle--either the SPR, 
the MK-24, or the Cadillac of sniper guns, the 7.62-mm Stoner. The truck 
bed is piled full of ammunition and rucksacks. Eight-foot trailers hauled 
behind the dumvee carry the rest of the gear the operators need to live 
on--a generator, cots, meals ready to eat, water, tools, medical supplies.

Here in the southern Iraqi desert, the convoy strikes off the highway into 
the talcum-powder-fine dirt, churning up clouds that swirl around them and 
clog eyes and ears. When the dust settles, they face a cluster of 
bombed-out buildings, a destroyed air-defense site inhabited by malarial 
mosquitoes and biting flies. Southern Iraq looks like the set of the movie 
Road Warrior, a moonscape of twisted wreckage after years of bombing and 
man-made drought. On the horizon, the ancient Temple of Ur, near Abraham's 
birthplace, is the only vestige of civilization. To their surprise, the 
Green Berets find that Ahmad Chalabi, the prominent expatriate politician, 
has taken up residence in the base's one intact structure, laying out a 
Persian carpet in what would become his salon for receiving local sheiks. 
Shrugging, a Special Forces major sets about his task of equipping, 
organizing, and training a group of Iraqi soldiers that would become known 
as the Free Iraqi Fighting Forces.


It is probably the only guerrilla militia organized and deployed in three 
days' time. On April 9, the newly minted FIFF launched its first 
battalion-size operation in the city of Shatrah. "This was no finger 
drill," said the major, reviewing the day's results. "It was a real 
mission. . . . We reeled in 15 bad guys, over 200 Milan missiles with all 
their components, and located several other caches." One A-Team warrant 
officer agreed, noting that it had taken them three weeks to train Afghans 
for Operation Anaconda.

The Special Forces' Afghan experience helped them navigate the many 
complexities they encountered in Iraq. First, many FIFF commanders were 
trying to promote Chalabi's agenda. But the Special Forces major insisted 
that the FIFF be employed only in the service of the U.S. military's 
objectives. They were simple--to give an Iraqi face to the war, to replace 
a battalion of U.S. soldiers, and to use their local knowledge in the hunt 
for Iraqi leaders and weapons dumps.


The Special Forces major pushed the FIFF north to surrounding towns and 
cities, under the watchful eye of his A-Teams, as fast as he could. As the 
regime crumbled, a dangerous vacuum began to open up. Looting and anarchy 
spread. A generalized power grab had begun. No script had been written for 
this part of the war, since the conventional forces had bypassed urban 
areas in their race to Baghdad. Most conventional units didn't know the 
FIFF even existed. That made the rollout of the new Iraqi militia even 
dicier, as one A-Team found out. Arriving in Nasir, the team pitched camp 
in an abandoned school. FIFF guards were posted on its walls and in bunkers 
by the highway while A-Team members went to reconnoiter the town. As they 
were searching the pillaged Baath Party headquarters, a barrel-chested arms 
sergeant called out from the dumvee turret. "Hey, here come the marines! 
They're going after our guys!" He trained his binoculars on a 
fast-approaching convoy. The marines piled out of their vehicles and began 
charging the school. "Hurry, let's go!" the sergeant yelled. The dumvee 
bounced wildly. Drawing even with the running marines, the A-Team sergeant 
screamed, "Don't shoot! They're our guys!" A Marine captain looked at him 
like he was insane and kept running. "They have AKs!" Some of his men 
flopped down and began assuming shooting positions. "Shoot them, you shoot 
us!" the A-Team sergeant screamed. "Who are you?" cried the marine. 
"Special Forces." The marine called off his men just before they began firing.


Before they left the next day, the Green Berets helped the marines find an 
interpreter and gathered some educated Iraqis who had held a town council. 
They also surveyed the town's water and power needs and arranged for some 
relief aid. Just before they left, the team sergeant joked with the curious 
youths who gathered around him. He had that SF look--orange-tinted Oakley 
shades and a fully tricked out M-4 with a silencer that made it half his 
height. His futuristic communications headset, bleached hair, and deeply 
tanned face made him look like a character from a RoboCop movie. But he 
sure didn't talk like one. "This is more of a tribal culture than a 
naturally occurring nation-state," he said. "There's going to be a 
ferocious competition between tribes, and Sunni and Shia Muslims, now that 
the control of the regime is ending."

More prophetic words were seldom spoken. As the A-Teams pushed on to Najaf, 
Hillah, and Baghdad with their FIFF charges, they found a ferment of 
competing factions. The last company of FIFF with its A-Team headed to Kut, 
near the border with Iran. The A-Team arrived in time to supply security 
for its fellow Green Berets, whose compound, and that of the marines next 
door, were the site of an anti-American Islamic demonstration. A sniper 
team hauled a Stoner to the rooftop, and the "wind caller" lay down with 
his scope. They would shoot only if someone was shot, but there were 
reports of armed Badr Brigade militia in the crowd. The Badr Brigade is the 
armed wing of the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution 
in Iraq. Men brandished photos of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and the council 
founder, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, who seeks to set up a similar 
regime in Iraq. The marines were nominally in control of Kut, but gunfire 
sounded most nights, and the occasional grenade whooshed toward their 
compounds facing the Tigris River.

The marines were nervous about unleashing the FIFF in this volatile 
situation, so the newly arrived A-Team first made camp at a destroyed 
Republican Guard base near the airport. The A-Team found the surrounding 
area full of land mines, bombs, and other munitions. The small stuff they 
could get rid of, while explosive ordnance disposal teams worked on the big 
stuff. At last a plan for the FIFF was hatched, and they moved into town. 
There they continued to work in their low-key way. They ran a clinic out of 
their compound. The A-Team's medic treated a baby with shrapnel wounds. 
Such deeds not only earned the A-Team members Iraqis' goodwill; it gave 
them valuable insight into the mood of Kut. Each night, an A-Team sergeant 
drank tea with one of the radical fundamentalists. Another Green Beret met 
quietly with a major Shiite businessman who believes that only a minority 
of Kut residents want to see a radical Islamic government come to power. 
"But he says they are gaining ground among the poor," the soldier 
recounted, "and the Iranians are spreading a lot of money around."


With most of the fighting over in Iraq, Special Forces' A-Teams have begun 
providing what the Pentagon calls "situational awareness," a ground-level 
view of things as Iraqis set about rebuilding after decades of oppression. 
It may not be as exciting as the commando raids they staged at the start of 
the war, but there's a reason the Pentagon brass deploy Special Forces for 
what they call "gray-area conflicts" that are neither peace nor all-out 
combat. SF operators have the ability to go into high-risk environments to 
sleuth out the truth, figure out a course of action, and carry it out if 
their commanders approve. One of their first, simple acts is to start 
building rapport with the population. Unlike conventional forces, they go 
out in small groups without a lot of heavy artillery overhead, like the 
Cobra gunships that the marines frequently sent over Kut. It's not that the 
Green Berets are naive; they can do their job properly, they believe, only 
if they get out and take some risks. "We have been told that there is no 
decision to kill us, for now," says one A-Team member who cultivated Shiite 
fundamentalists. "We know how to watch our backs."

The Iraq campaign will be remembered as a war fought with unprecedented 
speed, precision, and flexibility. Although it was a conventional war, it 
could be fought this way thanks to the incorporation of special ops forces. 
Their use in Iraq has been more strategic than tactical, as it was in 
Desert Storm. Many special operators credit Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. 
Central Command boss who directed all combat operations in Iraq, for 
expanding the use of elite troops after he saw their performance in 
Afghanistan. He solicited contributions for every operation from Brig. Gen. 
Gary Harrell, the special operations commander for CentCom. Frictions and 
rivalries still abound, but deputy Navy SEAL commander Capt. Walt Pullar 
believes that special ops forces will become the pre-eminent tools for 
waging the continuing war on terrorism and the high-tech battles of the 
21st century. In Kut, a terse Special Forces major concedes that special 
operators have finally gained acceptance. "A few years ago," he says, "the 
conventional forces wanted nothing to do with us, and now they are 
screaming for us. They say, `Hey, these guys are rough around the edges, 
but they produce results.' "

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