Special forces stretched thin by two wars

The Baltimore Sun

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- So many of America's special operations commandos have been thrown into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan that only a handful of the elite troops are available for the quiet but critical work of training local security forces and stabilizing governments elsewhere -- raising worries about al-Qaida and related terrorist groups expanding in other parts of the world.

The demand for Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other highly trained units in battle, which senior military commanders expect will last for the foreseeable future, is a tough problem for the military and for its relatively small and overstretched special operations forces centered here in a bustling wartime headquarters.

In Iraq, they are hunting down and capturing or killing insurgents and training and directing local units in that fight. But doing so drains people and resources from work elsewhere on which ultimate success or failure in the war on terrorism depends, senior officers said.

"We understand that we can't kill our way to victory," said Vice Adm. Eric T. Olson, deputy commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM for short. "We have to be out ahead of the sound of guns, not chasing the sound of guns."

He said the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan had forced SOCOM to dedicate "more of our force than we'd like" to the fight there -- almost 6,000 of the 7,000 special forces currently deployed worldwide. "We have to kill or capture certain terrorists, disrupt their terrorist networks, and there is an urgency to that," said Olson, the Navy's senior-most SEAL.

The consequence, he added, is that "we are underrepresented globally."

Best known for their unique war-fighting skills, special forces personnel also conduct quieter missions aimed at bolstering stability across the Third World, primarily by helping train and guide local security forces, working on development and helping to strengthen and legitimize local governments -- steps deemed critical in alleviating conditions in which extremism can thrive and denying terrorists sanctuary where local governments are ineffective.

Each special forces soldier is assigned a geographic specialty and spends years developing language and cultural skills that deepen on long, repeated tours of duty. But today, soldiers fluent in Mandarin and Spanish are being reassigned to Baghdad and Kandahar.

"We have to win in Iraq and Afghanistan to win the war on terror," Olson said. "But the war on terror won't be won in Afghanistan and Iraq." It will be won, or at least waged, in the regions where other U.S. commanders say the long-term threat is building.

In Asia, for example, there are "very clear al-Qaida links from the Middle East into the Far East," Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, told a group of reporters. Fallon said he has obtained some small special operations units for short-term missions in places such as the islands between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines that are major "ratlines of al-Qaida and their allies running back and forth to do things like train people, sustain their bomb-making and other operations and basically continue to destabilize the region."

"We have asked for more" special operations forces, he said in a brief interview, adding that "if we didn't have the heavy demand for forces" in Iraq and Afghanistan "we could probably do a lot more."

Extremism on rise

In other areas, such as Somalia, Islamist extremists have seized power in Mogadishu and are expanding their influence "like a virus," said an officer working in the region, in an assessment shared across the U.S. government. There also is concern about Islamist extremism arising from the fighting in the Darfur region of Sudan. The United States has no special forces presence in either country.

The number of lawless or ungoverned countries and territories is expanding, according to a study by the World Bank. Failed states and ungoverned territories that stretch in a belt of poverty, corruption and lawlessness from Uzbekistan to Kosovo and Somalia to parts of Bolivia and Colombia have grown from 17 countries in 2003 to 25 today, the bank said in a report this month.

According to Op Plan 7500, SOCOM's global war strategy, it is in those regions that the United States should be maintaining a "persistent presence." It is not.

About 1,000 special forces are working in about 40 of those countries worldwide outside the Middle East, including four 11-man Marine teams helping train security forces in North Africa and South America. With a total strength of almost 50,000 active-duty and reserve military personnel, the Special Operations Command has a deployable force of about 16,000 of the highest-trained forces, including Green Berets and SEALs. The others are in civil affairs, psychological operations and administrative or support jobs. "We are not doing as much in other areas of the world where we would like to," Army Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown, top commander of all special operations forces, said in an interview.

Outside critics concur. "No question Iraq and Afghanistan have been sucking in special forces from all over the world, including those needed elsewhere," said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and author of the forthcoming book, War Made New.

Even the Pentagon acknowledges that there are hardly enough special forces to fight two wars and maintain a global presence. Its Quadrennial Defense Review, published this year, called for a major expansion of special operations forces and said SOCOM should be able to "operate in dozens of countries simultaneously" with "longer duration operations."

Under Brown's command, special operations forces are undergoing a major expansion, adding more than 2,000 Army Green Berets over the next six years specifically to ease the manpower demands of Iraq and Afghanistan and take up the work across the Third World, and adding 2,500 specially trained Marines to the force. The SOCOM budget has doubled to $8 billion since Sept. 11, 2001.

But it takes at least two years to train a new Green Beret in weapons handling, language and cultural training and other skills, a meticulous process that special operations commanders say they won't compromise to turn out higher numbers. "These guys are handcrafted," said Olson. That means special operations forces can't be expanded quickly; even the addition of new Green Berets won't be completed until 2012.

Longtime tension

The problem isn't only one of numbers. There has long been tension between the halves of the special operations community: those who engage in "direct action," or killing in combat, and those trained in "indirect action" to immerse themselves in foreign countries to train security forces and manage civil action projects. The emphasis on Iraq and Afghanistan, some say privately, means the money, medals and promotions go to those engaged in direct action, at the expense of the indirect action programs that bring results more slowly.

Over time, critics such as Boot say, the emphasis on sending special forces into combat could erode the U.S. capability for the more important indirect work.

Nonsense, Brown responded. He argued that most of the action in Iraq is done by special operations forces working with Iraqi units -- classic "indirect action" operations.

Also, he defended the plan for the growth of special operations forces, arguing that the additional troops are easily sufficient for the need. Small teams can be extremely effective, he said, adding that in many countries, "We want to keep a very small 'footprint,'" meaning a low American profile.

Meanwhile, SOCOM and others are watching places such as the Horn of Africa, Colombia and the Philippines, where Green Berets have worked with the Filipino armed forces for years against the Islamist rebel group, Abu Sayyef.

Among other areas of concern, Brown mentioned West Africa's Gulf of Guinea, a region where piracy, terrorism, crime and corruption threaten the large oil facilities off the coasts of Angola, Gabon and Nigeria on which the United States is increasingly dependent for oil imports. "That's a critically important area, and we are anxious" to have a larger presence there, Brown said. "But it's a matter of priorities."

At the same time, the demand for SOCOM's forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is rising. Even with SOCOM putting most of its manpower into the region, Gen. John Abizaid, the overall combat commander in the Middle East, said in Washington last week that the special operations presence there "needs to be increased," and not just in the short term.

"I can see the conventional force structure [manpower numbers] coming down," Abizaid said, "but not the special forces, because their skills will be needed."


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