The back cover of The Hunt for Bin Laden, by Robin Moore (Random House, $24.95), shows Moore, an aged man leaning on a cane, amid a cluster of a dozen men identified as members of A-Team Tiger 02, “which helped General (Abdul Rashid) Dostum seize Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.” The men, one captain, one warrant officer, and 10 sergeants, look like a bunch of Iowa farmers hanging out on a deer-hunting trip. They are all bearded, dressed in flannel shirts, ragged parkas, and jeans, with only two or three pieces of cammo garb among them. They range in age from their thirties to their forties. A more unsoldierly looking group could not be imagined.
Beneath the ratty garb and undisciplined hair, however, lies another story. These men belong to the USSOCOM, the U.S. Special Operations Command. Each knows at least one foreign language and likely two or three (these 12 are all Arabists), have “volunteered three times,” as the saying goes (once for the Army, once for jump training, once for Special Forces). And they are responsible entirely for the early successes of the United States in the war on terrorism, and much of the success since then. In Moore’s estimate, fewer than 100 SO operatives inserted into Afghanistan organized the Northern Alliance’s various leaders and troops into an effective fighting force and killed more than 31,000 Al Qaeda and Taliban with no losses to themselves.
They did so with very little press notice, and even less press understanding. Remember the long month of frustration in October of 2001 when “nothing was happening”?
Contrast the Mazar-e-Sharif campaign with the later battle called Operation Anaconda, widely publicized, against the Taliban and AQ in the southern Shah-i-kot Valley, after the insertion of regular Army and Marine forces. There, in Moore’s words, “it took thousands of conventional troops and special forces to kill only five hundred” of the enemy.
General Tommy Franks made the decision to use conventional forces in Anaconda, and “it…freed a large part of southern Afghanistan and destroyed one of the AQ’s last redoubts.” But that decision, largely driven by Army politics — who gets to determine how to run a war, and with what — resulted “in more than a hundred casualties, and more Americans (in Special Forces) killed than Special Forces had lost in the past eight years. Franks’s decision ended up costing the U.S. more lives in one day than any single combat mission since the disastrous Ranger and Delta Force raid in Mogadishu in 1993.”
According to Moore, the transition to conventional Army and Marine forces by the time of the Tora Bora campaign, with its attendant slow, top-heavy command structure, probably let Osama bin Laden himself evade capture. (Mullah Omar might have escaped anyway.) Bin Laden, or someone who greatly resembled him, had been spotted more than once, but it simply took too long to get the okay back from CENTCOM in Florida to fire on the tall, white-clad figure.
Back in the fall, in the north, the SF guys, working alone, would simply have taken the shot and dealt with the consequences later.
To be fair, it’s easy to understand why regular Army guys keep SF types at arm’s length. As Moore recounts, SF units all over the world got calls on September 12, 2001, telling them to start growing beards. The Green Berets, in action, don’ t look like soldiers. They don’t observe military protocols. Their units are composed of equals — all sergeants, as in the photo on Moore’s book jacket, with a warrant officer or two for formal command needs.
Most important, the special forces promote rebellions. They nurture insurgencies, as with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. When the regular Army moves in, the rebel position defaults to the bad guys — the kind of thing that has happened in Afghanistan, and later, in Iraq. The entire SF mindset could not be more different from regular Army.
Most important, the SF concept threatens the regular Army’s rice bowl. SF doesn’t need giant, expensive weapons programs, like the Crusader artillery piece. The Green Berets vastly prefer Navy and Marine flyers for their close air support. Their speed of action tends to cut out the bureaucratic Air Force, which dominated the defense and procurement hierarchy in the Cold War era.
Also to be fair, there never will be very many SF soldiers; the training is simply too hard and takes too long. And the U.S. does need regular forces, probably more of them than we have.
But the Special Forces have found their champions in George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. Indeed, on June 3, Rumsfeld announced that he would appoint a former SF general, Peter J. Schoomaker, as the new Army Chief of Staff. Schoomaker was sworn in on August 1. As reported by the Washington Times’ Bill Gertz, that move was viewed as “a slap in the face” to the regular careerist three- and four-stars who hang around the Pentagon. And SF have found their cause in the war on terrorists, a war ideally suited to the Green Berets’ special capabilities.
Robin Moore doesn’t write well, more’s the pity, and that makes it hard to read his book. But The Hunt for Bin Laden is filled with good stories and good information. It’s well worth the trouble to slog through.
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