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[casi] Iraq: Special Ops No Model for Military,1,2773482.story

      August 31, 2003


Special Ops No Model for Military

By William M. Arkin, William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who
writes regularly for Opinion.

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. - A team of Navy SEALs slithers ashore from a waiting
submarine, but it is not alone.

Friendly robots search for mines and other obstacles in the waters off the
beach. On shore, unattended ground sensors detect and report sounds and
movements up ahead. Overhead, unmanned flying vehicles conduct aerial

The special operators move inland, connected to the sensors and their mother
ship by laptop computers with a wireless network. At their target, they
place remotely controlled digital cameras and chemical-agent detectors
cleverly camouflaged to blend into the surroundings. The SEALs also take
soil samples, then silently withdraw.

Back on the submarine, technicians analyze the samples, and intelligence
specialists evaluate data from the myriad sensors. They identify the
location as a covert terrorist laboratory for weapons of mass destruction.
The secretary of Defense orders an immediate missile attack. The emplaced
sensors and cameras report back the results. Mission accomplished.

This is no Hollywood script. It was a military exercise conducted in January
at Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas.

When Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld speaks of his agenda for the
war on terrorism and military "transformation," what is uppermost in his
mind are futuristic rock 'em, sock 'em experiments such as January's "Giant
Shadow." It is a seductive vision.

Both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were toppled quickly by campaigns that
relied heavily on U.S. special operations - supported by unprecedented
intelligence, amazing air power and the best gadgets money could buy. Now,
special operators, with their clandestine ease and instant-response
capability, are the centerpiece of the Bush administration's war on
terrorism throughout the world.

Yet the impeding two-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York
and the Washington area finds us with that war far from finished. Iraq is in
turmoil, with more Americans killed since the Pentagon declared major combat
operations over than died during the war. The Taliban is reconstituting in
Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations remain
potent and threatening.

Sure, the post-9/11 wars have had their successes, and special operators
have performed well. But the question must be asked: Is there something
about the special operations man-to-man, blow-it-up strategy that leaves us
where we are today?

Everyone knows about the amazing rout of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in
Afghanistan: A few hundred special operators working with local warlords did
what hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers could not do.

But many also remember Tora Bora, the mountain battle on the Pakistani
border. Osama bin Laden was supposedly trapped; somehow, he got away, along
with many of his senior aides. The rest is history.

"They just moved," says retired Army Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, former
European and Bosnia task force commander and now a professor at the
University of Texas in Austin. Thousands of U.S. troops and special
operators remain in and around Afghanistan, picking off guerrillas and
suspected terrorists when they can find them. But all the while, terrorism
grows outside of their area of control. So does opposition to the government
the United States established in Kabul.

This is the problem with a special operations strategy that, by definition,
relies on small numbers. These forces can move quickly, blow things up,
bolster and protect friendly forces. But they cannot cover all of the
avenues of escape or occupy territory. And they cannot establish popular
support when they are here one day and gone tomorrow.

What was the biggest complaint about Operation Iraqi Freedom, as the combat
phase of U.S. intervention in Iraq was called? It was that the United States
was not deploying enough troops. After Baghdad fell in just three weeks,
most of the complaints about the war plan subsided. But the peace plan is a
shambles: There are not sufficient troops on the ground to maintain
security. Nor is there a basic strategy beyond the "raid over the beach"

Is a special operations bias partially responsible for the state of affairs
in Iraq? President Bush changed the entire Iraq war plan to attack a
compound in Baghdad on March 19 based on "actionable intelligence" and
special operations. Did the tipping of the U.S. hand allow Hussein and his
deck of cards to find safety and ride out the attack?

North and west of Baghdad, special operators pinned down Iraqi forces and
conducted a fanciful search for weapons of mass destruction. But those few
thousand special forces soldiers did not actually meet Hussein's loyalists
and defeat them. Nor were the special forces numerous enough to seal the
back doors of the capital city as the heavy conventional American forces
came up from the south. Like Bin Laden in Afghanistan, Hussein and company
just moved.

Is it only coincidental that in southern Iraq - where the Iraqi army was
thoroughly destroyed and the U.S. and British armies became occupiers in a
classic sense after total defeat of the enemy - the level of postwar deaths
has been far lower than in the central and northern sectors of the country?
Are Iraq's borders so porous and is Baghdad so lethal because Iraqi
opponents chose to emulate their Taliban and Al Qaeda brethren and fade away
rather than fight toe to toe with America's super-warriors?

The answers to these questions are far from clear. What is clear is that the
Pentagon is not addressing them in an objective manner. That is because at
the top of the Defense Department there is a love affair with the
clandestine, with the easy-to-employ force of lethal special operators and
their brethren in covert intelligence. So much so that Rumsfeld insiders
have begun to speak of "SOC-izing" the force, that is, transforming
conventional forces to be more like those of Special Operations Command.

Retired Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, Rumsfeld's director of transformation, told
an audience at the Heritage Foundation in May that the capabilities of
special operators "are all very, very powerful attributes that the entire
force should possess."

"The general rule is that small forces with a depth of local knowledge have
more power than very large formations that come from [elsewhere]," he said
at another recent presentation.

Though special operators are known for their regional focus, language skills
and maturity, the community is actually divided between "raids, rescue and
Rambo" types, that is, those focused on "kinetic kill and direct action,"
and the "softer" types, who focus on psychological warfare, civil affairs
and building popular support.

A retired Air Force special operator and counter-terrorism expert, Col. Wray
R. Johnson, says the administration, as well as the Special Operations
Command, has clearly focused on the direct-action side at the expense of the
softer side in the war on terrorism. "I myself side with the softer side of
SOF," Johnson says. "Kill terrorists when and where we find them, but,
thinking strategically, we should emphasize ameliorating if not eliminating
the conditions that generate support for the bad guys."

Retired Gen. Wayne Downing, the former commander of all special operations,
agrees: "We're knocking them off and interdicting operations, but every day
another 10, 15, 20 recruits are coming into the training camps."

Critics of the administration hold that the mere presence of American forces
in Iraq is an irritant that feeds terrorism. But the opposite may be true:
In reality, fanaticism may flourish where there is too little contact with
U.S. forces. In a full-scale occupation, the people cannot help learning the
true character of our army. And in this case, whatever other feelings or
forces may be at work, where the presence is strong, people cannot fail to
see that soldiers are working to make things better - feeding people,
tending the sick and wounded, trying to build and protect local

Ironically, one of the basic tenets of Rumsfeld's cherished special
operations, and the basis of successful guerrilla warfare, is to build an
authentic relationship with the people.

As more and more questions arise about the situation in Iraq, many are
pushing an "occupation light" based on special operations. If such a force
was centered on the "softer" side of civil affairs and not on the covert
hunt, it might make sense. But for now, the Pentagon leadership remains
blinkered when it comes to fighting the war on terrorism.

It is lost in its own "Giant Shadow."

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