The Men In The Shadows
Why Special Forces are providing the model for a new kind of war
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."