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."
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.
GUNSLINGERS WHO KICK BUTT
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.
LOADED, COCKED, AND AIMED
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.
REELING IN BAD GUYS
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.
"DON'T SHOOT! THEY'RE OUR GUYS"
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.
A ROBOCOP WITH BRAINS
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."
"NO DECISION TO KILL US, NOW"
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.' "
This story appears in the May 19, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.