Men on a Mission
U.S. Special Forces are retooling for the war on terror. Here's their plan
When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld turned to special operations forces to take the lead in the hunt for Osama bin Laden five years ago, he no doubt had in mind the kind of kill-or-capture operation mounted to go after Pancho Villa, or, more recently, the Balkans' war criminals. The problem was that those manhunts came up empty. Finding a single individual intent on hiding, it turns out, is a very tall order, even for a superpower. In a rare interview, Lt. Gen. Dell Dailey, who has helped lead the hunt for al Qaeda's founder, explained why. "Our manhunting skills are dramatically better than ever before, and the envy of other nations," Dailey said, but they cannot always penetrate safe havens that are politically, geographically, or culturally protected.
Nobody understands this better than the Pentagon's special operations community. As director of the Center for Special Operations in Tampa, Dailey is the architect of the military's global counterterrorism plan, known as OPLAN 7500. The plan is classified, but the thinking behind it is not. The strategy relies increasingly on allies like NATO and has broadened from that of a basic manhunt to a mission that includes training partner nations in counterterrorism, intelligence, and civil affairs, eliminating safe havens, and attacking the ideological underpinnings of radical Islamism. "We will take away bin Laden's base," Dailey said. "We will take away his popular support [and] his regional support through all those indirect methods. And once that's happened, we will kill him."
Black and white. Skeptics wonder, however, if there has been a real road-to-Damascus-like conversion in the Special Operations Command, known by its Pentagon acronym, SOCOM. Because they hail from the manhunting special-mission units of the special operations community, both Dailey and his boss, the four-star who heads SOCOM, Gen. Doug Brown, cut their professional teeth on what is called "direct action," or commando-style raids. In congressional hearings, military historian Max Boot said SOCOM" is overly focused on ... direct action, on rappelling out of helicopters, kicking down doors, and capturing or killing bad guys." Inside SOCOM, there is also debate. Among the "white" SOF, the special operators who train foreign militaries and do civil affairs work to win hearts and minds, there is widespread belief that the "black" side of SOCOM, the elite Delta Force, Navy SEAL Team 6, and the special aviators and intelligence units, still have the upper hand.
In a series of interviews in recent weeks, Brown, a blond, steely eyed former helicopter pilot, told U.S. News that both sides of SOCOM have the same objective. Killing and capturing terrorists, Brown said, provides the breathing room that longer-term training and civil-affairs efforts need. "Direct action," Brown said, "buys time for the indirect approach to work while defending the homeland and keeping our adversaries off balance, so that we can enable partner nations to deal with and erode the support for terrorists." At SOCOM's Tampa headquarters, Dailey was genially blunt. "We just plain can't kill them all," he says.
Both generals take pains to counter the notion that they are narrow-minded commandos. Patting the Ranger tab on his left shoulder, Dailey adds: "I've had civil affairs and psyop training, too." And Brown was a sergeant in the "white" Special Forces early in his career. They cite a wide range of "indirect" initiatives against terrorism. In the Philippines, U.S. special operations helped weaken the radical Islamist Abu Sayyaf Group, which had kidnapped two Americans, through military training, road-building, and medical aid that won popular support and led to the collection of useful new intelligence. After succeeding on Basilan Island, they have moved to another historic hotbed, Jolo Island. Lt. Col. Eric Haider, who led the task force, called it "a model for how the U.S. can wage the war on terror in a country where we are not at war, and sustain it over the long term."