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."
The same thing happened in Afghanistan. "The war on terror is more like the Cold War," said Col. Pat Higgins, who commanded special operations forces during two tours of duty there, "in that it is focused on preventing things from happening." Higgins sent a team of his men to help border police stop the flow of rockets through the Khyber Pass-then focused on getting local Afghans to send their sons and daughters to a school they built.
Self-interest. That kind of outreach is also happening on a higher level. Last fall, Dailey began the program "Sovereign Challenge," inviting 82 foreign military attachÃÂÃÂ©s from embassies in Washington to an off-the-record free-for-all at which they were encouraged to air views on terrorism. The brainchild of retired diplomat Stanley Schrager, an adviser to Dailey, it was a way of reframing the debate, he says, "to encourage countries to act in their own self-interest, with or without the help of the United States." Even nations that haven't been attacked have an incentive, he adds, because terrorists routinely violate their sovereignty, by transferring funds through their banks or using countries for training or recruiting purposes.
Other counterterrorism initiatives are proceeding below the radar. In Asia, special operations forces conduct some 70 training exercises a year. SOCOM has also set up a 70-man Joint Psychological Operation Support Element to assist commanders around the globe and other U.S. agencies with in-depth analyses of Arab audiences and Islamic sects while producing radio and television spots for their use. The program's deputy director, Mike Furlong, says its efforts are "akin to a marketing or PR firm. We try to get our message out for the population to see."
In addition, SOCOM is sending military liaison elements to countries where the U.S. military may someday be called on to deal with terrorists. Past operations in Somalia, Grenada, and Iran all ran into trouble because U.S. forces lacked basic information, like accurate road maps. Some U.S. ambassadors have complained about the work of these teams, but SOCOM says objections are dealt with before anyone is deployed. "Special operations forces do not go into other countries without a country clearance," Brown said. "We brief each new ambassador and inform them that we won't deploy SOF personnel without the appropriate country clearance."
If such programs are indeed the priority, today many in the white SOF community say they don't see it. When it comes to equipment, aircraft, intelligence, and other support, they say, they don't get their fair share. As one senior Special Forces officer put it: "We have a world-class capability for direct action. We need the same world-class, well-resourced capability to do unconventional warfare," working with local partners. The manhunters of black SOF have their own air fleet, the 160th Special Operations Regiment-which both Dailey and Brown once commanded-while the white Special Forces have not had dedicated aircraft since Vietnam.
Brown rejects assertions that there's favoritism at work. "We look at all resources," he said, "and balance them based on the priority of missions at hand. White SOF is better trained, equipped, and supported than ever in history, and they continue to perform all of their missions marvelously."
The SOCOM budget for equipment has almost tripled, to $2.7 billion since 9/11, and the majority of resources have gone to the larger white Special Forces, but it is still proportionately less than the amounts the much smaller black units receive. There are occasions, however, including the manhunts in Iraq, when the latter have shared air and intelligence resources.
About 90 percent of the funding for "urgent deployment acquisitions" has gone to white SOF since 9/11, says Dale Uhler, head of acquisitions at SOCOM. For example, when Special Forces units were trying to form an alliance among feuding Afghan warlords, the lack of face-to-face meetings between chieftains made deals impossible. So SOCOM bought eight suitcase-size video teleconferencing units. Thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles like the Pointer, the Raven, and the waterproof Aqua Puma were also purchased, as well as high-tech air-ground communications gear.
The debate over the balance between indirect programs and manhunts has captured attention among lawmakers and Pentagon officials. A proposal to create an "unconventional warfare command" was floated at June hearings held by Rep. Jim Saxton, the chairman of the special operations subcommittee. While praising direct-action successes, Saxton says, "I believe the key to our military efforts rests in the unconventional capabilities." He has not decided yet whether such a command within SOCOM is necessary but says "it is vital that policy makers in the Department of Defense not lose sight of the strategic importance of unconventional warfare and ensure that we capitalize on those capabilities."
General Brown is also taking another look at things. "Some think the establishment of some sort of an integrated Unconventional Warfare command under SOCOM may be of value," he says. "I have asked my staff and Army Special Operations Command to determine if that idea has any merit."
This story appears in the September 11, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.