From Army Times, USA
Critics: Afghanistan plan takes SF from usual training mission
By Sean D. Naylor – Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Dec 23, 2008 13:30:19 EST
Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ announcement of a plan to deploy an additional three brigades of combat troops to Afghanistan by the summer has superseded a contentious debate that pitted the Bush administration’s “war czar” against the special operations hierarchy over the National Security Council’s proposed near-term “surge” of special operations forces to Afghanistan, a Pentagon military official said.
The NSC proposal, which grew out of its Afghan strategy review, recommended an increase of “about another battalion’s worth” of troops to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force- Afghanistan, or CJSOTF-A, said a field-grade Special Forces officer, who added that this would enlarge the task force by about a third.
There are two major special operations task forces in Afghanistan: CJSOTF-A, which is the “white,” or unclassified, task force and is organized around a Special Forces group headquarters with two SF battalions and Marine special operations and Navy SEAL elements; and a “black” special operations task force with a headquarters element drawn from the secretive Joint Special Operations Command overseeing elements of Navy Special Warfare Development Group, also known as SEAL Team 6, the 75th Ranger Regiment, and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
Several sources said that the “SOF surge” proposal originated with Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, whose official title is assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan policy and implementation, but who is often referred to as the “war czar.” The rationale behind deploying more special ops forces to Afghanistan was that any decision to deploy more conventional brigades to Afghanistan would take several months at a minimum to implement, whereas special ops units could be sent much more quickly, the field-grade Special Forces officer said.
The deployment of additional Special Forces A-teams, the 12-man units also known as operational detachments-alpha, or ODAs, “became the sine qua non” that the Bush administration was taking immediate action to reverse negative trends in the Afghan war, the Pentagon military official said.
“During this NSC review, my understanding was the most contentious issue was whether to arm the tribes,” a Defense Department civilian official said. “Lute had been pushing this idea of a lot more white SOF working specifically with the tribes.”
However, the proposal sparked a fierce high-level debate, with special operations officers charging that Lute and his colleagues were trying to micromanage the movement of individual Special Forces A-teams from inside the Beltway, and countercharges that Special Forces has strayed from its traditional mission of raising and training indigenous forces and become too focused on direct-action missions to kill or capture enemies.
“Four or five weeks ago, this was fairly contentious,” the Pentagon military official said. But the combination of Gates’ announcement of the plan to send an additional 20,000 troops to Afghanistan — which will include a significant special ops contingent — and the impending presidential transition has rendered the debate “stillborn,” the military official said.
Most major special operations commands were opposed to the proposal, special operations sources said. The sources identified U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. Army Special Operations Command and the office of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, Low-Intensity Conflict and Interdependent Capabilities Michael Vickers as all resisting the initiative.
Lute declined to be interviewed through a representative, and spokesmen for SOCOM and Vickers’ office adopted a similar stance.
“It would be inappropriate for USSOCOM to comment on what may or may not be an ongoing policy discussion,” SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw said. “It’s pre-decisional, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to talk about it until it’s officially released,” Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. Bob Mehal, who handles media queries for Vickers, said with regard to the NSC review.
Special operations sources said that those opposing the “SOF surge” were generally against the idea on two grounds: that the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, has not requested them, and that the CJSOTF-A does not have enough “enablers” — such as helicopters and intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance assets — to support the forces it has in country now, let alone another battalion’s worth.
“This is being driven out of Washington, D.C., not requested by General McKiernan or by [U.S. Central Command],” a senior special operations staff officer said. “People in Washington, General Lute and those guys … want to micromanage the employment of individual ODAs. Is that really the right thing to do? Who are the guys in Washington to order the deployment of more forces if the theater commander has not asked for them and has no strategy to employ them? The next thing, those same guys in D.C. are going to be picking [high-value targets] for these guys to go after.”
A spokesman for McKiernan did not return a call seeking comment. An administration official denied that Lute was trying to interfere with the theater commander’s prerogatives.
“The requirements for forces are generated from the field, not generated from Washington,” the administration official said, adding that the NSC considered “all sorts of options” in putting together its strategic review for Afghanistan.
But the field-grade Special Forces officer said that the requests for forces generated by commanders in Afghanistan do not seem to comport to any overall plan for the theater. “Commanders are asking for what they think they can get, rather than what they need,” he said.
However, the field-grade SF officer acknowledged that the NSC proposal had run up against stiff opposition among the special ops brass. “SOCOM, USASOC, [USASOC commander Lt. Gen. John] Mulholland, ASD SO/LIC [i.e., Vickers’ office] are saying, ‘We’re not going to put more [forces] in until you give us dedicated enablers,’” he said. In addition to more helicopters and ISR assets, such as Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, the enablers sought by the special operations headquarters include “more dedicated forward operating bases, more money for [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles], the whole package,” he added.
The short supply of helicopters in Afghanistan has been a constant problem for conventional forces and CJSOTF-A. Unlike the Joint Special Operations Command task force, which is directly supported by elements of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, “white” Special Forces groups do not have their own dedicated aviation units and have to compete for helicopter support with the rest of the U.S. and allied force in Afghanistan. But CJSOTF-A is commanded by a colonel, whereas the other organizations are all commanded by flag officers. “They’re left begging black SOF — the 160th — or begging conventional [forces] — the 101st Airborne — and who’s going to lose in that fight?” the field-grade Special Forces officer said.
However, a special ops surge would still benefit Afghanistan, said the field-grade SF officer, a proponent of the surge initiative. “The bottom line is even ODAs or [Marine Special Operations Command units] or Navy SEALs that are less enabled will make parts of Afghanistan better off if they’re doing full-spectrum counterinsurgency than those parts of Afghanistan that have nothing at all,” he said.
The Pentagon military official said that the planned deployment of an additional 20,000 U.S. troops, including three brigade combat teams, to Afghanistan would also include a lot of “enablers” that the special operations forces could use. “When you start building in BCTs … you get a lot of stuff that the SOF guys can fall in on,” the military official said. The Pentagon plan includes more helicopters being sent to Afghanistan, as well as the possibility of a one-star special operations flag officer to command “white” SOF forces in country, which would obviate the need to have “O-6s arm wrestling with O-7s and O-9s,” he said, referring to the paygrades for colonels, brigadier generals and lieutenant generals, respectively.
A field-grade officer in Washington who has been tracking the debate said that the “white” SOF leaders’ argument that their forces need more ISR assets and helicopters is a reflection of how Special Forces has veered away from its traditional mission of “foreign internal defense” — training host nation forces to conduct counterinsurgency — in favor of the more glamorous direct-action missions.
“Lute would say that’s a symptom of the problem,” the field-grade officer in Washington said regarding the insistence by some SF officers that the task force needs more ISR assets and helicopters before it can accommodate more troops. “You don’t need ISR and rotary-wing aviation if you’re training indigenous forces. You only need those things if you’re doing direct action.”
Lute thinks that special operations forces, particularly Special Forces, “are the right force” to send to Afghanistan because of their skills at teaching foreign internal defense, the field-grade officer in Washington said. “He seems to remember that once upon a time, SOF did something like that. Last we checked, their principal mission is raising and training indigenous forces.”
This might explain the special operations hierarchy’s opposition to Lute’s surge proposal, the field grade officer in Washington said. “This is an implict criticism of what SOF has done for the last five years,” he said. “They haven’t been training indigenous forces. That may be what SOCOM is objecting to, is it’s implicitly a critique of SOF’s over-fascination with direct action.”
He noted that Special Forces A-teams in Afghanistan are partnered with Afghan commando units, not regular Afghan National Army battalions. “The CJSOTF may think that ODAs are too good to work with conventional forces, [so] they only work with SOF-like forces,” he said.
The senior special operations staff officer acknowledged that SF A-teams in Afghanistan do not routinely partner with conventional Afghan units, but said some of the blame lies with the way the coalition mission in Afghanistan is structured. “The real question is, are all Special Forces in Afghanistan sufficiently postured with Afghan forces? And the answer is no,” he said. “The problem is that the advisory mission is separate from the SF mission. That’s the fundamental problem with Afghanistan.” As a result, he said, “Our ODAs are not being effectively employed.”
Under the Defense Department plan for Afghanistan, Army brigade combat teams and Marine regimental combat teams would be responsible for “mentoring” Afghan National Army units, but “white” special operations forces would also have a role, according to the Pentagon military official. “White SOF can come in and focus on the much harder nuts … the tougher missions,” he said, adding that he was not referring necessarily to “kinetic” operations, but to training missions at more remote locations.
“The framework is going to look a lot more like the framework did in Iraq over the last couple of years,” the Pentagon military official said.
Part of the debate over the feasibility of a special operations surge revolves around the perception by some surge proponents that special operations leaders are not making as many of their forces available as they might. “Lute, for a long time, has been talking about his deeply held belief from his time as the J-3 [director of operations on the Joint Staff] that the SOF are withholding a lot of their assets in order to preserve their op tempo and their retention numbers,” said the field-grade officer in Washington who has been following the debate.
Special Forces’ deployment ratio was 1 to 0.8, he said, meaning that for every day the average SF soldier spent deployed, he spent 0.8 of a day at home. “That’s not even 1 to 1,” the senior special operations staff officer said. “The guys are deployed more than they are home.”
This claim was flatly rejected by the senior special operations staff officer.
Of 288 A-teams in the five active-duty Special Forces groups — there are also two National Guard groups — about 36 are assigned to CJSOTF-A and 44 to CJSOTF-Arabian Peninsula, the “white” special operations task force in Iraq, for a total of 80 committed to the two wars at any one time. “However,” he said, “that number is really 160 ODAs committed to the CJSOTFs as they are on a seven months in, five months out rotation. In addition, he said, there is “an almost permanent presence” of two company headquarters (“B teams” in SF terminology) and about 10 A-teams in Colombia and Central America, about eight to 10 A-teams in the Philippines, “a handful” in the Horn of Africa and a similar number dedicated to the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership that includes countries across north and west Africa. When other A-teams conducting training in Pakistan and classified missions elsewhere are included, that makes for a total of about 32 A-teams committed outside of the two CJSOTFs, “which translates into a commitment of 64 ODAs with rotations,” the senior special operations staff officer said.
There is also a Special Forces presence at more than 40 U.S. embassies, while SF is supporting six “named” operations and more than 50 requests for forces around the world, he said. “There’s no ODAs sitting around doing nothing,” he added, noting that any deployment of additional Special Forces to Afghanistan “is going to be a question of priorities.”
The field-grade Special Forces officer acknowledged that pulling ODAs from other groups that do not habitually deploy to Afghanistan, such as 1st Group, which focuses mostly on east Asia, would incur a cost for regional combatant commanders in those parts of the world, who would have to curtail the number of joint/combined exchange training programs that Special Forces teams conduct with host nation forces. “There’s a huge list of JCETs and other missions that are going to go unfulfilled” in the event of a special operations surge into Afghanistan, he said.
However, it’s not clear that a SOF surge, whether the near-term one sought by the NSC or the longer-term one envisioned by the Pentagon plan, would be made of entirely or mostly of Special Forces units. CJSOTF-A already includes a Marine Special Operations Command element in western Afghanistan, which is likely to grow, the field grade Special Forces officer said. “The term that’s being bandied about is ‘ODA equivalents,’” he said.
The senior special operations staff officer scoffed at such talk. “There’s only SF,” he said. “There’s no SF equivalents. That’s idiocy. SEALs are not SF. MARSOC are not SF and SF are not SEALs. They’re not interchangeable. … Those people who are throwing that [term] around certainly don’t understand what they’re talking about.”