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Secret Soldiers

Will our military be dominated by forces shielded from scrutiny?

June 22, 2003|William M. Arkin | William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail:

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. — They rescued Jessica Lynch, helped to capture Iraqi leaders, secured oil fields, stopped saboteurs from flooding the Karbala Gap, worked with Kurdish guerrillas and Shiite opponents and positioned themselves to stop Saddam Hussein from firing missiles at Israel or perhaps using weapons of mass destruction.

They are special operations forces, and since the war on terrorism began, their flexibility and secretiveness have made them a favorite with the Bush administration and with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has pushed for an ever bigger role for special operations.

Even as the president was making his case to the public for going to war, special operations forces were already at work inside Iraq. When Turkey denied U.S. ground forces permission to use its territory, special ops were allowed in anyway. After Jordan and Saudi Arabia publicly restricted U.S. troops from their soil, they still privately let thousands of special operations forces work from their bases.

But if you're wondering exactly what all those troops accomplished, you'll probably just have to keep wondering. While more than 600 journalists were embedded with U.S. and British forces, not one accompanied a special operations unit. We know what the Defense Department is willing to tell us about the role such units played in the war, but the bigger question of their effectiveness, as well as many details of their exploits, remains opaque.

Still, special operations boosters couldn't be flying higher. Last week, special operations forces participated in the capture of Hussein's chief of staff. The week before, Rumsfeld nominated, for the first time in history, one of their own to be the Army's top general.

But here are the bigger questions: Is such heavy reliance on special operations really the best way to fight the war on terror? And is a secretive and largely unaccountable collection of troops an appropriate model for the "new" U.S. military?

No one questions that special operations played a vital role in Iraq. According to military sources, some 16,000 special operations forces fought in or supported the war. More than 100 "strategic reconnaissance" teams were moved forward into southern Iraq to act as eyes and ears for coalition ground forces. Senior retired special operations commanders and military sources say that in western and northern Iraq, special operations forces made up only about one-fiftieth of the coalition's forces, but they were responsible for pinning down 11 divisions, or about half of Iraq's armed forces.

In the south, the Naval Special Warfare Task Group infiltrated coastal oil platforms, cleared mines, secured oil installations in the Rumaila fields and supported U.S. Marines and British forces. In the west, they quickly secured suspected missile-launching sites, assaulted Iraqi airfields and set up a foothold at the Hadithah Dam 130 miles northwest of Baghdad. In the north, Task Force Viking secured the Kirkuk oil fields, attacked the Ansar al Islam terrorist organization in the mountains near the Iranian border and worked with Kurdish peshmerga.

The super-secret Task Force 20, senior retired officers said, was responsible for the Baghdad area and the most important "high value" targets, including members of the regime and sites possibly housing weapons of mass destruction. The task force had been operating in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq for more than a decade, and in 2002 its forces infiltrated Iraq proper. Commandos established "hide sites" and listening posts, and they placed acoustic and seismic sensors on Iraqi roads to track activity. They penetrated Iraq's fiber-optic network to eavesdrop on communications.

In many cases, special operations officers said, super-secret or "black" special operators were engaged in missions so sensitive that they needed "white" counterparts, who operated somewhat more openly, to ensure that coalition aircraft and advancing troops did not inadvertently fire upon the secret teams.

In the end, of course, there were no Scud missiles for Iraq to launch at Israel, and there were no weapons of mass destruction on the battlefield. At Hadithah and other dam sites, the U.S. found no firm evidence that Iraqis were preparing to blow them up. In the northern and southern oil fields, Iraqi demolition efforts were nothing like the methodical sabotage by Iraq of Kuwait's oil infrastructure in 1991. Local forces south and east of Baghdad successfully destroyed a couple of bridges, but the Iraqi command doesn't appear to have attempted a scorched-earth plan.

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