Special forces stretched thin by two wars

Too few elite troops for key furtive work

Sun Special Report

September 24, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun Reporter

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- So many of America's special operations commandos have been thrown into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan that only a handful of the elite troops are available for the quiet but critical work of training local security forces and stabilizing governments elsewhere -- raising worries about al-Qaida and related terrorist groups expanding in other parts of the world.

The demand for Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other highly trained units in battle, which senior military commanders expect will last for the foreseeable future, is a tough problem for the military and for its relatively small and overstretched special operations forces centered here in a bustling wartime headquarters.

In Iraq, they are hunting down and capturing or killing insurgents and training and directing local units in that fight. But doing so drains people and resources from work elsewhere on which ultimate success or failure in the war on terrorism depends, senior officers said.

"We understand that we can't kill our way to victory," said Vice Adm. Eric T. Olson, deputy commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM for short. "We have to be out ahead of the sound of guns, not chasing the sound of guns."

He said the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan had forced SOCOM to dedicate "more of our force than we'd like" to the fight there -- almost 6,000 of the 7,000 special forces currently deployed worldwide. "We have to kill or capture certain terrorists, disrupt their terrorist networks, and there is an urgency to that," said Olson, the Navy's senior-most SEAL.

The consequence, he added, is that "we are underrepresented globally."

Best known for their unique war-fighting skills, special forces personnel also conduct quieter missions aimed at bolstering stability across the Third World, primarily by helping train and guide local security forces, working on development and helping to strengthen and legitimize local governments -- steps deemed critical in alleviating conditions in which extremism can thrive and denying terrorists sanctuary where local governments are ineffective.

Each special forces soldier is assigned a geographic specialty and spends years developing language and cultural skills that deepen on long, repeated tours of duty. But today, soldiers fluent in Mandarin and Spanish are being reassigned to Baghdad and Kandahar.

"We have to win in Iraq and Afghanistan to win the war on terror," Olson said. "But the war on terror won't be won in Afghanistan and Iraq." It will be won, or at least waged, in the regions where other U.S. commanders say the long-term threat is building.

In Asia, for example, there are "very clear al-Qaida links from the Middle East into the Far East," Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, told a group of reporters. Fallon said he has obtained some small special operations units for short-term missions in places such as the islands between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines that are major "ratlines of al-Qaida and their allies running back and forth to do things like train people, sustain their bomb-making and other operations and basically continue to destabilize the region."

"We have asked for more" special operations forces, he said in a brief interview, adding that "if we didn't have the heavy demand for forces" in Iraq and Afghanistan "we could probably do a lot more."

Extremism on rise

In other areas, such as Somalia, Islamist extremists have seized power in Mogadishu and are expanding their influence "like a virus," said an officer working in the region, in an assessment shared across the U.S. government. There also is concern about Islamist extremism arising from the fighting in the Darfur region of Sudan. The United States has no special forces presence in either country.

The number of lawless or ungoverned countries and territories is expanding, according to a study by the World Bank. Failed states and ungoverned territories that stretch in a belt of poverty, corruption and lawlessness from Uzbekistan to Kosovo and Somalia to parts of Bolivia and Colombia have grown from 17 countries in 2003 to 25 today, the bank said in a report this month.

According to Op Plan 7500, SOCOM's global war strategy, it is in those regions that the United States should be maintaining a "persistent presence." It is not.

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