The shadowy world of Special Operations

Any strike against bin Laden will rely heavily on the military's Special Forces, known for daring, high-risk raids that are all too often disastrous.

By David J. Morris

Published September 20, 2001 9:59PM (EDT)

Last week's attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon ushered in what some military theorists have dubbed the "fourth generation of warfare." To fight this new kind of war, most experts believe, the Pentagon will rely heavily on its Special Operations arm, the unconventional class of warriors who specialize in counterterrorism, with an emphasis on lightning raids, sabotage, kidnapping, deep reconnaissance and the training of foreign insurgents.

The special operations community has long existed on the margins of the Pentagon, always in the shadows. A unit insignia of an old Green Beret task force sums it up well: It features a large mushroom over which the words "Kept in the Dark, Fed Only Horseshit" are inscribed. The American military establishment has always had an uneasy relationship with these unconventional warriors. In fact, the joint special operations command, which includes all branches of the armed forces, was established only after the embarrassment of the disastrous Iranian hostage rescue attempt of 1980, code-named "Desert One."

For their part, special operations leaders feel their exceptional skills have never been properly appreciated by the generals, who almost always come from the more traditional branches of the service and who look at these alleged "super soldiers" as prima donnas, wild men and wasters of precious resources. But this may have changed with the elevation of Gen. Hugh Shelton to the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1997. Shelton had previously served as the commander of the Army's Special Operations command and rose higher than any previous officer with a Special Forces background.

In the past, working too long in the "spec ops" world was a sure way to end a promising career. This past Sunday, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke to the nation with Shelton by his side, he seemed to be trying to heal all these old wounds when he bent over backward to praise America's Special Operations forces, saying "we may very well need more of them" for the coming war.

The current U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., is made up of the Army's famed Delta Detachment, the Navy's SEAL Team Six, units of the 75th Army Ranger Regiment and selected Air Force squadrons. Born out of the ashes of the Desert One debacle, the command presides over America's dark soldiers, who have a disturbingly mixed record of daring and disastrous raids undertaken at phenomenal risk.

A major problem in attempting to assess the "spec ops" world is that one mainly hears about the missions that go wrong. Those that go right -- a terrorist apprehended, an attack foiled -- often remain a secret. Their most famous operations have been spectacular failures, from Desert One, to the ill-fated Ranger mission to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in 1993 recounted in Mark Bowden's sobering "Black Hawk Down," to the exquisitely executed Son Tay raid in North Vietnam, which nonetheless failed to yield a single American POW as planned.

But special operators slogged on after these bitter defeats and achieved some victories, most of which the American public never hears about. (A special operator once told me that the only way that he knew a covert operation was underway was when he saw a pair of empty jump boots outside of the chapel at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, indicating that a Special Forces soldier had been killed on a mission.) A few stunning victories have made headlines: After several abortive attempts to capture elusive war criminals in northern Bosnia, sailors from the Navy's elite SEAL Team Six physically tackled a suspect in the street in December of 1998. Two other war crimes fugitives were also captured in this operation.

And the Army's Delta Force played a pivotal role in the pursuit and eventual assassination of Colombian cocaine king Pablo Escobar in 1993. That particular campaign bears some resemblance to the current battle confronting the U.S. military in Central Asia, pursuing Osama bin Laden and his allies. Escobar commanded a labyrinthine network of agents, couriers and bodyguards that practically smothered Colombia, and any offensive move by Colombian government forces was swiftly detected and counteracted by Escobar's lieutenants.

To win this war, American operatives began speaking of "bringing down the mountain," i.e., dismembering the intelligence matrix that Escobar sat atop which kept him alive. It was this systematic campaign of intense intelligence collection, counterintelligence and smart, surgically orchestrated strikes that eventually brought Escobar to his end. This type of war, fought against an equally insidious enemy, is likely what is being planned in USSOCOM's Crisis Action Center, deep in the bowels of MacDill.

The controversial, gray war fought against Pablo Escobar is considered by some in the "spec ops" world to be their crowning achievement. It proved that they could coordinate a shifting battle against a wily and fantastically elusive foe and, after numerous false starts, rebound and kill him (The facts surrounding Don Pablo's death remain hidden under the haze of uncertainty that characterizes all special operations. Officially, Colombian government forces killed him.) Much like bin Laden, Pablo Escobar was a nontraditional enemy who fought his pursuers not so much with guns and bombs as with his wits and his network. The lessons learned by America's special operators in this dark, quasi war will no doubt be applied in the coming months.

The highly specialized force that we have now didn't develop out of thin air. The special ops' military subculture traces its roots to the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, formed by President Roosevelt during the darkest days of World War II. The historical parallels here are far from accidental. The U.S. birthed the heterodox OSS in a time of national crisis and quickly disbanded its motley ranks after the Japanese surrender. The members of the OSS, many of them expatriates and roguish ne'er-do-wells, went on to form the nucleus of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Army's Green Berets.

As in many fields of martial endeavor, the U.S. was preceded by the British in the development of a true special operations capability. The legendary Col. "Charging Charlie" Beckwith, a two-tour Vietnam vet with a swampy Georgia accent, formed the Army's Delta Detachment in 1977 in response to numerous well-publicized terrorist incidents around the world. Beckwith had spent a year as an exchange officer with Great Britain's Special Air Service, then the world leader in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorist operations. This experience greatly influenced him as he began organizing and training the unusual body of men that would become "The Dreaded D."

Beckwith built upon an already elite group of Green Beret volunteers and transformed them into what is considered by some to be the premier surgical strike force in the world today. But, as in the Son Tay raid, one is continually faced with the problem of brilliantly executed tactics being hamstrung by poor decision-making by the generals -- and by shoddy and even downright false intelligence.

During Desert Storm, after Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf seemed to be doing everything in his power to exclude Delta and the SEALs from his master plan, several teams struck out into the shifting sands of Iraq in search of the elusive Scud missile launchers that were consistently evading U.S. warplanes. At this end of what the SAS dubbed the "Great Scud Hunt of '91," only a few missile launchers were confirmed as destroyed. In retrospect, it appears as if these raids were launched prematurely and lacked the necessary coordination required for special operations, which are exceptionally intelligence-intensive.

The long-term effect of engaging in a spec ops campaign on the scale being suggested by Rumsfeld and the Bush administration could be to almost completely upend the American military establishment. Historically, special operations have always been just that: "special," as in very rarely done. Deploying, supplying and recovering the forces necessary for the coming war will require a new and unseen type of commitment from our nation's military. But most importantly, the coming conflict will force Americans to look at warfare in a whole new light. In the past, the modus operandi of special operations has sometimes been perceived as underhanded, dirty, roguish and possibly un-American. But if this terrorist Pearl Harbor has taught us anything, it is that all the rules have changed.

David J. Morris

David J. Morris is a former Marine officer and the author of "Storm on the Horizon: Khafji -- The Battle That Changed the Course of the Gulf War" (Free Press). He has embedded with Marines in Iraq for multiple tours since 2004.

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