The latest phase of military operations in Afghanistan has
shifted the emphasis from heavy bombing to more of a “boots on the ground”
approach involving hundreds of U.S. special forces units with missions
ranging from engaging Al-Qaeda fighters, to interrogating prisoners, guarding
sensitive positions and, soon, possibly searching the Tora Bora caves.
Special forces have played a part in American military
operations for more than 200 years. They place a premium on specialized
skills, training and tactics in order to accomplish missions with “speed,
stealth, audacity [and] deception” -- in ways that conventional forces
are not suited for. They are particularly popular with political
leaders because they generally cut a lower profile and run less risk of
sustaining heavy casualties in politically sensitive circumstances.
Recent situations involving special forces include Operations Just Cause
(Panama), Desert Shield/Desert Storm (Iraq and Kuwait), and Joint Endeavor
Although U.S. special forces have enjoyed significant
successes, they have also suffered terrible catastrophes – as in the Iran
hostage rescue attempt of 1980 and the disaster in Somalia in 1993.
Nonetheless, they remain a key element in U.S. military strategy whose
importance is likely to grow
Given the current focus of the campaign in Afghanistan,
the National Security Archive is posting a selection of materials from
a variety of sources that give background on the structure, activities
and experiences of U.S. special forces. The materials include a history
of the inter-service Joint Special Operations Command, a recent posture
statement on U.S. special operations forces, a joint Army-Air Force field
manual describing guidelines for military operations in “low-intensity
conflict,” a critique of the Army Ranger engagement in Somalia, and other
documents describing particular missions and tools relevant to the ongoing
deployment in Afghanistan.
Note: The following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe
Acrobat Reader to view.
This lengthy document, while meant for a public audience, offers
a useful overview of the organization and mission of special forces today.
Basic background on each major Special Operations Forces (SOF) component
is provided along with other helpful information such as organization charts
and a glossary of terms.
“10th Anniversary History,” United States Special Operations Command,
April 16, 1997. (63 pages)
||Source: United States Special Operations
This public, but primarily internal document looks back over
the first decade of the existence of the joint U.S. Special Operations
Command (SOCOM), the unified command created in 1987 to develop doctrine
for, and monitor the activities of, U.S. special forces. Although
painted in broad strokes, it gives a useful introduction to the background
and elements of the military’s SOF structure, including a survey of SOCOM’s
major operations over the decade.
Because of the importance and value attached to special operations,
SOF units exist in each of the four branches of the military. This
not only gives commanders greater flexibility in responding to various
military situations, but it also adds to the historical problem of coordinating
the activities of each branch. This lengthy guidance document from
the Joint Chiefs of Staff gives general instructions on planning and executing
joint special operations, from carrying out psychological warfare to ensuring
an adequate legal foundation for SOF activities.
The concept of low-intensity conflict (LIC) has emerged steadily
in recent years as an important area of U.S. military planning. LIC
encompasses a wide range of conflict below the level of conventional warfare,
including insurgency/counterinsurgency, subversion, terrorism and limited
armed engagements. U.S. strategists have spent years devising strategies
and tactics for dealing with LIC contingencies, typically foreseen as taking
place in the Third World. They are particularly relevant to current
U.S. military activities in Afghanistan.
“UAV Annual Report, FY 1996,” U.S.
Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office, November 11, 1996 (excerpt).
||Source: Freedom of Information
SOF operations often involve the use of high-tech intelligence
and weapons. This is certainly the case in Afghanistan where, among
other devices, “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) such as the Predator have
reportedly been used widely for photo reconnaissance and tracking the movements
of Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces. This annual report on UAVs includes
a description of the Predator’s activities in Bosnia and elsewhere.
In Afghanistan, the aircraft has also been fitted with Hellfire missiles,
giving it a dramatic new mission in addition to intelligence gathering.
“CIA Support to the U.S. Military
during the Persian Gulf War,” Director of Central Intelligence, June 16,
1997. (8 pages)
||Source: CIA Public Affairs
The death of CIA operative
Mike Spann – the first American casualty in the Afghanistan operation –
brought the agency he worked for unexpectedly into the spotlight.
Typically, the CIA keeps the identity of its agents (even after they have
died), as well as their activities, a closely held secret. But this
unabashed public document breaks the pattern, at least to a degree, by
outlining in broad terms the range of CIA contributions to the military
during the Gulf War. The role of intelligence support in the current
fight against terrorism – including the hunt for Bin Laden – is of course
a critical one as well.
“Report of the Defense Science Board
Task Force on Improved Application of Intelligence to the Battlefield,”
Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology,
May-July 1996. (68 pages)
||Source: Department of Defense
Picking up the theme of the previous document, but written
primarily for an internal audience, this dense report was part of an ongoing
evaluation of the coalition campaign in Bosnia and the role of intelligence
in that action. This 1996 installment specifically looks at how effectively
intelligence (grouped under the acronym C4ISR – command, control, communications,
computers, and Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) was gathered
and conveyed to ground forces in Bosnia, an issue of obvious relevance
to Afghanistan today.
“The Holloway Report,” Joint Chiefs
of Staff, August 23, 1980. (78 pages)
||Source: Freedom of Information
Act lawsuit by Washington Post and National Security Archive
The aborted Iran hostage rescue operation
of April 1980 was supposed to be an opportunity for U.S. special ops forces
to do what they had been training to do for years. Instead, 90 members
of Delta Force never got the chance. After mechanical problems developed
with three out of eight helicopters to be used on the mission, local commanders
called off the operation, at which point two aircraft preparing to leave
the secret rendezvous point in the Iranian desert collided and eight U.S.
servicemen died. It was a demoralizing blow for President Jimmy Carter
and the American people. In its wake, the Joint Chiefs of Staff created
a review panel, headed by Adm. James L. Holloway, which strongly recommended
reassessing and strengthening all U.S. SOF capabilities. Those recommendations
were followed (see Document 2) and the vastly
upgraded forces now operating in Afghanistan are a result. Interestingly
for today’s circumstances, the Holloway report reached a number of more
technical conclusions about the conduct of the rescue mission that may
be relevant to Afghanistan since Iran’s terrain and climate are so similar.
“Conduct of the Persian Gulf Conflict:
An Interim Report to Congress,” U.S. Department of Defense, July 1991 (excerpt).
||Source: Freedom of Information
Act release to Jeffrey Richelson/National Security Archive
The Gulf War, as this report from then-Defense Secretary Richard
Cheney says, involved “the largest deployment of Special Operations Forces
(SOF) in history.” The report breaks down the general categories
of SOF activity during the war and, while perhaps naturally taking a mostly
up-beat slant on SOF contributions, notes the “difficult tradeoffs between
the potential political risk that often accompanies the conduct of special
operations and the military advantage they can generate.” Among the
report’s concluding operations, it notes that SOF language skills and numbers
of trained personnel were “insufficient” – a shortcoming that seems even
more likely to come into play in Afghanistan where Pashto, Dari and other
esoteric languages are spoken.
This research paper analyzes the devastating events of October
3-4, 1993, in Somalia in which 18 Army Rangers died in an extended firefight
while on a mission to capture two aides to a local Somali warlord.
Although the circumstances in urban Mogadishu may not be identical with
the search for Bin Laden and his lieutenants in and around Tora Bora, the
missions of those SOF units in 1993 and the forces operating today are
strikingly similar. The author makes a number of observations and
criticisms, including remarking on the unwillingness of U.S. political
and military leaders to give appropriate backing for the operation, and
a lack of coordination among the various groups involved on the ground.