U.S. Halts SOF Raids in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
15 years, 1 month ago

The New York Times published an article concerning temporarily halting SOF raids in Afghanistan.

The commander of a secretive branch of America’s Special Operations forces last month ordered a halt to most commando missions in Afghanistan, reflecting a growing concern that civilian deaths caused by American firepower are jeopardizing broader goals there.

The halt, which lasted about two weeks, came after a series of nighttime raids by Special Operations troops in recent months killed women and children, and after months of mounting outrage in Afghanistan about civilians killed in air and ground strikes. The order covered all commando missions except those against the highest-ranking leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, military officials said.

American commanders in Afghanistan rely on the commando units to carry out some of the most delicate operations against militant leaders, and the missions of the Army’s Delta Force and classified Navy Seals units are never publicly acknowledged. But the units sometimes carry out dozens of operations each week, so any decision to halt their missions is a sign of just how worried military officials are that the fallout from civilian casualties is putting in peril the overall American mission in Afghanistan, including an effort to drain the Taliban of popular support.

Andrew Exum got to this one before we did, perhaps partially because he is now being paid to blog a certain portion of his time at CNAS.  Maybe Nagl could throw a few dollars our direction and we can blog more.  At any rate and on a serious note, what Exum says is worth hearing concerning his position that the line between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency is a false one.

I asked a highly respected retired U.S. Army general a year ago what the appropriate role for direct action special operations forces was in a population-centric COIN campaign. His answer was that direct action SOF is highly valuable because “it’s the way you play offense.” At the same time, though, it absolutely has to be tied into a greater COIN strategy. The cool kids cannot be allowed to just run amok, no matter how much they may want to.

Oh good heavens!  “… The way you play offense.”  Regular readers of The Captain’s Journal know how we approach the issue of SOF after having read:

The Cult of Special Forces

And perhaps it’s true that we are biased towards a certain position given that this is a Marine blog (and please don’t drop comments or send notes saying that there is such a thing as MARSOC now).  But still, there is a certain adolescent obsession with SOF being supermen that permeates this discussion and many like it.

SOF are not supermen.  They are (or should be, or started out) as soldiers with specialized billets.  Language, training, and cultural knowledge not typically found in the balance of the Army or Corps should mark SOF.  For SEALs, they must do things that require specialized training, such as underwater demolition requiring use of the closed circuit oxygen system rebreather, and so on.  Airmen who use satellite uplink equipment need specialized training.

To pretend that kinetics is performed by SOF while the “big Army” does something else is both elitist and insulting.  It is insulting to infantry because it says to them that they aren’t really qualified to perform kinetic operations.  But if reality is a gauge, squad rushes, satellite patrols, fire and maneuver tactics, stacks and room clearing operations, raids, use of night vision equipment, fast roping, and so on, are all things that infantry both trains on and has conducted in Iraq for years.  These are infantry specialties, and SOF cannot and should not lay sole claim to them.  As for that matter, flag and field grade officers who coddle this notion aren’t helping matters with the big Army.

Perhaps the supporters of this myth of the SOF superman are considering reality when recalling what is beginning to be the stark differences between Army basic training and Marine boot camp.  From Thomas Ricks Making the Corps:

Army basic training is intentionally ‘user friendly’. All units at Fort Jackson, which trains support personnel – clerks, cooks, truck drivers, nurses and mechanics – are gender integrated. Men and women sleep in separate barracks, but do everything else together … the rifle ranges at Fort Jackson are named after states, not great battles. There is no shock theatre ‘pick up’. “We do not try to intimidate,” explains Lt. Col. Mark G. McCauley, Commander of the receiving area. “We do not try to strike fear in their hearts. We conduct the handoff in a calm, quiet, professional way. We want the soldiers in training to have a sense of comfort.”

‘Fun’ isn’t a word one hears on Parris Island. Here it comes naturally to the lips of trainees. “They teach us, but they also make it fun,” says Eric Escamilla, a soldier-in-training from Lubbock, Texas. Spec. Sheila Suess, his comrade in Delta Company, agrees as they eat breakfast in their mess hall. At other tables, trainees chat in conversations. No drill instructors hover, and there is no shouting anywhere in the building …

Out on the bayonet assault course, Alpha Company of the Third Battalion, 13th Infantry Regiment, is going through the paces. The platoon sergeant – the Army equivalent of senior drill instructor – addresses them. “Soldiers, please be interested in what I have to say,” begins Staff Sgt. Ron Doiron. “This is the only time in your military career you get to do the bayonet assault course. Make the most of it. Let’s have some fun out here” … Alpha Company takes off through the piney woods, climbing over low obstacles, sticking the tires and rubber dummies with bayonets. Jumping down into a trench, Pvt. Tralena Wolfe’s knee pops. She comes off the course, sits on a log, and cries.

As for a more timely assessment, you may go to the Army Times where Marine Captain Josh Gibbs discussed his trip to Fort Jackson.  Perhaps the Army is being used as a social engineering experiment, which would explain the interest that the Democrats normally take in increasing the size of SOF.  Only the champions of SOF can completely explain why they advocate seeing kinetics as the primary domain of SOF with [who knows what] the domain of the infantry.

But without such an explanation and justification, the following objections should suffice at the moment.

  • The model of SOF as supermen who perform raids continues the diminution of infantry, just as it has done with the Australian infantry (see We Were Soldiers Once: The Decline of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps?).
  • This model limits the kinetic power of the Army by restricting it to a small portion of the Army.
  • This model allows the politicians to use the Army as fertile ground for social engineering experiments.  The Marines still don’t allow women in combat, at least partially because of the statistically higher propensity for lower extremity injuries and reduced strength.
  • This model is more expensive than simply requiring the infantry to perform its designated role.
  • This model actually makes SOF less special, in that their normal focus on training, language and culture is replaced with more kinetics.

Now, as for counterterrorism versus counterinsurgency, regular readers know that we are nonplussed and unimpressed with the cloak and dagger missile strikes in Pakistan, and dark of the night raids in Afghanistan.  These people show up, shoot up a place, perhaps take some people, go, and the next day are not heard from or seen.  No one knows who the hell these people were, where they came from or why they were here.  All people know is that they brought violence to their community.  This is no way to win friends or influence people.

The Marine Corps infantry model is different.  In operations in the Helmand Province, the Marines were described at times as being in “full bore reloading” mode.  Over 400 hard core Taliban fighters were killed in and around Garmser.  But then they didn’t leave.  They sat with laptop PCs running EXCEL, logged and computed the losses and local worth of all of the things destroyed, and then paid cash to the people of Garmser.

Cash, all nicely set out in a tent, with carpeted entrance, inviting the tribal elders and heads of household to come in and collect the money for the broken windows, doors, etc.  Then the Marines supplied security to the area to keep the Taliban out.  Sure, the 24th MEU had to leave and unfortunately, the British apparently could not hold the terrain.

But this serves as a picture of how it’s done.  Exum is smart enough to know this.  Killing high value targets, according to our contacts, has led to the vicious cycle where Taliban operations stand down for a couple of weeks for them to sort out who their next mid-level commander is, several weeks or months of Taliban violence after they do, then raids take this man out, and so on the stupid procedure goes.  The procedure is a loser.

So why did the SOF command stop the raids for a couple of weeks?  What will they do after a couple of weeks?  Will the raids start over?  If so, why did they stop?  There isn’t anything wrong with raids as long as it is against the right targets, but expecting them all to be done by SOF without the presence there the next morning is absurd strategy.  It may make for good movies and cloak and dagger talk about who Exum calls the “cool kids,” but it makes for a bad campaign.

In the end, there is a stark difference between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.  One is performed by police, U.S., Interpol, and so forth, through banking, intelligence agencies, and diplomatic contacts.  The other is performed by the Army and Marine Corps infantry.  Or at least, it is by the Marines, and should be by the Army.

**** UPDATE ****

Michael Yon posts a provocative piece today concerning a number of things, including whether we will abandon Iraq, but also including his current take on Afghanistan and training of the Afghan Army.  Please read the entire piece, but take particular note of this one paragraph.

I’ve asked many key officers why we are not using our Special Forces (specifically Green Berets) in a more robust fashion to train Afghan forces.  The stock answers coming from the Green Beret world – from ranking officers anyway – is that they are taking a serious role in training Afghan forces.  But the words are inconsistent with my observations.  The reality is that the Green Berets – the only outfit in the U.S. military who are so excellently suited to put the Afghan army into hyperdrive – are mostly operating with small groups of Afghans doing what appears to be Colorado mule deer hunts in the mountains of Afghanistan.  Special Forces A-teams are particularly well suited to train large numbers of people, but are not doing so.

Ahem, like I was saying …


  1. On March 11, 2009 at 1:41 pm, WOTN said:

    The “Cult of SOF” is no worse than the “Cult of the Corps” and both are fueled by misperceptions and the latter by effective marketing.

    This is not to denigrate the fierce loyalty of Marines. As a Veteran (Army), I find the pride of the Corps, the institution of history, the loyalty to the EGA to be honorable and valuable. But as one former Marine often told me “When we begin to believe our own hype, we’re in trouble.”

    SeALs are different from Rangers, from Special Forces, from PJ’s, from CCTs and from MARSOC. Marines are different from Special Operations but as many Special Forces Soldiers will tell you: “Everyone has their place in Victory” (even the Clerks). “Be Proud of what you do and do it well.”

    With all of that said, Counterterrorism & Counterinsurgency both require aggressive targeting of the bad guys, at the time and place chosen by the good guys, and COIN requires an active IO campaign, an active CA campaign and postive interaction with the people.

    As one SF type once said to me: “You have to be able to turn the switch on & off at a second’s notice.” As COL Haight 3/10th Mountain says (http://waronterrornews.typepad.com/home/2009/03/positively-engaging-the-economy-challenging-the-enemy-on-every-front.html) “I can in an instant, become someone’s worst enemy, but that’s not really the main reason I’m here.”

    There is a Direct Action mission for SOF, for the USMC, and for Army Infantry. There is a COIN mission for all of them as well. There is a time to drink chai with Elders and there is a time to arrive unannounced in the night to kill terrorist leaders.

    And it doesn’t take a high and tight to be a good Warrior, even if those with high and tights can be great Warriors.

    ((As to the new softer Army Basic, I couldn’t disagree with it more.))

  2. On March 11, 2009 at 2:09 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Any disagreement I might have with anything you’ve said would be minor and nuanced. No need to rehearse any of that. But I do take issue with one thing.

    Interservice rivalries is not the same thing as “cult,” and to the extent that it pushes and presses the other services to bigger and better things, it’s useful. Nothing harmful about it. As the saying goes, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

    That is a world apart from the root problem I am discussing in the article, that of the diminution of the infantry. Of course there is a time for SOF to engage in direct action. And as you say, there is a time for everyone to do that, as well as sit in homes and drink Chai.

    But if we’re relying on Delta and SEALs to perform direct action in Afghanistan, we’re in deep trouble. They should not lay sole claim to this.

  3. On March 11, 2009 at 4:07 pm, WOTN said:

    As such, we find ourselves primarily in agreement. I’m glad to have found your site.

    Interservice rivalry and intraservice rivalry are generally positive to the effectiveness of the competitors.

    I’ve worked with both Marines and SOF, with SeALs, Force Recon, SF, and “common” Infantry. My experience has been that SF are less haughty, highly professional, and very mature when compared to most.

    My point in that would include that SF & SOF are often misused, particularly by Conventional Commanders that don’t quite understand their value or purpose, but also that there exists a general misperception of SOF, including by conventional Troops and by journalists. Misuse & misperception runs the gammut from General Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm to General McKiernan in Afghanistan to the only recent inclusion of the USMC into SOF. But SF Troops are unlikely to attempt to deny Infantry their stock and trade.

    Take a look at the writings of Uncle Jimbo & COB6, and you’ll find an appreciation of Infantrymen, including Marines, doing Combat Missions, including MOUT and DA. SF were already running fast and furious with real missions in 2000 and the summer of 2001, before so many were dedicated to new combat zones. It is unlikely they would want to hog the show, though Afghanistan would look very different today if SOF still commanded the theater, as they did in early 2002.

    Of course, Infantry should be used in their areas of expertise, (including DA) and during COIN operations the lines between Conventional and SOF do blur to some extent.

    Unfortunately, Yon’s page did not allow me to post my rebuttal, but his own misperceptions come from a different background than Uncle Jimbo’s.

    Keep up the Good Work Cap’n, but just because a Veteran/Journalist gets it wrong doesn’t mean it’s the opinion of those he writes about.

  4. On March 14, 2009 at 7:00 pm, jbrookins said:

    My issue is that SOF gets confused with Special Forces. But I am rather biased myself.

  5. On March 14, 2009 at 11:40 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    I agree that I could have done a much better job in distinguishing between SF and SOF, and to whom the barbs in this article are pointed.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Abu Muqawama,Afghanistan,Army,Counterinsurgency,Featured,Marine Corps and was published March 10th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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