Special operations forces will be key players in any post-2014 U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, say local members of the special operations forces community reacting to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.
And there would be a heavy Tampa flavor, because three commands based at MacDill Air Force Base would play a role.
“After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future,” Obama said. “If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaida. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.”
To those who planned for and fought in Afghanistan, Obama is signalling a mission that will likely be commanded by special operations forces and performed by Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other special operations forces (SOF) units.
“The combined military presence will probably be SOF heavy and SOF commanded but task organized with others from the conventional side,” says Dave Scott, a retired Air Force major general who served as deputy director of the Center for Special Operations at U.S. Special Operations Command. “Maybe it will be two-thirds SOF and one third conventional.”
There are about 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan right now and Obama has said he wants the bulk of them to leave by the end of the year even if Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who has so far balked at doing so, signs a bilateral security agreement allowing a continued U.S. presence.
Afghan forces are currently leading operations. with U.S. and NATO forces providing training, as well as assistance with aerial transport, overwatch support and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance through manned and unmanned aircraft.
Afghan forces are currently trained by conventional and special operations forces, something that would likely continue beyond 2014, says Geoff Lambert, a retired Army major general who served as Socom’s director of operations and planning before commanding U.S. Army Special Forces Command and later the U.S. Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
“It’ll be a mix of special operations forces and conventional forces,” says Lambert, adding that because he is not privy to current planning, he does not know what the ratio would be.
In his speech, Obama did not specify how large a force might remain, assuming the bilateral security agreement is reached. The Pentagon is seeking 10,000 troops.
Scott and Lambert say getting the number right is very important to the outcome of the mission and the security of those who will perform it.
“I support the Pentagon number,” says Lambert. “There has to be a proper balance between limited combat capability and support of intelligence, air power, medical support, and force protection. The estimates are wrapped pretty tight.”
Too few troops, says Scott, “won’t produce the desired results and too many would change the role from ‘assist and advise’ to ‘lead.’”
Tampa commands would play a role in how any post-2014 missions are carried out.
As the geographic combatant command, U.S. Central Command oversees military operations in the region. U.S. Special Operations Command Central has command and control functions over special operations forces in the region and Socom is a force provider.
Officials from all three MacDill-headquartered commands declined comment.
To carry out a post-war mission as laid out by Obama, “there will need to be a small (command and control) element forward, closely linked to our diplomatic mission and senior Afghan counterparts,” says Scott. “The field work would consist of small numbers of SOF embedded within (Afghan) units, and other variably sized training deployments — not necessarily SOF and not necessarily military — depending on the need.”
To Scott Neil, a retired Army Green Beret master sergeant who was one of the first troops in Afghanistan after the start of the war in October 2001, Obama’s call for a counterterrorism mission to go after remnants of al Qaida is in some ways a back-to-the-future scenario.
“What it really means is that the mission will focus on exactly what won us early victories following 9/11,” says Neil. “Small teams of highly trained, mature, low signature and culturally astute Special Forces and Special Operators.”
Counterterror operations are “the real reason why the administration wants to stay in Afghanistan,” says Peter Munson, a retired Marine major who served as a Middle East specialist and planner working with Centcom, “and it will drive our level of training engagement and support activity.” Despite the cost of the war — more than 2,200 U.S. troops killed, many thousands more wounded and about a trillion dollars — the so-called “zero option” of no U.S. troops in Afghanistan next year is undesirable, say Lambert and William Fallon, a retired admiral who ran Centcom from 2007 to 2008.
“My concern with the zero option is that it leaves the playing field wide open to all kinds of ne’er do wells — Iranian influence, India and Pakistan going at it for influence on the eastern side other players too,” says Lambert. “I think the threat means we have to do something, on a smaller scale, to be engaged.”
When he ran Centcom, Fallon pushed for a force of 10,000 to remain in Iraq after the end of that conflict. But because the U.S. and Iraq failed to sign an agreement, the U.S. went for the zero options there.
That would be a mistake in Afghanistan, says Fallon.
The 10,000-troop figure “sounds like what I proposed for Iraq,” says Fallon, who like the others has no direct knowledge of U.S. planning. “The zero option was certainly not my choice. You have to have enough people to make it worthwhile.”
There is another reason Fallon opposes the zero option.
“We are walking away,” he says. “Completely walking away. We would have no influence over any future events. After a decade of engagement, all of a sudden we would not be players.”