WASHINGTON — They might watch, in secret, as travelers make their way along Afghanistan's mountain roads. They may train anti-Taliban resistance fighters. And they probably are already carrying out "special reconnaissance" missions aimed at finding terrorists.
Elite US and allied ground forces will play a vital - if covert - role in America's war on terrorism. Indeed, reliance on the lightly armed, highly trained commando units is one reason this new war will be, as President Bush puts it, "unconventional."
But even as the importance of the Special Operations Forces becomes clearer, some veterans of these units warn that one month is not enough time to lay the groundwork for success. These tasks require planning and precision, they say, and require the risky business of being in close proximity to the enemy.
Working in teams of about six men, US Army commandos - maybe Green Berets or Delta Force - would stake out 24-hour observation points in
areas identified as likely terrorist strongholds, says retired Col. Hy Rothstein, a decorated special operations commander.
Sliding down ropes from specially modified helicopters such as Black Hawks or Little Birds, the teams would set up concealed camps. Pairs would rotate between watching target areas, communicating with base, and sleeping, Rothstein and others say.
Such teams would be limited in their ability to stay and to move on the ground, both because of the rugged terrain and what they must carry - all gear and supplies, including three-to-five days worth of food and water. After that, they can be extracted or resupplied by helicopter.
They would carry little firepower, but lots of gadgets, including night-vision devices that can magnify existing light and images. Captured images, as well as voice messages, would be sent back instantly to the commando headquarters using satellite radios with encryption devices.
The soldiers could also communicate directly with aircraft in the vicinity to alert them to any emerging targets.
Once targets are identified, raids would be carried out by special strike forces: either small teams of lethal Delta Force counterterrorist experts, or bigger groups of more fully armed light-infantry Rangers - both supported by the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers due to their night-vision capabilities.
If special-forces ground troops can isolate terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden, "he is almost as good as dead," says Rothstein, although it could take time for the terrorists to run out of provisions. Yet the onset of winter and deep snow will also make operations in the mountain valleys riskier for commandos and helicopters. US defense officials already expect the campaign to last at least until spring.
Another primary mission of US special forces is likely to be "unconventional warfare" - using skilled linguists and cultural experts such as the Green Berets to train, equip, organize, and support anti-Taliban resistance troops. Such forces would also link allied air power and rebel troops, experts say. "It's pretty difficult for someone speaking Farsi or broken English to get an aircraft on target," says Col. Jack Moroney, a retired Army Special Operations commander.
Already, members of the US, British, and Russian special forces are offering a variety of assistance to the anti-Taliban fighters, according to press reports and US military experts. Russia's elite Spetnaz units have the experience to aid the resistance, says Bard O'Neill, an expert on insurgency at the National War College.
"The Russians want to control the show in terms of who is training and equipping," he says. The Spetnaz were highly successful in fighting the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, he says. "This mythology emerges that these people are fabled guerrilla fighters - in fact they were modest at best. The Russians could deal with them, but they didn't have enough [special forces]."
Yet it is vital to set long-term, strategic goals for guerrilla warfare, especially given the complex ethnic and religious mix of Afghan tribes. Months or years are needed to build trust, an intelligence network, a communications system, and an underground resistance behind enemy lines.
"Thirty days is not enough to get an unconventional effort going," says Moroney. "We should be inside their heads, and we are not inside their heads."
Indeed, some veterans say, the US-led airstrikes, while politically important for boosting US morale and focusing the international coalition, were launched prematurely. "I think the president had to do something before we got hit again, even though the special operations were not in place," says a former US Army Special Operations officer in Virginia. "I don't think the score could go 2-0."
Crucial to swaying Afghan hearts and minds is another tool of US special forces: "psychological operations," or PSYOP. These aim both to deceive and demoralize the enemy and to win support from civilians. "PSYOP is equally or more important than dropping bombs," says ret. Col. Charles Borchini, who commanded the Army 4th Psychological Operations Group at Fort Bragg, N.C. "All the tools for persuasion, the bombs, the statements, have to get the right message to the right people."
Already, the US military is dropping leaflets and broadcasting Voice of America and other reports from airborne EC-130 units. To be effective, messages aimed at civilians should include antiterrorist and anti-Taliban messages from Muslim leaders and Afghan refugees, as well as from defected Taliban troops, Colonel Borchini says.
They also typically tell civilians where to get food and warn them to stay away from facilities that are likely to be attacked. Messages aimed at Taliban troops would likely urge them to defect.