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Special Forces in Afghanistan: not just taking out terrorists anymore

As conventional forces withdraw from Afghanistan, US Special Forces will take the lead in training Afghan soldiers and police – a task that takes Special Forces back to their roots. 

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / February 16, 2012

Afghan soldiers and a US Special Operations Force ran a joint operation targeting insurgents in Afghanistan’s Farah Province in 2009.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP/File

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Washington

From the rescue of hostages held by pirates to the SEAL Team 6 strike on Osama bin Laden's compound, the formerly secretive world of Special Forces is increasingly front and center in US operations throughout the globe.

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Now these troops are about to take over more responsibilities in America's longest-running war, too.

With US force levels in Afghanistan scheduled to drop from some 90,000 currently to 68,000 troops by October, Special Operations Forces (SOF) will take on an increasingly pivotal role in the country, senior military officials say.

In many ways, the transition will be a familiar one for SOF, returning it to its roots. Long before their secret raids became so public, SOF troops were primarily tasked with coordinating with indigenous forces of America's allies. They are now poised to do the same in Afghanistan, eventually taking over US operations there after conventional forces leave.

Specifically, they will likely stay on the ground in Afghanistan well into 2015, senior military officials say. Under current agreements, conventional US forces are scheduled to depart by 2014.

"I have no doubt that Special Operations will be the last to leave Afghanistan," said Adm. William McRaven, commander of US Special Operations Forces Command, during a conference in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 7.

The Pentagon's emphasis on the role of Special Operations capabilities has been growing steadily for the past decade.

The ranks of SOF troops grew from 33,000 before the 9/11 attacks to 66,000 today. Those figures are expected to increase to 70,000 in the next few years, according to the Feb. 14 Pentagon budget.

These forces currently operate in some 70 countries around the globe. Admiral McRaven is reportedly lobbying to gain greater autonomy in determining precisely where to deploy these forces, according to the New York Times. This in turn would allow SOF to react quickly and expand into new regions. Critics point out that this also has the potential to stretch these in-demand forces thin.

Indeed, in the months to come, US Special Forces will be asked to bear an increasingly heavy load, including taking the lead in training Afghan soldiers and police – widely agreed to be America's exit strategy in the country. Their goal will be to speed this process, senior military officials say – a process which is generally agreed to be lagging. 

Such a boost in speed is essential, according to a January assessment by the director of national intelligence (DNI). "In terms of security, we judge that the Afghan police and Army will continue to depend on ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] support," James Clapper, the DNI, noted in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee this month.

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