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.
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The effort to take off Afghan security forces' "training wheels," as US troops like to say, has been partly impeded by the capabilities of US forces themselves.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Afghans, if they see Americans moving forward, may have a tendency to step back," Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of Defense for Special Operations, told a Washington audience. "In my view that's got to be the most important aspect of the transition – having US forces take a step back and the Afghan security forces take a step forward."
That's where SOF comes in.
"The Special Forces operator understands that environment – he understands that advisory role," said Mr. Sheehan. "And that SOF operator is going to have to try to push his Afghan counterpart to the front of this struggle, and it's going to be a long one that's not going to go away anytime soon."
Some critics say the Obama administration is moving too fast to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said US forces could step back to an advisory role in 2013, a year earlier than planned.
But waiting "doesn't get us anywhere," Sheehan said. "Now is as good a time as ever to push the Afghans out in front."
In the months to come, the expanded SOF role will require some reorganization of the "three tribes" of SOF operations, McRaven said.
These tribes include the forces working with NATO on provincial security-response teams, those conducting "stability operations" in Afghan villages, and those conducting strikes on terrorist cells.
In the beginning, as Special Operations troops take more responsibility, they will then "integrate" conventional forces into their operations, McRaven said.
"With each cut in the conventional forces, you're going to have to basically fold smaller and smaller conventional elements into Special Forces," says Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
In the process, he adds, "Special Forces will gradually take over."
This will require SOF troops to "not just be able to deal with the worst parts of enemy networks," he says, but also to return to their traditional core mission of supporting foreign armies. Today, some 3,000 additional SOF troops also operate in more than 75 countries.
"It's really an incredibly demanding mission at a time when everybody else is going to be cutting down," Dr. Cordesman says. "And it's going to get more demanding as US and allied forces ramp down, and as aid groups are pulled out of the country."
IN PICTURES: Special Forces around the world
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