The Pentagon is likely to send up to 20 Special Forces teams to Afghanistan this spring, part of a new long-term strategy to boost the Afghan security forces' ability to counter the insurgency there themselves.
The "surge" of elite Special Forces units would represent a multiyear effort aimed at strengthening the Afghan National Army and police units that the US sees as key to building up Afghanistan's security independence, say defense officials who asked to remain anonymous because the controversial decision has not yet been announced. The US already plans to send thousands of additional conventional forces to Afghanistan sometime next year. But it is hamstrung by limited availability since so many of those forces are still in Iraq.
The deployment of the Green Berets, the independent, multifaceted force skilled at training indigenous forces, could fill critical gaps in Afghanistan almost immediately, defense officials say.
There are currently about 31,000 US troops in Afghanistan. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this weekend on a trip to Afghanistan that as many as 30,000 additional American troops could be deployed there within the next year or so.
On Monday, the Pentagon formally announced that about 2,800 members of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division will be sent to Afghanistan this spring as part of the conventional forces deployed there. Once he assumes office, Barack Obama is expected to receive recommendations about how fast a drawdown can occur in Iraq – and how many forces can be sent to Afghanistan.
The deployment of the additional Green Berets has not yet been approved, but a senior defense official indicated it was very likely and would be finalized next month.
The deployment would be relatively small, probably only a few hundred individuals at first. Ultimately, other special operations forces, such as marines from Special Operations Command, Air Force special operators, and Navy Seals could be deployed under the plan.
The initial deployment of the Green Berets would expand the size of the Special Forces contingent there by 30 or 40 percent, defense officials say, and represent a significant new commitment to developing and expanding Afghan security forces.
Criticism over plan
However, the proposal is controversial. The plan is being pushed by Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, the so-called war czar under President Bush, who is poised to release a set of recommendations for how to reverse the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan in coming days. Defense officials say General Lute believes the deployment of the Green Berets could go a long way toward making up for a significant shortfall in the number of troops needed in the region.
Yet many within the tightly knit Special Forces community say the Special Forces teams already in use in Afghanistan should be employed far more effectively before any new teams, which number about a dozen men each, are deployed.
"I just don't think it's a very good use of the units if they are not going to be doing combat advising in an effective way," says one Special Forces officer with recent experience in Afghanistan. "I don't know any Special Forces who think that's really what we need over there."
"Textbook" operations for Special Forces dictates that the 12-man teams, known as Operational Detachment Alpha teams, or ODAs, should be paired with units of at least a few hundred Afghan security force soldiers.
But in many cases, the Green Berets are paired with much smaller groups of Afghan forces, sometimes even one-on-one. In other cases, they are used to man checkpoints, say some Special Forces officers.
Critics worry that Lute's plan is to simply send more Special Forces units to Afghanistan without a coherent plan to support them. "Don't just throw ODAs out there as an answer," says another senior officer. "That's just the easy, lazy answer out there."
Poor use of existing forces
There are other gripes with the way the teams now deployed to Afghanistan are being used.
Too few of the Special Forces teams are partnered with Afghan forces for longer than, say, a month at a time, creating an unsustainable and unproductive training relationship that runs counter to Special Forces doctrine.
Special Forces officers blame the problems on a lack of a coherent strategy for using the Green Berets in Afghanistan. Others say some Special Forces teams operate under NATO commanders from other countries and don't know how to employ the teams properly.
Perhaps most significant, Special Forces officers and experts say it would be a waste of time and resources to send additional Special Forces teams to Afghanistan unless there is a "surge" of helicopters, remote-controlled aircraft for surveilling the enemy, and other "enablers" to allow the teams that are there now to be more effective.
Roger Carstens, a retired Special Forces officer who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, visited Afghanistan a couple months ago and asked members of the Special Forces community what they thought about "surging" Special Operations Forces.
"Everyone of them said 'no SOF surge,'" he says. "What they need is an enabler surge and enduring partnerships with Afghan military and police units," he says.
Adm. Eric Olson, the senior commander of US Special Operations Command, Tampa, Fla., is expected to convey the concerns of the special operations community to Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of US Central Command.
A new command position
The proposal would also include the creation of a new Special Forces command position, to be filled by a one-star general in Afghanistan this spring, whose job it will be to marshal resources to ensure the Special Forces units are employed properly.
The Afghan National Army, the pride of the country's budding national security apparatus, and the Afghan National Police, which is still seen as largely corrupt and weaker, need help to build up into a larger, more effective force.
Ultimately, the US would like to see at least 134,000 soldiers trained and ready to provide for their own country's security.
But trainers have been hard to come by, and the mix of foreign and US forces has muted the training effort, US defense officials say.