In Afghanistan war, Navy SEALs and special ops playing more central role

Navy SEALs and special operations forces are not being withdrawn from Afghanistan war at the same rate as other forces, meaning their duties in the region will only grow. With the Aug. 6 helicopter shoot-down, the SEALs lost 1 percent of their operational population.

Rodrigo Abd/AP/File
US soldiers secure the area after exiting a Chinook helicopter, Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, in this June 18, 2006 file photo.

Special operations troops such as the Navy SEALs killed in the tragic Aug. 6 helicopter crash in Afghanistan are increasingly at the heart of the US military’s Afghan effort.

As the raid that got Osama bin Laden showed, special ops units have carried out some of the most spectacular and successful operations in the region. Seventy-eight percent of the suspected Taliban members detained in the region were caught in special ops raids, according to congressional testimony from US officials.

Reportedly, about 1 in 10 of the 100,000 US troops in the country are part of special operation units. They are not being withdrawn at the same rate as other units, meaning that their percentage of the overall force will rise.

As it happens, the leadership of this part of the US military changed on Monday, with Adm. William McRaven taking over from outgoing US Special Operations Command commander Adm. Eric Olson at an official ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.

In remarks at the ceremony, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta noted that the deaths of 25 troops have sent the special operations community, and the nation at large, into mourning.

The tragedy is a reminder that the US is still involved in a war that has seen both tragedy and triumph, said Secretary Panetta.

“Special operators have been at the heart of many of those triumphs,” he said. “The entire world saw the precision and skill of our military in the operation that brought down bin Laden. But we know that these successes are driven by the willingness of these brave warriors to shoulder heavy burdens, to take on great risks. And as we all know, that comes oftentimes at a very high cost.”

For SEALs, the shoot-down was a special blow, as they lost at a stroke about 1 percent of the total 2,500 SEAL operator population.

And it comes at a time when overall US special forces, which include about 20,000 fighting troops, have been increasingly stressed by their importance to the insurgent-fighting mission.

At a March 1 congressional hearing, Admiral Olson noted that he had recently received an e-mail from a forward deployed operational commander who said that “Sir, the good news is that the demand for Special Operations Forces is higher than ever. The bad news is the demand is higher than ever.”

The condition of special operations units is “frayed,” said Olson. For some, time at home has become an “abnormal condition,” rather than the norm, he said.

There is no magic answer to this problem. Special operations leaders are trying to shave training days to allow troops to spend more time with families when off deployments. The Pentagon is trying to grow special forces by 3 to 5 percent a year, which should help provide relief in time, according to Olson’s 2011 posture statement.

But that won’t happen overnight. Meanwhile, demands on special operators in Afghanistan are likely to rise, as they both engage the Taliban and play a central part in the training of Afghan security forces.

“All of that together constitutes an enormously powerful contribution by special operating forces to the campaign today, and we would see that as an enduring contribution over the long term out to 2014 and beyond,” said Gen. John Allen, new commander of US forces in Afghanistan, at a June 28 hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Incoming Special Operations Command chief McRaven said at the June 28 hearing that over the past year, special forces have carried out about 2,000 missions. Of those, about 88 percent were conducted at night.

And the bin Laden raid was atypical in its use of firepower. As McRaven noted, “I think what is lost on a lot of folks is that in approximately 84 to 86 percent of those missions we never fired a shot.”

That said, the weekend special operations mission in which a helicopter was lost was a tense, high-risk effort. It involved a strike into the eastern part of the country, into insurgent-held territory, without significant support from other military units.

There may be good reasons to question whether the US should remain in Afghanistan, noted Center for Strategic and International Studies military expert Anthony Cordesman in a Monday analysis of the shoot-down. But the helicopter tragedy should not be one of them.

“Above all, we need to remember that this is war. We often do ourselves great harm in overemphasizing success and minimizing sacrifice, in exaggerating what our technology and weapons can do, and in creating expectations based on ‘surgical’ and ‘perfect’ war,” writes Mr. Cordesman.

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