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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. 

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

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.

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.

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.

"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."

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