"Walton, a Special Forces team leader, and his men described the battle in an interview with The Associated Press last week. Most seem unimpressed they’ve earned the Army’s third-highest award for combat valor.
"This is the story about Americans fighting side-by-side with their Afghan counterparts refusing to quit," said Walton, of Carmel, Ind. "What awards come in the aftermath are not important to me."
The mission that sent three Special Forces teams and a company from the 201st Afghan Commando Battalion to the Shok Valley seemed imperiled from the outset.
Six massive CH-47 Chinook helicopters had deposited the men earlier that morning, banking through thick clouds as they entered the valley. The approaching U.S. soldiers watched enemy fighters racing to positions dug into the canyon walls and to sniper holes carved into stone houses perched at the top of the cliff.
Considered a sanctuary of the Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin terrorist group, the valley is far from any major American base.
It was impossible for the helicopters to land on the jagged rocks at the bottom of the valley. The Special Forces soldiers and commandos, each carrying more than 60 pounds of gear, dropped from 10 feet above the ground, landing among boulders or in a near-frozen stream.
With several Afghan commandos, Staff Sgt. John Walding and Staff Sgt. David Sanders led the way on a narrow path that zig-zagged up the cliff face to a nearby village where the terrorists were hiding.
Walton followed with two other soldiers and a 23-year-old Afghan interpreter who went by the name C.K., an orphan who dreamed of going to the United States." Yahoo News
This post is about US Army doctrine and practice. If you are not interested in that, then you should not waste your time on it.
For some years, there has been an ongoing struggle over the role and function of US Army Special Forces (the Green Berets).
In their beginnings in the early ’50s, US Army Special Forces were built on the experience of that part of the WW2 Office of Strategic Services (OSS) that helped generate and then lead guerrilla resistance forces in German and Japanese occupied territories. Such work necessitated great military skill as well as ability in foreign languages and in depth knowledge of the cultural matrix in which the task would be accomplished.
In the context of the Cold War and an anticipated occupation of much of western Europe if war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact should occurred, it was thought to be necessary to have teams in readiness that could be left behind in areas occupied by the USSR. These troops could then work with European resistance forces to interdict Soviet lines of communications to their forces still fighting against NATO farther west. To accomplish this mission the the teams were built around soldiers who were either first or second generation Americans from the areas of concern or foreign displaced persons enlisted under a law (The Lodge Act) that specifically permitted their entry into the US Army. Other soldiers in these teams were drawn from the kind of men who always seek individual responsibility and freedom of action.
As the phenomenon of the sponsorship of "national liberation movements" under communist sponsorship came to be recognized in the late ’50s and early ’60s as a major threat to American interests, the deep understanding of the theory and practice of resistance warfare possessed by the Special Forces was recognized by the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations as easily applicable to the conduct of counterinsurgency warfare. These two kinds of operations were the two sides of the same coin. Expertise in tihs kind of wrfare was multiplied in its effectiveness by the great skill of Special Forces in organizing, inspiring and leading local forces against any sort of enemy, anywhere.
In Vietnam, South America, Africa and many other places the Green Berets (SF) led native troops against many different enemies under many different sets of local conditions throughout the ’60s and ’70s. As in any protracted warfare there were tactical victories and there were tactical defeats, but, over all, the ability of Green Berets with their peculiar blend of combat skills and cultural acumen proved again and again to be highly valuable in rallying local forces against a common enemy.
The United States lost several of the wars of that period, VN being the main example, but it would be folly to attribute that or any other loss to the activities of the Green Berets who were never more than a small element in the much larger American forces engaged.
Unfortunately, the larger US Army never embraced the concepts of Unconventional Warfare on which Special forces doctrine were based. Since the Civil War the "Big Army" has preferred doctrine based on positional and maneuver warfare that ultimately is attritional in nature. In addition to this doctrinal bias, the kinds of men who volunteered for and who served in SF made many in the Army establishment uncomfortable. Independent, "out of the box" in their thinking and accustomed to surviving without the comfort of large supporting establishments, these men did not and still do not think themselves inferior to anyone.
Special Forces has survived for almost 60 years in the US Army because of civilian (mostly congressional) governmental protection and sponsorship. Without that protection the Green Berets would be long gone.
Counter-terrorism became a theme of congressional concern in the middle ’70s. Under congressional pressure the armed forces then began to create counter-terrorist commando unitson an ever increasing scale. These units exist for the purpose of making direct attacks and raids against terrorist targets. They normally employ US personnel only and are nothing like Green Berets except that some of their units are called "Special Forces" this or that and may recruit some of their men from the Green Berets.
The "Big Army" has preferred these counter-terrorist commandos, finding them to be less of a challenge to employ and control and much easier to comprehend. As a result the original role of US Army Special Forces as a force multiplier engaged in using the disparate parts of a dangerous human situation as parts of the solution have been in danger of extinction in favor of the commandos.
Nevertheless, the tide has begun to turn. The hard lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan have renewed civilian governmental interest in the old SF mission and the old kind of SF men. Secretary Gates in particular has shown an interest. There is now a concept called "irregular warfare" that is dimly and obscurely defined but which holds the promise of a renaissance The action cited in this Washington Post story is significant because what you see in this are three Green Beret teams and the Afghan troops that they had trained and you see them in a hard fought and victorious action. pl
PS This kind of thing should not be confused with the Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) teams. These HTS groups are research efforts which function to interpret local society to major conventional commanders on the ground.
Wasn’t the Afghan campaign of 2001-02 the ultimate unconventional warfare battle?
A few teams from 5th SF Group inserted into Afghanistan with CIA paras and USAF Combat Controllers. They all hooked up with the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban tribes. They carried little weaponry, aside from radios, laser designators and some walking-around cash. And ran into Kabul and Kandahar in weeks.
In Iraq, some SF teams have been tied to Iraqi Army commando teams and Iraqi police SWAT type units, and Peshmerga commando types.
This story and your analysis of a looming rebirth of the Green Berets fills me with joy and hope for the future of our nation. Perhaps my aging mind is playing tricks on me, but I remember reading about the concept of irregular warfare back in my high school days. I’m glad to see the DOD has discovered this concept as well.
Members of my family fought and died in the Lithuanian Freedom Army. When they learned that I became an ODA commander in the 10th Group, there was a lot of wild partying.
Here’s to the future!
De Oppresso Liber
I would certainly agree that the Afghan Campaign was a magnificent example of the lethality and effectiveness of well conducted UW. Unfortunately, that approach does not seem to have been well tolerated by “the big Army” once the initial fight had been won. pl
What warfare is really irregular or uncoventional?
An IED is a landmine. A suicide bomber a kamikaze pilot. There is nothing new to this. Using native troops with foreign lead is something the Romans perfected.
The unconventional and irregular label on some tactics only show the general army smallness of thinking (not only in the U.S. army – as a German I include the Bundeswehr about as much).
There is need for a complete rethink on this issue. Fighting includes a wide range of possible tools and tactics. Some of them are illegal and shall not be used. Some are irregular and unconventional but legal. Those should be used wherever appropriate.
My take is that Big Army warfare needs a lot of expensive toys while ‘special’ warfare needs little.
Therefore there is lobby pressure behind the Big Army scheme but not behind special forces.
The other serious part is as the Col. said. ‘Special’ forces are independent ‘special’ people. The usual bureaucrat line officer can not handle them and hates them. Such officers must go.
Re-birth? Not by a long shot. BUT–
You’re correct to advocate re-emphasis of SF on UW, FID, SFA and other core advisory functions.
In order for that to happen, gotta get them out of other missions. Give direct action to the Ranger Regiment and Special Recon to somebody else.
“little ugly guy?”
Hey. Let’s drop the army terminology gibberish.
You know as well as I that the necessary relationship between an SF team and those it “mentors, creates, or whatever you want to call it” has to be more than “advise” if the thing is to work. pl
Does the recent (Dec 8) appointment of General Martin Dempsey as TRADOC commander support your thinking that the Pentagon is truly interested in reestablishing the Green Berets?
The United States lost several of the wars of that period, VN being the main example, but it would be folly to attribute that or any other loss to the activities of the Green Berets who were never more than a small element in the much larger American forces engaged.
From all that I have read about the Vietnam War (admittedly not very much), the Special Forces where doing a great job organizing the locals against the Vietcong until the Army decided to waste them on “search and destroy” missions. If the Army had let the SF do their thing, the war might well have turned out differently.
WAPO has excellent write-up of last April fight in mountains of Afghanistan by Special Forces and Afghan Commandos. Silver Stars are completely appropriate here with heavy casualties and bravery apparently by all
One question? How far do the sounds of helio rotors carry in the thin air of the mountains of Afghanistan? Early warning? Also how far is visual reconnaissance in these same mountains in clear weather? Seems the attack launced in daylight but not sure.
The direction the Army as a whole goes will have some effect on this. It appears, for the time being, that the GP forces will be doing what were SF bread-and-butter tasks like advising. The advocacy for a separate “advisory corps” (see also this) by some prominent thinkers in the Army is one example. The doctrine to use GP forces in advisory roles is already written or is being written. The Marine’s have developed their own advisory elements as well.
So, if a large advisory corps is created outside of the Army Special Forces (USASOC now I guess), what does that mean for the SF advisory role? From what I’ve read, no one seems to have a good answer for that as of yet.
Couple of comments,
Don’t mistake an IED for a landmine. Landmines are the product of a military industrial complex designed to quickly mass produce munitions in a template designed to target and destroy a specific type of target target. An IED is something created by a cell of individuals from materials at hand and designed to destroy a target of opportunity. Webbed feet, and a propensity for waterborne operations does not make a duck a goose or vice versa. The Kamikaze and suicide bomber I can see the relationship though.
On a separate matter, one of my current instructors is a current SF senior NCO on detail to my school. In class he was talking about his experiences in Afghanistan and talking about how the team (ODA) was broken down. One part of the team was the “Assault” element. Now I am in no way an SF guy, but found it odd that the term assault would be used to describe an element. If the main purpose is FID, some other way to describe that element would be better since, I would think, how you describe yourself sets your mindset. If you did Direct Action missions solely or were in one of the Ranger battalions, then I can see the appropriateness. So the question I will put forth is, does the Army Special Ops Community (Green Beret types) see itself in the right light and define itself the right way? Just a thought, not an accusation.
This civilian says thank God.
And since I am a content civilian, I couldn’t help but have some questions after comparing and contrasting the work of the US Green Berets in Afghanistan with that of the IDF in the occupied territories, at least from what I can observe. I mean, are the tactics and overall strategy really one and the same? Do we really have the same goal?
Awhile back, national geographic aired a documentary about the Green Berets in Afghanistan. Here’s a link:
Three civilian observations. One, the Green Berets satisfied Bernard Fall’s rule. Many sequences of the documentary showed docs treating the elderly and young Afghan children, building schools and so forth.
Two, I was extremely impressed with another aspect of the Green Berets: the experience within the platoon transcended race. Asian. White. Black. Different religions too. And the experience of transcending race and religion is a different one than a primarily racial or religious bond, which, granted, is powerful but fails to embody the idea of E Pluribus Unum,. The tenth prez, the Virginian Tyler (also later a Confed, I add, uh oh) so beautifully described this concept in his statement of religious freedom in the United States for all — Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and, hey, even Christian, at least so I heard through the grapevine.
The third observation is really in the form of a question. In this documentary, the Green Berets found themselves in an ambush. Tragic. Very. I kept asking myself, how can the Green Berets flip it around and set up an situation to draw out the takfiri jihadists from the local population and then zap.
If anyone watches the program, just for the heck of it, I suggest, afterwards, comparing and contrasting the work of the Green Beret in this documentary with the work of the IDF in the occupied territories. Is the IDF fulfilling the principles set forth by Bernard Fall? If no, then why not? Is the IDF a multi racial and multi religious experience similar to one of E Pluribus Unum, where suffering transcends race and religious affiliation? If no, then why not? What about the IDF building schools for the locals? Yes? No? And if tactics reflect an overall strategic goal, do different tactics suggest different overall strategies. Geez, so much to ponder. And finally, if there is a difference, should the Green Berets explain to the American public, to people like me, that one does exist? Inquiring minds would like to know.
I don’t really know anything about Dempsey, but I would say that OSD and the joint commands like JFCOM and SOCOM as well as various thinktanks are more likely to be instrumental in the irregular warfare issue than the army chain of command.
SF in VN (writ large) had a number of tasks. At first they were involved in doing exactly what the marines did much later with their CAP program. That job was to organize villagers to defend themselves.
That came to a virtual halt when the North vietnamese escalated the war by bringing in their regular army. This was in late 1964 and early 1965. The US responded to that by bringing in our heavy conventional forces and fighting it out in the woods for about three years. During that time SF was asked to build a number of border forts which they manned with our SF, VN Special Forces (like our SF) and several hundred of what were called Civilian Irregular Defense Group(CIDG) troops. These were various kinds of ethnic partisans, Montagnard, Cambodian, ethnic Chinese, sometimes Vietnamese. With these troops American and VN SF patrolled the border and mountain areas, made life difficult for the conventional enemy forces and served as bait in the hope that the VC/NVA would attsck these forts which were VERY hard targets. The enemy did not like to attack thse places. The experience was too painful and so such attacks occurred but only rarely. Too bad! The use of these little forts continued even when the US adopted the successful CORDS counterinsurgency strategy in 1967-68. At the same time that all this was going on, USSF (Green Berets) were called on to run several large scale reconnaissance and raiding operations both within and outside South VN. These were units such as the original Delta Force, USMACVSOG and others. In these units, USSF junior officers and NCOs ran LARGE irregular forces made up of Montagnards, Cambodians, etc. USMACVSOG at full development had 10,000 native Special Commando Unit (SCU) troops. There were three light infantry brigades in USMACVSOG. These were auxiliary American units and not units of the ARVN. None of this had anything to do with the Phoenix Project which was a CIA run effort aimed at VC political cadres.
An “advisory corps” is not a bad idea but some of the impetus for it is probably derived from non-SF aversion to SF people.
You have put your finger on a big problem. In recent years some SF people have been encouraged to think of themselves as “direct action” types. IMO that should stop and the Rangers should have that mission altogether. USSF should be in the UW business. pl
If the Green Berets were originally to work behind Soviet lines, then what was the relationship between the early Green Berets & Gladio? If Gladio was a CIA operation, then Green Berets were a parallel development?
Just heard this story on PBS’ News Hour. I was confused by its description and I was wondering if anyone else was.
They infiltrated a valley and were put down in the stream. The news report mentioned the Green Berets and Afghan Commandos were all out in the open, with hundreds of insurgents raining fire down on their position for six hours.
Sounds awful. But still, how do any number of men stay alive for so long under direct fire? They said the canyon was terraced and after an airstrike was called in, the soldiers dropped from terrace to terrace after each bomb was dropped. So, yes. Totally exposed. And yet there were no American deaths? Has anyone heard details about this battle that make this more understandable?
If the HTS effort is only in service to the ‘Big Army’ (and since it is relatively new anyway), where do the Green Berets obtain their knowledge of the “cultural matrix” they rely on?
For example, does SF keep a similar internal research capability? or just provide ad hoc education from outside experts for specific missions? or does each SF team/individual ‘own’ a region and the cultures within it? or something totally different?
All of that.
I just read the wiki on “Gladio.” I knew that we set up for stay bhind operations, but a lot of the conspiracy stuff sounds phony to me.
Don’t know but 1- the more you shoot back at people the more you screw up their aim and 2- maybe these afghans were not good shots.
I have been in situations in which thousands of rounds were fired and nobody was hit. pl
They had some what looked like Apache video from the operation on Shep Smith’s show of Fox News tonight. The video isn’t on the website yet, unfortunately.
However, the village shown was typical of this area (Here’s a generic picture to give you an idea from the Ghosts of Alexander blog.). Most villages are either built on steep hillsides or on ridge tops. There a few reasons for this, but the primary one is a general lack of horizontal land. The extreme geography makes it difficult to insert troops via helicopter.
It appears from the video the troops were inserted onto the stream bed either up or downstream from the village and they almost immediately came under attack. The video shows several Apache strikes against buildings and positions on the ridgeline above the drainage.
The area appeared to me to be quite steep and rocky which probably provided cover to the forces in the drainage from above. That’s just my 2 cent analysis from 30 seconds of video.
I recommend the following link where the symbolism of Bronze Bruce is explained. I think it describes the distinctive characteristics of Special Forces very well:
I also recommend “Reflections of a Warrior” by Franklin D. Miller. I had the distinct honor of having three former CCN RT leaders as instructors while commanding the 25th ID RECONDO School in the late 70’s, including SFC “Doug” Miller. I can’t think of a better military education for a young Army lieutenant.
As the Colonel pointed out, The rebirth of Special Forces will be nurtured at the OSD level. There is still a lot of animosity/disdain towards the “SF way of doing things” in the mainstream Army.
You should read “The New Legions” by Donald Duncan. In 1960 he was sent to Vietnam. A militant anti-COmmunist, he went fully backing our policy there. Then he returned home ans spoke out against it. At the Levy court martial, he testified that time after time Green Berets had to “look the other way” while South Vietnamese soldiers commit atrocities. THis was corroborated by Robin Moore, author of “Tales of the Green Beret”. Non veteran John Wayne played the role of the Green Beret Colonel in the movie.
I would give up my left nutt for the opportunity to try out for SF.
I don’t have to read anything. I am one and I was there. Where were you? pl
Don’t the logistical challenges presented by the Pakistan supply route suggest special forces offer a better alternative to a big army surge?
And from a financial aspect, doesn’t paying Afghan warlords and indigenous soldiers make more sense than spending billions to support conventional US ground forces in Afghanistan?
Last, doesn’t accelerated training and equipping of Afghan forces augmented with US special forces make more practical sense than installing a large occupation army that can only aggrevate the local population that has historically fought foreign occupations?
Thank you Col. Lang, this is superb. Great responses and a real eye opener for us civilians.
Here are some comments I wrote in a paper, I think they echo the sentiment of the article on Special Forces.
The Air-Land Battle in its day served another very important purpose. It was a
cathartic document, which allowed the United States Army to rid itself of the demons of
Vietnam, to rid the Army of all mention of Counterinsurgency operations, to focus the
Army on Major Combat Operations and to ignore the rest.
However by focusing the Army on the conduct of Major Combat Operations and
leaving counterinsurgency and foreign internal defense to the Special Forces, the Army
created a whole generation of conventional leaders who were captives to a doctrine that
emphasized mass, firepower, and overwhelming the enemy; whereas classic
counterinsurgency doctrine has always stressed the need for economy of force
operations and working to insure that the insurgents were not able to freely operate with
impunity. Providing security to the populace will do more to undermine the validity of
the insurgency than any other single act. Mao Tse—Tung succeeded in China in part
because he was able to provide security to the people whereas the Nationalist
government under Chiang Kai—Shek was unwilling and unable to do so. Ho Chi Minh
succeeded against the French in Indochina in part because he was able to provide the
security for the people during the Japanese occupation when the French were unable to
exercise their colonial hegemony. At the end World War II, the French were unable to
provide security to Indochina and Ho Chi—Minh was seen as not only a liberator but
also as one who would protect the people.
Being a content civilian, I became fascinated with the work of Marguerite Higgins when she was in Vietnam in the early to mid 1960‘s.
From what I could glean, Higgins appears to have spent a lot of time with the Green Berets. She did not hang out in Saigon hotels; she went out into the fields.
Higgins basically wrote, if I remember correctly, that the Green Berets were the only ones who knew what was going on and how to win. . If policymakers didn’t heed their advice , then Vietnam was headed towards a nightmare. Hence the title of her book, Our Vietnam Nightmare, which was published in 65.
There’s a beautiful and prophetic quote in the book. I don’t have the book nearby, but she has a sentence where she states, in essence, that it is the height of arrogance for Americans to impose Western democratic values on a Confucian tradition. Foreshadowing of hubris, I suppose.
She seemed to have had some serious professional rivals at the time, as her journalistic star was fading while that of Halberstam and Sheehan were on the rise. Plus, if I remember correctly, she did not speak too highly of Bernard Fall. Also her book includes an apologetic of sorts for the (the gorgeous, imo) Madam Nhu. So make of it what you will. As for my civilian self, I found the book extremely informative and worth more than just a gander.
i cringe when i see
where the context plainly calls for
To me SF=Green Berets & COIN or counterinsurgency and SOF=special operation forces or commandos
The American actors from Irak in that recent raid against the smugglers in Syria were called in many news reports special forces b/ they were SOF not SF.
Now the British SOF are called boat something or another, and the soviets were called spetz something.
I only had nine months of training before going to my southeast asia tropical vacation so i would only be a half-trained killer compared to any of these guys.
I was in Lang Vei in 71. The SF there with the Montangards had been overrun by the NVA brazenly with TANKS in 1968.
Battle of Lang Vei is in Wikipedia.
I was still in high school in 68. I remember reading about the battle of Khe Sanh in French class- using the dictionary heavily.
Somewhat related, yesterday’s BBC news had this article about Britain’s SOE being quietly integrated into the SIS following WWII.
The Green Berets at Lang Vei killed 7 of the 12 PT-76 tanks with the LAWS or other recoil-less rifles (bazookas). Khe Sanh, 9 klicks away, was tardy coming to their aid not knowing if the main base itself was in mortal danger.
Leading up to WWII there was a debate about the role of armor. Whether it should be massed for shock (Hart, Guderian, de Gaulle) or to support infantry. But one thing for sure going up against brave infantry equipped with bazookas even an armored beast is a sitting duck. Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, & Alexander the Great employed the doctrine of combined arms.
Luttwak in the Jerusalem Post
“In 1973, after crossing the Suez Canal, Egyptian infantrymen by the thousands stood their ground unflinchingly against advancing 50-ton Israeli battle tanks, to attack them successfully with their puny hand-held weapons. They were in the open, flat desert, with none of the cover and protection that Hizbullah had in their fortified bunkers or in Lebanon’s rugged terrain.
Later, within the few square miles of the so-called Chinese farm near the Suez Canal, the Israelis lost more soldiers fighting against the Egyptians in a single day and night than the 116 killed in a month of war in Lebanon – including the victims of vehicle accidents and friendly fire.
Posted by: Patrick Lang
“I would certainly agree that the Afghan Campaign was a magnificent example of the lethality and effectiveness of well conducted UW. Unfortunately, that approach does not seem to have been well tolerated by “the big Army” once the initial fight had been won. pl ”
The thing is, that was a *campaign*; a series of connected battles to achieve an objective.
At that point, the matter was largely dropped by the administration, and since the objective which had been achieved was a temporary and local victory, that put the initiative back into the hands of the Taliban/Taliban faction of Afghan tribal leaders.
They were then given 5 years or so on a silver platter, and have made good use of them.
So, what is the optimal relationship between and proportions of SF and Big Army? The power of Special Forces is such that it apparently threatens not just the enemy but those who would employ it as well, though for different reasons. How much SF is enough? Big Army cannot and should not become Big SF. We need both. How can these hugely different cultures co-exist in a single military organization with a unified command structure? SF have endured these many decades in an Army that is ambivalent about their presence and their role. If they are ever to be more than just tolerated and contained, some kind of creative thinking must be done at the top about how to integrate SF into the organization so that it is right-sized and the benefits of its extra-military scope of concerns can accrue to the whole force.
Is this difficult relationship to be accepted as something as intractable as inter-service rivalry or is there a “Unified Field Theory” that can reconcile these antagonistic organizational elements?
Interesting row about just this point; commanders in Afghanistan want more Green Berets or similar troops, they are being offered other Special Forces e.g. SEALs. They are not happy.
Per our last exchange :