Special Indeed

June 2017

By William Matthews
(read online digital version)

Army Special Forces outfits bring a unique skill set to the fight. Guard Green Berets do the same, along with some added talents

In November 2003, Operational Detachment Alpha 936 learned that a former Taliban commander, now presiding as “a local thug,” was hiding a weapons cache in a compound near Sangar, a village in eastern Afghanistan.

Instructions to Army National Guard Capt. Ronald Fry, the commander of ODA 936, which deployed from the 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne), were to capture both the weapons and the thug.

“We sent a four-man recon team” to scope out the location, Fry recounts in his book, Hammerhead Six, published in 2016. The four included the detachment’s intelligence sergeant, an Afghan interpreter, an Afghan soldier and the informant who had provided the intelligence. All, including the detachment’s heavily bearded intel sergeant, were dressed in Afghan garb, Fry recalled.

What they found was disconcerting. The compound was surrounded by high mud walls and guarded by sentries with AK-47 rifles. And the road running past the compound was straight enough to give the sentries a clear view for 250 to 300 yards. There was no way military vehicles could sneak up on the thug and his weapons.

Fry considered a night raid, but quickly ruled it out. The Afghan soldiers the Special Forces detachment had been training and would use in the raid lacked night-vision equipment. “The thought of blind, adrenalin-filled trainees running around a dark village didn’t make me optimistic about our chances of success,” he wrote.

It seemed that ODA 936 would be deprived of a key asset—the element of surprise. Or would it? “I suddenly remembered [the ancient Greek poet] Homer and I had an idea. ‘What about the Trojan- horse routine?’” Fry asked his troops.

In place of the hollow wooden horse, Fry proposed using a “jingle truck,” one of the many local civilian trucks that are colorfully painted and decorated with chains and metal ornaments. Fry and his Green Berets selected a dozen Afghan soldiers and began rehearsing the mission. The next day they were ready to go.

The jingle truck rolled up to the compound without arousing suspicion and the Afghan soldiers swarmed out before the sentries could react. Fry and other Americans were waiting down the road out of sight. By the time they pulled up to the compound, the Afghan troops had disarmed the sentries, cleared the compound rooms and were holding the thug at gunpoint.

As expected, the captive denied having any weapons, and a sweep of the compound yielded nothing until a 10-year-old child stepped forward with a tip. The weapons, the boy said, were hidden in a nearby creek.

Fry soon found rockets, mortars and recoilless-rifle rounds tucked into a protected recess carved out by the water ages ago.

It was a successful raid. No shots fired, no one hurt, and a stash of weapons captured, possibly kept out of the hands of insurgents. It also showed the ingenuity Special Forces soldiers use to improve security, at least temporarily, in a violent and lawless corner of Afghanistan.

“I was given the mission to go to the Pech Valley, build an A-Camp, recruit an army of locals, secure the valley, and destroy or deny sanctuary to al-Qaeda operating in the area,” Fry wrote on the website Quora. “There was nobody that could tell my team how to accomplish this. We had to go into the situation and think outside the box.”

Special Forces soldiers, often referred to as Green Berets due to their distinctive headgear, are not like any other U.S. troops. “No- body else does what we do,” Fry says in an interview a few weeks ago. There are Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Marine Raider battalions and Air Force special-operations squadrons, all highly trained to carry out critical and hazardous missions. But Army Special Forces “have a special skill set that nobody else has,” Fry says. That’s training in unconventional warfare.

Nothing Conventional

The main objective in unconventional warfare is to win the hearts and minds of the local population and in that way undermine support for the enemy.

To many, Green Berets invoke images of a “Rambo-style snake eater,” Fry writes in his book. While there’s truth to that, they also must also be “as much at home building a bridge as firing a rifle.” Unlike conventional soldiers, whose job Fry describes as “killing people and breaking things,” Special Forces soldiers “are sent to liberate, train, or work with” local people against enemies such as al-Qaida and the Taliban.

“This multidimensional mission requires the Green Beret to be a renaissance man,” says Fry, who left the military 2005. “Green Berets speak multiple languages, study the culture, and understand religious and tribal customs of the people they are assigned to work with.”

The Army Guard has about 1,800 Special Forces soldiers, a small fraction of its 343,000 personnel end-strength. They are spread over two SF groups—the 19th and 20th—and 10 special-operations detachments (SODs). They are the only SF units in the reserve components.

Typically, Green Berets operate in 12-man teams called operational detachments. They serve worldwide, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Africa and Latin America, and their missions include unconventional warfare, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, direct action, foreign internal defense and special reconnaissance.

SODs are larger, sometimes up to 42 soldiers, and often are topheavy with field-grade officers, says Lt. Col. Michael Waltz, a Special Forces officer in the Maryland Guard. In 2015, Waltz served as the plans officer for SOD-Africa during the 2015 Operation Flintlock in Chad. Flintlock is an annual counterterrorism exercise that involves troops from two dozen Western and African nations.

Earlier, Waltz commanded a Guard SF detachment in Afghanistan in 2006 and served with Special Forces units elsewhere in the Middle East.

SODs serve as deployable headquarters elements to manage Special Forces operations overseas. They provide planning, logistics, directing and other mission support for special operations forces, and they serve as a command, control and liaison element for the Special Operations Command. Individual SOD members also can be assigned to Special Forces units for specific operations.

Each SOD is affiliated with one of the military’s geographic commands. SOD-A, for example, is aligned with the U.S. Africa Command; SOD-E with U.S. European Command; SOD-S with U.S. Southern Command; SOD-N with U.S. Northern Command; and SOD-O with NATO. SOD-G is global, SOD-K is Korea and so on.

But SOD members have to be adaptable.

“The reality of the world is that we don’t have enough folks to do everything the military is being asked to do, so if your SOD is assigned to CENTCOM, that doesn’t mean you won’t have folks sent to EUCOM,” says Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, the West Virginia adjutant general, who spent 14 years in the Special Forces.

In fact, the Guard has a SOD not affiliated with CENTCOM currently serving across five countries in the Southwest Asia support the fight against the Islamic State.

“We’ve got some really talented men and women” in Guard SF units, Hoyer says. But so far, the number of women in Guard Special Forces remains “very small.” There are no women in the “18 series” positions that fill the 12-member ODAs, but there are women in support roles, says Hoyer, who is also the NGAUS chairman.

Staff Sergeant Kat Kaelin was one of them. Initially trained by the Nevada Guard to be a truck driver, Kaelin seized the opportunity in 2011 to try out for a cultural-support team that would work with special-operations troops in Afghanistan.

The CST is comprised of women who gathered information from Afghan women and children during raids. Afghan custom forbids men, including American soldiers, from interacting with Afghan women. But Afghan women sometimes were a source for valuable intelligence. They run the households, know the neighborhoods and would sometimes divulge where insurgents were hiding or where weapons were stashed.

Armed with a rifle, a sidearm and pockets full of candy, Kaelin accompanied Army Rangers on late-night raids. She described a raid on an Afghan compound to People Magazine in 2015. It was pitch black and “there were rocket-propelled grenades going off. I found a secure spot and dropped to one knee with my weapon ready.”

Her job was to enter the compound and get information from the Afghan women inside. “It would be the middle of the night, and the women and children in these compounds would be so scared,” Kaelin told the publication. She would try to reassure them, holding their hands and passing out candy to the children. She would take off her helmet and put on a headscarf, “and they’d get all big-eyed. They never see American women,” she said.

Kaelin served with a CST for most of 2011 and earned a Combat Action Badge.

Ultimate Force Multiplier

The demand for Guard SF units around the world remains high. In 2016, Army Guard Special Forces soldiers deployed to 20 countries and conducted 16 joint-training events with partner nations, according to the National Guard Bureau. In 2015, they deployed to 53 countries and performed 30 percent of the U.S. military’s special- operations missions in the Pacific theater and South America, the bureau says.

The pace doesn’t seem likely to slacken in the foreseeable future. Waltz, the Maryland Guard lieutenant colonel, says the wars the United States is fighting against the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Islamic State are likely to go on for years.

“We are in a war of ideas. We are fighting an ideology,” Waltz says.

Much like the Cold War, which was a 44-year struggle between democracy and communism, the war against Islamic extremism may last for generations, he says.

And it’s not the kind of war that’s likely to be won by multi-million-dollar weapons or massive troop deployments. “The United States won’t be able to win the war on terrorism on its own. We have to operate with our allies,” Waltz says. Sometimes that may mean grooming new allies, which Special Forces are trained to do.

Waltz has seen the wars from several perspectives. In addition to his SF tours in Afghanistan and Africa, he served as a special advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney and as a director for Afghanistan policy at the Pentagon. Now he’s the chief executive of Metis Solutions Corporation, which provides analysis, intelligence support and training to the U.S. government and commercial clients.

Waltz wrote about his Special Forces and government experiences in a 2014 book, Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret’s Battles from Washington to Afghanistan.

“One Green Beret equals 100 rifles,” wrote Waltz, meaning that a single Special Forces soldier can train 100 willing villagers to be competent allied fighters. A 12-man operational detachment can train 1,000 or more.

To accomplish that in Afghanistan meant living among the people, winning their allegiance by improving their lives—building schools and operating clinics, repairing mosques, digging wells—and training and equipping Afghans to fight their oppressors, the Taliban.

“We could go on night raids by ourselves, and that’s valuable, but it’s even more valuable to train, advise, assist local forces,” Waltz says. “That’s where this long war is going.”

To be effective, SF soliders spend months learning the culture and the languages of the areas where they are going to operate. Then they set up camp in close proximity to the local population, he says.

Guard Green Berets bring “a very unique skill set” to that task— their civilian experience in addition to their military training, Waltz says. “We often found that a sergeant who is also a policeman or a colonel who is also a city manager could bring skills that are invaluable in counterinsurgence.”

The knowledge and experience that personnel from the U.S. State Department, the Agriculture Department or the Agency for International Development could offer would be “incredibly valuable” in places like Afghanistan, Waltz says. But often those people “can’t get around on the battlefield. The military can, but it doesn’t know how to run a government. Who bridges the gap? The Guard and Reserve,” Waltz says.

The civilian skills Guard troops bring to Special Forces are widely diverse. Waltz says his detachment included a soldier whose civilian job was with the National Security Agency, another who was an executive at a telecom company and a third who was a physician assistant for a neurosurgeon.

Guard Special Forces attracts many soldiers who have civilian careers in law enforcement, says Hoyer. There are also first responders, government agency employees, doctors and others. One West Virginia Guard Green Beret was a coal miner who went back to school to get a degree in electrical and mechanical engineering.

“When it comes to getting a water-treatment plant back up and running or bringing electrical power back to a hospital,” that engineer is the go-to Green Beret, Hoyer says.

Potential Growth Area

The Army Guard has two sources for SF soldiers. It trains its own, and it takes in active-component Green Berets.

“We are getting a number of folks coming into our ranks [from active component] to finish their careers” in the Guard, Hoyer says. After six or 10 years in the active-component, soldiers may have children in school and spouses with good jobs, and moving from post to post becomes increasingly unattractive.

Joining the Guard offers the soldiers stability that’s missing in the active-component Army, and it provides the military an avenue to retain experienced special operators.

“I would advocate for growing special operations in the Guard,” Hoyer says. “We make a significant investment in special operators,” but it’s lost when those soldiers leave the Army. “Having additional structure in the Guard” to take in additional active-component SF soldiers “is in my mind sound national-security policy,” Hoyer says.

RAND, the military-oriented think tank, agrees. In 2012, RAND studied Guard Special Forces and concluded that more would be better.

RAND gave Guard Green Berets high marks for certain valuable skills. Guard Special Forces have “experience in negotiation, accommodation, persuasion, and other social skills” that may give Guard personnel “an edge over their active component counterparts in such areas as theater security cooperation, unconventional warfare, and foreign internal defense,” RAND researchers said.

But, they said, while “many valuable civilian skills are present in the Army National Guard, they do not exist in the densities needed.” For example, the Army Special Operations Command “had hoped to find civilian police skills, analytical skills and language skills” among Guard SF troops. They found some, but despite “a rich pool of individuals with such skills, there are not sufficient numbers,” the researchers wrote.

They recommended “working to increase the number of Army National Guard Special Forces.”

But becoming a Green Beret is not easy. “Not many meet the qualifications required for the opportunity to try out to attend Special Forces training in the Army National Guard, and fewer still can meet the demands that come with the job,” the Guard says on its Special Forces website. “Only the most highly motivated soldiers and technically proficient will ever wear the Green Beret and Special Forces Tab.”

The physical and mental requirements are demanding and the training is intense. In addition to being paratrooper qualified, Green Beret candidates must learn foreign languages, study foreign cultures, and pass specialized training to become experts in weapons, explosives, construction, medicine, communications and other disciplines.

“It takes a couple of years to build a special-operations soldier,” Hoyer says.

When ODA 936 arrived in Afghanistan in 2003, it was composed, for the most part, of seasoned Special Forces soldiers. The detachment included an engineer old enough to have had a Cold War assignment involving a nuclear backpack and a Siberian tunnel as a target. There was a medic with degrees in pharmacy and economics and a second medic with an Ivy League education.

Typically, the Guard has “a lot of older guys” who have a lot of experience, Fry says in the interview. “We’ve got bankers, miners and doctors” who are used to working with civilians every day. That’s important because SF troops “need to be able to interact with civilians. The Guard is 10 times better at that” than their active-component counterparts, he says.

At the end of its six-month foray into Afghanistan’s Pech Valley, ODA 936’s tour seemed to have been a success. The detachment had set up a medical clinic to treat locals, repaired schools and mosques, dug wells and befriended tribal leaders while tracking down Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents and seizing weapons caches.

“When we left the Kunar Province in the spring of 2004, we were feeling exhilarated about what we had accomplished,” Fry wrote. “We had improved the health, education and welfare,” trained a local defense force and won friends among local leaders and the general population.

But the amity didn’t last. ODA 936 was replaced by another ODA, and then by a contingent of Marines. “The forces replacing us viewed our population-centric strategy as too ‘passive,’” Fry wrote. “They preferred a more conventional, enemy-centric approach.” Searchand- destroy missions were increased, Taliban body counts were emphasized and collateral damage climbed.

“This quickly eroded the goodwill we had built up, turned formerly neutral villagers against the Americans and created whole new legions of revenge-seeking jihadists,” Fry wrote. American casualties increased and U.S. commanders responded by sending in more troops, which led to still more U.S. casualties.

By 2007 that part of northeastern Afghanistan was labeled “the deadliest place on earth.” In 2011, after more than 100 U.S. troops had been killed, the United States pulled out of Pech Valley.

Fry says he never got a good explanation for why the U.S. strategy changed so dramatically. “When I went there, we were going to hold the ground while [the Afghans] got a government and the Afghan army in place,” he says.

Abandoning the Special Forces approach might have been a mistake, he says. “If you have a fire, do you send five firemen or 100 policemen?” Fry asks. In Afghanistan a decade ago, the U.S. military’s answer was 100 policemen.

WILLIAM MATTHEWS is a freelance writer based in Springfield, Virginia. He specializes in military matters.