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Tuesday, 9 October, 2001, 04:05 GMT 05:05 UK
Special forces ready for Afghan action
Snipers
Special forces are almost certainly in Afghanistan
Tom Carver

This is the perfect mission for America's special operations forces.

It is what they have being training for ever since the Pentagon formed Special Operations Command in 1986, in the wake of the debacle of Desert One, the failed attempt to spring American hostages from Iran.

There are 46,000 troops in Special Operations Command, which is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

They are a mixture of Green Berets, Rangers and the Delta Force from the Army, the Seals (which stands for Sea-Air-Land) from the Navy and the Air Force's combat controllers and para rescue teams.

There are three levels of special operations.

  • Special, which are operations which the government will admit to openly.
  • Clandestine, which the government will try to hide but acknowledge if uncovered.
  • Covert, which a government will deny all knowledge of.

Covert are usually commanded by JSOC, a secret group within Special Operations Command. Usually, it is only the Delta and Seal teams that get to do covert ops.

'Targets of opportunity'

The special operations teams are almost certainly moving into Afghanistan now to take advantage of the confusion on the ground caused by waves of air attacks. They will have several roles.

Firstly, they will be working with the Northern Alliance, calling in US air assets in support of attacks by Afghan commanders.
Special forces troops land
Special forces troops will gather intelligence and help find targets

They will also give the Afghan commanders some basic training and perhaps provide them with equipment such as radios and night sights.

Other groups will act as long-range reconnaissance units, feeding back to the Pentagon invaluable real-time intelligence about the disposition and condition of Taleban forces on the ground.

If they see a chance, they can call in air strikes - anything from a cruise missile to B-1 bombers - on what they call "targets of opportunity" such as a sudden gathering of Taleban forces.

The hunt for al Qaeda

Finally, some of the units will have been given the mission to hunt down and kill the leaders of al-Qaeda. The key to their success will be having "actionable intelligence" - information that they can act on.

Afghanistan is the size of Texas, so they need to know with at least an 80% degree of certainty the exact location of the target before they will act.
A US 'Pave Low' Helicopter
The small teams of soldiers will fly in on high-speed helicopters

And right now there is a huge effort underway to get that information. In the words of one former special operations officer, "they are using everything they have".

High technology intelligence using radio intercepts, aerial reconnaissance and infrared sensors as well as low tech methods such as spending a lot of cash bribing disgruntled or former members of the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

It explains Donald Rumsfeld's cryptic comment the other day that "it's not going to be a cruise missile or a bomber that is going to be the determining factor. It's going to be a scrap of information."

In the operation, British SAS troops will probably work alongside the Americans. The small teams of soldiers will be flown in on high-speed air-refuellable helicopters and dropped as close as possible to the targets.

It will probably be a bloody battle.

Reinforcements waiting

Everyone expects that Osama bin Laden will be protected by several hundred very experienced fighters.

But not far behind the special operations strike teams will be sizeable reinforcements to extract them if things go wrong.

Insufficient support was one of the reasons why the operation to capture the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in October 1993 resulted in the deaths of 18 American soldiers.

The bloody scenes in Mogadishu sapped domestic support for the mission and led to a US pullout. The US does not want to make the same mistake again.

See also:

08 Oct 01 | South Asia
Enduring Freedom - the first strikes
08 Oct 01 | Americas
Americans urged to stay vigilant
08 Oct 01 | South Asia
Musharraf firm as protests erupt
08 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Blair rebuts Bin Laden on Arabic TV
05 Oct 01 | Americas
The investigation and the evidence
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