Special Forces


RENEWED interest in unconventional warfare during the Reagan and first Bush administrations spurred some long-needed changes within the Army, changes that made becoming a Green Beret no longer the career-killing decision it had so often turned out to be. Slowly—almost grudgingly, in some cases—the Army was coming to recognize Special Forces’ unique capabilities and the value of having units trained in the customs and language of a contested region. Finally, in April 1987, Special Forces became a separate Army branch, on equal footing with Armor, Infantry, Ordnance, and all the other major components. The change came just in time for America’s first major conflict since Vietnam.

During the Persian Gulf War of 1990–91, a large number of Middle Eastern nations joined the coalition forces arrayed against Iraq. The Egyptian Army had been conducting extensive exercises with its U.S. counterpart for nearly a decade, but most Arab armies knew little of American military procedures, and language problems were as vexing as ever. Because of this, virtually every available Green Beret was committed to serving as a liaison with the Saudi and Qatari units, training Kuwaiti resistance forces, or conducting reconnaissance missions. Manpower was in such short supply that even Delta Force was pulled into the show to perform standard Special Forces missions after Saddam Hussein’s release of Iraq’s Western “guest workers” made it clear that Delta would not be needed for hostage rescues.

The Delta counterterrorists were principally given the task of finding and destroying mobile Scud missile launchers. Saddam Hussein believed that targeting Israeli cities would push Israel into an assault against his country, almost certainly driving a wedge between the United States and its Muslim allies. The deployment of American Patriot antimissile batteries, a lavish (and usually frustrating) “Scud hunt” by Air Force F-15s, and Special Forces efforts deep in the Iraqi desert persuaded the Israelis to cancel two planned invasions. Because the Scuds were being aimed deliberately at civilian and not military targets, it is, if not an irony of history, at least a foreshadowing of it that the Delta troops found themselves fighting a new form of terrorism—one that they and the other U.S. Special Operations Forces may again confront.


Before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, roughly 2,000 Green Berets were engaged in training missions around the globe at any given time. These continue, but Special Forces has shifted its main efforts to the war on terrorism, and the high degree of integration that has developed with the Special Operations Forces of America’s other armed services has paid remarkable dividends in the early stages of the fighting. The image of horseback-riding supercommandos directing B-52 strikes with laser designators became a media staple, but the Green Berets’ greatest contribution to the campaign in Afghanistan occurred unseen during the two years before the terrorist attacks.


In 1999 President Bush’s Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni—then the four-star Marine general also responsible for the former Soviet republics in Central Asia—directed his Special Operations Forces in the words of Brig. Gen. Frank Toney, Jr., to use their “military-to-military peacetime engagement techniques to open up |the new Asian nations] for training with U.S. forces.” At a time when U.S. businesses and many diplomats viewed the region as a dangerous place best left to its own devices, Army Special Forces teams were conducting training missions in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, where they developed personal relationships that remain critically important in that part of the world.


When war came, the Uzbeks immediately offered their assistance. American transport aircraft were touching down on their soil barely a week after September 11, and a major base was quickly established at Khanabad, 130 miles north of the Afghan border. By mid-November the Tajiks had made available three bases from which offensive operations could be launched (of which the Pentagon chose one), and they were soon followed by the Kyrgys. Special Forces’ familiarity with each nation’s culture and topography, along with the mutual trust developed between the Central Asian and American soldiers, allowed combat operations to be conducted with stunning rapidity and effect.

In Afghanistan the Green Berets demonstrated that they have learned well the lessons of their past. In the new war against global terror networks they will need all their hard-won experience and skills to bring the fight to those who would harm America.