Most of us don’t know a lot about special ops. Because they’re secret. And special. What little we do know about special ops is this: they’re special, which means they’re better than us. Which means that no matter what, they’re the best option for the job. Because again…special.
And we need to see them more as a savior than just some dude with a fancy gun. Which is what the Washington Post did recently with its fawning profile of Afghan special operations forces, “These Are The 11,000 Soldiers Who Might Save Afghanistan.” It’s another in a long line of column inches that all mean special operations forces (SOF) are the answer to all our prayers.
They’re “the units keeping things from going very wrong,” according to U.S. Army Col. Joe Duncan, commander of the Special Operations Advisory Group. Per Duncan, “You won’t find commandos laying down their arms and refusing to fight.” Because they’re special operations super troopers, and there’s no way these guys are going to turn tail.
That’s the kind of thing the lesser beings known as conventional Afghan forces do. Not the SOF, who will come out of the sunset like some helicopter-borne Messiah, ready to save Afghanistan. Which is territy the article mines early and often.
If we’d just give more money to the special operations folks in the graveyard of well-planned support, the line goes, then maybe all the forces will have a chance. Which makes for a great narrative, and it’s a convenient one. Because who doesn’t like watching spec ops ninjas do all kinds of cool shit?
Where that line of reasoning fails is in not acknowledging that the Afghan National Army (ANA) isn’t just bedeviled by country boys who turn tail at the first sign of opposition. It’s also led by people who think checkpoints make great Eid gifts. Which is something that’s finally changing, although the jury’s still out on how long that’s going to last.
It’s not that the SOF are any braver, it’s that they’ve had better training by the Americans, and are the only units in the interventiongasm that still have mentors down to the tactical level. Which means they’ve gotten more consistent feedback on how to do it right, versus the uneven mentorship that ended for other units years ago.
Night Raids, Anyone?
Today in “glaring omissions,” the article doesn’t go into the challenges of so-called “night raids,” which are key to successful SOF operations in the 21st century. And they’re coming back in a big way, since the Ministry of Defense wants to increase them. Even though they never went away in the first place, they were frowned upon by former president Karzai. Or at least as they were done by the Americans. Maybe Afghans are more OK with other Afghans kicking their doors in as part of the SOF crowd-sourced wakeup call program.
But that tactic can’t be ignored, since the violation of Afghan homes is an obnoxious means toward an uncertain end. Proponents would argue that they do a great job of taking key individuals off the battlefield. Which is true.
What’s less obvious is what taking those people off the battlefield does for the long-term success of a counterinsurgency. Because the US used to do them all the time, and now in 2016 that means a fractured insurgency that doesn’t have leadership in place to negotiate a peace deal.
The Special Operations Hammer
The biggest problem faced by Afghan SOF that the Post does point out is the over-reliance on those units. Which means they act more like conventional forces, and are called on to do jobs that should be done by the conventional army and police units. Who are still busy defending checkpoints and/or running away from close combat with insurgents.
This means that these units will suffer from fatigue, not just emotionally, but physically. And their equipment is going to suffer as well. Because SOF travel by helicopter.
No matter how durable those helicopters are, and their Mi-17s are the “flying tractors” of the aviation world, they need a lot of maintenance. And using them too much means they won’t last as long as they would otherwise.
What’s not clear from the article is how much the US is pushing the Afghans to use their SOF assets, and how much of it is frustrated commanders going with the team they know can get the job done. Because they are, on average, better trained and equipped than their conventional counterparts.
So they’ll keep kicking in doors after midnight and saving the asses of their less-special brethren until they break the insurgency or the pace of operations breaks them.
Also published on Medium.