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The Hidden Casualties
by James Dunnigan
July 24, 2011

With the withdrawal of 33,000 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year, the U.S. has decided to increase the number of special operations troops (Special Forces, SEALs and SOCOM support forces) in Afghanistan. In effect, the U.S. will concentrate more on what SOCOM (Special Operations command) operators do. That is, go after terrorist leadership and specialists. The American troops being withdrawn were mainly concerned with protecting Afghan villagers from the Taliban (who operate like gangsters and bandits these days).

While this plan sounds useful, the reality is that there are not that many additional SOCOM troops available to be sent to Afghanistan. Currently, there are over 7,000 SOCOM troops in Afghanistan, and still 3,000 in Iraq. But by the end of the year, most of the SOCOM troops in Iraq will be withdrawn. Not all of them will go to Afghanistan, that's because SOCOM has a growing problem with burnout. Since the war on terror began, SOCOM has been the most heavily engaged branch of the armed forces. This is wearing out the elite troops that make SOCOM such an effective organization.

Since September 11, 2001 SOCOM has nearly doubled its size, to a current strength of 60,000 troops. This includes many support specialists, as well as the Special Forces, Rangers, SEALs and Marine Corps and Air Force operators. Currently, 10,000 of these commando type troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sounds good, doesn't it? But it’s not enough, considering on all the work SOCOM operators have been asked to do.

Not surprisingly, 60 percent of SOCOMs current troops signed up after September 11, 2001. But an increasing number are leaving the military, despite reenlistment bonuses of up to $150,000. The problem here is overwork. While the number of SOCOM personnel has doubled, the number overseas at any time has quadrupled. That's why SOCOM wants to bring most of the Iraqi based troops back home, for a little rest.

Many SOCOM personnel are spending more than half their time overseas, usually in a combat zone. There, Special Forces troops take the lead in intelligence gathering and capturing or killing key terrorists. It's mentally and physically exhausting work. Unlike past wars, these troops can remain in touch with families back home, for better or worse. While it's been a long war, most SOCOM operators realize that it could easily go on for another decade. Thus SOCOM has learned to say "no" more often, otherwise the expansion will go into reverse as many more exhausted operators leave the service. Thus the reluctance to send a lot more people to Afghanistan.

Trying to recruit replacements is a solution that didn't work. The U.S. Army's effort to recruit another 2,300 operators (as members of the Special Forces are called) has been a hard slog. Qualified candidates are out there, but it's hard to convince them to endure the additional effort, stress and danger to become a Special Forces operator (or a SEAL, Ranger, Pararescue Jumper). Even with higher pay ($10,000 or more additional a year) and high reenlistment bonuses (adding about $10,000 more a year), it's hard to find the men who can meet the high standards, and are willing to put up with the large amount of time spent overseas.

Recruiting and training more operators is a time consuming process, as it takes about three years to get a Special Forces recruit up to a basic level of competence. It takes another few years in the field before such men are ready for anything serious. At least half of those recruited, are lost (quit, wash out) before they reach their full capability. Recruiting to expand the number of operators began right after September 11, 2001. Soon, SOCOM was told to increase its strength by 43 percent, and do it by 2013.

The main problem isn't operators concerned about getting killed, SOCOM casualties have been lower than in infantry or marine units. The big issue is overwork. Keep the operators out there for too long at a time and you'll lose them to resignations, retirement or, rarely, combat fatigue. It's not just the equipment that is being worn out.

Because the Special Forces troops are the product of an exacting screening and training process, they are in big demand by intelligence agencies as well. Special Forces operators who retired or quit in the last decade have been sought out and offered opportunities to get back in the business. If not with one of the five active duty groups, then with training operations, or to work with the intelligence agencies.

Most Americans tend to forget that the U.S. Special Forces are a unique organization in military, and intelligence, history. No other nation has anything like the Special Forces, and never has. While other nations have some operators skilled in understanding foreign cultures, the idea of training thousands of troops to very high standards, then having them study foreign languages and cultures, is unique to the Special Forces. The war on terror is the kind of war Special Forces are perfectly suited to dealing with. But now that this unique kind of war is under way, we find that those soldiers uniquely suited to fighting it are in short supply. This is largely because Special Forces set high standards, and has resisted all attempts to lower those standards. One hard lesson the Special Forces has learned in the past sixty years is that lowering standards just increases the chances of failure, and getting your people killed.

In the past three years, SOCOM has been shifting forces from Iraq (where it had 5,500 personnel three years ago) to Afghanistan (where it had 3,000 troops three years ago). The ratio has been reversed. Many American allies have moved all their commando forces from Iraq to Afghanistan, where they not only do what they were trained for, but also train Afghans for special operations tasks. This has already been done in Iraq, where it worked quite well. The SOCOM troops in Iraq and Afghanistan account for about 80 percent of American special operations forces overseas. The rest are in places like Colombia, the Philippines and Djibouti (adjacent to Somalia).

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