Special Operations: July 19, 2004


While both Iraq and Afghanistan have about the same population, and both countries are still suffering from attacks by the supporters of deposed groups (Taliban or Baath Party) trying to regain power, the American combat deaths in Afghanistan are only about a tenth of what they are in Iraq. How can this be? The Afghans have a long, and well deserved, reputation as fierce fighters. The Afghans are also known to be very hostile to foreigners. 

The answer is simple; Afghans dont believe they were invaded. The few hundred Special Forces troops who were sent there in late 2001, spoke the local languages and understood the culture. The result was that the Afghans believed that they had liberated themselves, with the help of a few hundred culturally sensitive Americans, and a bunch of bombers far up in the sky. The 17,000 American, and 5,000 NATO troops currently in Afghanistan are seen as a form of foreign aid, helping to hunt down the remaining Taliban and al Qaeda diehards. The armed foreigners are also seen as useful in attempts to rein in the warlords, who have long been a problem in Afghanistan. 

Thousands of Special Forces troops were sent to Kuwait (and, secretly, Jordan) in late 2002, to explore the possibility of doing an Afghanistan on Iraq. The Kurds in northern Iraq were armed, and willing to fight Saddam. The Shia Arabs in the south had suffered much from Saddam for several decades. But the Taliban, it was pointed out, had much less control over Afghanistan than Saddam had over Iraq. While both nations had an extensive system of tribes, and tribal leaders, Saddam had done a much better job of intimidating the tribes than had the Taliban in Afghanistan. In fact, by late 2001, Taliban control was largely backed up by a few hard core Pushtun tribes, and a brigade of al Qaeda troops who operated as enforcers. Saddam had several hundred thousand secret police and street level vigilantes on the payroll. Despite the UN embargo, Saddam still had several billion dollars a year coming in with which to pay his thugs. The Taliban were largely dependent on the illegal drug trade for their income of several hundred million dollars a year, and it wasnt enough to build a secret police establishment. Moreover, the concept of secret police had been discredited in Afghanistan, as the communist government of the 1970s, which Russian troops tried to prop up in the 1980s, relied heavily on a much hated secret police. So the Taliban had to depend on a brigade of al Qaeda mercenaries, and a lot of tribal politics, to maintain control of the country. Saddam was in much better shape, as his secret police also enabled him to maintain several hundred thousand soldiers on duty.

While Saddams troops were no match for four divisions of American and British soldiers and marines, his followers, who were mostly of the Sunni Arab minority (about 20 percent of the Iraqi population), were better educated, organized and financed than the Taliban loyalists. Saddam had stolen billions of dollars from Iraq, and distributed most of it to his cronies. After his government fell, Saddam loyalists had the money, training, motivation and numbers to make a lot more trouble than the Taliban remnants in Afghanistan. 

By the end of 2002, the American Special Forces inside Iraq had figured all this out, because, while they were able to make contact with many tribal leaders, it was obvious that there was much fear, and unwillingness to move against Saddam. There was much less reluctance in Afghanistan when tribal leaders, were asked to join in a war against the Taliban, and many agreed (often after a lot of cash changed hands).

Before they showed up in late 2002, the Special Forces already knew that Saddam was ruthless and extremely brutal with opposition. They found that out while working with the Kurds in northern Iraq during the 1990s. The U.S. and Britain kept Saddam out of northern Iraq during the 1990s, allowing the Kurds to run their own affairs, and tell the Special Forces exactly how Saddam operated (as well as providing thousands of documents captured from Saddams secret police.)

While the Special Forces were able to get most of the tribes to withhold any support for Saddam, and played a role in making sure much of the Iraqi army stayed away as well, they were not able to put together much of an organized resistance to Saddam. The problem was that, if a police state is well enough entrenched, the techniques and capabilities of the Special Forces will take a lot longer (years) to have any effect.

After Saddams government fell, the Special Forces were active in hunting down Saddam and his key aides. But at that point it became clear that the Special Forces were stretched thin. Only about a fifth of the 6,000 Special Forces troops are trained to deal with Middle East cultures, and the priority operation for them was disabling al Qaeda, not stabilizing Iraq. Both Iraq (an established police state), and Afghanistan (a very tribal nation, run by a theocracy and in the midst of a civil war) were quite different. So is the war on terror. Despite the inaccurate media coverage, the army and marines, with the help of SOCOM civil affairs troops, have done an excellent job of pacifying Iraq. This has left the Special Forces to keep going after al Qaeda, and other Islamic terrorist organizations. 

The Special Forces were originally organized and trained to deal with situations like Afghanistan and Iraq. The war on terror is not quite what they prepared for, but the Special Forces are probably the best prepared military force in the world to deal with it. Special Forces are considered on a par with may police and espionage agencies when it comes to finding and hunting down terrorists. For example, several hundred Special Forces operators are now working as the equivalent of CIA agents, setting up informer networks in foreign countries. The CIA isnt complaining, as it is desperately trying to train more such people for that job. But the State Department is not happy about it. Relations with the CIA were often chilly, as the CIA agents usually operated out of the local American embassy. But now with the Department of Defense stationing plainclothes Special Forces operators in embassies as well, some ambassadors are becoming yet another hostile force the Special Forces has to deal with.

The Special Forces are talented and resourceful, but they cannot work miracles. However, within their capabilities, they are nearly impossible to stop.


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