Hunting Al Qaedais disturbing. It will disturb a lot of folks in the Army, in Special Forces, in the intelligence community, and in the country. It blows apart the myth that everything that can be done to find the terrorists is being done. It hangs out a lot of dirty laundry that many of us would like to pretend is not there. It illuminates the fact that even Special Forces is infected with micro-management disease, petty infighting, and fear of making a mistake. This is not some sanitized war story. It’s the hard, ugly realities of military service, relationships between active and reserve components, and war. More than anything else it’s a story about a group of soldiers who came to fight the bad guys and refused to be deprived of their due.
This team comprised of citizen-soldiers, hang up their business suits, stop their lives, leave their loved ones and go to Afghanistan, ostensibly to hunt terrorists. They justify this because they have God and country enthusiasm. They have the training. They have the skills. They believe in the righteousness of their cause, and they internalize that they can make a difference. In their deepest, most personal moments of reflection, these men probably imagine their team capturing Bin Laden. They intend to turn that dream into reality, and they have every right to believe that they might actually succeed. They are proud to be part of their country’s quest to rid the world of the men who attacked the World Trade Towers. This isn’t just any group of part time soldiers. These men are U.S. Army National Guard, Special Forces soldiers. They are Green Berets in every sense of the word.
What they don’t know is that their biggest challenge will not be finding and killing Al Qaeda. Their biggest challenge will be finding how to work with a political/military bureaucracy that defines victory as not having any accidents, incidents, or injuries. This culture of “playing it safe” has cruelly taken over nearly every nook and cranny of the military and it starts with many politicians.
Since the end of WWII, the political commitment to fight and win at war has evaporated. Politicians, lacking the courage to declare war, allow our soldiers to go into battle without the support of the people as the framers of the Constitution had intended. This positions them to second guess many battlefield operations. They Monday morning quarterback military decisions, berate military accidents, and jump on the bandwagon only after success is clearly visible. The consequence is that they got what they wanted; a military that lives in fear of political backlash.
As if this micro-management problem isn’t bad enough, the team also experiences discrimination at the hands of the active-duty Special Forces units that view the National Guard team as something akin to summer help. Ironically, more than in any other military career field, once trained, citizen soldiers are uniquely suited for Special Forces missions. Reserve component Special Forces personnel can, and often do, bring exceptional civilian acquired professional skills and insights to the unconventional warfare environment. That, however, is a hard pill for some to swallow and is not much appreciated within the rank-and-file active-duty units.
In the early stages of the war in Afghanistan, Special Forces teams were not as restricted as was the case in the subsequent years. Special Forces units deserve all the credit for bringing that war to a rapid and victorious conclusion. As time went on, more and more military units were sent into the country.There were more and more chiefs and proportionately fewer Indians. As their numbers grew, more senior officers demanded accountability. More operations came under the scrutiny of higher and higher levels of command. The staggering amount of rank in the war zone had to justify their contribution to the war. They had lost the initiative. They couldn’t seize the moment. Their internal controls were choking the operational capabilities of the “ground truth” combatants. More and more the Taliban became wise to the debilitating elephantitis of U.S. military operations.
Although the author never makes this allegation, it would not surprise me to learn Donald Rumsfeld himself made tactical battlefield decisions. Oh, make no mistake that Mr. Rumsfeld would never actually call it a decision, but at his level it only takes a loose comment to rapidly become a commandment as it filters down the pipe. The Sec Def gets his way and has plausible deniability that he may have interfered with decisions that should have been made by an NCO.
No one on this team of highly trained citizen soldiers is influenced, motivated, or limited by career considerations. Hamstrung by higher headquarters internal controls, they decide to break the “rules”. They develop an elaborate strategy to deceive their chain of command and deceive the elusive Taliban. This puts them in a pretty lonely position. If they fail, they could be killed, bring embarrassment and humiliation to their team, the Army, the National Guard and their country. Although, not stated but very clear to any professional soldier, even if they succeed, they may be subject to a military court martial.
Many will appropriately question as to whether the ends justified the means. One can never assume that the author knew all there was to know about their higher headquarters operations. It may be, and we can only hope, that in fact there were other Special Forces teams executing unencumbered mission’s unknown to these men. Nor is it clear to me that these soldiers truly evaluated the enormity of the consequences of this rule breaking strategy, but had they, I doubt their actions would have been any different. This team was hell bent to hunt Al Qaeda, and they did.
Colonel Gerald Schumacher
United States Army Special Forces