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U.S. Calls Special Warriors to Lead in Unconventional Fight

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 16, 2002 – "Afghanistan wasn't a generals' war. It was a war waged by colonels and lieutenant colonels and won by small units that operated with autonomy in a highly fluid environment," said Marshall Billingslea, principal deputy assistant defense secretary for special operations and low- intensity conflict.

He said the men and women who make up U.S. special operations forces are truly "one-of-a-kind" and cannot be stretched too far.

"SOF clearly are in the ascendancy as a military capability and as a military tool of the nation," he said. He spoke at the Fletcher Conference, a joint effort of the Marine Corps and the Institute of Foreign Policy Analysis.

Billingslea said that while the U.S. military has not had time to fully grasp all the lessons of Afghanistan, some are already clear.

The first is the U.S. military can fight an unconventional, irregular war, he said, "if we are willing to take certain risks and if we are willing to give the SOF commander in the field broad operational latitude."

He called Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan a "plan-as-you-go" operation. "The fight to topple the Taliban was waged on the ground by less than 500 Special Forces personnel," Billingslea said. "They mounted an unconventional warfare effort tied closely to indigenous forces and linked with the United States Air Force in a way that provided for a rapid and crushing defeat of the Taliban's conventional forces."

He said the special operators went in without a "safety net" and without a huge logistics chain. "(They were able to) distinguish between combatants and noncombatants in an environment of civilians and fighters. Taliban and non- Taliban and ex-Taliban were all jumbled together," he said.

The special operations forces were able to meld the personal touch needed to get along with very different people with the high-tech skills needed to call on modern aircraft and coordinate fire from the air as well as connect to Soviet-era equipment being used by friendly ground forces.

Billingslea said special operations forces are distinguished by many factors including language skills, overseas experience, the ability to work with and train foreign forces and the ability to blend in with the fabric of the society. He said special operations forces are independent.

It takes a long time to train special operations personnel, and they are scarce resources, he said. "They should not be employed casually," he added.

Army Special Forces members weren't the only special operators in Afghanistan.

"Other Army and Navy SOF were conducting special reconnaissance and direct action to destroy al Qaeda," he said. "Army Rangers demonstrated a strategic reach and prowess in night operations. Air Force and Army special operations aviators performed their intrepid work under conditions where the investments in specialized training and equipment produced actions unique to SOF.

"Air Force special tactics airmen transformed the role of SOF by integrating every U.S. service's air power into the operation," he continued. "Their unique ability to 'rack and stack' multiple types of aircraft with different procedures and different communications frequencies and to bring both precision and dumb ordnance 'danger close' and on target, proved critical to crushing Taliban resistance around key cities."

Billingslea said the result of this special operations effort was "a Taliban uprooted, and an al Qaeda on the run."

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