Army Vice Chief Lauds Special Ops' Afghan Mission
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 24, 2002 Talk about a general who's proud of his troops. Just mention the Army Special Forces operation in Afghanistan to the Army's vice chief of staff and he'll glow as he tells you about their mission.
Gen. John Keane, a broad-shouldered hulk of a career soldier, attributes America's success in Afghanistan to three things: the military's going in early, without waiting to husband all the resources necessary; relying on friendly Afghan forces to take the fight to the Taliban and Al Qaeda; and using Army Special Forces to guide U.S. air power.
"Sometimes, we forget how dramatic it is, what we have done," the general told several hundred officers at the Reserve Officer Association mid-winter conference here. Recapping the mission, Keane said U.S. air forces began softening Afghan air defenses Oct. 7 so U.S. and coalition pilots could fly safely on strike and humanitarian missions.
"Then we started on strategic and leadership targets -- mostly infrastructure, communication sites, command and control facilities, barracks and the like," he said. Meanwhile, he continued, Afghan groups expressed frustration because airplanes flew over them every day, but few supported their tactical objectives.
But concentrating attention on strategic targets was the plan, Keane said. The strikes occurred while U.S. forces were getting resources into place, which required working out staging arrangements. That planning proved challenging -- who would permit overflights, landing and resupply permits, the staging of forces -- and who would allow the United States and other coalition members to conduct combat offensive operations from their territory.
Then, the United States began introducing its special operations forces.
Keane explained that Army Special Forces is organized in 12-man "A Teams" that are grouped into company-sized "B Teams," which in turn form battalion-sized "C Teams." It's the A Teams, he stressed, that are at the heart of Special Forces. A captain leads and is assisted by a warrant officer, who's usually a former noncommissioned officer.
Everyone else on an A Team is a noncommissioned officer, generally in grades E-6 or E-7, and aged in the late 20s or early 30s. All are specialists -- in weapons, communications, medical, or other fields. They all are experts on the region's culture and speak local languages.
With the collapse of the Soviet empire, Keane said, Special Forces personnel have been dealing with fragile democracies in several former Soviet republics.
"You'll have an E-7 teaching 50 to 60 (officers) in a classroom about military tactics of a modern army, doing away with the Soviet monolithic model," the general said. "He's teaching them about how fundamental it is that the military must subordinate itself to civilian control and how that's a necessary ingredient in a democracy."
This type of military-to-military experience enabled the Special Forces to do what they did in Afghanistan, the general said, noting that "what they did was pretty remarkable. Just to get them hooked up with the tribal leaders and their armies was a formidable challenge."
Teams went into Afghanistan at night in MH-47 helicopters of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. "They would fly at 17,000 feet at '00 illumination' on some days," Keane said.
"The weather was horrible," he said. "Black Hawk aircraft that were accompanying them had to turn around because they couldn't get through the weather. The MH-47s went on and, as they got into the operating area, they would (draw) fire. They'd land their A Teams and then fly back out and get fired upon again." Even so, he remarked, air crews went back in night after night until every team was in place.
Once the A Teams were on the ground, they faced the challenge of first joining an army of 5,000 to 10,000 Afghans and then gaining the trust of its leaders. In some cases, the Special Forces could not speak the language of the tribe they had joined, Keane noted. You had the delicate business of 30-year-old captains advising the local general 15 years his senior on how to fight his war, he said.
The Special Forces did as their host tribes did -- ate the same food, wore the same kind of clothes, slept under the same conditions and used any transportation at hand, whether pickup trucks or horses.
The Americans' costuming themselves like their hosts proved the right decision, Keane said, not just to build up trust, but also for protection. Wandering around in an American getup would have made them easy targets for snipers, he said.
The Special Forces troops told Keane they had developed a great deal of respect for the Afghan fighters they advised. "Tribal leaders knew the Americans were there to help them, and they knew it was an act of bravery on their part simply to have joined them," he said.
One member of the Special Forces did not return from the mission in Afghanistan. Sgt. 1st Class Nathan R. Chapman, 31, was the first U.S. soldier killed by enemy fire in the war against terrorism.
Keane attended Chapman's funeral at Fort Lewis, Wash. He said local authorities closed the interstate used by the funeral procession to reach a national cemetery north of Lewis.
"The last time they had closed that highway was for a visiting president," Keane noted. "People had come down the exit ramps and stood on the side of the highway with American flags. Some veterans saluted. Nobody said a thing. Every single overpass had fire trucks on them and firemen at the railing. All of them saluted.
"In my mind, they were saying, 'Thank you,'" the general said. "Sgt. Chapman didn't die in vain. He was a soldier reflecting the values of the American people. Thank God for our Sgt. Chapmans."