Fear of casualties hampers hunt for Taliban
By Rowan Scarborough
THE WASHINGTON TIMES - 9 Dec:
U.S. commanders have turned down as too risky plans for special operations missions to attack Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, according to soldiers and Bush administration officials.
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Military sources said that on several occasions, Army Green Beret A-Teams received good intelligence on the whereabouts of former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, one of the United States' most sought after fugitives. In each case, soldiers said, commanders turned down the missions as too dangerous or because they believed the intelligence was shaky.
The military sources said that in recent months, Green Berets, also called Special Forces, have written detailed plans, or what are called "concept for operations" (conops), to find and attack Taliban leaders. In virtually all the cases, the officials said, the conops were turned down by Task Force 180, the overall Afghanistan command at Bagram air base north of Kabul.
Col. Roger King, chief spokesman for Task Force 180, issued a statement yesterday rebutting these accounts from Special Forces soldiers. The statement said 580 conops had been conducted by Green Berets during the past three months.
Special Forces sources, however, said the vast majority of missions involved reconnaissance or searches for weapons caches — not a specific plan to attack a Taliban leader.
"We had a good plan," said one Special Forces soldier, who, like others interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from superiors.
"We came in hard in November, December, January, February and we won," the soldier said. "Since then, we've been floundering."
Said another solider with knowledge of operations in Afghanistan: "If you put in a conop, if it said 'raid,' 'ambush,' 'kill,' 'sniper,' anything like that, the conop would be disapproved based on the vocabulary used. If you said my team has intelligence that a Taliban corps commander was going to be at such a place, set up an ambush and engage and try to kill or capture him, that would be out of hand rejected."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has ordered all senior U.S. commanders to "lean forward" or be aggressive in the war against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda fighters and other terrorists.
A senior defense official said the lack of what are called "direct action" special operations missions comes at a critical time. The military sources said that based on intelligence collected by A-Teams and U.S. agencies, there are likely only 50 to 100 devoted Taliban leaders left in Afghanistan. Some are trying to form new guerrilla groups by merging with Pakistani and Arab militants.
Special Forces soldiers on the ground say that if the United States misses its chance now to kill or capture them, the hard-core Taliban leaders may be successful in reorganizing their units and other militants' and destabilizing the regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
An administration official said the issue of approving conops has been discussed at high levels in the Pentagon.
Soldiers traced the operational slowdown in Afghanistan to an incident last June at Deh Rawod called Operation Full Throttle, a major direct action by coalition commandos in Afghanistan. As ground warriors moved toward Taliban targets in areas north of Kandahar, an AC-130 gunship fired rounds into a village where anti-aircraft fire was spotted.
When the smoke cleared, 34 civilians had been killed, according to an investigation by U.S. Central Command, which runs the war in Afghanistan. Some Special Forces soldiers contend that the casualty total was much lower.
Still, special operations troops considered Full Throttle a success because it flushed out some Taliban leaders and sent them scurrying to Pakistan, where they remain today, soldiers said.
Soldiers said that since Deh Rawod, the process of winning approval for a conops became more bureaucratic when they called for missions involving ambushes. Military lawyers started playing a larger role in reviewing and recommending against direct action missions.
Some commandos viewed the disapproval as a sign of timidity by commanders at the Bagram air base, who did not want to see their careers damaged by missions that might go bad.
Task Force 180 is led by Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill, an Army corps commander whose units include the 82nd Airborne Division. Commandos say there is an attitude at the Task Force that special operations forces have been in Afghanistan too long.
Historically, conventional warfare commanders have harbored a distrust of special operations units, believing some of their missions' risks outweigh the benefits.
"The fear of getting prosecuted for anything there is real. There's a paranoia," said one soldier. "There are so many lawyers."
Said a Special Forces soldier: "There is nothing worth dying for in Afghanistan. None of us want to take an unnecessary risk, but we did want to catch terrorists."
Gen. McNeill was in Washington last week briefing Mr. Rumsfeld and President Bush on the pace of operations in Afghanistan.
The Task Force 180 statement from Col. King to The Washington Times said:
"Without knowing who you talked to, I can't comment on either their motives or familiarity with operations in Afghanistan. However, Special Forces here executed 580 conops during September, October and November. These operations were not all offensive in nature, as some were reconnaissance, but it is a good indicator of the pace of operations in Afghanistan.
"Additionally, conventional forces here conducted approximately 20 larger operations during the same time frame. All those operations were offensive in nature. The primary mission of [Task Force] 180 remains to 'kill or capture' terrorists in Afghanistan. To that end, coalition forces have apprehended more than 550 persons since May."
In early November, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed some unhappiness with the pace of intelligence collection and anti-terror operations in Afghanistan.
"They've adapted their tactics, and we've got to adapt ours," he told a gathering at the Brookings Institution.
He spoke of an "intelligence flow that has to be more exquisite, if you will, than it's been in the past" and of "the ability of our forces to strike very quickly on intelligence that may not be 100 percent perfect or sure, but to take that kind of risk because the payoff is so important."
He added: "In general, I think that's where we need to improve. And I think in a sense we've lost a little momentum there, to be frank."
A Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Friday that Gen. Myers was referring to the lack of success in capturing key al Qaeda fighters. He said that since the general made his remarks to the Brookings Institution there have been improvements.
A soldier told of an incident within one A-Team this summer. An Afghan soldier repeatedly followed and watched the team as it moved around eastern Afghanistan, one of the last strongholds of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in that country.
One day, the Afghan approached and pointed his rifle. An A-Team member responded by shooting and killing him. The incident would have ended there, except that a support personnel attached to the team filed a complaint at headquarters.
"The word got out. Anyone can be prosecuted," said one soldier.
Asked about this shooting, Task Force 180's Col. King said, "There is an incident similar to what you described that is currently under investigation. This investigation is being handled by U.S. Army Special Forces Command, Fort Bragg, N.C. As a rule, we don't comment on ongoing investigations."
There are 30 A-Teams in Afghanistan, who are conducting operations along with a contingent of local Afghans who act as guides and bodyguards.