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KWAME HOLMAN: Today’s Pentagon briefers took the podium prepared to respond to widespread reports of U.S. Special Forces operating in Afghanistan. The stories attributed to Pentagon sources say special forces are hunting Taliban targets on the ground, working with Afghan opposition fighters, and preparing the way for more intensive ground assaults by U.S. forces. This is how Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem began the Pentagon briefing.
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: Before I begin the formal part of the briefing on yesterday’s missions, I hope you’ll understand that I’m not going to discuss any operational details regarding ground forces. As capable as these forces are, I think the reason is clear: If or when they are on the ground, being there would make them the most vulnerable individuals engaged in this campaign. And I will not discuss any matters that could possibly put our people at risk.
KWAME HOLMAN: Stufflebeem reiterated that point throughout the Pentagon press corps’ questioning.
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: There are parts of this campaign that will be visible and there will be parts that are invisible. So if and when we describe what operations may be going on, it’s when that vulnerability is minimized. So until we have that kind of environment to either confirm or deny that, I think is beyond what we want to get into right now.
REPORTER: Is it possible to talk about any units that are now out of Afghanistan that have already conducted certain operations, and what they may have done?
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: There may be a right time to talk about what has or what is, but now is not the time.
REPORTER: There are reports now and at last count four major American media outlets saying that special operations forces are on the ground in Afghanistan and sourcing their stories to Defense Department officials. Are you specifically denying the accuracy of those reports?
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: I’m neither confirming nor denying. I’m stating a policy that we don’t talk about what our special operations forces do in operations.
KWAME HOLMAN: Intensely trained, U.S. special operation forces generally are small, mobile units sometimes accompanied by air support. Much of what they do around the world is secret, sometimes never confirmed in public. Special units make up some 46,000 of the 2.7 million uniformed military personnel. They include the Army’s Green Berets and Rangers, Navy Seals, Air Force Special Operations, and even a group that doesn’t exist officially– the Army’s Delta Force.
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: Special operations have a tremendous capability in intelligence gathering and they have a tremendous capability in training others, especially in small unit military tactics; they are experts at developing intelligence. From on the ground, ground forces can provide intelligence that we have no capability to from a signals collector or from the air from visual photography.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Pentagon also declined to confirm statements by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance today that they now are receiving training in Afghanistan from U.S. soldiers. This afternoon in Missouri, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the U.S. and the Northern Alliance do share a common goal.
DONALD RUMSFELD: It is very clear that there are troops on the ground, there have been for many years. They’re fighting against the Taliban and have had varying degrees of success in different parts of the country, the Northern Alliance in the North, various tribal groups in the South. And we are encouraging them and to the extent that we can assist them in being more successful, clearly it puts greater pressure on the Taliban and on the al-Qaida.
KWAME HOLMAN: In Pakistan today, the Taliban’s ambassador said he could not confirm reports of U.S. Special Forces in the Taliban stronghold of Khandahar.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on special operations forces and how they work, we turn to Retired Colonel Stanley Florer, an Army Special Forces officer for 23 years. He retired last year as chief of staff of the U.S. Army special operations command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
And Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mark Bowden — he’s written two books about Special Forces operations, “Black Hawk Down,” about the failed 1993 mission to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid; and “Killing Pablo,” about the successful 1993 hunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Welcome gentlemen.
To understand what makes special forces operations special, Colonel, let’s start at the very beginning. Who goes into special ops? How are they chosen? How they are trained?
COL. HAYWARD S. FLORER (RET.), U.S. Army: Margaret, the — all Army soldiers can go into special forces. They’re invited to come in, all Army enlisted and our captains, the senior lieutenants and captains are invited to try out. We have an assessment and selection program that takes it down about 50 percent of those that do try out for special forces.
And what really makes them special is that assessment and selection because we don’t take everybody. We look for a certain guy that’s got the heart and the guts to make it through the kind of training we have, and a psychological evaluation to make sure we have got the right kind of guy. When we finish doing that, then the second part that makes them very different is their training. It’s intensive. It’s detailed. If you don’t get it right, and you don’t get it right, you don’t stay in.
MARGARET WARNER: What kind of training? Training in what? Again how would it be different from someone in the regular part of the military?
COL. HAYWARD S. FLORER (RET.): Number one, we take older folks, folks that are just about to become NCOs and just about to become captains on the officer side. On the enlisted side we have specialists in medicine; these guys become almost junior doctors. They’re absolutely phenomenal. We have guys that are engineers. They can do construction and demolition.
We have folks that are communications that are familiar with all pieces and parts of today’s modern communications. We have weapons and tactics specialists and intelligence specialists. And then your officers, you have got a captain leading it and a warrant officer – who’s a former enlisted special forces soldier at the leadership end for each detachment.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark Bowden, pick it up from there about what sets these forces apart. And take us to the next step. How do they get in on the ground in hostile territory?
MARK BOWDEN: Well, what sets them apart in large extent is the degree of training that they do. They have access to the very best of equipment, they train continually. They are, you know, the most mature, experienced soldiers in the Army and in the Air Force and in the Navy. When they go on these operations, they can hit a target in many different ways. They can –.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me back you up thought first. First, let’s say it is a non-combat kind of an operation, which we’re being led to believe is the kind of thing they’ve been doing initially; reconnaissance, picking out, for instance, targets for the air attacks. How do they get in on the ground and how do they operate there?
MARK BOWDEN: Well, these guys, many of them are experts at high altitude jumping. So they can jump out of an airplane and land pretty much where they want to be. They’re experts at disguising themselves or digging a hole and living in it, of blending into their surroundings.
So, for instance, we could have dropped someone somewhere in Afghanistan near a target that we wanted to watch closely and that person could presumably stay unnoticed for a period of time and provide very good firsthand observation of a target.
MARGARET WARNER: And how big are the teams?
MARK BOWDEN: Well, they vary in size depending on the operation. Sometimes Delta Force will send just one man. Sometimes they’ll go in a force of 20 or 30 people. When they assaulted the target building in Mogadishu, Somalia, there were about 20 to 30 Delta Force operators and about 100 Rangers to back them up.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Colonel, how do they live on the ground? Do they have to carry everything with them? How do they survive?
COL. HAYWARD S. FLORER (RET.): When they go on separate operations behind the lines such as they might have to do here, they’ll take everything with them. It will be in their ruk sack. It is a monster to carry.
MARGARET WARNER: Food.
COL. HAYWARD S. FLORER (RET.): Food, extra batteries, extra ammunition. All the gear that Mark Bowden was talking about there, the very technical gear you need if you are going to make these kinds of observations that we have today and if you’re going to turn that into some sort of an attack, you have got to have all the gear with you to also make that attack.
MARGARET WARNER: And Mark Bowden mentioned about a lot of special equipment. Give us an idea of what.
COL. HAYWARD S. FLORER (RET.): Well, we operate at night. So you have got to have your night goggles and your night vision capability. But the other element is communication.
They are well supplied with the latest in communication, and if there’s anything that the commanders and Special Operations will want more of in any given day, it’s more communications so that they have — they’re instantly able to talk to each other, pass information back, get new orders down and get the latest intelligence that may help them plan their next operation, perhaps even on the ground.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark Bowden, I think I read that they even have little devices where if they take a photograph of something, it can be instantly beamed back to headquarters?
MARK BOWDEN: That’s right. They can transmit imagery through satellite connections. In some instances I’ve know instances where they’ve taken laptops with them to provide very precise global positioning data. Just about anything that’s state-of-the-art in the Army is available to these men in their missions.
MARGARET WARNER: Now let’s turn to Afghanistan in the sense– for instance, the harsh climate there, very dry now, desert — people living in caves, cold weather expected to come within a month, very mountainous. How well trained are special operations forces for those kinds of extremes?
MARK BOWDEN: Well, better trained than anyone in the world. This is what they train to do continually and they have templates for likely mission scenarios. Some of that would include working in the mountains in cold temperature, in the deserts in warm temperature, jungles, urban environments. And they train extensively to operate and function in these various ways. So I would expect that the men who are involved in this operation have a lot of experience with working under those conditions.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And, Colonel, some of the operations that have been mentioned, things involve actually interacting with people on the ground; that is, working with the Northern Alliance, other opposition groups, training them or working with the CIA in the South to help encourage defections. How do they communicate? Are they trained in the languages, for instance?
COL. HAYWARD S. FLORER (RET.): This is the real value of your special forces. Not only are they more mature, they’re older guys, average age is 31 on your ODA, Operational Detachment Alpha.
But we pick guys that can handle the ambiguity of difficult, political situations, situations where you have to go in and you know the American policy, but you know what the local guys would like to do, and it may not match exactly what America wants but we need these guys for that particular event.
Our soldiers know how to talk their way into their hearts and figure out what’s going on. It’s an interagency problem. We’ve got to deal with the peculiarities of all the interagency folks that may be on the ground and then as things mature, we’ll have other influences such as humanitarian requirements.
Well, the same soldiers who can turn the machine gun on at the right place have got to turn right around and start healing and patching people up and winning the hearts and minds on the ground.
MARGARET WARNER: All right Mark Bowden, and then we get to the ultimate mission, the most dangerous mission, which is I think where you wanted to go right at the beginning, but let’s go there now, which is to hunt down the enemy. How do all the different moving parts and the different capabilities and the different kinds of special operations forces typically come together to do that?
MARK BOWDEN: Well, it really does step depend on the mission. If they’re hitting a target house in the city, it would involve a different kind of force structure than say if they were going after a column of vehicles moving through the desert. When they hit the target building in Mogadishu, Somalia, it was a heavily occupied urban environment. They went in on helicopters.
Delta Force operators were inserted by AH-6 Little Birds right on the street in front of the target building and Rangers came in a larger force and rope down from Black Hawks to basically form a perimeter around the block where Delta Force works.
That was how they drew up the template for that raid. What it would look like for a raid on a cave, in a mountain or a village in the desert would probably be completely different. They’re capable obviously of drawing up different plans for different scenarios.
MARGARET WARNER: And Colonel, what are the risks in that? What are the greatest dangers in those very dangerous operations?
COL. HAYWARD S. FLORER (RET.): Good intelligence. If your intelligence is not good, all the good plans in the world will not go well and you are going to have to execute your go-to-hell plan, in essence, when everything goes bad.
Fortunately though we have wonderful overhead capability with our airplanes and our Air Force and our Navy able to support us very deep. And that should be a great advantage to us if we have trouble.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Colonel Florer and Mark Bowden, thank you both very much.