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WHAT ARE THE SPECIAL FORCES?

Military officials and A-Team soldiers on the ground describe the skills, background and training of the special operations troops that spearheaded the war in Afghanistan.

Gen. Tommy Franks,
  Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command

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Special Forces guys are young, capable, smart, dedicated. I'll use the term "remarkable" -- absolutely remarkable, very, very, brave men. [They were] introduced in the country of Afghanistan in a great many locations in very small numbers. It sounds a bit dramatic, but they were inserted in the dead of night, sort of alone, but unafraid. They took a great deal of capacity with them -- a capacity to communicate, capacity to be able to identify and engage targets at a considerable distance from themselves, using air-to-ground forces, close air support. [It was] remarkable; a remarkable effort. I predict that people will still be writing about the exploits of some of these young people well off into the future.

Col. John Mulholland
  Commander, 5th Special Forces Group

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What is this 5th Special Forces Group, and what is your role within it?

I'm a commander of the Special Forces Group. There are five active duty Special Forces Groups in the United States Army, two from the reserve component. We occupy a portion of the Army Special Operations community. Within that community, the Special Forces Group has among its missions the conduct of unconventional warfare operations. It was an organization founded in 1952 to do just that, in support of U.S. effort against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact. ...

[After Sept. 11, at what stage did it start filtering down to you that the Special Forces might be involved in the military response to the terrorist attacks?]

Almost immediately. Certainly by the 12th we were in constant conversation with my operational headquarters down in Tampa. ... By the 13th a decision had been made that we would stand up what's called a Joint Special Operations Task Force headquarters [and that] I'd be responsible for conducting unconventional warfare operations in the region. By that time it had become pretty clear Al Qaeda was involved, and of course, [given] the sanctuary that they enjoyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan you didn't have to be Napoleon to figure out that Afghanistan was going to be a likely place for us to go. ...

What's an A-team? And what steps did you take to get them all ready to fight in Afghanistan?

The Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha, the famous A-team, is the fundamental fighting unit of Special Forces. It is a 12-man organization comprised of a captain, the second in command, who is a Special Forces warrant officer who has come up from the NCO ranks, and a master sergeant team sergeant, and then nine remaining NCOs who represent a multiplicity of skill sets: weapons, demolitions, medical, communications, intelligence, engineering, all those skill sets are contained within [each team]. There's two of each on a team; it is designed from the very beginning to operate in two six-man elements, if necessary, to be a force multiplier in a battlefield so they can maintain the same capabilities in smaller elements. That goes to its classic roots as an unconventional warfare element originally designed to work with resistance elements during the Cold War. ...

Isolation is a classic Special Forces technique for mission preparation, where the detachment is completely isolated from the outside world, put into a planning environment, and given all its mission planning data. They conduct all their mission planning and rehearsals prior to infiltration to their area of operations. That is done by design, so that there are no distracters. ... [Then] they do a brief back to the commander ... to convince me that they are prepared to execute their mission, and upon approval of that, they are moved into a staging area for infiltration. So we did initiate on our own, before being told to do so, just because it seemed prudent, the initial isolation here at Fort Campbell for the first teams, in anticipation of a requirement to put them into the mission planning process, so that should the word come--"let's go"-- I had at least a handful of teams ready to go at a moment's notice ...

Lt. Col. David Fox
  U.S. Special Forces Battalion Commander

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[An Operational Detachment Alpha, ODA, or] A-team is the heart and soul of Special Forces. That is 12 highly trained soldiers -- primarily 10 non-commissioned officers, a warrant officer and a captain. There are six different [military occupational specialities]. We have a weapons sergeant, an intelligence sergeant, a medical sergeant, a communications sergeant and an engineer sergeant. Then you have the officer, which is what we call an "18-Alpha."

How old would that officer typically be?

The officer is actually the youngest guy on the detachment. Of the 12 men, he's probably between 25 and 27. The average age of an ODA is in the low to mid-30s, 33 to 35 years old. So they are a senior group of individuals, have a tremendous amount of experience, have conducted a number of deployments within the theatre.

I like to say that they're the tip of the spear. You have this huge support structure behind every A-team that goes out. But the guys that are on the ground make things happen. They are the individuals that build the rapport. They are the guys that are the tactical experts. They organize the indigenous force, if you will, and prepare them for combat. They bring in a tremendous amount of skills, experience and maturity. That's why I call them the heart and soul -- they're the guys that are making things happen. ...

What is referred to as the "C team?"

We have an ODA, an A-team -- that's the 12-man Special Forces A-team. We have a B team, which is a company headquarters, commanded by a major. And we have the C teams, which are the battalion commanders, commanded by a lieutenant colonel.

If the A-teams were the heart and soul of the Special Forces, what is the C team?

I am a logistics provider. I bring a little more experience. I bring a planning staff. I have access to equipment and personnel that I can designate or augment a particular mission or an upcoming mission that maybe is potentially coming down the road.

You have command responsibility?

Yes. ...

U.S. Special Forces ODA 595
  ODA 595 fought with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum in northern Afghanistan.

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What kind of operations are called special operations?

Mark (Capt.):

Special operations consist of direct action-type missions, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, which encompasses both direct action and special reconnaissance and can fluctuate between a rural or an urban type environment. We also conduct foreign internal defense where Special Forces teams travel to other countries in the CENTCOM region and work with foreign militaries: training their soldiers, establishing military-to-military relationships, exchanging ideas and just tactics and how each other works. ...

Can you talk about the philosophy of the way you are trained? Is that unique to this team?

Mark (Capt.):

This detachment primarily focuses on unconventional warfare. In training for that type of mission, all the members of the detachment are thoroughly trained in communications, thoroughly cross-trained in communications, basic medical skills, first aid, initial trauma assessment, etc., as well as weapons proficiency of all types. And that also includes all of us being cross-trained in calling in close air support. This higher degree of cross-training allows us to operate and train in small two-man elements up to 12 men. The team has done this for years. And that is their standard operating procedure. ...

What about "warrior diplomats?" Somebody used that term.

Paul (Master Sgt.):

One of the things that you get by being in this job for any length of time, you go to a lot of different countries. Every year we're going to two or three different countries, working with foreign soldiers who, when we go work with them five to 10 years later, will be the senior military leaders of that country's military.

We're really not officially trained in it, but we are developed through on-the-job training to become diplomats, because the senior guys, anyways, they go there, they work with these foreign soldiers, they work with a whole bunch of different people. I mean, to go to a foreign country, not only are we working with the foreign government, we're working with our own government just to get there. So you become more politically attuned. And in our case, during this war it was very easy. They wanted about the same thing we want. So it's kind of easy to do. ...

In the minds of the military planners, Rice and all these people, they were petrified, they all said to us, of getting bogged down, of having the same thing that happened to the Soviets or the British, or another Vietnam. So they wanted boots on the ground. What came across in all of our interviews was the operative idea was we've got to be serious. But we've also got to make sure that we're not getting stuck there.

Will (Sgt.):

I think the key point in this entire thing is that Special Forces has always been able to do this mission, which is to go in, work with, train, advise, fight alongside of an indigenous force effectively enough to lead them to victory. What we do, in doing that, is we keep the regular Army, which are just our regular soldiers, out of conflict. We let someone take care of their own problems. We help them, we assist them to do that. The key thing here is that we were let, the reins were let loose. And we were allowed to act how we've been trained. We were allowed to be the fighters that we are: free thinking, spontaneous. And we did it. We spread out. We did exactly what we were trained to do. And that was victory. That is what Special Forces does. ...

Col. John Mulholland
  Commander, 5th Special Forces Group

On Dec. 14, [Hamid Karzai and I] sat down and had a long talk about our experiences and the things that we had gone through and the events of Dec. 5. Of course, he thanked the Americans and thanked the American Special Forces for everything they've done. But the thing that I'll always remember -- at that time, he told me, "You Americans you gave us our country back." And I thought to myself, "What better compliment?" The Special Forces' motto is "De oppresso libere" which means "to free the oppressed." Here I've got the future chairman of Afghanistan telling me, telling the American people, the American Special Forces, that we have given the Afghan people their country back.

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