U.S. forces spread too thin?

By WND Staff

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Some U.S. officials reportedly are suggesting that Special Operations troops be withdrawn from Afghanistan and used elsewhere, a decision that would contribute to the destabilization there and points to the fact that military resources could be spread increasingly thin in the war on terrorism, says Stratfor, the global intelligence company.

The New York Times reported earlier this week that some senior U.S. officers in the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, recently suggested that their forces be freed from hunting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. These officers believe bin Laden was killed during the bombing of the Tora Bora cave complex last year.

But there is still no proof that bin Laden is dead, and with Afghan resistance on the rise, a withdrawal of the most elite U.S. units from Afghanistan would only worsen the military situation on the ground there. So far at least Washington appears committed to keeping the forces there. But as pressure grows on the military to deploy these forces elsewhere, Washington in the future could have to spread its resources dangerously thin, especially if faced with a war in Iraq and increasing instability in Afghanistan at the same time.

The JSOC officers have justified their stance by saying that their hunt for bin Laden may well be pointless, although they admit that they have no hard forensic evidence to prove he was killed. Other military and intelligence officials in the United States and abroad strongly argue that it is too early to make any judgments about the al-Qaida leader’s fate.

For example, on Sept. 5 a senior official in Germany’s foreign intelligence service (BND) said, “According to the information we have, we believe that bin Laden and most of those in the immediate al-Qaida leadership are still alive,” Berliner Zeitung daily reported. The BND is well respected by its allies for its ability to pick up human intelligence, and it has maintained a network of agents in Afghanistan since World War II.

Regardless of whether bin Laden is dead or alive, Afghanistan is full of forces that are determined to push American and other foreign troops out of the country. Among these are al-Qaida elements, armed followers of other international radical Islamic groups, Taliban fighters and Pushtun tribal warriors from both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Their numbers are on the rise, with some non-Pushtun tribes also considering joining the anti-U.S. fight. On Sept. 2, for example, a new group calling itself the Secret Army of Mujahideen said it had carried out 21 separate attacks against the U.S. military this summer, The Times of India reports.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a powerful warlord who was the most feared mujahideen commander during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, has also renewed his calls for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country, BBC reported Sept. 3. The Afghan turmoil continues to impact its neighbors, with sweeps by both U.S. and Pakistani troops continuing for Taliban and al-Qaida forces on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.

The anti-U.S. forces in Afghanistan also seem to be uniting their forces and rapidly increasing their attacks, with Afghan sources confirming that the Taliban have sealed a partnership with militant group Hezb-i-Islami. Two car bombings in central Kabul and an assassination attempt on Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai Sept. 5 seem to be well-coordinated attacks.

In these conditions, a withdrawal of Special Operations troops would only worsen the military situation on the ground. Even if bin Laden is dead or out of the country, there are several top ranking leaders planning and executing an anti-U.S. resistance in Afghanistan.

The JSOC’s colleagues in the Afghan operations – CIA paramilitary units – would be even less likely to achieve any results in the hunt for bin Laden and al-Qaida if left alone. The 82nd Airborne Division and other forces have been trained and skilled in other kinds of combat operations, but have little of the training and experience needed for hunting groups like al-Qaida.

Without Special Operations forces, the U.S. command in Afghanistan would have to change its tactics. The American forces would have to conduct frequent and exhaustive sweeping operations involving larger amounts of troops. That would highly increase the exposure of the U.S. soldiers to enemy fire and ambushes, and the number of U.S. casualties could rise much faster.

The last example of a large operation of this kind was Operation Anaconda last February, when several U.S. soldiers were killed during the first day because of the ambush tactics of the mujahideen. The next day, the U.S. command had to start relying on air, missile and artillery bombing. No major Afghan operation has been conducted since then. A withdrawal of Special Operations troops could make the U.S. command in Afghanistan resort to large operations again.

But the U.S. government is faced with a dilemma given that it also needs Special Operations forces elsewhere. In plans to attack Iraq, Washington would have to deploy the most elite Special Operations units to destroy suspected Iraqi launching pads for missiles, long-range artillery batteries, and important command and control centers and communication facilities. Such forces would also have to secure control over suspected facilities for making weapons of mass destruction. These units would also likely have to be used to hunt down Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his top lieutenants.

On the al-Qaida front, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently said he wants to use Special Operations troops anywhere in the world where U.S. and allied intelligence will be able to identify the presence of al-Qaida or other terrorist rings. Such a mission, even if not coupled with an Iraq war, would probably require at least 10 times the number of Special Operations troops the United States has now.

Of the nearly 46,000 personnel in Special Operations forces, only between 7,000 and 8,000 of them belong to combat units such as Army Rangers, Delta Force, Navy Seals and Air Force Special Operations units. Furthermore, of this group only about 1,000 are designated for counterterrorism missions and constitute front-line teams fully suited to fighting al-Qaida, according to the officers interviewed by The New York Times.

This is one example of Washington running short of key resources as the war spreads globally. It takes years to train Special Operations soldiers, and their current numbers are not enough to accomplish all the missions Washington may soon want. As with logistics and other issues, the problem with the shortage of these troops likely will interfere with the Bush administration’s goal to achieve a major breakthrough in its global war efforts in near future.


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