Green Berets vexed by con­trol­ling brass

Mi­cro­man­age­ment frus­trates spe­cial forces fight­ing Is­lamic State in Syria

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

The se­cre­tive teams of Green Berets guid­ing rebels in north­east Syria have ex­pressed frus­tra­tion with the amount of mi­cro­man­age­ment they re­ceive from a top-heavy head­quar­ters in Iraq and the United States.

Spe­cial Forces sources tell of sup­port staff watch­ing the free-spir­ited Green Berets on re­con­nais­sance air­craft and then crit­i­ciz­ing their per­for­mance as they con­duct the mis­sion of­fi­cially de­scribed as “train, ad­vise and as­sist” the mul­ti­eth­nic Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces. The Amer­i­cans and SDF are fight­ing their way to­ward Raqqa, the Is­lamic State ter­ror­ist army’s home base in Syria. Some of the “as­sist­ing” has drawn the Amer­i­cans into fire­fights.

One of­fi­cer chalked up the com­plaints to the sen­si­tive po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of U.S. troops on the ground in a chaotic coun­try amid com­pet­ing groups of Arab, Kur­dish and Turk­ish forces, all con­verg­ing with dif­fer­ent ob­jec­tives. The Green Berets, known of­fi­cially as Army Spe­cial Forces, must act un­der strict com­bat rules af­ter

Pres­i­dent Obama ap­proved their inser­tion one year ago.

“Based on the very high-level ap­proval re­quired to con­duct op­er­a­tions, it can be ex­tremely frus­trat­ing for the teams,” the of­fi­cer told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “We just don’t have the lat­i­tude we had dur­ing our years in Iraq, and that can be frus­trat­ing for the teams. The progress over the last year has been slow. Each team may not see it dur­ing their ro­ta­tion, but cu­mu­la­tively we’ve made sig­nif­i­cant progress against Daesh while main­tain­ing re­la­tion­ships with Turkey and Jor­dan. In my many years in Spe­cial Forces, I’ve never been in­volved with a more com­plex mis­sion.”

The Is­lamic State is also called Daesh, ISIL and ISIS.

The of­fi­cer said that any for­eign as­sis­tance op­er­a­tion gov­erned by Sec­tion 1209 of the an­nual Na­tional De­fense Au­tho­riza­tion Act, as is Syria, “comes with lots of rules and scru­tiny from Congress and the De­fense Depart­ment, so we had to be very de­lib­er­ate on how we ex­e­cute this pro­gram.”

A sec­ond Spe­cial Forces source told of Green Berets in Syria be­ing crit­i­cized for not im­me­di­ately an­swer­ing a phone call from over­seers in Iraq. Oth­ers get cri­tiqued back at their for­ward op­er­at­ing base in Syria af­ter su­per­vi­sors watched their ac­tions on sur­veil­lance drones.

Said the source: “They some­times take risk and do stuff, and when they get back to camp, they get a phone call. ‘What the [ex­ple­tive] were you do­ing?’”

Pen­tagon press of­fi­cials have pro­vided scant in­for­ma­tion on op­er­a­tions by Green Berets in Syria.

The sec­ond Spe­cial Forces source told The Times of a re­cent in­ci­dent: A group of Green Berets and their part­ner rebels were tak­ing spo­radic long-range fire. Tired of wait­ing for per­mis­sion to re­turn fire, they killed the sniper. That, in turn, brought more fire from Is­lamic State fight­ers. The Amer­i­cans found them­selves in a fire­fight and then evaded the en­emy.

“Why even have the guys out there?” the sec­ond Spe­cial Forces source said. “It’s lit­er­ally that they are watch­ing you and watch­ing you, and they’ll call you, and if you don’t an­swer — it’s kind of like hav­ing par­ents. As an or­ga­ni­za­tion, we have be­come in­cred­i­bly risk-averse.”

The sec­ond source said the num­ber of watch­ers ver­sus the num­ber of Green Berets in Syria is 50-50.

“For ev­ery guy you’ve got on the ground there, there’s some staff guy that hasn’t ever de­ployed,” the source said. “Or some colonel who wants to be in­volved, and he’s the as­sist to the as­sis­tant to the as­sis­tant.”

The first Green Berets to go into Syria were from the 5th Spe­cial Forces Group, based at Fort Campbell, Ken­tucky. The 5th Group is the go-to Green Beret unit for fight­ing rad­i­cal Is­lam in the Mid­dle East and North Africa. They were the first to en­ter Afghanistan, and rode horse­back over rocky ter­rain with al­lied Afghans.

This source said that many Spe­cial Forces sol­diers be­lieve the en­tire cadre has be­come more ca­reerist as the war on ter­ror con­tin­ues in its sec­ond decade. “Too many of­fi­cers wor­ried about pro­mo­tions,” the source said.

‘Ca­reerism and com­pro­mise’

The Wash­ing­ton Times asked Col. Kevin C. Leahy, 5th Group com­man­der, about his sol­diers’ com­plaints.

“No one knows how to work with rebels bet­ter than our Green Berets,” Col. Leahy said in an email. “We pro­vide lots of lat­i­tude on how guys work with var­i­ous groups. Of course to ac­com­plish goals we have to tell them what we want done, but we let them fig­ure out how to do it. I can only dis­cuss Syria, but can firmly say I and my sub­or­di­nate lead­ers do not mi­cro­man­age.”

He added: “They are right on topheavy. There is a siz­able amount of peo­ple re­quired to pro­vide in­tel, fires, lo­gis­tics and vet­ting of rebels/groups, li­ai­son with host na­tion part­ners, U.S. coun­try teams, etc. The teams re­ally are the tip of an in­verse tri­an­gle of sup­port/Hq needed to en­able the mis­sion. Un­for­tu­nately, whether you have one team or ten in the field, you still need all of the sup­port.”

Rep. Ryan K. Zinke, Mon­tana Repub­li­can, is Congress’ lone for­mer Navy SEAL. The re­tired com­man­der says part of the prob­lem with the Syr­ian troop mis­sion is that com­man­dos do not have suf­fi­cient fire­power sup­port if they get pinned down.

“I can tell you with zero doubt about the level of frus­tra­tion from our for­ward de­ployed troops be­cause they feel like they are mi­cro­man­aged,” he said. “They feel like they don’t have the ap­pro­pri­ate de­ci­sion author­ity to make de­ci­sions and, even in con­tact, if you have a sup­port­ing as­set, that sup­port­ing as­set doesn’t have the author­ity to tar­get op­po­si­tion forces with­out go­ing through a se­ries of as­sess­ments by an arm­chair quar­ter­back.”

A be­lief by some Green Berets that ca­reerism has over­taken the of­fi­cer corps was bol­stered by a Spe­cial Forces sol­dier fight­ing in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on the night an AC-130 gun­ship mis­tak­enly pum­meled a Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders trauma cen­ter.

This sol­dier’s Op­er­a­tion De­tach­ment Al­pha (ODA) was as­signed the task of fight­ing with Afghan se­cu­rity forces to re­pel a flash Tal­iban in­va­sion.

In his sworn state­ment to in­ves­ti­ga­tors, the Spe­cial Forces vet­eran said: “There is a fine line be­tween not con­duct­ing op­er­a­tions to keep peo­ple out of harm’s way and not con­duct­ing op­er­a­tions in such a fash­ion that it ac­tu­ally in­creases over­all risk to force and risk to mis­sion.”

He said the spe­cial op­er­a­tions com­man­ders back in Kabul aban­doned the “A-Team.”

“When an ODA’s mis­sion runs head­long into na­tional strat­egy, and the de­tach­ment asks for guid­ance on the level of com­mit­ment and re­ceives noth­ing back over a 96-hour pe­riod, that’s an ab­ject fail­ure of lead­er­ship,” the Green Beret said.

When the team asked Kabul for guid­ance, the re­sponse was, “How far do you want to go?”

Said the Green Beret in his state­ment: “It’s not a strat­egy, and in fact it’s a recipe for dis­as­ter in that ki­netic of an en­vi­ron­ment. How have we, as a force, as a group of of­fi­cers, be­come so lost from the good lessons that our men­tors taught us? I will tell you how. It is a de­crepit state that grows out of the ex­pan­sion of moral cow­ardice, ca­reerism and com­pro­mise devoid of prin­ci­ple, ex­changed for cheap per­sonal gain.”


FREE RANGE: Col. Kevin C. Leahy is re­cep­tive to the com­plaints of his sol­diers about the com­mand struc­ture’s mi­cro­man­age­ment, but said he al­lows his forces to fig­ure out how to do the job.


U.S. Spe­cial Forces say that Green Berets’ mis­sion work to train and as­sist Syr­i­ans as they plan to re­take Raqqa from the Is­lamic State has been crit­i­cized by top brass, yet the forces then find them­selves in fire­fights for which they are un­pre­pared.

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