U.S. News & World Report
September 4, 2006

The Shadow Warriors

America's most elite soldiers are showing Iraqis how to do the job

By Linda Robinson

BALAD, IRAQ -- One little-known aspect of the U.S. military operation in Iraq is that it involves the largest ongoing deployment of special operations forces since Vietnam. A total of 3,768 Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and Air Force combat controllers are scattered across the critical Euphrates and Tigris river valleys, from the Syrian border to Hilla and Kut in the south. They are partnered with one third of the Iraqi Army battalions and 13 SWAT-type police units.

Speaking to U.S. News at his headquarters in Balad, Kenneth Tovo, the colonel in charge of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula, said his troops are using their specialized skills to complement the U.S. conventional forces' training in two ways. "One, they are working with battalion staffs to integrate intelligence and operations and teach them how to target," he said. "Two, they are training scout platoons to find and fix the enemy." Once the platoons are trained, the Americans advise them in combat. Navy SEAL teams who are partnered with Iraqi forces in Anbar province have seen intensive combat, as have the Americans advising the Baghdad-based Iraqi special ops forces.

Colonel Tovo emphasizes that surgical force must be combined with other methods. In the restive west, his teams woo Sunni tribal chiefs and have persuaded some to send recruits to the police and army. "This task force understands that we cannot kill our way to victory," he told U.S. News. "That said, we live in the security side of the house. We are building Iraqi security force capacity and using that to attack insurgents." This year, Iraqi units with special ops advisers detained 2,065 selected targets, including 460 high- and mid-value ones, killed 222 enemy combatants, and wounded 92. Perhaps a more important measure of their success is that, thanks to their careful targeting and preparation of evidence packets, 70 percent of those captured remain in detention and 85 percent of those who made it to trial were convicted, compared with 40 and 50 percent for other units.

The Opel gang. Even though Iraq's third-largest city, Mosul, is still plagued by some 14 attacks a week, it is seen as a successful model of the training effort. The lone 12-man U.S. Special Forces team forged a good relationship with the 172nd Stryker Brigade, which has now been sent to Baghdad to help quell the violence there. Lt. Col. Charles Webster, one of the Stryker battalion commanders who invited the special forces to join his planning meetings, recalled how they helped shut down a group he called the "Opel gang," which was plaguing the city with car bombs. "One of them said, 'Sir, they meet here, pick up the cars at this point, drop them off there,' and pointed out the locations on the map," Webster said.

Perhaps their most important breakthrough was getting Mosul's largely Sunni police force to work with the Kurdish Army brigade that secures the east half of the city. After a suicide bomber hit the Army unit one day in July, the police responded--before the U.S. soldiers even learned of the attack. "They were fighting each other just two years ago," says one of Webster's company commanders. The Special Forces master sergeant praised the young officer's diplomatic skill. "He played them like a fiddle," he said.

The Special Forces team in Mosul trained three Iraqi scout platoons in everything from surveillance techniques to marksmanship to special driving skills, using their collection of Toyota Hilux trucks and beat-up civilian cars. Last month, the team's medic patiently corrected a new class's ham-handed attempts at surveillance in a trial run outside a Saddam-era bunker. "You would've been killed if this had been for real," he told them gravely. The team has also worked with the civilian police advisers to improve the Iraqi police, who lag far behind. The Special Forces pick up Iraqi detectives on their way to raids so the latter can collect evidence. They are also helping to figure out why Mosul judges are reluctant to bring cases to trial or impose sentences. "If we can't get them convicted," the Special Forces captain in Mosul says, "we're just running a catch-and-release program."

One point virtually everyone agrees on is that the number of U.S. forces backing up the Iraqis in the Mosul area shouldn't be reduced anytime soon. The American force here has already been reduced from a division to two battalions in the past two years. The Stryker brigade that has arrived to replace the 172nd lived through an abrupt drawdown in 2004, when insurgents from Fallujah flowed into the city and began killing policemen by the dozens. Summing up his tour in Mosul, the Special Forces master sergeant said, "I think we made a difference here."

"Make me afraid!" Like Mosul, Kirkuk to the south is a volatile mix of Sunni and Kurd, with the additional prize of the northern oil fields and production facilities. A Special Forces team there trained scout platoons and started a leadership course for Iraqi lieutenants, platoon leaders, and sergeants in a kind of mini-Ranger school. The team's master sergeant drew a page from Vietnam to create a monthlong program built on the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Recondo model. Under the blazing sun at the K1 base, Iraqi officers and sergeants swapped roles, learned to plan missions, and honed basic soldier skills. Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division became instructors. In addition, two Special Forces soldiers were farmed out as advisers to each Iraqi company. On the shooting range with his company one day, a cheery blond weapons sergeant shouted above the din as the Iraqis fired tentative bursts from their Soviet-made PKC machine guns: "Make me afraid! Make me s - - - my pants!"

A burly Iraqi scout platoon sergeant named Omran has plenty of reason to be afraid. He has personally suffered from the violence that still plagues Kirkuk. His brother was killed outside his house, in a neighborhood that has been named Kabul for its violence. Omran was also kidnapped during a harrowing visit to Baghdad last month. At a roadblock manned by armed members of the Jaish al-Mahdi militia, he was accused of being Sunni and thrown into the back of a van. Omran, who is Shiite, finally related enough details of his Shiite birthplace that they let him go. "If they had known I was a soldier," he said, finishing his sentence by drawing a finger across his neck.

Omran would like to have armored vehicles instead of the jury-rigged pickup they now use, but the Special Forces team itself has mostly old humvees. Once outside the gates of the K1 base, the humvee gunner flicks on the jammers and the driver hits the gas, heading straight at oncoming cars to determine who is a suicide bomber. The aggressive tactic forces regular drivers to pull off the road until the humvee passes. Back at the team house, named Hornbeck Hall for a Special Forces soldier killed in 2004, the team sergeant expresses concern that the next team may be spread too thin if asked to take on more police mentoring. "If our work is not sustained by those who come after us, it will all fall apart," says the 20-year Army veteran. "They will just go back to their old ways."

The team's final days were marked by a disappointment, when the local U.S. conventional commander did not incorporate the whole team into the planning and execution of a sweep through three insurgent-ridden towns west of Kirkuk. The massive cordon-and-search operation turned up over 300 weapons, 300 fuses for bombs, and hundreds of ammunition rounds, as well as 77 detainees. But they do take home one clear measure of their impact here, the gratitude of young Lieutenant Mohammed. Thanks to his own courage and the combat lifesaver course taught by the special forces, he was able to put tourniquets on both his legs when his vehicle was bombed. The medic helped save one leg, and the team is now trying to get him a U.S.-made prosthetic. "I want to get back to duty," the plucky Iraqi said from his hospital bed.

Colonel Tovo, who led special ops forces here in the first phase of the war, believes Iraq is at a tipping point. "If you look over the long term," he says, "we've made tremendous progress on the ground. But this is long-duration work. We are trying to change a culture at every level."