By David Axe March 20, 2012
Stealth drones? Radar-evading helicopters? Nah. But the Special Forces did boast some impressive military-grade ATVs during Danger Room's recent visit. Photo: U.S. Army
The secret base-within-the-base was the first sign that I was about to see something special.
It was early February at a snow-encrusted NATO compound on the outskirts of Kabul. I’d come at the invitation of a U.S. Army sergeant assigned to Special Forces Task Force 10. After reading one of my recent dispatches from the front lines of the more than decade-old Afghanistan War, the sergeant had extended me a rare invitation to visit and report on one of Task Force 10′s “A Teams” working to train up Afghan security forces out in the provinces.
I’d eagerly accepted. I could count on one hand the number of times, that I knew of, that reporters had been welcomed inside the secretive Special Forces during wartime. Moreover, commandos including the Army’s Special Forces, Delta Force and Rangers and the Navy’s SEALs were expected to maintain a significant advisory and strike force in Afghanistan for years after the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of NATO’s conventional troops. More and more, Special Forces are the story.
The Special Forces are an army within the Army, with their own unique training, gear, tactics and attitudes. There would be special rules for my reporting, as well. The first evidence of this was the wall inside the wall surrounding the Kabul compound. The Special Forces often rely on “Big Army” to provide security and logistics. But commandos and regular soldiers rarely mix, so in Afghanistan the Special Forces build their own compounds inside the main NATO compounds. You need a secret combination to get inside. Since no one trusted me with the combo, I had to be escorted by the sergeant every time I came or went.
Stepping into the secret mini-base marked the beginning of the eventful week I spent with Special Forces in Kabul and in neighboring Laghman province. In scores of conversations with a dozen or so commandos — some on the record, most off — I learned some surprising (and some not-so-surprising) things about America’s most elite warriors. Some of my preconceived notions were dashed. Others, reinforced.
Commandos hate love hate the media
Since their founding in the 1960s, Special Forces have operated behind a veil of secrecy. Where the regular Army routinely works alongside reporters, commandos do so only under special circumstances. Back in 2009 I spent a full year negotiating with the North Carolina-based 3rd Special Forces Group in hopes of visiting them in Afghanistan. Ultimately, I was disappointed.
Unexpectedly, the Germany-based 10th Group sought me out for coverage three years later. Within days I was on the inside. Why? Because, I was told, some senior officer somewhere was angling for a promotion and figured some carefully-controlled exposure would do him some good. But before I could conduct interviews, I had to agree to a long list of conditions on top of the standard Army media-embed rules: I would not show commandos’ faces in photos or videos, nor print their real names. Only the Task Force 10 commander, Lt. Col. Isaac Peltier, agreed to have his name published — but still no photos.
Everything went swimmingly until near the end. I’m told the Army hated — hated — a story I wrote after my embed, on the cultural cluelessness on some U.S. troops. The commandos dropped tentative plans to host me again this spring. It seems my days on the Special Forces beat began and ended with Task Force 10. Oh well. I had a good run.
Special Forces are scrawny nerds
Well, maybe not scrawny, exactly. But the Army commandos are not the hulked-out, ‘roid-enraged beasts that some seem to think they are. “People think we’re kicking down doors with our hair on fire,” one A Team weapons sergeant told me with a grin.
The reality is that Special Forces are primarily selected for their independence, leadership, language skills, overall intelligence and, most surprisingly, their cultural tolerance. Army commandos devote most of their time to training and advising foreign security forces in austere environments. It’s a task that requires the mindset of a high school teacher and the patience, calm and resourcefulness of a solitary backpacker hiking some remote, foreign land.
To that end, Special Forces tend to have the lean, wiry physical build of a long-distance hiker. “We’re the kinds of guys you can strap a 100-pound rucksack on and tell them to walk up that mountain and just keep going,” a Task Force 10 officer told me.
Gear? What gear?
The U.S. military is by far the world’s most technologically sophisticated. And some elite troops are even better-equipped than regular American forces. The SEAL raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan last year boasted satellite surveillance, a secret stealth drone and a previously-unknown model of radar-evading helicopter, for example. But the commandos assisting foreign armies are surprisingly low-tech, even impoverished.
The A Team in Laghman usually rode around in standard Army vehicles. For routine transportation between bases they had to wait in line for a helicopter just like everybody else. They ate in the dining facility of a co-located National Guard brigade and even counted on that brigade to protect their encampment. “It’s important we have good a relationship with the big, conventional Army force because they provide resources we need, from a Quick-Reaction Force to medevac to the dining facility we eat in,” Peltier said.
The only special equipment in evidence during my commando embed were a few military-grade ATVs, like the one pictured above. Which, granted, are pretty sweet.
Commandos ain’t killers
“Have I killed people?” one Special Forces sergeant asked rhetorically. He nodded. “But I’ll be happy if I never have to do it again.”
Most Army commandos spend their time training foreign troops. But there are commando detachments whose job is to conduct high-risk raids and, yes, kill people. Lots of people. Usually very dangerous or very important ones.
But in today’s complex insurgencies, you can’t kill your way to victory — and the Special Forces know that. “We killed high-value individual number one,” one commando officer pointed out, referring of course to Bin Laden. “And what the fuck changed?”
Which is why Special Forces are so focused on the training and advisory missions. The Laghman A Team’s biggest victory recently was the arrest, prosecution and conviction of a major weapons smuggler. Pulling off that high-profile mission required careful planning, extensive training of Afghan police, deft intervention in the Afghan legal process and lots of patience. What it did not require was any killing.
The beards really are a big deal
The thing you notice first about Special Forces in the field is their awesome, mountain-man-style beards, the most obvious facet of what they call their “relaxed grooming standards.”
The beards in part reflect the notorious independence of Special Forces teams — independence that can border on defiance at times. “I am given the autonomy to attack [a] problem as I see fit,” a commando officer told me. Looking, talking and thinking like the regular Army is not a priority.
But there’s a practical reason for the beards. The Special Forces team in Laghman works closely with an Afghan special police unit, more closely than regular Army units usually work with their own Afghan counterparts. Building friendships with the Afghan cops, respecting their culture so the Afghans give respect in return, is critical to the Special Forces mission. In the eyes of many Afghans, only manly men can be leaders. And all manly men have beards. Thus leadership starts with facial fair.
Plus, the beards look awesome.