Special Operations: Britain Returns To Special Forces


January 11, 2016: Britain has decided to form their own version of the U.S. Army Special Forces. This would be a special operations organization with several hundred troops trained to organize, train and assist locals needing help to deal with Islamic terrorists or any other group of fanatics trying to impose their will with violence. The initial use would be to help people defend themselves from Islamic terrorists but long-term this “Tier 2” force would be prepared to go anywhere in the world and help just about anyone. There is a certain irony in this because the model for this tier 2 force is the American Special Forces which had its origins during World War II when Britain invented the modern commandos and taught Americans how to use this new type of highly skilled soldier for a wide variety of difficult assignments. Instead of commandos, after World War II the United States developed the Special Forces. This was a unique organization in military, and intelligence, history. No other nation had anything like the Special Forces during peacetime. The idea of training thousands of troops to very high standards, then having them study foreign languages and cultures, and specialize in working with people of a specific culture, was unique to the Special Forces.

But the original idea behind the Special Forces began with the World War II efforts to train and organize resistance fighters during. It was the British who first noted that their newly invented SAS troops were turning into something other than commandos. In fact, the highly skilled and talented SAS (Special Air Service commandos) were also the sort of specialists capable of helping the espionage agencies that were working with the French resistance. Thus, as part of the preparations for the 1944 invasion of Europe, hundreds of British (SOE or Special Operations Executive) and American (OSS, Office of Strategic Services) agents were landed (by boat and aircraft) in France (and other occupied countries) to assist the guerilla organizations that had developed there to fight the Germans. Many of these guerillas were poorly armed, trained, and led and often hard pressed by German secret police, soldiers and local collaborators.

This guerilla assistance effort consisted of several different types of agents. For example, 25 three-agent (mostly men but some women) Jedburgh teams were parachuted into France to work with the guerilla organizations before the June 1944 D-Day invasion. These teams concentrated on establishing regular radio contact between the guerillas and SOE and OSS headquarters in Britain. The OSS also had seven thirty-four man OGs (Operational Groups) that were sent in after the invasion to work with the guerillas. The OGs were doing pretty much what the U.S. Army Special Forces do today, train the locals and fight as needed. All this made it easier to get the guerillas weapons, equipment, and instructions for their part in supporting the D-Day invasion and the months of heavy fighting after the landings. The modern day equivalent of the Jedburgh and OG teams were, for example, the CIA and U.S. Army Special Forces teams sent to Afghanistan in late 2001, to help the Northern Alliance fighters who were still fighting the Taliban (which did not yet control much of the north). Within two months the Taliban government was overthrown and most Taliban fighters dead, captured, deserting, or fleeing to Pakistan.

World War II was notable for the extent of "unconventional warfare" operations. During this war most of the unconventional war action were guerillas fighting to free their nations from occupying German or Japanese troops. While previous wars had their share of raiders, commandos, and spies, the guerilla aspect of warfare was a major element in World War II. This was particularly true for the Allies (mainly Britain and America). To support dozens of separate guerilla wars America set up the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA and Special Forces), while the British had the SOE (Special Operations Executive). Many OSS operatives were from the U.S. Army and returned to the army after World War II. By the 1950s these OSS veterans had persuaded the army to create the Special Forces with the idea of repeating the OSS guerilla support missions in any future war with the Soviet Union and to help deal with all the insurrections the Soviets were instigating and supporting around the globe.

The Special Forces have, for over half a century, done exactly what they originally set out to do. Thus it should have been no surprise when, in late 2001, the CIA was discovered to have formed a special operations force, composed of Afghans, to operate across the border in Pakistan to collect intelligence and kill Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. This force of about 3,000 was never a secret to the enemy, or anyone spending time on the Afghan side of the border. But the CIA carried out an effective deception program, based on the fact that Western journalists rarely go to such dangerous areas as the Afghan/Pakistani border. Afghan journalists could be kept out, or any reports they published got lost in the numerous wildly improbably stories they normally publish. The full details of this Afghan force are still shrouded in secrecy, but it was similar to earlier CIA/Special Forces efforts in this area and the sort of thing the CIA and Special Forces had done in other parts of the world since the 1950s.

The Afghan "secret army" was similar but much smaller than the one the CIA and Special Forces set up in Vietnam during the 1960s. This one was also based on tribal warriors, who often crossed borders to carry out reconnaissance missions in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The United States went on to help Afghanistan create its own Special Forces. These were a huge success. Many Afghans were familiar with American Special Forces, but while these foreign troops spoke the language and knew the culture, they weren't Afghan. Despite that, the American Special Forces often established rapport with the Afghan villagers, and were often very successful. The new Afghan Special Forces took that rapport to a new level. Afghan villagers admired the skills of the American Special Forces, both as warriors and experts in many other areas. But now they could see Afghans doing the same things. This makes a big impression, and the Afghan Special Forces got even more cooperation and trust.

The U.S. Special Forces assisted the Afghans in creating Special Forces units similar to the American ones, where each unit specializes in working with specific ethnic groups, or tribal coalitions. The goal was a force of four Afghan Special Forces battalions, each with 18 A-Teams. Given the success of American Special Forces, that are trained to understand Afghan culture and speak the language, it was believed that Afghans doing the same thing, would perform even better, and more than double the number of Special Forces troops, specialized in dealing with Afghanistan, available. Moreover, this means that Afghanistan will still have a Special Forces capability once U.S. forces depart. Afghanistan is the kind of country (four major ethnic groups, hundreds of tribes and clans) that needs Special Forces long term.

There were some unique problems in training the Afghan Special Forces candidates. Unlike the United States, there is a much wider social gulf between officers and NCOs in Afghanistan. But for Special Forces to work, there has to be very close cooperation between officers and NCOs. The Special Forces training appears to have solved this, even if it was done by convincing the Afghan officers that this kind of closeness was a special technique unique to Special Forces operations, and essential for A-Teams to succeed. But ten officer candidates dropped out because this kind of relationship with NCOs was too much for them to handle.

There were ethnic problems as well. Most of the Afghan Special Forces will be needed in the south, where the Taliban come from and where Pushtuns (40 percent of the population and historically the dominant group) are the majority. Many of the minorities in Afghanistan (Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmen) have long been united in their opposition to Pushtun domination. The Tajik are 25 percent of the population and the Hazara (Mongols, a reminder of the medieval Mongolian invasions) 19 percent. The remainder are mostly various Turkic groups (Uzbeks and Turkmen). All of these groups are wary of the Pushtuns, but will work with them if they do not feel threatened. Because of the war with the Taliban, fewer Pushtuns joined the army, and many more Hazara (who have long been persecuted by the other groups) did. Thus there were twice as many Hazara as Pushtuns in the first Afghan A-Teams. But the Hazara are much better educated than the Pushtuns, and make better soldiers. They made superior Special Forces operators (as Special Forces troops are called) as well, and were able to work well with Pushtuns.

Britain has a lot of experience to draw from, both their own during World War II and more recent examples during The Vietnam War and operations in Afghanistan after 2001. This idea has been bouncing around in Britain for several decades. But massive post-Cold War budget cuts and reluctance to get too involved fighting Islamic terrorists got in the way. But now, as it is obvious that the Islamic terrorists are going to keep trying to come after Britain, British special operations finally got the cash needed to form the long-sought Tier 2 force.


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