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Archive for Friday, January 18, 2002

Kennedy foresaw special ops

January 18, 2002

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— The conflict in Afghanistan is a new kind of war for the United States, one which President John F. Kennedy foresaw and which he thought was happening in Vietnam. The idea was to create a military force trained in more than military matters. They were expected to be able to fight, indoctrinate, provide medical care, and train local troops to fight primarily communist insurgents.

The problem was that the big lie of communist ideology proved to be compelling for people who had lived under colonial rule or who could see no way out of a meager existence.

Karl Marx wrote that big lie: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

To people in need it seemed that, under communism, the "haves" would be forced to give to the "have-nots." Reality proved otherwise because the absence of incentive undermined the economic basis of communism, creating poverty rather than wealth, while the political basis of communism was an authoritarianism that is anathema to freedom.

But the big lie succeeded in Vietnam, causing enough people to side with the communists that small Green Beret (Special Forces) cadres had to be supplemented by large-scale troop contingents. Such is not the case in Afghanistan. There, a stifling, authoritarian regime the Taliban was unpopular, and the al-Qaida terrorists it protected proved to be even less popular. It was a situation almost tailor-made for JFK's vision.

But by the time of the Afghan War, the U.S. Special Forces had become part of a larger organization the 30,000-strong U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM). Created by Congress in 1987, the command, in addition to the Army Special Forces, includes Army Rangers, Navy SEALS (Sea, Air and Land), and Air Force special operation units, as well as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) made up of the super-secret hostage rescue Delta Force, Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DevGroup), and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), the "Night Stalkers." The Marine Corps' Force Recon, Recon and Scout/Sniper units are not included.

The Department of Defense says the mission of SOCOM is to "conduct stand-alone operations in situations where a small, discrete force provides the nation's leaders with options that fall somewhere between diplomatic efforts and the use of high-profile conventional forces" such as "insurgency, counter-terrorism, counter-drug activities, surgical counter-proliferation and counter-insurgency" operations.

This complex maze of alphabet soup acronyms actually makes a great deal of sense. What is essential is to have unity of command, which is what the 1987 act of Congress created, except for the Marine Corps units.

Each of the units in SOCOM comes with specialized training from three branches of the service, and the result is that the commander of SOCOM is provided with significant options. He can use Green Berets to ferret out al-Qaida fighters in caves, or he can bring in larger units of Army Rangers to secure landing zones. He can use SEALS in waterborne activities and Night Stalkers for aviation operations.

SOCOM, therefore, provides a combat commander with the latitude to use highly trained professionals. It is an option Kennedy envisioned, but did not live to see. That is why the Army's special operations "university" at Fort Bragg, N.C., is called the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

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