Secret Armies of the Night

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RICHARD SENNOTT/MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE/ZUMA

UNDER COVER OF NIGHT: Working with Kurdish fighters in the north, teams of clandestine U.S. commandos called in air strikes on Iraqi forces

Nearly everyone at U.S. central command agreed that the sprawling Faw oil-refining and -shipping facility on Iraq's southeastern coast was a must-seize first-night target in the war on Baghdad—almost as important as killing Saddam Hussein. Capture it early, went the thinking, and the next Iraqi government at least had a chance of getting back on its feet. Ignore it, and Saddam might blow up the facility, flooding the nearby Persian Gulf with crude, compromising Iraq's economy and shutting down critical water-desalination plants all along the Arabian Peninsula.

But veined and dotted with pipes and pumps and meters, Faw was also a delicate target, easily damaged by wayward ordnance or sabotage. So, on the first night of the war, when others were trying to destroy Iraqi targets, the men of the Naval Special Warfare Task Group were trying to save one. Large, specially equipped Pave Low helicopters flew dark, low and fast toward the refinery from just over the Kuwait border. Dispersing on arrival, the choppers simultaneously dropped five separate teams of 20 Navy seal commandos each at five "key nodes" around the huge complex. Their orders: hold each target until relieved by 1,000 Royal Marines. It was a mission for which the seals, along with elements of the U.S. and Royal air forces, had been training for weeks. The goal was to make sure that the battle took, as one commando later put it in the jargon that comes with its own camouflage, only "one cycle of darkness."

U.S. special forces, a fabled but mostly misunderstood arm of the U.S. military, didn't win the war in Iraq. But America's secret army, deployed in greater numbers than ever before and working for the first time with the support of the entire chain of command, did as much as the pilots, tankers and artillery to shorten the war. And now, as the U.S. finds itself in a deepening struggle to root out stubborn pockets of resistance and track down Saddam, the Pentagon's most specialized units are again playing outsize roles. Last week Army special forces, along with troops from the 101st Airborne and 4th Infantry divisions, launched a series of raids on a variety of strongholds north and west of Baghdad, killing dozens in a pro-Saddam movement that one Marine colonel in Baghdad told TIME was becoming "more and more organized and military-like."

Nearly seven weeks after President Bush declared that the war with Iraq was over, the conflict has entered a spooky twilight phase when some days and hours can feel just as intense as those during the original invasion. But the postwar assault on Saddam's die-hards is just the latest mission for the secret commandos who are increasingly seen as the soldiers best suited for the U.S.'s continuing contest with a highly unconventional enemy in Iraq and around the globe. Special forces "have been a huge combat multiplier in this joint campaign to topple this regime," declares Army Lieut. General David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. "Their effects were felt before D-day and are still felt today."

The increasing faith in special-operations forces (SOF) can be traced to one man: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Since taking over as Pentagon chief, Rumsfeld has repeatedly handed the commandos starring roles in the war on terrorism and pressed his Vietnam-era generals and admirals to abandon old ways of fighting for new approaches that emphasize speed and stealth. That push is only a piece of the larger war he has been waging on old-fashioned military thinking. But the "SOF guys," as they are called around the Pentagon, have emerged as the biggest winners in the Rumsfeld era. The defense chief has set in motion a host of changes that will boost their budgets and swell their ranks in the next five years. And last week Rumsfeld took the extraordinary step of recommending a retired four-star general, Peter Schoomaker, an original member of Delta Force, to be the next Army Chief of Staff. This is the first time in U.S. history that a top commando has been tapped to lead the entire Army and is yet another indication of the Administration's growing reliance on America's secret soldiers. "God love him," said Air Force Colonel Randy O'Boyle, who directed part of the Faw operation. "(Rumsfeld) had the confidence to unleash us on the target."

Some 10,000 special-forces troops saw action in Iraq, the largest such deployment since World War II and three times the number who participated in Gulf War I. From a secret base in western Saudi Arabia, they seized a pair of airfields and scoured the Iraqi desert for Scuds every night for nearly a month. In the east, they secured a port for the delivery of humanitarian goods. And in the south, they fought to keep Saddam from destroying the 1,000 oil wells that are the country's financial future. Teams in humvees and low-flying helicopters rolled into dozens of towns in search of arms caches; riverine squads on inflatable boats cleared mines and other vessels from Umm Qasr harbor; and with help from the Marines, Army Rangers and some locals, a seal team freed Private Jessica Lynch from a Nasiriyah hospital.

Special forces were usually ahead of the tip of the spear: as U.S. troops pushed toward Baghdad, secret combat teams zipped into Iraq aboard specially outfitted MC-130 Combat Talon planes that used highways as landing strips, surprising the enemy at its rear. On the road to Tikrit, they fingered Iraqi vehicles fleeing the capital for destruction by M1 tanks. And inside the capital, the elite Delta Force slipped into Baghdad's back alleys and into its sewers to eavesdrop on communications, cut fiber-optic cables, target regime leaders and build networks of informants.

Sometimes they just got lucky: a 12-man Green Beret team in customized humvees came upon a Shi'ite cleric and several hundred of his anti-Saddam disciples near Basra on March 20, according to the team's intelligence officer. The cleric sheltered the U.S. troops and their vehicles in warehouses as they plotted joint maneuvers. The Americans deputized the locals and then passed out Chinese-made weapons to the cleric's men and led them on a number of successful raids, seizing more than 100 antitank missiles. When the same Green Berets couldn't dislodge a well-entrenched Iraqi detachment from around a bridge in Basra, they broadcast the sound of approaching tanks from their humvees, drawing the Iraqi troops out of hiding and exposing them to fire—a model psychological operation. "It was bait-and-ambush," the intelligence officer said later.

Some of the special-forces troops in iraq had seen it all before—12 years ago, to be exact. Long before the war with Iraq began, officials at the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., combed service records for names of commandos who had seen action in 1991's Operation Provide Comfort, which gave food and shelter to Kurdish refugees after Saddam crushed their rebellion. The goal: to lure these American soldiers out of private life and back into action. "We wanted them for the places they'd been and the people they knew," said a top officer. Army rules prohibit the service from relying on more than 100 retired commandos at any time; by mid-March, a top Army official told TIME, 88 had been tapped to return to the region.

Grouped in tiny knots of fewer than half a dozen, many of these special-forces veterans were dropped into northern Iraq months before the war. The teams began to renew old ties and make new ones, traveling with interpreters, wearing local garb, trying to blend in and take control. An Army captain who jumped into the region with a team of four others told TIME that his detachment suddenly found itself in charge of 300 Kurdish fighters from the north, known as peshmerga, who had been fighting Saddam for a dozen years. Joint strategy meetings were anything but regular Army. "A lot of communication goes on over pita bread, chai and rice," said the U.S. officer. "We ate what they ate."

But they fought with very different weapons. The Army captain carried a special scope that enabled him, while hiding several miles away, to fix on elements of an Iraqi artillery battalion south of Arbil, moving toward the city. With U.S. and Kurdish troops blocking the way, the Army officer radioed targeting information on his scope to Air Force air-traffic controllers. They sent B-52s packing a flurry of 2,000-lb. bombs to push the Iraqis 10 miles back down the road. Several U.S. officials who worked on coordinating air strikes for special-forces teams told TIME that often as little as 10 minutes elapsed between an initial call for help from the Kurdish-controlled areas of the north and the first bombs falling. "How do you make 50 special-forces teams look 10 feet tall?" asked General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the war's opening days. "You put Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force power with them. With the right communications and laser designators, you've got a pretty formidable force."

For all the worry about moving human targets, few objectives received as much attention from military planners as the giant Faw facility, stretching out several miles along the Shatt al Arab waterway. Several U.S. military planners told TIME that Central Command regarded Faw as so important to the future of Iraq—and so likely to be subject to an act of sabotage by those loyal to the Saddam regime—that many believed it should be seized before the decapitating attacks on Saddam and his inner circle began. "We felt this was a strategic target to begin the war," said Navy Captain Bob Harward, who planned and commanded the operation.

In the end, it didn't happen that way. President Bush jump-started the war when his intelligence chief told him that informants had details on Saddam's whereabouts. That attack failed, but the planning for the raid on Faw began long before the shooting started. Weeks earlier, the U.S. sent Predator drones aloft to map the refinery from above. Working in neighboring countries, the seals divided into five teams to study the information, learning about the refinery, where the Iraqi army had built fortified positions and how to avoid parts of the facility where gunfire could start larger explosions.

Minimizing collateral damage was vital: a secret Navy estimate predicted that if Iraqis sabotaged just one of the two offshore oil terminals, 12 times as much oil could pollute the gulf as the Exxon Valdez spilled into Alaskan waters in 1989. "There was a huge interest in maintaining oil infrastructure from Day One," said an Air Force major. The seals rehearsed the entire operation twice.

The goplats (gas and oil platforms) mission, as the military called it, began at dusk on March 20. All the practice paid off: the Pave Low choppers had no trouble finding their drop points; one chopper lowered its seal squad right on top of a fortified Iraqi bunker. The commandos hardly went in alone: 20 different types of aircraft circled overhead helping out. Navy jammers stir-fried Iraqi radio communications from upstairs; A-10 Warthogs—twin-engine jets armed with 30-mm machine guns—bore down on military vehicles; British jets fired specialized precision-guided bombs at Iraqi antiaircraft guns, as reconnaissance planes identified enemy troop concentrations and relayed coordinates to AC-130 Spectre gunships. While the entire operation took six hours from start to finish, the vital valves, metering stations and manifolds were seized just minutes after the operation began. The U.S. suffered no casualties. Central Command refused to quantify the Iraqi toll, but a U.S. officer told TIME that 40 Iraqis were killed in one fire fight alone. There was general agreement that most of the Iraqis either working at or defending the complex gave up or fled. "They didn't know we were there until we were on top of them," said a Navy officer involved in the operation, "and many of them were very happy for us to arrive."

As easy as the military made it look, Faw was a mission that just 10 years ago the Pentagon would have been reluctant to undertake—and for good reason. The mere idea of choreographing a battle with units from different services—much less with elements of a foreign army and air force—would have been far more dangerous if not impossible in the mid-1980s. That's because for all their box-office power and dazzle, special forces have long been a Pentagon afterthought, an orphan merely tolerated by mainstream generals and admirals but never really loved or understood. Though they have been glamorized from time to time by Presidents—J.F.K. transformed the Green Berets into a tool to fight communism—special forces have always been the runt of the military's litter. To many senior officers, they didn't inspire a lot of confidence.

That view was confirmed over the years in several high-profile missions in which special forces flamed out. In 1980 the ambitious Delta Force rescue mission for American hostages in Tehran had to be scrubbed after one of the U.S. helicopters crashed into a C-130 cargo plane at the Desert One staging site in southeastern Iran, killing eight. Special forces again overplayed their hand in the 1983 invasion of Grenada, where, in what should have been a walkover, commandos suffered unusually high casualties in two separate missions. One reason for their mixed results was that conventional military planners didn't know how to use the units in the first place and were reluctant to mix them in. Many just assumed their best use was as lone rangers, sent off on some long-shot charge all by themselves.

That suited everyone fine for years, because the special warriors, derisively dubbed snake "eaters" by their more conventional counterparts, have always been different. They tend to be older and more specially trained than regular troops. They generally operate only at night, which has fostered their Pentagon moniker, "the Dark Side." Being nocturnal isn't the only reason for the nickname: they carry themselves with a hidden swagger the regulars sometimes resent. They have separate bases, and when they don't, they often live apart and by different rules. And while their unit cohesion is legendary, many of these soldiers tend to be loners, in part because that's always been an element of the training too. Notes Colonel O'Boyle of his colleagues: "They know that if they're shot down, nobody will be there to rescue them. We tell them they'll be executed or become a pow."

The tensions began to ease about 10 years ago, after Congress passed a law designed to end the services' silly longtime rivalries and force them to work together more. But it wasn't until Rumsfeld returned to the Pentagon in 2001 after a 24-year absence that things began to really change. Rumsfeld's idea—and he wasn't the first to have it, just the first Pentagon chief to enforce it—was that a few special forces, with the right gear, intelligence and a little luck, could sometimes substitute for the brawn of a 3,000-man brigade.

Rumsfeld's views on this point hardened after 9/11. In a world where terrorists lurk, handfuls of commandos can scour the earth much faster and more effectively than thousands of G.I.s moving in division strength. And if you combine the commandos' unusual skills with those of more conventional forces, the results can be dramatic. The Pentagon took Rumsfeld's theory for a test drive in Afghanistan, where a relatively small force of several hundred special forces, relying nearly as much on cash as on pinpoint firepower, routed the Taliban and took over the country in two months. But in Afghanistan, the special forces weren't cut loose. Instead, Rumsfeld teamed them with U.S. bombers for a potent ground-air duet that pulverized the Taliban from 35,000 ft. with a minimal U.S. presence on the ground. In part because of the success of special forces in Afghanistan, by the middle of last year, a huge shift in their favor was under way in Washington.

In January, Rumsfeld proposed giving the special-operations command the highly prized authority to propose and carry out missions for the first time. He then asked Congress to increase the SOF budget some 30%, to almost $7 billion, and to expand the number of commandos roughly 10% over the next several years. But Rumsfeld isn't stopping there: a senior U.S. military official told TIME that Rumsfeld has ordered more special-forces personnel to be "forward deployed"—that is, stationed overseas—and some will be given the same kind of civilian cover that intelligence agents get in order to stay closer to the action. "The global nature of the war, the nature of the enemy and the need for fast, efficient operations in hunting down and rooting out terrorist networks around the world have all contributed to the need for an expanded role for the special-operations forces," said Rumsfeld at a January briefing. "We are transforming that command to meet that need."

It would be wrong to imagine that Rumsfeld can convert his special units into supersoldiers who can do anything or stop anyone. Even he knows that. Special forces have yet to find Osama bin Laden after a 20-month manhunt in Afghanistan. And for all their military success in Iraq, notes a Pentagon official pointedly, "we haven't got Saddam, and we haven't found any weapons of mass destruction." But for the officers who have been fighting the military's conventional thinking for decades, Iraq was the war they had been waiting for. "There are certain things we can do, and there are certain things we can't," said a top special-forces officer who served in Afghanistan. "We can't take and hold ground. But there are some things we can do, and finally the civilian commanders have learned the proper mix."