Tip Of The Spear: Green Berets In Afghanistan
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Tip Of The Spear: Green Berets In Afghanistan

The end of April saw the release of Osprey Publishing’s account of the US Green Berets in Afghanistan.

Tip Of The Spear: Green Berets In Afghanistan
The end of April saw the release of Osprey Publishing’s account of the US Green Berets in Afghanistan. It's packed with illustrations and photographs, and details the unit’s history, selection, equipment, and operational experiences.
 
Like British Special Forces, the Green Berets have their origins in the special operations of the Second World War. Formed as a multi-purpose clandestine unit, they were the culmination of CIA forerunner OSS operations to destroy Nazi infrastructure, Jedburgh teams meant to train local resistance fighters, and the fusion of airborne, waterborne, and mountain troops into the special service force (SSF) in 1952. 
 
Mastering all these specialities takes time. It requires at least two years of initial army service, Airborne training, special forces selection and preparation, specialist individual training in either weapons, engineering, medicine, or communication, and then unit training in either HALO parachuting, SCUBA, mountain and mobility warfare, or MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain), and, of course, languages.
 
This makes Green Berets both older than the average soldier (at least in their late twenties or early thirties by the time they are fully operational), and more well-rounded. As hostilities began in Afghanistan, Delta Force and SEAL teams were used for Direct Action operations (seizing, capturing, recovering, or destroying enemy weapons, material, or personnel), Marine Force Recon for Special Reconnaissance (to infiltrate and assess enemy capabilities), while Army Rangers focused on seizing airfields. 
 
It was only the Green Berets who were well-versed in all these areas, as well as in their other core missions: Foreign Internal Defence (FID), to help a foreign ally that has requested assistance; Counterterrorism (CT); and Unconventional Warfare (UW), building alliances with and training local resistance fighters.
 
It was this last role, a legacy of the work done by the Jedburgh teams in World War Two, they employed most in Afghanistan.
 
The legal parameters of US forces can be confusing. The Green Berets were cleared to operate under Title 10 of the US Code, allowing them to operate secretly, but not to conceal the fact that they were Americans. This contrasts with the CIA, who worked under Title 50, which allowed for concealing both their whereabouts and identities. This effectively made the Green Berets military envoys, and this was reflected in their appearance: American weapons and a mixture of personal and local clothing (including beards), meant to dress them down but not entirely conceal their identities.
 
In fact, up close, it could be seen that a lot of the Green Berets bore emblems of their comrades in the New York police and fire departments who had been killed on 9-11.
 

Physically, Green Berets were not usually as bulky as some other Special Forces (i.e. SEALs), having bodies built more for endurance.

Spending time eating Afghan cuisine, liaising with locals, and sometimes even riding horses did not permit any time for visiting the gym.

Their most common side-arms were M4A1 carbines and either a Colt 1911/.45 or Beretta M9 as a backup. For longer-ranged encounters in the mountainous terrain, they also carried Mk11 or Mk12 Mod 0s, M24 bolt actions, or the giant .50 calibre M82A1 in their Humvees (and later Toyota trucks). Support weapons included Minimis, or the belt fed M240B, as well as the M136/At-4 anti-tank rocket launchers, and truck mounted 40mm Mk19 grenade launchers.

Radios were also an important part of their kit as, like the SAS, they assisted with laser-targeted missile strikes in the early days of the war.

Green Berets in Afghanistan were under Colonel John Mulholland of the 5th Special Forces Group, responsible for operations in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa. Naturally, the group’s Pashto speakers got ready to deploy following the 9-11 attacks.

Mulholland commanded a headquarters group and three battalions with around 1,400 men, 600 of whom were in Green Beret formations known as ODAs (Operational Detachment Alphas), six of these in each company. 

ODAs contained 12 men, with a captain in command, a “chief” warrant officer under him, and 10 sergeants. These units might stick together, or sometimes break down into teams as small as two as they spread out to make contact with local Northern Alliance warlords.

Knowing the local tendency to switch sides a lot, Green Berets were alert at all times, keeping weapons to hand and their sleeping quarters sand-bagged. 

The ODAs drew on historical lessons from prior regional conflicts such as the Russian-chronicled The Bear Went Over the Mountain, and Lawrence of Arabia’s quote that it was “better that (the locals) do it tolerably than you do it perfectly.” 

Thus, they had to work with poor Afghan health and eye issues, as well as bad weapons maintenance, and the resulting tendency for the locals to be sub-par marksmen, rather than doing a lot more of the fighting themselves.

For their part, the local warlords also wanted to protect their ODA allies, fearing that any American casualties might cause them to pull out and leave them without US support (a fallacious notion they attributed to the infamous Black Hawk Down engagement in Somalia in 1993 that saw American forces leave right after the battle).

Ironically, the intense fighting at Tora Bora did see the Green Berets get involved directly in combat with the Taliban, and take casualties in the process. It wasn’t this, though, that caused their leaders in Washington to pull them out. 

Soon after the offensive at Tora Bora the Green Berets were withdrawn for preparations for Iraq, much to their chagrin. 

“Many left with grave misgivings as they felt the job was not yet complete in Afghanistan and they had developed strong ties with their G-Chiefs (local Guerrilla Chiefs), ties that might well have helped Afghanistan prosper rather than wither and descend into a vicious insurgency.”

For more information on Green Berets in Afghanistan, read 'US Army Green Beret in Afghanistan 2001-02' by Leigh Neville and illustrated by Peter Dennis, the latest title in Osprey Publishing's Warrior series.

Green Berets in action in Afghanistan (image from ‘US Army Green Beret in Afghanistan 2001-02’ by Leigh Neville © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)