WASHINGTON — An Army Green Beret galloped on horseback across the Afghan landscape, leading the Northern Alliance resistance to the Taliban.
The scene, captured in a photograph, created an instant military legend.
Now Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has given broad new powers to the U.S. Special Operations Command, and Congress is poised to boost its budget by nearly 40 percent.
“The secretary of defense thinks these guys walk on water,” said Robert Andrews, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations early in the Bush administration. “The regular military that has kept these guys in the background for 50 years has to face the fact that these guys sit above the salt at the table.”
Stretched thin in hotspots around the globe, special operators are searching for Saddam Hussein in Iraq, al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, drug smugglers in Colombia and terrorists in the Philippines.
More special operations forces were deployed in Iraq than in any previous military engagement, Lt. Gen. Bryan D. Brown, the new SOCOM commander told a Senate committee.
“At one point we had 14,000 (special operations forces) deployed out of a force of 47,000,” he said. “Large portions of Iraq were under control” of special operations forces.
Special operators also trained troops in Nigeria to be African peacekeepers, and in the Republic of Georgia to withstand militant Islamic rebels. They trained police SWAT teams in Los Angeles to combat terrorism. Civil affairs and psychological operations units are trying to bring stability to Kosovo.
“Before 9-11, special operations forces were considered a niche application, sort of as a single-blade pocket knife,” Andrews said. “Now after Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s looked on more as a Swiss Army knife. It’s got more applicability than anyone ever thought it had.”
For decades, special operations forces were adjunct units of the Army, Navy and Air Force. They were called on by other commands to help in a crisis. Not until 1987 did special operations have a command of its own.
But the war on terrorism changed military thinking. The enemy no longer is easy to find. Nor can it be attacked with armor and air power. The new enemy was made for special operations.
In January, Rumsfeld announced that the Special Operations Command in Tampa could plan its own operations and call on the other military commands for assistance.
“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,” Rumsfeld said.
Gen. Charles R. Holland, the outgoing commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, told the House Armed Services Committee in March that the command is transforming its capabilities “to locate and track individual terrorists across the globe and conduct small operations” to destroy them.
Congress is considering adding more than 4,000 troops to the 47,000 under Special Operations Command. But that has some analysts inside and outside the military worried that the qualities that make the special operators so effective will be compromised.
“You could put green berets on peoples’ heads, but that would be the most dangerous thing that would ever happen,” Gen. Peter Schoomaker, a former Special Operations commander who was named chief of Army Operations, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. “My advice would be to keep the special operations forces special.”
Special operators go through a rigorous selection process that includes strenuous physical and mental tests, and years of specialized training. More than two-thirds of those who sign up don’t make it through training.
Already, the Navy is having trouble finding just 250 people qualified to join its special operations force, the Navy SEALs. Of the 900 who apply, 150 don’t make it through the first day of training.
The 21st century special operations soldier will combine “a warrior ethos with language proficiency, cultural awareness, political sensitivity, and the ability to maximize information age technology,” Holland said.
They come out not just as soldiers, but as diplomats who know how to work in foreign countries to build support for U.S. policy. They are trained to think creatively and to adapt quickly to changing conditions.
“The very attributes that make these guys so valuable is the very thing that makes these guys so rare,” Andrews said. “It’s like you find a diamond that can cut glass. You have a lot of glass to cut. Where are all the diamonds?”
In the past, special operators were recruited from the regular military. Now, as the military shrinks and demand for special operations grows, the Special Operations Command is recruiting from the public.
That gives recruiters a chance to seek people with specific attributes, such as proficiency in Middle Eastern languages and culture, Andrews said.
Next year’s proposed $6.7 billion budget doubles spending on new equipment to replace what has been used in Iraq, and to expand high-technology capability.
Mini submarines will deliver Navy SEALs to enemy coasts. Army Green Berets will shoulder small aircraft carrying spy cameras. Advanced night vision and laser-targeting devices help special forces “own the night.” Silent, long-range helicopters deliver and retrieve special operators. Better tracking equipment helps U.S. war planes identify special forces on the ground.
But Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that Congress should not go overboard in supporting special operations, even though he says, “they are the wave of the future.”
“Some people say, ‘Why can’t you convert the whole Army to special forces?’ ” Warner said. “But I want to make sure it is in balance with the rest of the Army. If one segment gets all the excitement, all the challenges and all the higher degree of risk, it creates friction. This senator is going to make sure we don’t go totally tilt.”