The secretive teams of Green Berets guiding rebels in northeast Syria have expressed frustration with the amount of micromanagement they receive from a top-heavy headquarters in Iraq and the United States.
Special Forces sources tell of support staff watching the free-spirited Green Berets on reconnaissance aircraft and then criticizing their performance as they conduct the mission officially described as “train, advise and assist” the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces. The Americans and SDF are fighting their way toward Raqqa, the Islamic State terrorist army’s home base in Syria. Some of the “assisting” has drawn the Americans into firefights.
One officer chalked up the complaints to the sensitive political situation of U.S. troops on the ground in a chaotic country amid competing groups of Arab, Kurdish and Turkish forces, all converging with different objectives. The Green Berets, known officially as Army Special Forces, must act under strict combat rules after President Obama approved their insertion one year ago.
“Based on the very high-level approval required to conduct operations, it can be extremely frustrating for the teams,” the officer told The Washington Times. “We just don’t have the latitude we had during our years in Iraq, and that can be frustrating for the teams. The progress over the last year has been slow. Each team may not see it during their rotation, but cumulatively we’ve made significant progress against Daesh while maintaining relationships with Turkey and Jordan. In my many years in Special Forces, I’ve never been involved with a more complex mission.”
The Islamic State is also called Daesh, ISIL and ISIS.
The officer said that any foreign assistance operation governed by Section 1209 of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, as is Syria, “comes with lots of rules and scrutiny from Congress and the Defense Department, so we had to be very deliberate on how we execute this program.”
A second Special Forces source told of Green Berets in Syria being criticized for not immediately answering a phone call from overseers in Iraq. Others get critiqued back at their forward operating base in Syria after supervisors watched their actions on surveillance drones.
Said the source: “They sometimes take risk and do stuff, and when they get back to camp, they get a phone call. ‘What the [expletive] were you doing?’”
Pentagon press officials have provided scant information on operations by Green Berets in Syria.
The second Special Forces source told The Times of a recent incident: A group of Green Berets and their partner rebels were taking sporadic long-range fire. Tired of waiting for permission to return fire, they killed the sniper. That, in turn, brought more fire from Islamic State fighters. The Americans found themselves in a firefight and then evaded the enemy.
“Why even have the guys out there?” the second Special Forces source said. “It’s literally that they are watching you and watching you, and they’ll call you, and if you don’t answer — it’s kind of like having parents. As an organization, we have become incredibly risk-averse.”
The second source said the number of watchers versus the number of Green Berets in Syria is 50-50.
“For every guy you’ve got on the ground there, there’s some staff guy that hasn’t ever deployed,” the source said. “Or some colonel who wants to be involved, and he’s the assist to the assistant to the assistant.”
The first Green Berets to go into Syria were from the 5th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The 5th Group is the go-to Green Beret unit for fighting radical Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. They were the first to enter Afghanistan, and rode horseback over rocky terrain with allied Afghans.
This source said that many Special Forces soldiers believe the entire cadre has become more careerist as the war on terror continues in its second decade. “Too many officers worried about promotions,” the source said.
‘Careerism and compromise’
The Washington Times asked Col. Kevin C. Leahy, 5th Group commander, about his soldiers’ complaints.
“No one knows how to work with rebels better than our Green Berets,” Col. Leahy said in an email. “We provide lots of latitude on how guys work with various groups. Of course to accomplish goals we have to tell them what we want done, but we let them figure out how to do it. I can only discuss Syria, but can firmly say I and my subordinate leaders do not micromanage.”
He added: “They are right on top-heavy. There is a sizable amount of people required to provide intel, fires, logistics and vetting of rebels/groups, liaison with host nation partners, U.S. country teams, etc. The teams really are the tip of an inverse triangle of support/Hq needed to enable the mission. Unfortunately, whether you have one team or ten in the field, you still need all of the support.”
Rep. Ryan K. Zinke, Montana Republican, is Congress’ lone former Navy SEAL. The retired commander says part of the problem with the Syrian troop mission is that commandos do not have sufficient firepower support if they get pinned down.
“I can tell you with zero doubt about the level of frustration from our forward deployed troops because they feel like they are micromanaged,” he said. “They feel like they don’t have the appropriate decision authority to make decisions and, even in contact, if you have a supporting asset, that supporting asset doesn’t have the authority to target opposition forces without going through a series of assessments by an armchair quarterback.”
A belief by some Green Berets that careerism has overtaken the officer corps was bolstered by a Special Forces soldier fighting in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on the night an AC-130 gunship mistakenly pummeled a Doctors Without Borders trauma center.
This soldier’s Operation Detachment Alpha (ODA) was assigned the task of fighting with Afghan security forces to repel a flash Taliban invasion.
In his sworn statement to investigators, the Special Forces veteran said: “There is a fine line between not conducting operations to keep people out of harm’s way and not conducting operations in such a fashion that it actually increases overall risk to force and risk to mission.”
He said the special operations commanders back in Kabul abandoned the “A-Team.”
“When an ODA’s mission runs headlong into national strategy, and the detachment asks for guidance on the level of commitment and receives nothing back over a 96-hour period, that’s an abject failure of leadership,” the Green Beret said.
When the team asked Kabul for guidance, the response was, “How far do you want to go?”
Said the Green Beret in his statement: “It’s not a strategy, and in fact it’s a recipe for disaster in that kinetic of an environment. How have we, as a force, as a group of officers, become so lost from the good lessons that our mentors taught us? I will tell you how. It is a decrepit state that grows out of the expansion of moral cowardice, careerism and compromise devoid of principle, exchanged for cheap personal gain.”
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