- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Most professional soldiers regard special operations troops Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and Marine Recon as a father would an unruly teen-ager. Helpful at times, the pros say, the special operations troops more often than not get themselves into trouble and have to be bailed out by the regulars. Afghanistan changed the reality, if not entirely the regulars' perception, of special operations. Their role in this war is a key one, because the enemy dispersed, concealed and deadly is often better-suited to engagement by commandos backed by air power than by slower-to-react ground and naval forces. New plans for the special operations community may now make the unruly teen-ager a grown-up member of the family of U.S. forces.

As reported by Rowan Scarborough in The Washington Times, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is dissatisfied with the pace that our forces are capturing or killing the al Qaeda and Taliban still in Afghanistan and surrounding countries. He asked Gen. Charles R. Holland, commander of the Special Operations Command, to draw up plans to increase the effectiveness and speed with which our forces perform that task. Gen. Holland's plan would make two major changes in the way our special forces operate. First, the special operations forces would be able to choose and operate against targets on their own initiative, without the constraints placed on them by theater commanders or Gen. Tommy Franks' Florida headquarters. Second, the special operations forces could act independently to capture or kill terrorists, and destroy their supporting assets in consenting nations.

There are both benefits and dangers in this plan. Special operations forces can do things that the regulars and the CIA cannot, such as stop and search ships at sea, and attack small, high-value targets in densely populated areas that should not be attacked from the air. By giving the special operations forces more autonomy, Mr. Rumsfeld can help prevent incidents such as the July 23 Israeli attack in Gaza that succeeded in killing Hamas military leader Salah Shehadeh, and also resulted in the deaths of 14 others. Perhaps those other deaths could have been avoided if Shehadeh had been targeted by soldiers on the ground, rather than by an aircraft dropping a bomb.

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In 1988, when such independence for special operations was last considered seriously, the decision was made to leave control in the hands of theater commanders. But more than a decade later, the new enemy is thoroughly unconventional and impressively mobile. When that enemy is spotted, it must be dealt with in minutes, not hours. The new plans should proceed, but with one caution. The consent of countries where terrorists are to be found will often come only at the cost of security breaches that threaten the success of the operation and the safety of the troops. Even allies such as the Philippines do not allow American forces to operate offensively within their borders. America should ask permission for our forces to attack terrorists in any nation with which we are not at war. Whether permission is granted or not, these missions should proceed.

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