The view from Baghdad, three days after D-Day, is dire. A British division, backed by 2,000 U.S. Marines, controls Basra in the south, Iraq’s second-largest city, as well as the oil fields around it. The U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division and Kurdish militias hold the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, and the 82nd Airborne has foiled a plan to destroy the Kurdish-held oil fields around them.Now, the coup de grace looms and the Iraq of Saddam Hussein is in doomsday mode. It is now that the true mettle of America’s special forces will be tested.
Take this scenario a step further: With regular Army units - America’s 3rd Mechanized Infantry and 1st Armored Cavalry divisions - sweeping aside opposition on their way up the Tigris and Euphrates valleys toward the capital, Saddam knows his time is short. Israeli Arrows and improved American Patriot missiles make short work of Iraq’s remaining Scud missiles. U.S. and British air strikes shatter communications networks. In the end, Saddam’s generals, with postwar war crimes trials on their minds, balk at chemical and biological warfare.
But for Saddam, there is one final hope: blowing up the dams that hold back the great lakes and reservoirs supplying water to the cities of central Iraq.
As the United States lays its final plans for a possible war with Iraq, U.S. intelligence officials believe that huge underwater mines may already be in place, giving Saddam the ability to destroy oncoming armies — along with tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians — and blame it all on the Americans.
“It’s only one of several doomsday scenarios, but it’s one not getting enough attention,” a U.S. military intelligence official told MSNBC.com, speaking on condition of anonymity. “A coordinated flood of that magnitude would sweep all before it — troops, civilians, entire cities. It would be a disaster for all involved, and like it or not, it would be hung on America.” The answer, the official said, “is to get our special forces guys to the dams first.”
The key to the American plan to dislodge Saddam without a catastrophe is U.S. and British special operations forces. After years of being treated as mavericks and glory hounds by mainline American military commanders, U.S. special forces have, by virtue of smart politicking and their performance in Afghanistan, won a central role in the Iraq war plan.
“The importance of special ops in this plan is unprecedented,” said a senior U.S. military official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “They are integrated into the strategy like never before.”
Even if the American and British forces massed around Iraq never fire a shot, American special forces units - the 30,000 or so unconventional warriors whose exploits on horseback and in helicopters won them praise in the Afghan campaign — will be able to claim victory. For months now, various units have operated inside Iraqi territory — scouting, marking targets and carrying out other missions that they may take with them to their graves.
“It used to be Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines,” said retired Marine Gen. Bernard Trainor. “Now, you have to add the special forces as almost a fifth independent command. That’s how far they’ve come.”
The possible loss of Turkey as a staging area for American troops has complicated the war plan and caused some revisions, these officials say.
But military officers, former commanders and defense officials interviewed for this article insisted that Iraq intelligence will be expecting much, if not all, of the following to have taken place by the eve of war, and if not by then, shortly after its start.
Delta Team and SEAL Team 6: The most elite units of the American special forces are highly secretive. Delta Force specializes in hostage rescue and “snatch and grab” operations and is drawn from the cream of the Green Beret and Ranger units. SEAL Team 6, drawn from the Navy’s SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) units, trains for the same missions, with an added emphasis on underwater and amphibious capabilities. These units could be called on to rescue hostages, free allied pilots or troops captured in battle, or assassinate senior Iraqi officials. Reports have placed the Delta Force in Jordan, but sources contacted by MSNBC.com could not confirm that.
British SAS, SBS: The forerunners of the U.S. Delta Force and Navy SEALS, these British units — Special Air Service and Special Boat Squadron — specialize in operations behind enemy lines. SAS troops hunted Scuds in the 1991 Gulf War and will likely do so again.
SBS units could operate off Basra, the southern Iraqi port that is an objective of British forces, destroying or securing bridges and conducting sabotage behind the lines. Both units might also be asked to secure dams on the Euphrates and Tigris against demolition. “We really don’t comment on mission status,” a former SAS officer said, “but their capabilities are well known.”
Navy SEALS: SEALs are part of all Marine Expeditionary Units, providing the larger amphibious force with a reconnaissance and infiltration capability. Along with the Marines’ own “Force Recon” units — also trained in underwater tactics — they could play a role around Basra, where for the first time since World War II some 2,000 U.S. Marines will serve under British command. But the military is not shy about using them inland, either, as their deployment in Operation Anaconda during the Afghan campaign demonstrated.
Green Berets: Officially known as Army Special Forces, these highly educated troops traditionally train, organize and even lead rebellions by sympathetic factions behind enemy lines. In Iraq, Green Berets can be expected to try to organize Iraqi Shiite resistance to Saddam’s forces in the southern marshes. Already, reports say Green Berets are in Kurdish-controlled areas of the north, encouraging the fractious Kurds to set aside their own disputes and enmity for Turkey and focus on Saddam. They also were used as Scud hunters late in the 1991 Gulf War.
U.S. Army Rangers: Seizing ground in swift air- or helicopter-borne assaults is the Ranger specialty. “I would see the Rangers possibly seizing the dams, or seizing airfields — possibly in northern Iraq — to make up for the loss of Turkey as a staging area,” Trainor said. Other officials suggested the Rangers might be used to take strategic bridges or intersections to prevent forward-based Iraqi forces from retreating into cities or across rivers. Another role — one familiar to them from Kosovo and Afghanistan: marking targets with hand-held lasers for precision bombardment.
Marine “Force Recon:” Qualified for paratroop or underwater warfare, a platoon of these specialists is attached to every battalion of Marines. Though not a part of the official joint Special Operations Command, these highly trained troops may be used to mark targets for air strikes or to conduct sabotage ahead of advancing U.S. and British forces.
Twist of fate
Until the Afghan war, special forces engendered a particular kind of resentment from battlefield commanders. Often operating outside the authority of the “theater commander,” these troops also took risks that sometimes required the schedule-driven Army to divert units for search-and-rescue operations.
“It’s a fact about any large bureaucracy that if you hang the word “special” on someone and give them leave to be creative, they will be resented,” said Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel and former president of the Army War College.
Ask Lt. Gen. Wayne Downing, the man who led the U.S. Joint Special Forces Command during the Gulf War. Downing, now an NBC News analyst, tried again and again in the days leading up to the air war in January 1991 to persuade Gulf War commander Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf to allow his Delta force to start scouring western Iraq for Iraqi Scud missiles. Schwartzkopf refused, worrying that the capture of U.S. forces inside Iraq before hostilities broke out might upset his carefully planned timetable. Even after the air war began - and despite the fact that the British SAS was given permission to start Scud hunting - American troops were held back.
“There was this thinking that air power could handle it,” Downing said, “and that simply was not true. Even with the Brits in there, we never found the mobile launchers. We wasted a lot of time.”
There is not much of that kind of frustration these days at Fort Bragg, the North Carolina headquarters of U.S. Special Operations Command. To a degree unprecedented in U.S. military history, special forces units have a seat at the “big table,” and they feel they have a patron in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
“It is a measure of the frustration Secretary Rumsfeld felt with initial plans offered by the military, and with the pace of the war on terrorism,” Downing said.
This new clout translated into dollars in the fiscal 2004 defense budget request, with the Army’s Special Forces Command winning a 20 percent increase in funding — $1 billion of a total of $6 billion — and an 8 percent increase in personnel, adding 4,000 new soldiers to a standing force of about 30,000.
If it comes to war in Iraq, special operating forces are now viewed by the Pentagon as the best way to ensure that the military achieves its most important preventive goals in what is being billed as a preventive war. That means foiling the doomsday scenarios by securing dams, finding Scuds, destroying biological-chemical weapons stores, preventing oil fires and averting chaos among the Kurds.
“The one thing [Saddam] could do that could cause a real problem is blow the dams. If you you pop this one,” said Trainor, pointing to the giant dam that holds back the Bahr al Milh, a huge lake near Karbala, “it sends something akin to the Johnstown flood down the whole length of the Euphrates Valley. That’s why you have units like SEALS, or the Rangers, or maybe the British SAS. You have to take these options out of Saddam’s hands.”