Special-ops veterans feel frustrated about Afghanistan and want answers for the ‘scandal’ that kept them there for 20 years

Afghan flag Pekha Valley Nangarhar Province Afghanistan
An Afghan flag at an observation post in Pekha Valley of Nangarhar Province, October 19, 2017.

  • After 20 years of operations, US forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan.
  • In recent days, the Afghan government has collapsed and the Taliban has swept across the country.
  • The events have frustrated US special-ops veterans, some of whom question why they spent 20 years fighting there.
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After almost 20 years of operations, the US began its withdrawal from Afghanistan earlier this year, precipitating in recent days the fall of the Afghan government and the Taliban’s reconquest of the war-ravaged country.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, US special-operations forces, alongside members of the US intelligence community, were the first in, partnering with anti-Taliban guerrillas and defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban after a short campaign.

Throughout two decades of war, special-operations forces were at the tip of the spear, conducting raids, capturing high-value targets, trying to win over the population, and training and advising the Afghan military and police.

As usual, their contribution was disproportionate to their numbers, and they often achieved wonders with a few men. But as the years passed, the US military lost focus on why it was there in the first place.

Why are we here again?

A US Army Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan
A US Army Special Forces soldier on an advising mission in Afghanistan, April 10, 2014.

The US went to Afghanistan with the goal of defeating Al Qaeda and preventing the country from being used as a base for future terrorist attacks against the US.

The Taliban was only relevant as it was hosting of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda fighters. Initially, the US wasn’t planning to do any nation-building.

“After 9/11, we went into Afghanistan after Al Qaeda to ensure they could not use Afghanistan as a staging base and prevent further attacks. For nearly 20 years we have attacked and attacked relentlessly. Additionally, we have funded, equipped, and trained [hundreds of] thousands of Afghans to protect themselves. For this, I am proud,” John Black, a retired Special Forces warrant officer with several deployments to Afghanistan, told Insider.

“I am disappointed in Afghanistan and its failure to be able to secure itself after we told them we were leaving in 2014,” Black said.

US Navy SEALs in Afghanistan
US Navy SEALs discover a cache of weapons during a mission in the Jaji mountains of Afghanistan, February 12, 2002.

Fred Galvin, a retired major and former Marine Raider, told Insider that the “time and sacrifices” of those who fought in Afghanistan were not wasted but that Americans do need to hold to account lawmakers who imposed rules of engagement that “favored the enemy.”

Senior military leadership who promoted an unwinnable hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency strategy should be held accountable too, Galvin said.

Hearts-and-minds strategies involve efforts by one side in a conflict to persuade the local population that it is a better partner than the enemy, often as part of a counterinsurgency campaign.

The US failures in Vietnam and Afghanistan are perhaps the two most well-known examples of such a strategy, but it has seen success elsewhere – by the British against communist rebels in Malaysia and Oman, for example.

“Everyone, EVERYONE knew that would never work, and the officers who ordered the immoral hearts and minds [strategy] – especially those officers who retired and immediately went to board of director memberships at defense firms and coerced their former subordinates they left in the Pentagon to go along with the 20-year spending scandal – need to be exiled to Kandahar,” Galvin added.

Marine Corps Special Operations Command marine sandstorm in Afghanistan
A Marine with Marine Forces Special Operations Command takes cover from a sand storm in Farah province, Afghanistan, February 28, 2010.

After years in Afghanistan, and as an insurgency ravaged Iraq, the US’s goal in Afghanistan shifted from counterterrorism to nation-building, a tough proposition even in a cohesive, “normal” nation, which Afghanistan isn’t.

“Afghanistan is a tribal culture. Therefore few have love of ‘country.’ Their idea of country is lines someone else drew in the sand,” Black said. “It’s impossible to win against an idea or belief. The Taliban and others will continue to spread and hopefully we can look at containment, rather than defeat.”

“We should have left after a few years, leaving behind a small CT [counterterrorism] contingent to deal with any bad guys. We should have also trained only a few number of loyal Afghans, like the commandos and some other special units, and avoid[ed] any nation-building dreams,” a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.

A sour aftertaste

US Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan
US Special Forces soldiers and Afghan National Interdiction Unit agents board CH-47 helicopters for an operation in Helmand province, September 12, 2016.

The US withdrawal and the rapid collapse of the Afghan military has left many veterans of the conflict wondering what their sacrifices were for. In some cases, they’ve questioned in whose interests their commanders were acting.

Galvin and his MARSOC Fox Company, a Marine special-operations unit, were falsely accused of killing civilians while fighting off an ambush in March 2007. Seven Marine Raiders were prosecuted and ostracized, despite all available evidence indicated they acted within the laws of war, before finally being acquitted years later.

“Afghanistan was the ultimate military scandal fueled by retired generals influencing those in the Pentagon and lawmakers to spend, spend, spend forever,” Galvin told Insider. “America should never forget this, and the people must exercise their freedoms by removing and punishing the military officers and lawmakers who profited through the needless loss of lives, limbs, and trillions of American dollars.”

The killing of Osama bin Laden and degradation of Al Qaeda are often pointed to as important accomplishments in Afghanistan, but that is little consolation for some who fought there, especially as the future now looks dire for Afghans, with the Taliban expected to reverse any progress made over the last 20 years.

US Air Force pararescuemen board US Army CH-47F Chinook helicopter
US Air Force pararescuemen board a US Army CH-47F Chinook after an exercise at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, March 14, 2018.

“It definitely hurts to see the country collapse in such a short amount of time after all the blood, sweat, and tears we shed. I get the arguments that it wasn’t for nothing and that we made Americans safer and the Afghan people better off, at least for a few years, but it just feels bad right now,” the former Navy SEAL officer said.

Other special-operations veterans say it wasn’t all for naught. Black said he would remember his time in Afghanistan “with great love and sadness.”

“I have many trips and built incredible friendships there. My teammates and I fought hard and were very triumphant in battle,” Black added.

While many veterans may be upset or feel that their comrades fought and died for nothing, “that is the wrong way at looking at it,” Black told Insider.

“For nearly 20 years the US and its partnered forces fought tirelessly to help the people of Afghanistan, and for that we can be proud,” Black said. “In the end, we would much rather fight the Taliban in Afghanistan than in our home country. And for nearly 20 years there has not been a major successful attack against the US. We pray for the Afghan people and hope for peace in a war-torn land.”

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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The messy way the Marines joined US Special Operations Command

Marine Corps Special Operations MARSOC parachute
A Marine with 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion jumps from a KC-130J Hercules over North Carolina, Sept. 12, 2012.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC).

Created on February 24, 2006, MARSOC is the Marine Corps’ component of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and is composed of the Marine Raider Regiment, Marine Raider Support Group, and Marine Raider Training Center.

Marine Raiders, who trace their roots to World War II, primarily focus on direct action, such as ambushes and raids, as well as special reconnaissance and foreign internal defense – the training and advising of partner forces – but they can also conduct unconventional warfare (which primarily means supporting proxy forces) and counterterrorism operations, all with a varying degree of effectiveness.

MARSOC was created to fill what the Pentagon prudently saw as a future gap in special-operations forces. From the start, the US military effort in the Global War on Terror indicated that it would heavily rely on special-operations units.

The frantic insurgency in Iraq, the complicated fight in Afghanistan, and the various hotspots worldwide proved correct those who called for more commandos.

But disputes around MARSOC’s creation linger for the command and could endanger its future.

Every Marine is Special’

Marine Corps Special Operations MARSOC
Marines during Phase I of MARSOC’s Assessment and Selection course at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, January 30, 2015.

After Operation Eagle Claw, the failed rescue of American hostages in Iran in 1980, the Pentagon ordered the creation of a dedicated special-operations command for special-operations units from across the services.

Established in 1987, US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) brought together special-operations units such as the Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and Air Force Special Tactics Squadrons. Each service was invited to join with its special-operations units, but the Marine Corps turned down the offer.

The Marines already had some special-operations units, namely Marine Recon and Force Recon, which focused on special reconnaissance and direct action. They were considered special-operations units by everyone but the Corps, which saw them as specialized infantry rather than commandos, a reflection of the “Every Marine is special” mindset prevalent in the Marine Corps since its inception.

SOCOM and the Marine Corps went their separate ways until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Having seen the tactical and strategic value of special-operations units in the early days of the Global War on Terror, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pushed for more commandos.

The Marine Corps begrudgingly created the Marine Corps Special Operations Command Detachment (Det One) in late 2002 as a study unit to see if Marines could fill special-operations roles.

Marine Corps JTAC Navy MH-60S helicopter
A Joint Terminal Attack Controller with MARSOC communicates with a Navy MH-60S helicopter during training at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, April 7, 2011.

However, since Reconnaissance Marines were already widely seen as a special-operations unit, or its Marine equivalent, the Corps’ decision to set up Det One for further study, rather than incorporating Marines into SOCOM right away, is viewed by many as an attempt to stall the process until Pentagon leadership moved on or lost interest.

“The early [Det One] years were tough. In the beginning, we didn’t have jack shit. No weapons, no ammo, no ranges, no mission, no nothing. Both the Corps and SOCOM shunned us, while the SEALs [Naval Special Warfare Command] wanted to control us. We were the red-headed stepchild,” a former Reconnaissance Marine and Marine Raider told Insider.

Neither SOCOM nor the Marine Corps wanted a Marine special-operations command, but for different reasons.

SOCOM believed that the Marine Corps had gotten its chance to “operate” back in 1987; the Marine Corps believed it could do its own special-operations thing as good or even better than SOCOM and didn’t want to lose quality Marines.

“What we did have, however, was a solid bunch of guys, about 100 operators and support Marines. All of them were as solid as they come because the leadership had handpicked them. We’re talking senior Recon men with years of experience and numerous deployments under their belts. Same goes for the support and intel guys. Top-notch Marines on their respective fields who could probably outperform grunts on basic infantry skills because they went through much of our training,” the former Recon Marine and Raider added.

Always faithful, always forward

Marine Corps Special Operations MARSOC
Maj. Gen. James F. Glynn, commander of MARSOC, speaks to MARSOC personnel during a ceremony at Camp Lejeune, February 22, 2021.

Det One was a success and led to the creation of MARSOC in 2006. The 1st and 2nd Force Recon Battalions were disbanded, with most of their operators going to the newly established 1st and 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalions, with a third Raider battalion added later.

During the Global War on Terror, MARSOC contributed to the fight, but as the wars concluded or drew down, Marine Raiders have found themselves competing for missions and funds with units such as the Army Special Forces Regiment or the SEAL Teams.

Since MARSOC is the new kid on the block, it tends to be relegated to less active areas of operations – ironically, however, these regions can get quite busy, and Marine Raiders have participated in some neat operations, such the response to al-Shabab’s attack on the Kenyan military base at Manda Bay in January 2020.

Some have called for MARSOC’s deactivation, citing the Corps’ limited resources and demands elsewhere. For now, it seems that the 15-year-old MARSOC will make it into adulthood. Judging from the past, that future may be rocky.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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All US special operators train for combat diving, but Navy SEALs take it to another level

Navy SEALs
Navy SEALs.

  • Special-operations units from each US military service branch train to conduct combat diving as a part of their missions.
  • Navy SEALs take that capability further, however, practicing not only to travel through the water but to conduct underwater missions as well.
  • With the military refocusing for a potential conflict in the vast Pacific region, that diving capability is taking on new importance.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Water covers more than 70% of the earth, making maritime operations a must-have capability for any competent military.

Besides having the strongest Navy in the world, the US military possesses potent maritime special-operations resources, with the majority of its special-operations units having some combat diving capability.

Marine Raiders and Reconnaissance Marines have different training pipelines but go through the same dive school in Panama City.

Navy Marine Corps combat diver
A Navy special amphibious reconnaissance corpsman, left, and a reconnaissance Marine in underwater gear during a Marine combat diving course in Okinawa, May 20, 2020

Army Green Berets have dedicated combat diver teams, and some Rangers go through the arduous Special Forces Underwater Operations School in Key West, Florida, one of the most challenging courses in the Army, where even special operators wash out.

Air Force Combat Controllers, Pararescuemen, and Special Reconnaissance operators also go through dive school in Panama City before finishing their own training courses. Those units often send students to the Army’s course.

With some exceptions, such as Special Forces dive teams who teach combat diving to foreign troops, for these units combat diving is primarily an insertion method – a way to the job rather than the job itself.

However, Navy SEAL Teams take maritime special-operations to another level.

Frogmen

Office of Strategic Services OSS frogmen
Office of Strategic Services Special Maritime Unit Group A frogmen on Santa Catalina Island, California, December 1943.

Navy SEALs trace their lineage to the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) of World War II.

These frogmen were tasked with amphibious reconnaissance and clearing beaches before the Marine Corps or the Army landed. They saw action in Normandy during D-Day and in almost every major operation in the Pacific.

Since then, the combat diver capability (or combat swimmer, as SEALs call it) is part of every SEAL’s DNA. SEAL students receive combat diving training during the initial and the advanced portions of the SEAL pipeline.

Aspiring SEALs learn the basics of combat diving during the Second (or Dive) Phase of the six-month Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training course. This portion of the training contains Pool Competence, the pipeline’s second most difficult event after First Phase’s Hell Week.

During Pool Comp, students go through increasingly stressful underwater tests in a monitored environment. The goal is to see if they can follow basic procedures that could save their lives in a real-world operation while under extreme physical and mental stress.

During the SEAL Qualification Training (SQT) course, which comes after BUD/S, aspiring SEALs receive additional and more advanced combat diving training.

Navy SEAL diver
A Navy SEAL assigned to Naval Special Warfare Group 2 during military dive operations in the Gulf of Mexico, October 11, 2018.

The reason for the additional training is that SEALs are the only special-operations unit tasked with underwater special operations, such as placing limpet mines on enemy ships or conducting reconnaissance of an enemy harbor.

One of their better-known underwater missions took place in 1989 during Operation Just Cause. A four-man SEAL element was tasked with sinking Manuel Noriega’s personal boat to prevent the Panamanian dictator’s escape. Despite some resistance from a few vigilant guards, the SEALs were able to plant limpet mines and destroy the vessel.

Although the SEAL Teams’ missions might be different than those of other US special-operations combat diver units, the basic training isn’t.

“Actually, the military’s combat diver communities are all very similar in the curriculums being taught,” a highly seasoned Special Forces combat diver told Insider. “We all fall under SOCOM [US Special Operations Command], and the Navy is the proponent for all diving operations. They approve and monitor tasks being taught at each school.”

“We all use [combat diving] for the same reason – clandestine infiltration using an oxygen rebreather,” the operator said, referring to the MK25 MOD2, made by Dräger.

“[We all] get to work using our fins,” added the operator, who has taught at the Army’s combat diver school and at BUD/S.

A potential conflict in the Pacific is a reason for all services to maintain or even improve their combat diver capabilities. However, there is still a lot to be done on that front, especially for Army special-operations units, where the capability has been neglected to a dangerous extent.

Diving into the future

Army Special Forces combat diver
A combat diver assigned to 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) off the coast of Washington, August 14, 2014.

With the Pentagon focused on great-power competition, maritime special-operations are increasingly relevant and important, and that’s where the SEAL Teams can shine.

“The Teams can do so much in conflict with China,” a former SEAL officer told Insider. “We have the ability to conduct small unit surveillance and reconnaissance during over-the-beach ops; place sensors to aid intelligence gathering, again during over-the-beach ops; train foreign forces (for example, training the Taiwanese in all manner of stuff to balance Chinese capabilities); and also do direct action (an extreme example, but doable if so required).”

Unlike other special-operations units, in the SEAL Teams everyone is combat diver qualified. As a result, there is a vested interest in the capability, both from an operational and budgetary standpoint.

us navy seal submarine delivery vehicle SDV
SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team Two members prepare to launch a SEAL Delivery Vehicle from Los Angeles-class attack sub USS Philadelphia during an exercise.

“Compared to other special-operations commands, NSW [Naval Special Warfare] as a whole will be more relevant in a great-power competition setting, at least in the Pacific, because of the maritime nature of the environment,” a SEAL officer told insider. “We might see platoons diving but not to place a limpet mine on a Chinese warship but a sensor on a ship of interest.”

Aside from traditional combat diving operations, the SEAL Teams also possess the SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) capability.

There are two SDV Teams that are manned by SEALs who undergo even more combat diving training and operate the mini-submarines. Although much of their mission-set is classified, they are known to conduct special reconnaissance and stealthily transport SEALs closer to a target.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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