An all-volunteer group of American Special Operations veterans of the Afghan war carried out a secret nighttime mission, called the “Pineapple Express,” to ferry at-risk Afghans and their families to safety, according to ABC News.
The media outlet reported that the group worked under cover of night on Wednesday, and in tandem with the United States military and embassy, to transfer hundreds of Afghans into a US military-controlled zone of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.
As many as 500 Afghan special operators, assets, enablers, and their families were handed over to the protective custody of the American military by Thursday morning, ABC News reported.
Army Lt. Col. Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret commander who led the private rescue effort, told the media outlet that the Wednesday night operation was akin to a “Jason Bourne” thriller.
Covert movements were coordinated by more than 50 people in an encrypted chat room, ABC News said. The Afghans were known as “passengers” and were guided remotely by “shepherds,” who are former US special operations forces and CIA commanders, using GPS pin drops, and met by “conductors'” wearing a green chem light at the staging points, the media outlet added. Their identity was confirmed by a yellow pineapple graphic on their smartphones.
The operation was modeled on Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, the historic network of secret routes to help Black Americans escape slavery, former Green Beret Capt. Zac Lois told ABC News.
The Wednesday operation was an element of the “Task Force Pineapple,” an informal group that formed on August 15 to get a former Afghan commando who had been targeted by the Taliban into the airport, the media outlet said.
Task Force Pineapple was working on another rescue mission on Thursday night when an explosion near the airport killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 US troops, the media outlet said.
Some of the group’s Afghan passengers were wounded, and, according to ABC News, members of the Task Force Pineapple are assessing whether any of the Afghans they were helping had been killed.
“Dozens of high-risk individuals, families with small children, orphans, and pregnant women, were secretly moved through the streets of Kabul throughout the night and up to just seconds before ISIS detonated a bomb into the huddled mass of Afghans seeking safety and freedom,” said Mann.
Jason Redman, a combat-wounded former Navy SEAL and author shepherding Afghans, told ABC News that Thursday night was a “roller-coaster” ride and described it as “chaotic.”
He also expressed frustration that “our own government didn’t do this,” he said. “We did what we should do, as Americans,” Redman added.
In February, Lt. Gen. James Slife, the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), outlined the state of Air Force special operations and described how Air Commandos need to adapt in order to remain relevant and effective.
The top Air Commando said his force faces a hard transition from hunting terrorists to a potential conflict with Russia or China.
“Now’s the time for us to accelerate change,” Slife said, echoing the Air Force mantra for the new era of competition. “But I would suggest to you that for AFSOC in particular, there is a difficulty to this that I don’t think any of us should underestimate.”
AFSOC provides air transport, close air support, precision strike, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) functions to other special-operations units.
Air Commandos operate several aircraft, such as the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, the CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, the MQ-9 Reaper drone, the MC-130J Commando II transport.
In addition to its air assets, AFSOC deploys battlefield airmen – pararescuemen, combat controllers, special reconnaissance operators, and tactical air control party airmen – to augment Navy SEAL platoons, Green Beret detachments, Delta Force assault teams, and other special-operations units.
These Air Commandos are an integral part of the US special-operations community but often go unnoticed because they are usually attached individually in other units instead of operating as dedicated Air Force teams.
New threats, new needs
Slife argued that US special-operations forces are at what he called a third inflection point.
The second inflection point came in the post-9/11 wars, during which the Pentagon relied on commandos for almost everything, such as raids on high-value targets and training partner forces and even to topple the Taliban.
With the advent of great-power competition with China and Russia comes third inflection point, Slife said at the Air Force Association air-warfare conference.
Slife acknowledged that this transition will likely be “particularly hard” because the circumstances are different.
“At our previous two inflection points … we were in the aftermath of a failure,” Slife said. Now, however, AFSOC is coming off of 20 years of “virtually unmitigated success” against violent extremist groups.
Organizations can find it hard to accept change after having success, but change is necessary to address a new threat environment that comes with near-peer competition. People often quip that militaries prepare to fight the last war, so structured change is prudent.
According to Slife, AFSOC will have to excel in four areas: crisis response, countering violent extremist organizations, great-power competition, and near-peer warfare.
To do so, AFSOC will have to reexamine what capabilities it can offer to the special-operations community and the conventional military.
New limits on defense budgets mean AFSOC will have to choose its priorities carefully and avoid the temptation to find answers in expensive new programs and technology – in other words, it has to do more with what it already has.
“We will not be able to buy our way out of whatever challenges that we have in the future,” Slife said. “We have to take better advantage of the capabilities that are already resident in the force and leverage the power of our airmen to transform ourselves for the future.”
The fight for close air support
Providing support from the air is likely to be an area of increasing focus for AFSOC.
Air Commandos currently operate a small fleet of aircraft that provide ISR to special operators on the ground. Orbiting ISR aircraft can provide a live picture of a target and its surroundings, an unparalleled advantage over less technologically advanced enemies.
As the war on terror evolved, ISR capabilities became increasingly important. In some cases, ISR support was mandatory for an operation to be approved.
SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch Program – which seeks to develop organic close-air-support aircraft and free up sophisticated aircraft like F-22s and F-35s for more advanced missions – is one of AFSOC’s biggest bets for the future.
There have been several US military attempts to find a commercially available propeller-driven aircraft for support missions. The most recent was the Air Force’s Light Attack Experiment, which was shut down in early 2020.
The Air Force and members of Congress are either skeptical of or openly opposed to the Armed Overwatch Program, but SOCOM has made it clear that it wants the capability and is moving forward with a program to purchase 75 aircraft for AFSOC that would provide close air support, precision strike, and ISR in austere and permissive environments.
ISIS and Al Qaeda have largely been defeated in Iraq and Syria, but other groups are wreaking havoc across Africa and the Middle East, threatening to overthrow weak governments and cause regional crises.
Consequently, special-operations forces will continue to deploy in low-intensity hot spots where US interests are threatened, and they might need to call in close air support. The Armed Overwatch Program is designed to support that ongoing fight.
SOCOM providing its own rugged, cheaper-to-operate planes to support commandos aligns perfectly with some of AFSOC’s transition goals.
Although Air Commandos are trying to figure out their future roles, they will certainly be called on to perform challenging missions against multiple threats.
“If it were easy, somebody else would would be able to do it, but this is our moment in time to transform ourselves for the future,” Slife said.
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.
The US has some of the best special operations units in the world, but they can’t do everything on their own.
The American military relies on allied special operators from places like Britain, Iraq, and Israel to collect intelligence and kill enemy insurgents and soldiers.
Here are 6 of those special-operations commands.
A quick note on the photos: Many allied militaries are even more loathe to show the faces of their special operators than the US. The photos we’ve used here are, according to the photographers, of the discussed special operations forces, but we cannot independently verify that the individuals photographed are actually members of the respective clandestine force.
The Special Air Service pulls from the British Army and focuses on counter-terrorism and reconnaissance. The Special Boat Service does maritime counter-terrorism and amphibious warfare (but will absolutely stack bodies on land, too).
Both forces have deployed with US operators around the world, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan where they were part of secretive task forces that hunted top Taliban members, ISIS, and Iraqi insurgents.
2. Sayeret Matkal
Israel’s Sayeret Matkal has generated rumors and conjecture for decades, and it’s easy to see why when you look at their few public successes.
They rescued 103 Jewish hostages under gunpoint in Uganda after a plane hijacking. They hunted down the killers who attacked Israel’s 1972 Munich Olympic team, killing 11 coaches and athletes. The commandos in the unit are skilled in deception, direct action, and intelligence gathering.
The US is closely allied with Israel and Sayeret Matkal is extremely good at gathering intelligence, which is often shared with the US.
One of their most public recent successes came when they led a daring mission to install listening devices in ISIS buildings, learning of a plan to hide bombs in the battery wells of laptops.
3. French Special Operations Command
French special operations units are even more close-mouthed than the overall spec-ops community, but they have an army unit dedicated to intelligence gathering and anti-terrorism, a navy unit filled with assault forces and underwater demolitions experts, and an air force unit specializing in calling in air strikes and rescuing isolated personnel behind enemy lines.
The commandos have reportedly deployed to Syria in recent years to fight ISIS. And while Germany is fairly tight-lipped about the unit, they have confirmed that the unit was deployed to Iraq for a few years in the early 2000s. On these missions, they help US-led coalitions achieve success.
5. Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service
The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service was created by the US and, oddly, does not fall within the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, making this one of the few special operations units that isn’t part of the traditional military.
The operators have also fought against other groups like Al Qaeda-Iraq. The unit was originally formed in 2003, meaning it has only existed while Iraq was at war with insurgents, so the force has operated almost exclusively within Iraq’s borders.
It earned high marks in 2014 when its troops maintained good order and fought effectively against ISIS while many of the security forces were falling apart.
6. Afghan National Army Commando Corps
Afghanistan’s National Army Commando Corps is one of the great bright spots in its growing military.
The Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian militant group Hamas have clashed in Gaza and Israel for almost two weeks, with the death toll on both sides rising.
The violence – from riots and airstrikes to lynchings and rocket volleys – has reignited despite the signing of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries and were seen as potentially reducing tensions in the region.
Behind the headlines and the spotlight, it’s Israel’s special-operations units – among the world’s finest – that are moving the pieces and enabling the IDF’s operations against Hamas.
A mission gone awry
For good reason, most Israeli special-operations in Gaza, the West Bank, or East Jerusalem go unreported.
Indeed, publicity usually means that a mission went south, as was the case in 2018, when a botched covert operation in Gaza offered a rare glimpse into the shadowy world of Israeli special-operations missions against Hamas.
Commandos from the elite Mista’arvim, an Israeli counterterrorism unit that conducts covert operations in denied or non-permissive areas, were compromised in Gaza during a highly sensitive intelligence operation.
The Israeli commandos had been operating inside Gaza for weeks when their cover was blown.
According to reports, the Israelis were trying to map out the location of mid- and senior-level Hamas leaders and plant tracking devices, presumably for follow-on strikes or another future contingency, such as the current conflict.
At some point, the Israeli team was compromised, leading to a shootout in which the Israeli commandos killed six Hamas terrorists, including a senior member of the organization’s military wing, but lost the mission commander to friendly fire.
Deception and special operations
The IDF certainly knows how to play the game, and its deception tactics are remarkable.
The IDF called up thousands of reservists while several brigades and equipment, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, moved to the border.
That was enough for Hamas’ military leadership to send its thousands of fighters into the very extensive and well-developed underground tunnel complex the terrorist organization has been building.
However, instead of sending in the infantry and armor, the IDF commenced a heavy bombing campaign, with hundreds of airstrikes against the tunnel complex, where thousands of Hamas fighters were waiting to fight.
Not only did the Israelis avoid a protracted and bloody urban-warfare campaign – arguably one of the most difficult types of military operations, as battles from Stalingrad to Fallujah have shown – but they also put Hamas on the spot for hiding in populated areas and thus intentionally increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties.
Such an operation couldn’t have been successful without the necessary intelligence.
In the years and months prior, commandos from the Mista’arvim or from the Sayeret Matkal, which is also known as General Staff Reconnaissance Unit 269 and is the IDF’s equivalent to the US Army’s Delta Force, would have worked with Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, to create target packages for Hamas’ leadership and its infrastructure.
Special operators serving in the Mista’arvim usually have an Arab background – much of the Israeli population is ethnically Arab – and can blend in to a hostile environment like that in Gaza, Lebanon, or Syria.
They would have been responsible for operating within the denied territory or for recruiting assets within Hamas who could provide intelligence to the IDF.
Details about safe houses, headquarters, and underground tunnel entrances, exits, and vents would be categorized for future use.
“The Israelis are top-notch, easily among the top five special-operations communities in the world. Although we work and have operated more closely with the Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, and Canadians, we do work with the Israelis quite often and have a reasonably close relationship with them,” a former Delta Force operator told Insider.
The Israelis are certainly not the first ones to deal with complex underground tunnels that are meant to avoid enemy airpower.
During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong constructed hundreds of miles of tunnels alongside the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which snaked through North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to supply the insurgency in South Vietnam.
“So the NVA/VC had tunnel structures, like at Marble Mountain, where SOG’s Command & Control North had caves under it,” which US special operators visited years later, Meyer said, referring an area near a US airfield south of Da Nang in South Vietnam.
The service awarded Barrett Firearms Manufacturing in Tennessee a five-year, $49.9 million contract for 2,800 MRAD sniper rifles under the Precision Sniper Rifle program, which also includes the Leupold & Stevens Mark 5 HD scope and sniper accessory kit, the Army said Wednesday.
The main difference between the MRAD and other sniper rifles is that it can be chambered in 7.62 x 51 mm NATO, .300 Norma Magnum, and .338 Norma Magnum ammunition, giving the shooter greater flexibility without changing weapons.
“Army snipers will be able to conduct a barrel change and select calibers based on their mission operating environment,” the Army said in a statement Wednesday.
The new rifle is, according to the Army, “an extreme range weapon system that is lighter than current sniper rifles and includes features that will mask the sniper signature for improved survivability.”
The Mk 22 will replace the Army’s bolt-action M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle from Remington Arms and the M107 Long Range Sniper Rifle from Barrett.
“It’s an awesome gun,” an experienced Army sniper told Insider last year. “I can tell you I never saw anything on that gun that I didn’t like. It shoots phenomenally well. What it does, as far as barrel changes and things like that go, is pretty exceptional.”
The Mk 22 is a “good gun coming at a good time that is going to increase efficiency and capabilities,” he said. “We’re excited about it.”
Special Operations Command was the first to express interest in the new modular, multi-caliber sniper rifle. In March 2019, SOCOM awarded Barrett a $49.9 million contract for the MRAD rifle through its Advanced Sniper Rifle program.
The command sent an initial production order for the new rifles to Barrett in November 2020 after the company completed production qualification and operational testing, meeting the requirements of the Department of Defense.
“We are pleased to have reached this milestone with the project and look forward to providing our warfighters with this highly capable platform,” Joel Miller, Barrett’s director of global military sales, said in a statement at the time.
The Marines has also shown interest in the weapon.
The Marines expect the new rifle to “replace all current bolt-action sniper rifles in the Marine Corps,” according to last year’s budget request.
In the budget documents, the Marines wrote that the new rifles offer “extended range, greater lethality, and a wider variety of special purpose ammunition.”
The Army said in its budget request that the weapon “increases stand-off distances ensuring overmatch against enemy counter sniper engagements and increases sniper capability.”
The US military’s special-operations units have fought around the world over the past two decades, a period during which their successes have been marred by scandals and misconduct.
Now, with a new subcommittee on the House Armed Services Committee, lawmakers hope to exercise greater oversight over those shadowy operations and other emerging challenges.
“The landscape has changed in terms of what threats are out there and what the capabilities of our near-peer competitors are,” Rep. Ruben Gallego told Insider.
Gallego, the highest-ranking person of color on the Armed Services Committee, a Marine veteran, and progressive Democrat, will chair the new subcommittee.
“We’re right now having to be able to continue with the traditional roles [of the] military but then also having to figure out how to deal with hybrid warfare,” Gallego added.
Gallego and committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith announced the new subcommittee, officially called the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations, on February 3.
ISO emerges from a split of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, along with the Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems.
“A lot of the work in warfare that’s going to be coming up is going to be found in these two subcommittees,” Gallego said.
‘Very serious and sticky situations’
The ISO subcommittee is responsible for military and national intelligence, countering weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, and special-operations forces. Special operations and military intelligence are likely to get the most attention.
“They both feed into each other” and “into the bigger portfolio in terms of preparing us for the great-power competition,” Gallego said. “We’re going to not neglect our actions in other areas, but making sure that those two areas are primed and ready to go, I think, is going to be really important.”
Demand has grown for more oversight of military operations conducted under the banner of counterterrorism. Special-operations forces, such as the Navy SEALs, are a minority among troops overseas but carry out many of those missions.
The lack of clarity about what they’re doing and the legal justification for it has been a major point of criticism.
“It definitely is a problem,” Gallego said of that opacity. “They are special operators, but they are still under the purview of civilian authority, and I also don’t appreciate that they’ve been essentially used to … go around Congress’s ability to wage war.”
“So we are going to bring that under control as much as possible. We want to see more transparency when it comes to their usage,” Gallego said. “At the same time, we also want to make sure that we guard their usage, because their consistent rotations, I think, [are] actually debilitating towards their effectiveness.”
Lawmakers have expressed concern about that high operational tempo. Like other troops, special operators face increasing mental and physical strain from frequent deployments. That strain, plaudits heaped upon those forces, and a lack of accountability have been blamed for repeated cases of misconduct – especially among SEALs.
Those units’ high profile may help recruiting, Gallego said, but it can also make policymakers “more likely to use them in very serious and sticky situations that they don’t necessarily want ‘normal’ forces in.”
In January, the Pentagon announced an evaluation of whether US Special Operations Command, which oversees those forces, and US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, implemented programs to reduce potential violations of the laws of war and whether violations that did occur were reported.
Policymakers have a habit of deploying those forces without public debate, hoping that “they never get ‘caught’ or create situations where then they have to answer to the public,” Gallego said.
In that respect, the Pentagon’s review “will be extremely important,” Gallego added, pointing to Congress’ inquiries after the October 2017 ambush in Niger that killed four US Army Special Forces members. (That incident prompted a restructuring of special-operations leadership to allow more civilian oversight, which was implemented by the Trump administration and is now being reviewed by the Biden administration.)
“Members of Congress were surprised that we had military in Niger,” Gallego said. “The fact that it is that pervasive, abuse of our military, that even people in the Armed Services Committee did not know that we were actively involved there is a problem.”
‘Toe-to-toe with any military’
While special operations will be a priority for the subcommittee, challenges related to intelligence-gathering, cyber intrusions, and disinformation loom large after the 2016 and 2020 elections.
In a joint statement announcing the new subcommittee, Gallego and Smith singled out “the disruptive impact of disinformation attacks” among the “unprecedented threats” the US faces from “adversaries and competitors.”
Disinformation is a particular challenge because it spans “the civilian-military divide” and is created by both domestic and international actors, Gallego said.
“We are going to have to address it. How we address it with the assets that we have currently on deck, I think, is going to be really important,” Gallego added. “We have the capability. We have the talent. We don’t necessarily have the authorities nor the true understanding of how deep and problematic this is.”
Gallego mentioned the Defense Intelligence Agency as a partner for the subcommittee. DIA is one of 18 organizations in the US intelligence community, the size of which has been a source of internal confusion and external criticism.
The community’s size isn’t the problem but rather its responsiveness, Gallego said.
“If you’re big and you don’t move, that’s a problem. If you’re small and you don’t move, that’s still a problem,” Gallego added. “So I’d love to be able to work with all these different elements and make sure that they are interoperable, they’re talking to each other, and they actually want to have action and operations, instead of just informing the military … and us what’s going on.”
The Trump administration resisted assessments from those agencies about the role foreign influence operations had in the 2016 election. Disputes about those assessments persist, and domestic actors, including Republican lawmakers, continue to invoke baseless allegations about the integrity of the 2020 election.
Gallego said he didn’t see that as an obstacle to working with Republicans on matters before his subcommittee.
“I think that was very much a Trump administration-led problem,” Gallego told Insider. “Now that Trump has gone, I think that is no longer an issue, and I think people want to work together across party lines to make sure we take care of that serious threat.”
The new subcommittee was announced a day before the Pentagon announced a review of the US military’s “footprint, resources, strategy, and missions” around the world, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said will inform his advice to President Joe Biden “about how we best allocate military forces in pursuit of national interests.”
The relevance of that review extends to information warfare and emerging technologies, Gallego told Insider.
“I’m sure we can go toe-to-toe with any military when it comes to man-to-man, hand-to-hand combat, but are we going to be able to win the hacking war of the next 20 years? Are we going to be able to win the quantum-computing competition that we may be already losing right now? What happens if China turns the corner when it comes to AI?” Gallego said. “These are the things that would have to have a full review.”
The results of recent sniper competitions revealed that some of the US military’s best snipers are in the National Guard.
Thirty-five sniper teams, each consisting of a shooter and a spotter, competed in the 50th Winston P. Wilson Sniper Championship and the 30th Annual Armed Forces Skill at Arms Meeting earlier this month.
The latter competition involves sniper teams from across the military, and the National Guard teams emerged victorious, beating even the special operations snipers.
The sharpshooter competitions hosted by the National Guard Marksmanship Training Center together with the US National Guard Sniper School at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas are designed to test sniper skills, such as shooting and marksmanship, fieldcraft, and other relevant skills. They serve as a kind of training exercise and are intended to mimic certain aspects of real-world combat.
For example, there are exercises like call on fire, infiltration and exfiltration, and stalking, among others. In total, there are 28 events in the AFSAM competition alone.
In the AFSAM, California National Guard Staff Sgts. Demetrios Iannios and Eric Vargas scored a 625.5, which put them in first place ahead of the Special Warfare Training Group Team and the Marine Raider Training Center Team, which came in second and third place respectively.
The 2nd place winners were Sgt. 1st Class Jeff D. and Staff Sgt. Bj J., members of the special operations community who currently serve as instructors, according to a public affairs spokesperson at Fort Bragg who withheld their last names to protect their identities as SOF soldiers. Their final score in the competition was 500.
And, the Marine sniper team that came in 3rd place in this competition was Staff Sgt. Dylan P. Deano and Gunnery Sgt. Eduardo L. Ocampo. Their score was 455.
In the Winston P. Wilson Sniper Championship, which is just for National Guard participants, sniper teams from the Colorado National Guard, Iowa Guard, and Utah Guard took the top three spots.
The overall winners of the competitions were the California National Guard team with its score of 625.5. They were followed by the Colorado National Guard team, Sgt. Triston Ivkov and Spc. Max Miller, with a score of 546.5 and the Iowa National Guard Team, Spcs. Aaron M. McAndrews and Kyle R. Thies, with a score of 504.
“We’re all just trying to be the best that we can be and make everyone all around us better,” Vargas, humble in victory, said in a statement.
“We all wear the same flag on our right shoulder, and that’s what it is all about,” the staff sergeant said. “Coming together. Doing what we need to do. Being masters at our craft, shooting well, and just getting the mission accomplished the best way we can.”