For special operations, the war in Iraq marks a coming of age.

The rebels, who for so long have walked outside the boundaries of the traditional military reservation, now will have an equal place inside the tent.

Special operations is “a very, very powerful tool for the [war commander] and a very, very powerful and very accurate arrow in his quiver when you look across joint and combined operations,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley, the air campaign commander in Iraq, told reporters April 5.

The general public will never fully know the role played by the “shadow warriors” in Iraq. The special operators’ most daring exploits are destined to become legends only in that small circle of men who share the title.

But a few lessons can be pieced together from comments made by U.S. war commanders and off-the-record discussions with special operators themselves.

First, and most important, special operations in Iraq did not stretch the boundaries of the group’s traditional missions, according to a high-ranking special operations officer who asked not to be named. But there were two significant changes.

First, special operations was integrated into the overall planning process right from the beginning, accepted as an equal player by conventional force commanders to a degree that has never been seen before.

“I will tell you that their effects were felt before D-Day and are still felt today, that they have been a huge combat multiplier in this joint campaign to topple this regime,” Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of land forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom under the Coalition Forces Land Component Command, told Pentagon reporters April 23.

Second, special operations was involved in Iraq on an unprecedented scale, both in numbers of personnel and in the number of missions conducted.

“Special Forces and Ranger forces played a major role throughout Iraq,” military analyst Anthony Cordesman said in his report “The ‘Instant Lessons’ of the Iraq War.”

Setting the stage

Analysts agreed that the stage for special operations in Iraq was actually set in Afghanistan, where U.S. Central Command leader Gen. Tommy R. Franks learned just how effective the unconventional fighters could be in conventional operations.

“It is clear that the new interactions between Special Forces, precision air power, and advanced [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] systems demonstrated during the Afghan conflict are redefining the role of Special Forces,” Cordesman said.

In fact, Franks “found Special Forces to be so effective during the fighting in Afghanistan that he deployed some 10,000 personnel in similar roles in Iraq,” Cordesman, the Arleigh Burke Chair for Strategy at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in his report.

Other reports have put the number of special operations forces in Iraq closer to 12,000.

The size of the operational portion of U.S. Special Operations Command is classified, but most analysts put the number at about 47,000. That would mean one-fourth of the entire force is now in Iraq — at the same time that special operations remain prominent in Afghanistan, not to mention the Philippines, South Korea, Africa, and all their other areas of responsibility.

“We’re stretched pretty thin,” the special forces officer said. “But we’re getting the job done.”

Low profile

The relative dearth of U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan meant that special operators were often the only game in town for curious media teams. Commandos were interviewed regularly by reporters, and photographed playing soccer with local Afghan children, treating wounded civilians, and even posing with their weapons.

The result was that commandos assumed an unusually high-profile role.

Iraq was very different. With a state leader wielding a conventional army as foe, conventional ground and air forces took much of the media’s focus, allowing special operators to follow their more traditional, invisible path.

A handful — or “10 or 15 reporters” out of 600 — were embedded with teams performing field missions, according to Maj. Tim Blair, Pentagon spokesman who helped administer the embed program.

But for the most part, the special forces were out of sight. “And that’s the way it should be,” the special forces officer said.

Many of the commando teams were stationed in sparsely populated western deserts of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was thought to have deployed Scud missile launchers directed at Israel.

Commanders augmented the western-based special forces with a barrage of air attacks on suspected Scud sites. How many of those attacks were “targets of opportunity” discovered by special forces on foot, and how many were the product of satellite intelligence, is not known, but no Scuds were launched at Israel.

In northern Iraq, special forces worked with Kurdish militias, helping to keep factions from turning against one another and later, assisting in the capture of oil-rich Kirkuk and Mosul.

Elsewhere, operators worked in everything from covert operations (one source suggested that special forces were undercover in Baghdad well before the war began), to the rescue operation that freed Pfc. Jessica Lynch, held prisoner in an Iraqi hospital.

As they did so successfully in Iraq, the special forces used lasers to spot targets for airstrikes. They guarded oil fields. They monitored roads near the border with Syria to ensure that Baath party officials could not slip out of Iraq and into safe haven.

None of the above were new missions for a group of servicemembers who are accustomed to “writing the book as we go along,” the special operations officer said.

Instead, lessons learned from special operations in Iraq will focus on how technology can refine and augment the unique skills this group brings to the Pentagon arsenal, the officer said

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