Darth Vader’s Afghanistan
National Post May 19, 2009
He has been described as the Darth Vader of the War on Terror, a commander of elite special forces troops who has constantly fought in the shadows as head of one of the U.S. Army’s most secretive commands.
Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, a 53-year-old West Point graduate who last week was appointed the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, made his career in the U.S. Special Forces.
Gen. McChrystal’s promotion may signal a dramatic shift in U.S. tactics in Afghanistan. His background suggests a determination to rely more heavily on special operations forces and a willingness to use new intelligence procedures and unconventional tactics.
His reliance on “fusion cells” – a combination of special forces, science and technology – has been credited with helping to win the war in Iraq.
His promotion also suggests a subtle shift from long-term counterinsurgency operations to short-term counter-terrorism actions.
Desperate to see a quick turn around in Taliban fortunes, Washington appears determined to rely on its special forces to help give it breathing room to regroup and re-organize its counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan.
“With the new strategy, and with some changes and adjustments in our military approach, my hope would be that by the end of this year we will begin to see a change in momentum,” Robert Gates, the U.S. Defence Secretary, told a House of Representatives committee last week, as he explained Gen. McChrystal’s new assignment.
Ranked by some as one of the best generals in the U.S. Army, Gen McChrystal has spent time as the commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment and served tours of duty in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and as the U.S. Army’s chief of staff in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. But it was the five years he spent, in 2003-08, as head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the most secretive force in the U.S. military, that sealed his reputation and left him shrouded in mystery.
JSOC oversees such elite units as the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and the U.S. Navy’s SEALs. It has a reputation for “snake-eating, slit-their throats, black ops.” Gen. McChrystal, with a reputation as a warrior-scholar, who lives the life of an ascetic, eating one meal a day to avoid feeling sluggish, working on just a few hours of sleep and running nearly 20 kilometres each day, fits right in.
Yet JSOC is so secretive that while he was its commander Gen. McChrystal was never photographed and his name and phone number were deleted from most Pentagon directories.
As head of JSOC, he led Special Operations Task Force 121 in Iraq which hunted down and captured Saddam Hussein and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
His forces worked out of one of Saddam Hussein’s former military bases in Baghdad known as Camp Nama, which U.S. officials said was an acronym for “Nasty Ass Military Area.”
The base had a reputation for detainee abuse and, according to Human Rights Watch, was the source of repeated allegations of beatings, exposure to extreme cold, threats of death, humiliation, and various forms of psychological abuse.
But it was Gen. McChrystal’s success in hunting down and exterminating al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders that captured the attention of his superiors.
He refined a new style of special operations called “collaborative warfare” which integrated a wide range of tools – from signals intercepts, to human intelligence, spy planes and forensic science – in one co-ordinated attack unit known as a fusion cell.
Most of the new techniques remain top secret, but the essence of the program is to send rapid strike teams of U.S. special forces into the field under the co-ordination of a joint task force that can include a wide array of experts, from map specialists to forensic experts, political analysts, computer specialists, and intelligence officials. The aim is to blend all available military and intelligence assets into a single operations unit that can track and kill terrorist targets in lightning-quick raids.
Gen. McChrystal’s fusion cells were so successful in Iraq they are credited with contributing to the success of the 2007 “surge” by eliminating virtually all al-Qaeda in Iraq’s leaders.
Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward has compared JSOC’s new counter-terrorism techniques to the top-secret Manhattan Project in the Second World War which built the atomic bomb.
“This is very sensitive and very top secret, but there are secret operational capabilities that have been developed by the military to locate, target and kill leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq, insurgent leaders, renegade militia leaders. That is one of the true breakthroughs,” Mr. Woodward said while promoting his book, The War Within.
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh describes JSOC as an “executive assassination wing.” He insists JSOC units do “high-value targeting of men that we believe are known to be involved in anti-American activities, or are believed to be planning such activities.”
Gen. McChrystal’s appearance on the scene in Afghanistan shouldn’t do anything to alter the role Canada’s armed forces are now playing in Khandahar, but it could see the secret redeployment of some members of Canada’s own special forces, JTF2.
The general and other senior U.S. officials had nothing but high praise for Canada’s special forces during in the initial invasion of Afghanistan.