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Secret operations: supporting or undermining the War on Terroism?

The Washington Post
January 25, 2008
William M. Arkin
An internal battle is unfolding before a military Court of Inquiry this month. At issue is a civilian casualty incident in Afghanistan last year. By many accounts, this is a case of the Army versus the Marines. But really it's about special operations and the role they play in the war against terrorism.
These forces are so secretive, and so cocksure about their importance, it's difficult to gauge their true impact. But it's clear that, in some fundamental ways, special operations (and their non-military covert counterpart in the CIA) play by their own rules - sometimes to the detriment of conventional military forces and our ongoing war efforts.
On Mar. 4, 2007, a Marine Corps special operations unit opened fire after its convoy was attacked by a suicide bomber in Nangahar Province, Afghanistan. As many as 19 civilians were killed and 50 injured. That's reputed to be the largest number of civilian casualties involving U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan since 2001.
The Army brigade commander responsible for the region where the incident occurred, Col. John Nicholson Jr., subsequently apologized to local Afghans for the deaths, approved payments to families (offers of condolences, not admissions of guilt) and condemned the Marines' actions, as well as the fact that they didn't stick around to wait for Afghan police.
Nicholson has been selected for promotion to Brigadier General, suggesting that the Army backs his complaint. But Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway denounced him for apologizing while the shooting was still under investigation.
The special Court of Inquiry has been convened at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to determine whether charges should be filed against Maj. Fred C. Galvin, commander of Marine unit, and Capt. Vincent J. Noble, the platoon leader on the scene. Their 120-man Fox Company was expelled from Afghanistan after the incident.
At the Inquiry, Nicholson said the Marine unit frequently didn't coordinate with other combat commanders and, on the day of the operation, he didn't even know Fox Company was on patrol in his area. "I was not aware that they were out doing a mission. We weren't sure who it was," said Nicholson. He said he later learned the unit had conducted more than 30 operations, only five of which he had been notified of at the time.
Nicholson's 10th Mountain Division and Fox Company were stationed at the same Jalalabad airfield base, certainly facilitating communication. But Fox Company was part of the newly formed Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command and reported to the separate Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan.
So what happened on Mar. 4? And what does that mean for the bigger picture? Maybe this special operations unit just had a bad commander. Maybe its rules of engagement allowed particularly aggressive killing in pursuit of a target. Or maybe it had access to intelligence that the conventional military unit responsible for the area didn't -- intelligence that made it worth going after someone Nicholson called "a very low level" individual. Either way, the unit was comfortable determining its target without considering the impact on the overall strategy in the region.
Congress and others should aggressively inquire why there need to be separate chains of command between conventional and non-conventional forces. Such poor coordination is not acceptable at a time when "unity of effort" is such a mantra. All our troops should be operating with all the intelligence they need. And even semi-autonomous special operations units need to understand that popping some bad guy could undermine far larger objectives. We talk about fighting terrorism with all of the instruments at our disposal. But we don't want one of those instruments undermining, rather than assisting, the overall effort.
2008 The Washington Post Company
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