Preston Mendenhall: Shedding a little light on U.S. shadow forces |

Preston Mendenhall: Shedding a little light on U.S. shadow forces

ALONG THE IRAQ-IRAN BORDER – Ever since 9/11, when the words “special forces” became a regular part of our lexicon, some of the veil of mystery surrounding America’s crack commandos has been lifted, especially for reporters in the field.It was hard to miss the presence of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. In the south, around Kandahar, where I was based, there were hundreds of them. They came in two different breeds.The Special Forces shopping in the local Afghan markets, bearded and dressed in a sort of casual combat chic – a t-shirt and camouflage pants, accented by an M-4 assault rifle – are the regular guys (and there are no Special Forces gals).Then there are the Special Forces elite, who bristle when they are lumped together with the plain Special Forces. The elite are known as Special Operations Forces, or SOF, and they consist of Navy SEALS, Army Rangers and Air Force commandos, among other armed forces whose existence the U.S. military rarely acknowledges. There’s no knocking the regular Special Forces, who are active duty officers. It’s just that SOF are usually first to get in harm’s way.In Afghanistan, I never saw SOF in the local market. They were either hunkered down plotting future battles on computers in their headquarters at the Kandahar airport, orn See Mendenhall on page 7n continued from page 1wearing night vision goggles and camouflaged in mud, sneaking up on sleeping remnants of al-Qaida in the dead of night.Once, when I had a briefing (off the record, of course) with a SOF commander in Afghanistan, I was led through the darkened headquarters. The exterior of the building was in shambles, like much of Afghanistan. Inside, however, the place was spotless. The SOF commando leading me told me to avert my eyes. I could feel the suspicious stares of all the SOF in the room on the back of my head. SOF don’t like reporters.Here in Iraq, the Special Forces and SOF are also out in force. In the north of the country where I have been based for five weeks, I’m starting to see a lot of the regular Special Forces. Like in Afghanistan, the elite SOF are deployed forward, probably around Kirkuk, an oil-rich northern Iraqi city still controlled by Saddam Hussein’s forces. The SOF are preparing sites for a future U.S. airborne invasion, as well as making sure Kirkuk’s oil fields – crucial to rebuilding postwar Iraq – are not sabotaged by Saddam.The other day, a Kurdish villager led me to a former training camp used by Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic radical group that, until this week, controlled a small piece of territory in the mountainous border region between Iraq and Iran. Over the past 10 days, Kurdish fighters, teamed with U.S. Special Forces, have ousted many of the Ansar al-Islam militants, who the United States says receive support from al-Qaida and Saddam.While I was picking through the rubble of the former terrorist training camp – it had been hit by a U.S. cruise missile or two – there was a rumble down the road. Four Humvees with Special Forces drove up for their own inspection.As expected, the Special Forces were wary at my presence. They had come with a Chemical-Biological Survey team, or CBS, to check whether Ansar al-Islam, was producing deadly toxins and chemical weapons.The Special Forces commandos greeted me coolly. In Afghanistan, American reporters lashed out at the Special Forces when they tried to confiscate videotapes. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq is American soil. And even on American soil the military would have trouble seizing journalistic material without a court battle.In Afghanistan, we declared a truce. Journalists were aware that showing the face of or revealing personal information about a Special Forces officer could compromise his security. The Special Forces realized journalists had a job to do and that, notwithstanding a few heated threats, they really didn’t want to shoot us.So on that mountainside the other day, standing only 500 yards from the Iraq-Iran border, I got down to work. The Special Forces loosened up when I let them know my experiences in Afghanistan. Most had been on missions there, too. “Thanks for not pestering us with questions,” one officer told me. I filmed – from the neck down. They shared some information about their findings. They asked if I knew any sports scores.The excitement came when the Special Forces decided they needed to “calibrate” one of their Barrett 50-caliber semiautomatic machine guns, which had been repaired the night before.After a few rounds on the Barrett, which echoed fiercely in the high valleys, they decided to have some fun. Out came the M-4s and Humvee-mounted M-19 grenade launchers. While the Special Forces unloaded their weapons into a rock face across the valley, a few local Kurds stood dumbstruck, their jaws hanging down.After a week of fighting Islamic militants, the Special Forces seemed happy for a little down time, though several guarded point positions throughout. The battles here were over. The next stop? “West,” one officer told me – toward Kirkuk.An Aspen Times exclusive: Preston Mendenhall, who grew up in Aspen, is’s international editor. He is covering the war from northern Iraq and has agreed to send us twice-weekly dispatches about his experiences.