Special Forces equals Green Berets. Got it?

November 17, 2011 - 8:20 PM
APTOPIX Green Berets Wreath

U.S. Army Second Lt. Christopher Kennedy McKelvy, left, great nephew of President John F. Kennedy, Brig. Gen. Edward M. Reeder, Jr., center, and Army Secretary John McHugh, right, pause after placing a wreath during a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's designation of the name of the Special Forces Green Berets, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Army Special Forces Green Berets get plenty of acclaim — sometimes too much acclaim. Often it's a case of mistaken identity.

All special operations forces tend to get called, incorrectly, "Green Berets," and many in the military are trying to borrow their job description: training foreign forces to fight America's enemies overseas.

In a climate of shrinking budgets, the Green Berets are branding themselves as the go-to force for counterinsurgency that can do the job with fewer troops than conventional forces.

As the Pentagon divvies up money and missions, the Green Berets want to make sure their job isn't handed to someone else.

It's not that the Green Berets don't have their hands full. Some 87 percent of the deployed force is in the general area of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Pentagon has ordered their 8,500-strong force expanded by 1,000 over the past four years because they are so much in demand, Brig. Gen. Ed Reeder, the Special Forces commander, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

But sometimes, they feel less than appreciated, especially when just about everyone gets the name wrong.

"Special Forces," means specifically — and only — Green Berets, as some Green Berets will tell you through gritted teeth.

Yet since the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this year, even the commander-in-chief has used "special forces" to refer to all special operations forces — from SEALs to Army Rangers to Air Force Special Operations troops. Many inside the Pentagon don't know the difference.

That's partly why dozens of Green Berets, current and former, descended on Washington, on Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of the green beret itself — a distinctive part of the uniform that now serves as a nickname. They laid a wreath at the grave of President John F. Kennedy, who helped make Green Berets a permanent part of the U.S. military landscape.

The Special Forces were established in 1952, but Kennedy approved the namesake cap in 1961.

Kennedy saw the Green Berets as key to his battle against communism, using "unconventional warfare" — teaching local forces to overthrow the local government or leader, fighting alongside them to provide expertise, intelligence and logistical support.

When the U.S. responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Green Berets were the first military forces deployed, Reeder said, together with CIA operatives. They provided Afghanistan insurgents firepower, direction and intelligence to help unseat the Taliban in just 43 days.

More recently in Afghanistan, Green Berets employed their other skill of "foreign internal defense," in this case by helping the local forces support the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

That fit into the larger strategy of protecting the local population and fostering local government. While popular mythology credits the creation of counterinsurgency strategy to now-retired-Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, Green Berets will tell you they have been practicing it for decades and doing it with fewer forces.

The Green Beret small-footprint counterinsurgency is being discussed as a possible exit strategy for the White House as it seeks a way to shrink the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. The Green-Beret-designed program to secure remote Afghan areas — called Village Stability Operations — is being touted as the way to keep the Taliban out, with far fewer U.S. troops.

But everyone from Navy SEALs to Marine Corps special operations forces have been pressed into service to man the village outposts after getting a one-week crash course in the Green Berets' model of fighting alongside local forces. Green Berets get years more training in language and combat.

The Pentagon's top officer, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has even said the practice of training and working with local forces should be farmed out to regular troops.

"What frustrates me is when people say (regular) troops could replace special operations, and it would be cheaper," said retired Special Forces Col. David Maxwell, who now teaches at Georgetown University's foreign service school.

Not everyone has the skills or aptitude to work in small teams in remote areas with indigenous forces, he said.