Under cover of high-profile raids in Sadr City and hidden within massive U.S. Army sweeps for abducted soldiers, a quieter and deadlier team of hunters scours the date groves, marketplaces and alleyways of Iraq as part of a continuing effort to systematically wipe out Al Qaeda in the Middle East and elsewhere.
They're a low-profile bunch whose successes most often are attributed rather generically to 'coalition forces', but those on the ground in Iraq know them as Task Force 145: a unit created with the specific task of going after Al Qaeda, wherever they can be found, and the United States' secret weapon in the war on terror.
Currently, confronting Al Qaeda most often means doing it in Iraq, and that's certainly where TF 145 has been most active, with their most high-profile success coming when they quarterbacked the elimination of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. More recently, on May 28, TF 145 was responsible for the capture in Haditha and Mosul of nine Al Qaeda fighters, including a Syrian suspected of serving as a conduit for foreign fighters into Iraq.
Task Force 145 is a mixed bag of special operators who are exemplars of the current passion for 'jointness' among western armed forces. The task force is comprised of elements of Delta Force, Seal Team Six (U.S. Navy Special Development Group), Army Special Operations aviators, Army Rangers, covert ops specialists from various intelligence agencies, and even the legendary British Special Air Service (SAS), bolstered by 'Rangers' from the U.K.'s Special Forces Support Group. There is also speculation that in special situations they have operated with other countries' special forces teams, such as Canada's Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2). They are organized into four teams, each with regular force army muscle wrapped around a hard nucleus of the most elite operators (Delta, Seals and SAS). Picture the Delta-Ranger assault teams described by Mark Bowden in Blackhawk Down, but with "unprecedented access to intelligence" and almost complete freedom of movement.
What TF 145 represents, then, is an all-star team of special forces hunters and shooters, given wide latitude and authority to operate on their own discretion and initiative. This 'hands off' approach has resulted in a highly effective unit that is said to be quietly rolling up Al Qaeda, one cell at a time, even while the failure of conventional forces -- pinned in the glare of media publicity -- places increasing pressure on the government to withdraw from the country.
While the nimble TF 145 is the tip of the spear, it's got a lot of sinew behind it. The unit is supported by a massive network of intelligence personnel and operators around the world, described by the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in Joint Forces Quarterlyas a "global special operations network":
"The goal is to position and manage SOF, in conjunction with other DOD, interagency, and partner assets, in simultaneous operations around the world against terrorist organizations along with their allies and sponsors...by positioning and networking SOF in key locations to obtain and disseminate information, supported by specialized equipment and advanced technologies, USSOCOM continues to develop ever greater situational awareness throughout vital regions to enhance its effectiveness in combating terrorist networks and remain a force multiplier."
Prior to its major coup, the Zarqawi hit, the team was responsible for taking down an insurgent cell in Yusufiyah. In fact, this was the operation that gave them the needed intelligence on Zarqawi's movements, and it was during this raid that the infamous videotape of the Al Qaeda in Iraq leader fumbling with his weapon was discovered. That footage, aired on western and Islamic networks around the world, became a huge propaganda win in and of itself, and was overshadowed only by the spectacular follow-up of Zarqawi's actual destruction.
In fact, it turns out that TF 145 has been instrumental in almost all the high-value takedowns, having also been credited with finding Saddam Hussein, and with orchestrating the successful hunt and subsequent destruction of his sons, Uday and Qusay.
"You have people who are physically very, very tough, and they're very, very bright, that are very motivated," retired Col. Hy Rothstein, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School told an ABC News crew at the time of Al Zarqawi's death. "They have a sense of purpose that will permit them to do really extraordinary things, so they really are the cream of the crop."
The idea of a flexible, elite force swooping into action, grabbing an enemy combatant, developing intel from him and then quickly planning follow-up raids is not particularly new. In Viet Nam, the Navy Seals became expert in Viet Cong kidnap missions that were not much different. But TF 145 has spent the last couple of years honing that concept into a razor-sharp and ultramodern counter-insurgency tool equipped with the most current technology and best practices.
The respected website Strategy Page says that TF 145's success, and in particular, the tactics and techniques they've created from trial and error, have created a huge demand for such capabilities, and that "similar raiding units (company strength, a hundred or so Special Forces troops) for four of the major combatant commands (each of which is responsible for American military operations in a specific part of the world)" are in the process of being formed. This is a far cry from the first Gulf War, in which General Schwarzkopf was so skeptical about special forces that the 'scud hunting' role had to be essentially 'invented' for them.
Currently, according to the usually well-informed Weekly Standard writer Bill Roggio, TF 145 is most likely heavily involved in the search for the kidnapped Britons and U.S. soldiers, along with over 4,000 U.S. and 2000 Iraqi troops, including an Iraq Special Operations Forces battalion that was previously tasked with taking down Mehdi Army cells in Sadr City.
Although the slums of Baghdad have been by far the richest hunting ground for TF 145, Afghanistan -- or more precisely, the lawless tribal lands on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border -- is still a haven for Al Qaeda, not to mention being the presumed hiding place for Osama Bin Laden. Accordingly, it's safe to assume that Task Force 145 has had irons in the fire there, as well.
Certainly, this is what Roggio
believes, suggesting that TF 145 has been operating there on a hunt for the Black Guard (Bin Laden's personal bodyguard). Roggio speculates that TF 145 were the real perpetrators of air strikes near the North Waziristan village of Danda Saidgai in March -- attacks that at the time were attributed to Pakistani forces.
"The cover story for the strike was that Pakistani Army units, including helicopters equipped with night vision equipment, hit the camp. But the truth is Task Force 145 struck with air and ground forces, and inflicted dozens of casualties on al-Qaeda recruits and Imam Asad, a senior Chechen al-Qaeda commander and associate of recently slain Shamil Basayev. Asad was the camp commander and at the time the commander of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, a position of honor and power within al-Qaeda due to the importance of the country to the organization", Roggio stated.
Some commentators also believe that TF 145 was involved in the killing of Osama Bin Laden's brother in law in Madagascar last year, and the seizure of his laptop, and in pursuing Al Qaeda members trying to escape from ascendant government forces in Somalia along with the tatters of the whipped Islamic Courts Union.