Green Berets are historically some of the Army's toughest Soldiers. They've been to hell and back since the days before the beret, since World War II when small teams of Soldiers conducted unconventional warfare behind enemy lines, often under the umbrella of the Office of Strategic Services. Special operators fought guerrilla warfare in Europe and the Pacific and later in Korea and Vietnam. (President John F. Kennedy authorized the green beret in 1961.)
During Operation Desert Storm, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf described Special Forces as "the eyes and ears" of the conventional forces and the "glue that held the coalition together." Green Berets in Afghanistan were instrumental in the fall of the Taliban. They've also provided humanitarian assistance, trained indigenous forces and performed special reconnaissance missions around the world.
Among the most essential components of such missions is relationship-building, the working with local allies to overthrow corrupt regimes like the Taliban. It involves embedding in local militia units, sharing their accommodations, eating at their communal meals. It involves drinking tea, taking horse rides along steep mountain trails. It's sharing their hardships, bathing in icy rivers, and sleeping in a cave or under a truck in the mountains in freezing November weather.
"I find the best way to start out is, even if you don't know a language fluently, showing an effort that you want to learn the language," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Fowers, a Special Forces Soldier who served on one of the first Special Forces teams to go into Afghanistan in 2001. "Picking up on cultural nuances, you know, the placing of a hand on the chest, head gestures, picking up on all of these things and kind of giving that back when you communicate with a partner force just shows a lot of respect."
Building trust, whether it's by showing local fighters they can rely on America, that there will be bombs, ammunition and humanitarian supplies to support them, he said, "is everything. I think that was really highlighted in Afghanistan. … You have a handful of Americans there. At any time, that town can fold on you. You only have so much ammunition. You're just as reliant on them as they are on you."
Fowers noted that, for the missions they undertook, they packed only what they could carry. Yes, there were supply drops, but most of their weapons were locally procured, such as Soviet machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. In fact, the Afghans taught the Americans a few things about surviving in the harsh Hindu Kush mountains and jerry-rigging their gear.
"Their field craft was amazing," he explained. "They could make a vehicle last for months, [even] with the environment they put it through and the harsh treatment of it. I learned a lot from them on vehicle maintenance. They would take out the air filters and blow it out with the exhaust pipe or things like that. … They definitely know how to survive in their environment.
"We needed them as much as they needed us. It was a pretty neat experience to go through. I was very surprised at how much support came from the small villages. ... They definitely put their best foot forward and helped us in any way they could."
Never, he said, underestimate the power of will. It can overcome the severest privation, the harshest oppression. "You show me a population with a will and I'll show you a population that can overcome anything.
"That's the biggest part of it: The people have to want what they're after. It doesn't matter how much money or equipment or training you throw at a partner nation. If they don't have the will, it's not going to be successful. They have to have the will for it.
"In '01, the Afghans definitely had the will. They were ready to go against the Taliban with pick axes and whatever they could find in the tool shed. Of course, giving them some equipment and training goes a long way, but it's all for naught if they don't have the will to fight."