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Insights on the Events Before and After 9/11

From a Special Operation Forces Veteran

Brian Halstead began his military career in January of 1984, and throughout his 21 years of service, he witnessed first-hand the before and after effects of 9/11. Halstead, who retired as a CW3 in 2005, gained insight from intimate experience derived from foreign internal defense missions as part of an Operational Detachment Alpha, or A-Team, the heart and soul of special forces. 

At its core, U.S. special forces are the unconventional warriors in America’s arsenal.  To be “field ready,” special forces operators require more than 18 months of specialized training focused on advanced weapons, language, demolitions, combat medicine, and advanced combat tactics. special forces combat medics have received training at inner-city hospitals in Chicago and New York, where there is never a shortage of gunshot victims.

Special forces A-Teams are 12 special forces soldiers, most often composed of 10 non-commissioned officers, a Warrant Officer, and a Captain. 

“Before 9/11, deployment with a full team was unheard of,” says Halstead. “We spent our time deploying around the world running offense and defense plays, not unlike a football team. We used to call it ‘going into harm’s way.’ We were doing things of national and global importance, and these missions were very dangerous.”

For the first years of Halstead’s career, during the end of the Cold War, many special forces units were being deployed to South America. These troops performed one of the primary responsibilities of special forces, that of building rapport on a military-to-military level with America’s allies worldwide. 

For example, during the late ‘80s, special forces Operators were deployed to El Salvador to train their military. Later, teams went to Columbia to aid in the fight against narcotics trafficking. In the early ’90s, special forces became the eyes and ears of the coalition forces during the Persian Gulf War, providing outposts where Iraqi military deserters could surrender and undergo interrogation, providing valuable intelligence. Other foreign internal defense efforts had special forces units in Africa training the African Infantry. 

Then, seventeen years into Halstead’s military career, 9/11 happened. While Halstead felt the pain experienced that day by every American, he did not feel the shock. 

“We already knew the stranglehold Islamic governments had on their population,” Halstead explained. “We know how much you can control a populace. Not by telling them what to think, but by controlling what they hear, or, in other ways, the information they have access to.”

Halstead also provided a current example, “Did you know that, right now, there are people in Russia who think there are Nazis in charge of Ukraine? The leader of Ukraine is a Jewish guy! Could anything be further from the reality of the situation? Yet, it is what many Russians believe because it is all they know.”

Halstead went on, “I was involved in writing a book some years ago that explored how Iran broke the mold of Islamic fundamentalists being deeply involved in the government. In years prior, it was the Al Turk model. Al Turk did not dissuade Turks from being Muslims. He encouraged it. He was a Muslim himself, but he understood the idea of separating the clergy from the governments.”

Halstead explains, “The global jihadi movement had been gaining strength for my entire career. It was evident in the ‘70s with the hijackings and the attack on the Olympics, and in the ‘80s with continued radical tactics worldwide. I was not surprised things ended up the way they did on 9/11.”

Halstead remembers being asked if America could ever win the war in Afghanistan. 

“I was never sure we could win, but I knew that if we lost, I could point to the date we lost as January 6, 2004, when we allowed the Taliban to sign the new constitution, which was, quite frankly, ‘Taliban Light.’”

According to Halstead, “You cannot stop the enemy from fighting if you don’t break his will. No matter how often you beat him on the battlefield, he will keep fighting if he still has hope.”

While breaking the enemy’s will is necessary, Halstead clarifies that this process doesn’t involve the destruction of the population by committing genocide.

“People say you can’t beat Islam or Jihadists without genocide, but I believe we can. The Jihads are confident that their political perspective is good and pre-ordained.”

Halstead gave the example of the U.S. defeat of the Japanese in World War II. While the Japanese believed their war against the Allied Powers was also “good and pre-ordained,” the Allies ultimately defeated them.  The defeat was made possible by the two-fold actions of the Allies. They broke the Japanese will to fight and replaced their “pre-ordained” beliefs with a new philosophy. One that allowed Japan to prosper but not present a future danger to America or the rest of the world.

“In contrast,” says Halstead, “by allowing the Taliban to sign a constitution that was basically ‘Taliban Light,’ I knew we would never have the type of victory we hoped for.”

Like many Americans, Halstead dealt with frustration after 9/11. He felt angry that the American government did not take the time to understand their new enemy fully.

“During World War II,” Halstead explains, “ there was plenty of in-depth study of what a Nazi was, what a Nazi thought or believed, and how to counteract that ideology. During the Global War on Terrorism, there has been almost zero attempt to understand the Jihadi mindset because people are afraid that it will come off sounding Islamaphobic.”

Halstead goes on to argue that gaining an understanding of Jihadist Muslims doesn’t need to involve prejudice. 

“They have written it all down; they have a playbook they are following; they have the Quoran!”

Halstead experienced firsthand how the American government’s focus on political correctness would hamper the efforts of their troops in Afghanistan.

“My team and I hitched a ride with some guys from a Ranger regiment going in our direction. As we headed up these tight hairpin mountain roads, they would slow down and allow our team to jump out. Eventually, we all met up and began to walk for several days.”

Halstead and his team proceeded over the mountain range and prepared to set up an “anvil” to try and block the multiple goat paths that lead up from the valley far below.  Their job was to prevent enemy soldiers from escaping over the mountains. 

“We kept going up and up this mountain. When we started, it was 117 degrees on the valley floor; before it was over, we were getting snowed on.

“We later heard that the guy we had been chasing walked right by the Rangers who were there. The Rangers were ‘The Hammer,’ and this guy walked right past them wearing a burka.”  

A burka is a garment worn by women in Afghanistan.

“At that time, they had very few women in the special forces. They didn’t have anyone to search the women. So, they dressed this guy up as a woman, and he walked right past the Rangers!” 

According to Halstead, this was hardly the only incident of this kind.

“The military planners and officers would tell you, ‘Oh no, man, no great mighty Islamic warrior would dress up like a woman.’ Really? F*** you! I’ve seen it with my own eyes on many occasions.” 

As Halstead puts it, “It is very hard to win when you don’t play by the same rules. They would just run into a Mosque because they knew we could never target it.

“I would yell, ‘Sir, we’re at coordinates, so and so, and taking heavy fire from the mosque. I will hold up the microphone so you can hear; we are being shot at.’ 

“The reply, ‘No, sorry, man. We can’t target it. Can’t target it, okay.’”

With those handicaps, it is easy to understand why Halstead believes America could never have won that war.  Despite the frustrations of Afghanistan, overall, Halstead has no regrets about his time serving his country.

“Looking back on my career, though, I have such great memories. I was fortunate to be surrounded by incredible guys in a special operation forces (SOF) unit. We could do tons of impressive stuff, all because of the team.”

So the question now becomes, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq officially over, where does that leave SOF operators and their missions going forward? No one can say they haven’t proved how necessary they are to the defense of this country and our global interests.  According to information from the Defense Department, “Although U.S. Special Operations Command makes up just three percent of the joint force, it has suffered over half of all combat casualties over the past few years.”1 No one can question their dedication or the extent of their efforts.

There can be no question that the war on terrorism is certainly not over, and so the U.S. SOFs’ fight against global terrorism will continue. Maybe not in the theatrical ways depicted by popular TV shows and movies, involving explosions and the kicking down of doors, but perhaps through the intellectual deployment of assets and military-to-military rapport missions like in the years before 9/11—a return to the Middle East and the African plains, this time with a constant eye aimed toward Russia, North Korea, and China. 

_______________________________________

1 (n.d.). Officials Describe Special Operations Forces’ Contributions to National Security. U.S. Department of Defense. Retrieved August 25, 2023, from https%3A%2F%2Fwww.defense.gov%2FNews%2FNews-Stories%2FArticle%2FArticle%2F2550459%2Fofficials-describe-special-operations-forces-contributions-to-national-security%2F

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