As the U.S. readies the pullout of its major combat units from Iraq, officials are concerned that the Pentagon's Green Berets and other elite anti-terror warriors staying behind won't have the helicopters, equipment and other logistical support they need.
The uniquely trained special operations forces are scattered across Iraq, generally carrying out the more secretive missions, pursuing al-Qaida and other terrorist suspects. As they do that, they must rely on their brethren in larger, conventional military units to fuel their helicopters, fix their trucks, transport them from place to place and provide them with the support troops they need and even the food they eat.
Those support systems, however, will begin to drop off as combat brigades begin leaving Iraq later this year and are not replaced.
"The guys on the ground are concerned," said Roger Carstens, a retired Army Special Forces officer now with the Center for a New American Security. "They're not sure how this is going to play out. Everyone is worried and all they're trying to do is raise their hand early in the game before it happens."
Military officials say they're aware that the special operations troops will stay and expect their needs will be met. But there are no clear answers on how that will be done, or on whether the military can support spread out special operations forces or would require that they be consolidated.
Commanders and Pentagon leaders will address those issues as they grapple with how to implement President Obama's newly released plan to pull the bulk of the U.S. forces out of Iraq by August 2010.
With the sensitive politics of that decision now over, the painstaking process of working out the details is under way. And part of that will be how to structure what Obama said would be a residual force of as many as 50,000 troops that would stay in Iraq until December 2011. That is the deadline set for the removal of all troops from Iraq.
Portions of that military force would have to be tapped to meet the needs of the special units.
There are currently 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including up to 5,000 special operators such as Army Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALS, and Marine and Air Force special operations units.
Ken McGraw, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Special Operations Command in Florida, said officials are aware that the elite forces will continue to conduct missions across Iraq and will need support from other military units.
"It is a responsibility of the operational commanders in Iraq to balance their capabilities to meet the requirements of the units that remain behind as others draw down," said McGraw.
Members of Congress peppered Carstens with questions during a Capitol Hill hearing earlier this week, seeking details on the scope of the need and whether it was being addressed.
Carstens, who gathered information in Iraq and Afghanistan last year for a report on the status of the military's special operations forces, said commanders told him that such logistical worries are what keep them up at night. Teams in far-flung locations, he said, worry that they will have to leave those areas when the major combat units pull up stakes and leave, taking their motor pools, security guards, analysts, medical care and helicopters with them.
In addition to their work training Iraqi soldiers and police, U.S. special operations forces perform small-scale raids, long-range reconnaissance and other secretive operations in search of al-Qaida and other terrorist suspects. They also have worked quietly with Iraqi tribal leaders to undermine the insurgency.