WASHINGTON – Faced with a critical shortage of native Arab speakers, the Army is considering recruiting Middle Easterners into the ranks of its elite Special Forces, defense officials say.
The proposal, which would require congressional approval, has not yet been endorsed by top Army leaders or the Pentagon. The Army's interest reflects the seriousness of a problem that looms large in the global war on terror: the Special Forces are stretched thin, particularly in Arab linguists.
Placing foreigners in the Special Forces has precedent. It was done in the 1950s under the Lodge Act, designed as a mechanism for raising a "foreign legion'' of Soviet-bloc expatriates during a time when many in Washington believed the Soviet Union would invade Western Europe.
Although thousands of applicants under the Lodge Act were rejected, at least 230 anti-communist Eastern Europeans were brought into the first Special Forces unit, designated the 10th Special Forces Group, in 1952, according to Kenn Finlayson, a historian at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, N.C. He said the historical record is not clear on when or why the practice ended.
Approximately 5,500 soldiers serve in the five active-duty Special Forces groups. A few hundred operated in the combat phase of the Afghan war, advising and leading anti-Taliban forces and directing U.S. airstrikes.
It is not clear how many foreigners the Army believes it needs to supplement the current Special Forces, which are only one segment of the military's special operations, or unconventional warfare, branch. Other segments include Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force Special Operations troops and the Army's Night Stalker aviators.
Army Lt. Col. Rivers Johnson, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Army Special Operations Command is developing a legislative proposal similar to the Lodge Act but emphasizing areas such as the Middle East or Central Asia, where U.S. operatives do not easily blend in.
Details of the proposal have not been settled, said Maj. Gary Kolb, spokesman at Army Special Operations Command headquarters. He said it is in the early stages of development at the Kennedy special warfare school in North Carolina, which develops Special Forces doctrine and provides language and other training.
The Army's interest in recruiting foreigners into Special Forces raises many sensitive political issues, any of which could scuttle the proposal before it reaches Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
One is security. Could the Army adequately guard against hostile Arab nations planting spies in the Special Forces' ranks? Also, how would foreigners, however well qualified, get the necessary security clearances for handling classified information?
Michael Vickers, a former Special Forces soldier and former CIA officer, said he sees promise in the proposal.
"It's not just linguists; it's also the cultural awareness'' that Special Forces soldiers are lacking in the Middle East, he said in an interview.
Among the Army's seven Special Forces groups, only one — the 5th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Campbell, Ky. — is oriented specifically toward the Middle East and Central Asia. But it has too few people with both language skills and the ethnicity that allows them to function effectively in hostile Arab areas.
The Special Forces were stretched so thin in Afghanistan that the Army imposed its rarely used authority to stop members from leaving the service. To bolster its ranks, the Army began this year putting qualified recruits directly into Special Forces rather than requiring them to serve first in the conventional forces.
Special Forces soldiers often are called Green Berets. Their peacetime duties include training foreign armies. In times of war — as in the 1991 Gulf War, in Afghanistan last fall and potentially in Iraq in the months ahead — they can be called upon to lead rebel forces into battle and carry out their own clandestine attacks or reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines.
Although the Special Forces were highly successful in helping rebel forces in Afghanistan rout the Taliban regime, the experience exposed a shortage of Green Berets fluent in the languages of Central Asia.
Language skills are important not only for the Special Forces soldiers around the globe who train or fight alongside local troops but also for those who specialize in two related activities: coordinating with the native civilian population, and "psychological operations,'' which include disseminating messages to foreign audiences.