U.S.-led coalition forces may have the best training and equipment in the world, but they can win the war raging in Afghanistan only if they also have the support of the Afghan people, a top Navy official said Tuesday evening during a visit to Chattanooga.
"They know the lay of the land, and they know who the terrorists are," said Rear Admiral Garry J. Bonelli, deputy commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command out of Tampa, Fla. Once native police and security forces are equipped with American combat training, the admiral said, "they have a better capacity to succeed."
Rear Admiral Bonelli -- who served two combat tours in Vietnam and commanded a Navy SEAL team in Iraq during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm -- was in town to speak at the Greater Chattanooga Council of the Navy League of the United States' quarterly dinner meeting.
He sat down with the Chattanooga Times Free Press to discuss current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, pointing out that special forces such as Navy SEALs have and will continue to play a key role in both war zones.
REAR ADMIRAL GARRY J. BONELLI
* Enlisted in 1968 and received a commission as an officer in the Navy Reserve in 1976
* Made two ground combat deployments in Vietnam and was commanding officer of SEAL Team 5 during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm
* First and only reservist to command an active-duty SEAL team
* Recalled to active duty in 2006, serving as the chief of staff for Naval Special Warfare Command
* Served as force commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command during 2008 and now serves as deputy commander of the NSW, which includes 5,400 active duty SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen plus 1,200 reservists
Source: Navy League of the United States
He talked not only about the "typical direct action missions" special forces troops execute, but also a role they play that is "much less known, but makes much more impact: winning the war of ideas."
Troops must work within the parameters of local custom to gain support among local communities, the admiral said. Unfortunately, because Afghanistan has so little infrastructure, "it has to be won neighborhood by neighborhood, village by village and valley by valley," he said.
The admiral said it was too early for him to offer an overall prognosis for Afghanistan, as levels of support for coalition troops vary so much among different regions and tribes.
Special operations forces are perfectly suited to the challenge, according to Navy League member Ron Eytchison.
"The War on Terror is much different (than previous conflicts)," Mr. Eytchison said. "You're not engaging with an army that represents an entire nation-state. Rather, you've got radical individuals who don't wear uniforms, blend in with the general public and operate in small groups. Special forces are trained to fight in that kind of environment."
Culling the coalition-friendly fighters from that group requires time and patience, Rear Admiral Bonelli said.
"We have to do a lot of listening," he explained. "'We come here to learn from you, and if we can help you, we will.' That's the mindset."