HUNDREDS of American special forces are to be sent to Afghanistan to make up for the withdrawal of conventional troops by President Obama, military sources have told The Times.A mini-surge of Navy Seals, Army ''Green Beret'' Rangers and other special units is being drafted from across the world, including Iraq and the Philippines, to ensure that there is enough combat power to expand covert raids as America withdraws 33,000 troops over the next 15 months.
The secret deployment reflects the concerns of military commanders that the withdrawal will be a blow to military progress in the country.
While President Obama wants to ensure that America's withdrawal is well under way before the next presidential election, he is also anxious that it will not be seen to have undermined the gains that allied forces have made against the Taliban.
The first phase of troop cuts has already begun, with a decision, approved by the Pentagon, to stop the deployment of 800 National Guardsmen from Oklahoma this week. Instead, they are being sent to Kuwait to help with the training programme in Iraq.
The military sources revealed that 16 special operations personnel were considered to be worth the equivalent of 100 conventional troops.
Although special forces are counted in the overall numbers of personnel in Afghanistan - about 100,000 - they will not be affected by the drawdown and their role will become increasingly important as the US troop presence is reduced to 68,000 by September next year.
Part of their function is to train and mentor Afghan special forces to carry out counter-terrorism missions.
The first hint of the move was given last week by Vice-Admiral William McRaven, the mastermind of the Osama bin Laden raid in Pakistan on May 2, who was nominated by Mr Obama to be the next commander of US Special Operations Command (Socom). "As the drawdown continues in Afghanistan there will be an additional requirement for special operations forces. I don't know the size yet," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
There are more than 7000 US special forces in Afghanistan and about 3000 in Iraq. But it is expected that many of those in Iraq will be moved to Afghanistan.
Socom has doubled in size to about 61,000 personnel over the past nine years, but the number posted overseas has quadrupled. Admiral McRaven said that there were operatives in 60-80 countries, although sometimes in only small numbers.
Some hotspots, notably Yemen and Somalia, are becoming areas of greater concern that will require more effort by American special forces.