Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990
The Reagan administration entered office with a chip on its shoulder and a desire to “get even” with the ideological adversary that had invaded Afghanistan, defended Angola, and succored the Sandinistas in Central America. The enunciation of the Brezhnev Doctrineto hold the line in the nations under Soviet influenceitself an aggressive variation of containment, was to Washington in the 1980s the equivalent of Krushchev’s call for wars of national liberation. The Third World locales of the U.S.S.R.’s erstwhile successes were to be the battlefield of the renewed Cold War. The first overt theater of operations was Central America, with political and military action focused on Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. Angola and Afghanistan would be dealt with on parallel, nominally covert tracks. The Reagan administration set out to reverse the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and to turn back the revolutionary tide in Africa and Latin America.
A program of covert and clandestine action to reverse the Nicaraguan revolution was at the top of the agendaits foundations were laid even before the Reagan administration transformed still- peaceful Honduras into the new regional base for U. S. military power, to supplement the diminishing facilities in Panama. The annihilation of the small and ineffectual radical armed Left in Honduras was scheduled to be largely complete before the U.S. buildup there took off. That counterterror operation of murder and “disappearance” was perhaps successful in tactical terms. But, as always, it would leave in its wake lasting political costs.
After 1983, the Middle East became the Reagan administration’s center of attention. Its response to violence against American lives and various short-term interests in Lebanon and the Mediterranean took the form of an American campaign against the state-sponsored terrorism of others. The campaign brought the concept of counterterror out into the open, legitimizing it in the round of world opinion. Global counterinsurgency operations and unconventional wars were similarly sanitized as part of the campaign against international terrorism. The Reagan administration’s antiterrorist propaganda bandwagon associated the terror tactics of the Middle East with the Salvadoran guerrillas and Nicaragua’s beleaguered government. Shiite terrorism in Beirut was used to promote the renewal of police assistance to Central America and to pump up political support for the United States’ global programs to combat insurgencies and undesirable regimes.
Reagan’s new foreign policy team moved rapidly to establish its credentials by making Central America its initial platform. The United States’ commitment to counterinsurgency in El Salvador was boosted, and the holding action already in progress on Nicaragua was transformed into an active program of unconventional warfare. Most of the new foreign policy chiefs were on record as advocates of a newly aggressive stage of American foreign policy: the post-detente revival of an activist Cold War. On Central America the consensus was that Nicaragua had been “lost” to Soviet expansionism by a weak foreign policy; the new policymakers disagreed only on the ways by which the United States could recover lost ground and prevent further slippage in El Salvador. An insider described the dispute as one “between the hard-liners and the ideologues.”) The ideologues had produced astonishing documents, which presented a picture of global conspiracy last seen in the Cold War comic books of the 1950s.
A 1980 document by “The Committee of Santa Fe”made up of L. Francis Bouchey, Roger W. Fontaine, Lewis Tambs, and other Reagan advisers on geopoliticsreflects the paranoid tone of the ideologues:
For the United States of America, isolationism is impossible. Containment of the Soviet Union is not enough. Detente is dead. Survival demands a new foreign policy. America must seize the initiative or perish.... Latin America and Southern Asia are the scenes of strife of the third phase of World War 111.... The crisis is metaphysical.... America is everywhere in retreat.... Even the Caribbean... is becoming a Marxist Leninist Lake. Never before has the Republic been in such jeopardy from its exposed southern flank.... It is time to seize the initiative.... Either a Pax Sovietica or a worldwide counter-projection of American power is in the offing. The hour of decision can no longer be postponed.2
A hard-liner par excellence was the new Secretary of State, General Alexander Haig, a former Kissinger adviser who wanted to combat the communist threat but proved incoherent in defining and implementing the precise policies required. (Haig was bright enough, however, to exclude the nucleus of the “transition team” from the State Department.3) On taking office, the new Secretary called for an offensive to reverse “the escalating setbacks to our interests abroad,” a pointed reference to the Carter administration’s problems with Ayatollah Khomeini and to the new government in Managua. These developments, “and the so-called wars of national liberation,” were a challenge to be met: They were “putting in jeopardy our ability to influence world events.”4
In February 1981, Haig launched his first foreign policy offensive in a media blitz denouncing the “Cuban/Nicaraguan Threat,” which prepared the way for a massive boost in U. S. involvement in El Salvador. Time magazine described the offensive as “a curious series of public presentations, “ dominated by “the prime proponent of the Administration’s us-vs-them world view, Secretary of State Alexander Haig,” and compared it to the hype over the Cuban missile crisis twenty years before..5 Although government media efforts centered primarily on using the Cubanand by extension Nicaraguanbogey to justify military backing to El Salvador’s regime, the primary threat was clearly identified as coming from the Soviet Union.6
Haig’s explanation of the threat to the House Foreign Affairs Committee early in 1981 was entirely consistent with the analysis of the Committee of Santa Fe. The Soviet Union was, by his account, working through a four-stage plan that was to proceed from its success in Nicaragua to the collapse of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala: “I wouldn’t necessarily call it a domino theory, I would call it a priority target lista hit list, if you willfor the ultimate takeover of Central America.”7 The IICW president, presumably, was receptive to this interpretation. In a September 1980 campaign speech, Ronald Reagan went a little further: “I think we are seeing the application of the domino theory . . . and I think that it’s time the people of the United States realize . . . that we’re the last domino.”8
The influence of right-wing appointees’ personal ideology on foreign policy formulation became a hallmark of Reagan’s first term, although his own essential common sense in the face of Gorbachev’s initiatives (and better advice) eventually won outmuch to the John Birchers’ consternation. Over the next eight years, the death of detente and the renewed specter of the “evil empire” would be followed by a rapid thaw and rapprochement. The moderation of American paranoia toward the Soviet Union, however, did little to moderate the American anxiety visa-vis the Third World. It was there that the triumph of ideology over reason was most apparent in foreign policy initiatives, as well as in military doctrines of counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare, recycled into the doctrine of “low-intensity conflict.”
The idea of national interest as a concept unrelated to personal qualms and ideology, as suggested by Admiral Mahan almost a century before was recalled in some critiques of the New Right’s lockstep approach to foreign policy. The hard-liners of the 1980s who wrapped their shrill cries of doom in the flag of realpolitik were confusing the world they saw through an ideological lens with reality and their penchant for aggressive (military) action with a strong policy. In a 1985 article responding to the administration’s glorification of covert action and fighting “fire with fire,” George Kennan defined the national interest in terms of military security, the integrity of the nation’s political life, and the well-being of its people. He appears to paraphrase Mahan in observing:
These needs have no moral quality.... They are the unavoidable necessities of a national existence and therefore not subject to classification as either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ . . .” As a consequence, a government “needs no moral justification, nor need it accept any moral reproach for acting on the basis of them.” At the same time, Kennan notes, the idea of interest is detached from the personal inclinations of the administration of the day:
[T]he functions, commitments and moral obligations of governments are not the same as those of the individual. Government is an agent, not a principal. Its primary obligation is to the interests of the national society it represents, not to the moral impulses that individual elements of that society may experience.9
Kennan’s dispassionate approach can also be applied to the formulation of policy, particularly as it concerns war. That interest informs policy and policy creates war is a long-standing tenet of military theory. Clausewitz reminds us that the art of war in itself provides no ready corrective for bad policy. Although the interpretation of interests, and thus the formulation of policy, may be biased or erroneous, policy remains the dominant factor in war. Clausewitz writes:
Policy, of course, is nothing in itself; it is simply the trustee for all these interests against the outside world. That it can err, subserve the ambitions, private interests, and vanity of those in power, is neither here nor there. In no sense can the art of war ever be regarded as the preceptor of policy, and here we can only treat policy as representative of all interests of the community.10
The crux of these questions for the Reagan administration was in its interpretation of the threat to the national interest, the remedy to the threat, and the best policy to pursue for future security and prosperity. The danger lay in the administration’s conviction that an ideologically sound package could be taken off the shelf to provide a response for any foreseeable circumstance (a proposition ironically close to that of the New Right’s communist counterparts). Foreign policy initiativesor reactionsthat assume the characteristics of a moral crusade (however idealistic, however cynical) can acquire a strength of purpose and a momentum undaunted by reasoned analysis. The policymakers’ ability to adapt policy to changing reality becomes proportionally limited. If for Kennan’s “moral” quality we substitute “ideological,” the danger becomes more immediate: Does the military security or the integrity of American political life require a crusading war to the death on every foreign field to crush an ideological adversary? Or would such a crusade indeed be detrimental to the longor shortterm integrity of political life, to the economic well-being, and to the military security of the nation?
A new name, low-intensity conflict (LIC), was adopted by the Reagan administration in 1981 as an umbrella term for the interrelated doctrines of counterinsurgency, special operations, and unconventional warfare The American public was warned that low-intensity conflict represented the major threatand challengeof the 1980s, and a fresh doctrine and an improved capability were needed to meet that challenge. By waging low-intensity warfare, the United States could respond to it and play a forceful role in the worldat low risk and low cost. The new jargon was ideal for persuading a skeptical Congress and the public of the need to halt and roll back the advances of the Soviet Union and to take direct action against international terrorism.
The language of the hype over low-intensity conflict echoed John F. Kennedy’s promotion of a counterinsurgency program as a new dimension to “the national arsenal. ““ Kennedy had warned of free world security “being slowly nibbled away at the periphery” by subversion, guerrilla war, intimidation, and the like.12 Low-intensity conflict, like insurgency in the 1960s, was viewed as the kind of conflict most likely to develop in the Third World and on the periphery of the First. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, in his 1987 report to Congress, updated the call to arms, warning that the world abounded with adversaries “who seek to undermine our security by persistently nibbling away at our interests through these shadow wars carried out by guerrillas, assassins, terrorists, and subversives in the hope that they have found a weak point in our defenses.” A comprehensive “national strategy” was required to confront the menace of low-intensity conflict: Unless prompt action was taken, “these forms of aggression will remain the most likely and the most enduring threats to our security.”13 Low-intensity conflict doctrine was presented as a cure-all for the United States’ troubles on the periphery.
In fact, the term had long been used by the military as one of three general categories of armed conflict distinguished by their intensity. High-intensity conflict entailed the enemy’s deployment of atomic or other weaponry in an immediate threat to the very existence of the United States or its allies, or any conflict that required the mass mobilization of American resources to avoid defeat. Mid- intensity conflict was distinguished primarily by the major commitment of American forces, as in the Korean War, with a high potential cost: Heavy casualties could be expected and defeat was a possibility, although national survival would not be in the balance. Low-intensity conflict, in contrast, involved minimal commitment of American forces, a limited objective, and the comforting premise that “U.S. forces never risk military defeat.”14
The l980s usage of low-intensity conflict applied to the full range of conflict scenarios short of full-scale war involving a massive commitment of U. S. forces. The burden of low-intensity conflict would fall on allied foreign forces, proxies, or mercenaries. The Nixon Doctrine, whereby U.S.- backed counterinsurgency operations would be conducted by predominantly local forces, remained in force.15 Aggressive unconventional warfare against undesirable regimes was also to be waged with predominantly local personnel, from Nicaragua to Angola. It was a maxim that American boys would not be casually sent to fight and die in foreign countries, but elite forces would organize others for the dirty work of low-intensity wars.
The real change was not in the doctrine but in its relative significance in foreign policy. The high- profile commitment to low-intensity conflict meant a turning away from intervention and armed conflict by conventional military means, in favor of military action through U.S. allies, proxies, and paramilitary assets, anywhere below the threshold of conventional armed conflict. The broad range of operations covered by the low-intensity rubric, however, still allowed the juxtaposition of special warfare and conventional military force, just as in previous decades.
The new doctrine dictated minimal direct involvement of U.S. personnel, mainly elite special operations units (although contingencies for American troops to move in remained). The Nicaragua operation was largely performed at arm’s length, with relatively few Americans committed inside the countryalthough some were present on the ground, in the air, or in scuba gear off Nicaragua’s ports. Contingencies for transforming the hostilities from nominally covert to overt, from special warfare to conventional (but low-intensity) warfare, were prepared in neighboring Honduras, with the development there of a conventional U.S. military infrastructure of airstrips, barracks, supply dumps, and nonstop maneuver training. The invasion of Grenada was also “low-intensity”but involved aircraft carriers, submarines, landing craft, and the whole panoply of high-intensity hardware.
A definition of low-intensity warfare suited to the attitudes and temperament of the Reagan administration emerged from defense analyst Robert H. Kupperman’s study, commissioned by the U. S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.16 Kupperman’s definition of “low intensity warfare” incorporates both special warfare and the traditional “small war” between the colonial powers and the colonized. “Low intensity warfare is . . . the limited use of force or the threat of its use, to achieve political objectives without the total commitment of resources and will that characterizes the wars of survival or conquest of nation-states.”17 Typically, these conflicts are usually “asymmetric,” between contenders of vastly unequal strength. Whether conducted by the United States or by others, low-intensity conflict “can include coercive diplomacy, police actions, psychological operations, insurgency, guerrilla warfare, counterterrorist activity and military- paramilitary deployment.” More surprisingly, in Kupperman’s “working definition,” “the terms low intensity conflict and unconventional warfare can be used interchangeably. “18
The emphasis on unconventional warfare and special operations was reinforced in the course of the 1980s through a series of conferences and projects OTI low-intensity conflict, and also through the Reagan adminitration’s vigorous patronage of the unconventional forces of the military and intelligence establishment. The special operations focus of the top-level low-intensity conflict conferences is discussed below. A joint-services research project (Joint Low-lntensity Conflict Project, JLIC) was established in 1985 to consider the application of the developing doctrine to a full range of low-intensity scenarios.19 Its broad definition of “low-intensity conflict” is based largely on the conflict environment: “It is, first, an environment in which conflict occurs and, second, a series of diverse civil-military activities and operations which are conducted in that environment.”20 Its Final Report, not surprisingly, focuses on American planning for intervention in the Third World.
The JLIC project report defines five major categories, based largely 011 American military objectives, within the low-intensity conflict area:21 insurgency, counterinsurgency, terrorism counteraction (defensive “antiterrorism” and offensive “counterterrorism”), peacekeeping (“military operations conducted in support of diplomatic efforts to achieve, restore, or maintain peace, “ usually as part of an international effort), and peacetime contingency. The last is the catch- all category within which the rapid deployment of U.S. forces play a multitude of roles as an international gendarme (as, for example, on the eve of the Persian Gulf war). The peacetime contingency mission is defined as “politically sensitive military operations normally characterized by the short-term rapid projection or employment of forces in conditions short of conventional war, for example, strike, raid, rescue, recovery, demonstration, show of force, unconventional warfare, and intelligence operations.”” Insurgency, in the low-intensity typology, is both a part of the conflict spectrum and a mission statement for U.S. forces: ITI the latter sense, it is now sometimes termed “proinsurgency” and fits squarely in the offensive mode of unconventional warfare.
Although low-intensity conflict doctrine per se was to cover a multitude of scenarios, the bulk of the debate over the doctrine and its practical application in the Reagan years centered OTI the traditional Cold War enterprise of counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare. The Reagan era saw a massive buildup of special operations and Rapid Deployment Forces for insertion into conflict situations that were beyond the capacity of elites alone or unsuitable for resolution through foreign recruits or proxies. The November 1985 Joint Chiefs of Staff definition of “low-intensity conflict” was clearly a compromise aimed at covering all contingencies and giving away little that could rebound politically: “a limited politico-military struggle to achieve political, social, economic, or psychological objectives,” often protracted, ranging from “diplomatic, economic, and psycho-social pressures through terrorism and insurgency”; it is generally limited geographically, and is “often characterized by constraints on the weaponry, tactics, and the level of violence. “ 23
As a military doctrine, low-intensity conflict can be applied equally to one-off special operations, prolonged counterinsurgency or unconventional warfare, or to conventional military force projections along the lines of the Grenada intervention. Analysts Michael Klare and Peter Kornbluh conclude, however, that notwithstanding its depiction by military strategists as “a war for all seasons,” it is “in essence . . . a doctrine for countering revolution. The ‘L.I.C. pie,’ as Pentagon insiders call it, is largely divided between counterinsurgency and proinsurgency operationswhat the JLIC Final Report describes as ‘diplomatic, economic and military support for either a government under attack by insurgents or an insurgent force seeking freedom from an adversary government.’ “24
Although during the 1980s, the term “low-intensity conflict” was applied to a broad range of power projection, it served as a distinct code word primarily for counterinsurgency. Its other applications, such as the peacekeeping or “peacetime contingency” dimensions, were largely conventional in nature and had a well-established terminology of their own. The writers at Fort Bragg who revised the field manual on counterinsurgency warfare for issue in January 1981 were instructed to use the term “low intensity” almost as a synonym for counterinsurgency.25 The manual was entitled simply Low Intensity Conflict, FM 100-20; a subsequent revision, produced in May 1986 at Fort Leavenworth in the Field Circular series, FC 100-20, retained the same title. The new manuals were largely indistinguishable from their companion volumes of the late 1960s, although the new terminology no longer in itself promoted counterinsurgency as a political-military hybrid. The change was only the most recent in the periodic revisions of military nomenclature. Counterinsurgency doctrine’s previous code word, “internal defense and development” (IDAD), had been selected in the late 1960s as an upbeat, politically astute formulation for public consumption and had persisted into the 1980s. Counterinsurgency would continue to be called “foreign internal defense” within the low-intensity conflict framework but progressively dropped its “development” component.
A campaign to rehabilitate special warfare had begun in the latter years of the Carter administration, and was led by veterans of special operations from both the military and the CIA. Former CIA officer Theodore Shackley was one of the most influential pioneers of the covert action and counterinsurgency renaissance from the beginning of the Reagan administration.26 Shackley’s 1981 mass-market book, The Third Option, attacked the restrictions imposed by Congress and Carter on the CIA and the special operations forces of the military, and it offered concrete proposals for a return to the aggressive use of special warfare.27 At the time, Shackley was taken seriously, despite his early retirement from the CIA in 1979 in the fallout over the Edwin Wilson affairthe “unofficial” operation in which ten tons of C-4 plastic explosive were exported to Libya in 1975 and 1976 and Special Forces men flew out to provide terrorist training there.28 (One can postulate a Langley nightmare: the disclosure of evidence that Wilson’s C-4 was used in the destruction of the United States Marine garrison in Beirut.)
Shackley’s thesis was that the new constraints had eliminated the United States’ flexibility to respond to world crises, reducing it to only two options short of nuclear war: “We could send in the Marines, we could do nothing.”29 Shackley may have been aware of Joint Chief’s chairman L. L. Lemnitzer’s 1962 description of the counterinsurgency program as “an action program designed to defeat the Communist without recourse to the hazard or the terror of nuclear war.”30 Shackley defined the “third option” as “the use of guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency techniques, and covert action to achieve policy goals” in a full range of “low intensity conflict” scenarios. The first step necessary, he argues, is to “train a new cadre of guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency experts”31 for the CIA and special operations forces of the military.
Shackley’s approach was much appreciated by the New Right advisers of the Reagan administration; even before the 1980 elections, it had garnered a hard core of advocates in defense circles. A 1982 article by defense analysts Richard H. Shultz and Alan Ned Sabrosky ratified the Shackley doctrine:
[T]he United States will find itself involved at different times on the side of both insurgents and counterinsurgents. Too often we think of the U. S. role as primarily counterinsurgenthelping friendly regimes endure. However, given the unconventional conflict environment of the 1980s and the need to protect U.S. interests within it, we concur with Theodore Shackley that the United States must develop what he terms the “third option. “32
Measures to this end were to include an expanded military security assistance programto include the provision of military trainers and advisersand a buildup of unconventional warfare capabilities. Shultz and Sabrosky, like Shackley, imply that the “techniques” of unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency are one and the same: The means to the end in both is found in the area of special operations forces. Like Shackley, they recommend “a serious upgrading of Special Forces units” and a “restoration of a powerful paramilitary capability within the CIA.33
The common denominator of Shackley and the Reagan team was the conviction that a new age of “unconventional” intervention was long overdue. The distinction between unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency was more blurred than ever, coming together in the field of special operations. If the two concepts were twins at inception in the 1960s, in the 1980s they were to be melded into a common design. The multipurpose covert action concept, Shackley argues, is suited to any occasion:
Covert action is an intelligence discipline which can be subdivided into several functional parts. One such segment being paramilitary operations or the furnishing of covert military assistance to unconventional and conventional foreign forces and organizations.... [D]epending on which side of a conflict the United States is on, it can be devoted to either fostering or defeating so-called “revolutionary wars.”34
The Reagan administration responded to the lobbying of the intelligence and special warfare community by wholeheartedly promoting special operations forces as the American panacea for “unconventional threats.” The administration’s first instructions to the armed forces to beef up special operations capabilities followed close on the heels of Reagan’s inauguration. The 1981 Defense Guidance document directed all service chiefs to develop a “Special Operations Forces” (SOF) capability as an explicit element of the national defense strategy. The role of special operations and special forces within the emerging doctrine of low-intensity conflict is discussed below.
The “third option” approach to low-intensity conflict was encouraged by a blue-ribbon Pentagon panel packed with cloak-and-dagger luminaries of the unconventional wars and covert actions of past decades. Set up by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Fred Ikle, the panel was chaired by General John Singlaub, and its more illustrious members included General Edward Lansdale and General Harry Aderholt, a key figure in the secret war in Laos. Aderholt and Singlaub would both play a role in fund-raising for the contras and arranging their resupply.35 In March 1984, the committee became known as the Special Operations Policy Advisory Group (SOPAG); its subsequent membership varied, but Singlaub retained the chair. Members of the panel over the next four years included Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord, another “Contra-gate” figure; General John S. Pustay, author of the 1965 classic Counterinsurgency Warfare Brig. Gen. Donald Blackburn, a veteran of unconventional warfare in the Philippines; General Richard G. Stilwell; and Gen. William Yarborough, former Special Forces commander.36
The Singlaub committee, which apparently first met in April 1983, played a significant role in steering the United States away from the rapid deployment/light infantry approach to low-intensity threats, toward covert and clandestine secret warfare through proxies, paramilitary special operations, and extralegal tactics. In one sense, the recommendations were toward less rather than more violence: The apparent consensus was that the enormous firepower that characterized the Vietnam War would be counterproductive in the 198()s “low-intensity” wars. The main agents of action were to be special operations forces specializing in small-unit actions. Although the prescribed levels of violence were to be lower in quantitative terms, high levels of violence in concentrated doses were to be used in selective special operations.37
President Reagan was personally briefed on the first report of the Singlaub group at an NSC meeting; its “special operations” approach to counterinsurgency and guerrilla offensives would dominate the Reagan revival.38 The United States’ way of warfare in the 1980s, from Nicaragua to Afghanistan and the Philippines, would follow the special operations lead. El Salvador mission chief Colonel John Waghelstein, for one, described the model for the 1980s as based on “the lessons of post-World War II insurgencies” and the experiences of officers such asGenerals Edward Lansdale and John Singlaub.39 If Lansdale, one of the most eloquent advocates of a no-holds-barred approach to psy-war, was the archetypical exponent of amoral covert action, Singlaub is the model for the Rambo-style commando raider.
Singlaub, as opposed to Lansdale and other legendary unconventional warriors, did not attract the limelight. His ideas about low-intensity conflict, which appear to have carried the day with the Reagan administration, can only be extrapolated from what is known of his career. His reputation is based on his assignment to Fifth Special Forces. Former MACV chief General William Westmoreland describes Singlaub as having been “one of the first” commanders of the Vietnam War’s “joint unconventional warfare task force,” known generally by the acronym SOG (which is often mistaken for Special Operations Group), rather than its official designation as the “Studies and Observation Group.” He apparently led SOG for two to three years, beginning in 1966. Then Second Lt. Oliver North was reported by one source to have been under Singlaub’s SOG command in late 1968.40 It was responsible for unconventional warfare in denied areas on the borders and in raids into Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam in the triborder area.41 According to Westmoreland, SOG’s peak combat forces numbered “some 2,500 Americans and 7,000 South Vietnamese mercenaries.”42
The record of incursions into Laos and Cambodia, the main theaters of operations, was impressive if only because of the sheer destruction carried out. Former Green Beret Shelby Stanton says of the SOG style that by 197() won it “a global reputation as one of the most combat effective deep-penetration forces ever raised.”43 The methods used in Laos and Cambodia combined the “anything goes” ethos of unconventional warfare doctrine, elite American and mercenary forces, and high-tech armament and air power: “Demolished convoys, blazing ammunition depots, slain guards, and kidnapped personnel highlighted the most sustained American campaign of raiding, sabotage, and intelligence-gathering waged on foreign soil in U. S. military history.”44 Stanton might have mentioned a further precedent: All of this went on in what was technically peacetime, in neutral countries. It was, in any case, understandable that in the unconventional warfare revival of the 1980s General Singlaub (and a slightly more mature Lt. Col. Oliver North) would be called in to organize a similar campaign against Nicaragua.
Those who admire Singlaub do so for his record in covert operations, from selective assassination to cross-border sabotage, carried out by elite American and mercenary forces: a record of bravery, bravado, and “can-do” ruthlessness. A veteran of OSS commando service behind the lines in occupied France, Singlaub’s postwar career led him to covert work in China and, in 1951, an intelligence assignment in Korea, to which he returned as U.S. forces commander in 1976. Singlaub was removed from command in 1978, after a dispute with the Carter administration; he retired the following year. Upon leaving active service, he remained very much in action, along with other retired generals who had similar special warfare experience and were united by a common bent toward extremist politics. In December 1979, as a member of the “American Security Council,” Singlaub and former Defense Intelligence Agency chief General Daniel O. Graham traveled to Central America and carried out high-level talks with Guatemala’s President Romeo Lucas García. The delegation appeared tailor-made to undercut U. S. foreign policy in the region: The press there presented the occasion as an army-to-army visit, and Singlaub’s message as an exhortation to hold fast against Jimmy Carter and “international communisnm.” Singlaub also established connections with Latin American neo-Nazis in the anti-Semitic World Anti-Communist League (and later served as its president). But it was his work in the international arms trade which made him one of the linchpins of the Iran-contra scandal.45
The Reagan administration set out from the start to refurbish U.S. special operations forces and special warfare doctrine. Efforts were made to overcome some of the obstacles to expanding the special operations forces within the regular services, improving interservice coordination, and ensuring that these forces enjoyed sufficient personnel, training, and operational resources. Secretary of the Army John G. Marsh, for example, cited efforts to eliminate the stigmatizing effects of special operations service to officers’ prospects for career advancementand to legitimize their unconventional mission by breaking down their isolation and fully utilizing their potential “in the field of military assistance and training.... They are not competitors, nor should they be isolated from conventional forces.”46
In Reagan’s first term, the political masters of the Pentagon also supported, for the most part, a renewed commitment to special warfare with full conventional backup. In his keynote speech to the 1983 special operations symposium at Fort McNair, Marsh remarked upon the traditional resistance “among leaders of conventional forces toward unconventional methods of coping with irregulars, partisans, or guerrillas. The soldier who tries to fight guerrillas with their own methods is often misunderstood.”47 He suggested the time had come for the military establishment to acknowledge the need for a special warfare dimension in a world dominated by “the proliferation of unconventional threats.” In Marsh’s assessment, a significant change “for the better” had already occurred in military perceptionsin part because of administration policies, in part because many of the army’s top officers in the 1980s “were young majors and lieutenant colonels in Vietnam.”
Much of the defense establishment’s internal debate on “low-intensity” conflict in the 1980s focused on special warfare. A renewed confidence in the ability of American unconventional warriors to turn a situation around in an overseas trouble spot took the place of a critical reappraisal of past practice and doctrine. The mechanics of special warfare were generally lumped under the rubric of “special operations,” an old but repackaged panacea for low-intensity conflict. The official definition of “special operations” in the 1980s incorporated both insurgency and unconventional warfare:
Special Operations: 1. Insurgency, counterinsurgency, resistance, transnational terrorism, counterterrorism;
2. Unorthodox, comparatively low-cost, potentially high-payoff, often covert or clandestine methods that national, subnational, and theater leaders employ independently in “peacetime” or to support nuclear/biological/chemical and/or conventional warfare across the conflict spectrum.48
There was little innovation in the new approach to special warfare apart from its promotion as a low-cost means to project U.S. power which should be used more routinely. The special operations formula was to be the United Statcs’ response to an increasingly complex range of Third World scenarios.
Counterinsurgency and indeed all aspects of special warfare doctrine had developed a reasonable level of political sophistication by the mid-1970s, acknowledging the necessity of combining military and civil initiatives. The thread of continuity from the 1950s, however, was the primacy of elite special warfare forces trained first in covert action commando skills and, as a seeming afterthought, what was taken for political savvy. The 1980s revival made the special operations forces concept the centerpiece of “low-intensity” operations. The patchwork strategy of the 1960s, combining the commitment of huge conventional forces guerrilla operations, and “nation-building” development programs on a sometimes enormous scale was largely scrapped as too expensive, too slow, and too politically costly. The Reagan administration was also ideologically unwilling to commit huge economic resources to nonmilitary purposes, or, equally, to disrupt what it saw as model free-market economies.
The special operations forces (SOF) were characterized as a cost-effective, low-risk means of intervention by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, among others. According to Colonel John Oseth of the Naval War College, a permanent program of training and advisory assistance using such forces would enable the United States to engage directly in joint efforts with beleaguered allies without committing U. S. conventional forces to combat.49 SOF provided decision-makers with a resource for rapid, unilateral action at a minimum cost, as a “third option” “for situations where conventional forces are inappropriate.”50 Their readiness for low-cost, crackerjack military operations could also of course, encourage U. S. intervention in scenarios policymakers might later regret.
Even during the heyday of counterinsurgency in the 1960s, the military had been reluctant to bring about a major realignment of forces and doctrine away from conventional warfare, toward the unconventional. A consequence of this was the marginalization of the counterinsurgency skills tailored for the Special Forces and the CIA, leading in turn to a failure to develop more “conventional” remedies to insurgency, tactics that would not require secrecy, deniability, and extraordinary commando skills. The monopoly of the Special Forces and the CIA on counterinsurgent capabilities, moreover, suggests a still-extant doctrinal positon that defines these forms of conflict as unsuitable for regular forces. This in itself provides a rationale for the continued isolation of elite and covert forces and, given the covert (and often criminal) nature of certain unconventional tactics, for the limitation of the resources put into such operations.
Edward Luttwak, a 198()s advocate of a fourth service based on the Special Forces, acknowledges that “in guerrilla organization and counter-revolutionary warfare” the main requirement is “non-militaryreal knowledge and sensitivity about the cultural milieu, and also political skills, of course.” In contrast, “commando warfare is pure warfare, real warfare in its essence.” But he restates the argument that was prevalent in the 1960sthat if properly organized and supported, an elite force can somehow combine commando skills with political savvy and sophistication. Luttwak reaches an “extremely negative conclusion” on the present U.S. capability to field forces to combine these roles, however: “[A] really successful commando force” would be possible only if the military establishment treated it as “a high-quality center for the forces as a whole,” with accelerated promotion, to ensure it attracted top officers. His proposal, of course, was to do precisely that.51
Although little progress was made toward a separate service for special operations, steps were taken toward establishing a unified command. The army’s First Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was set up at Fort Bragg in 1982, in order to overcome some of the command and control problems that arose in Operation EAGLE CLAW, the abortive raid to rescue the hostages in Iran. It created a staff structure that brought army Special Forces worldwide, as well as the two battalions of Rangers and the army’s special psychological operations and civil affairs units, under a central command.52 A navy equivalent, the Special Warfare Directorate, was also established in the 1980s in the office of the chief of operations, while the air force created an Air Division Command for special operations in 1984.53 The failure of interservice cooperation, notably in the 1983 invasion of Grenada, prompted congressional pressure for a joint-services special operations command on the SOCOM model.
A step toward a unified special operations command was taken in January 1984 when the Joint Chiefs created a Joins Special Operations Agency for the planning and direction of special operations forces. 54 The Joint Chiefs had begun planning for the agency just a few days before the invasion of Grenada. The agency had four divisionsResearch and Development/Procurement, Joint Operations, Special Intelligence, and Support Operationsbut it exercised no command function.55 Critics protested that a strictly advisory role was insufficient to effectively support and coordinate the disparate forces of the armed services. A significant lobby, both within the special operations community and in Congress, pressed for more: The most ardent advocates called for the consolidation of SOF in a separate service under the direction of a Defense Special Operations Agency and, to ensure the proper political clout for SOF, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations. 56
The January 1986 congressional proposal to place all special operations forces under a unified command found considerable resistance within the military itself, part of which represented something more than mere interservice rivalry. The military, in the view of one officer, would resist the move “in part out of a fear that such an arrangement would make it too easy for civilian leaders to send the commandos into action. Many officers . . . believe that under the present arrangement, the cautious nature of the military serves as a ‘brake’ OTI precipitate use of special forces.”57 Nor was there consensus among the civilian leadership at the Pentagon. The Defense Secretary opposed even the plan for a unified command as “panacea”;58 special operations and counterterror chief Noel C. Koch, in contrast, stressed that the resistance of the services to the desired upgrading of the special operations forces “had become so frustrating that he probably would support proposals in Congress to create a single agency....”59
The special operations advocates in Congress were opposed to some by others in Congress who balked at the prospects of a central military agency for special operations that would duplicate and compound the problems of oversight and illegal operations posed by the CIAthat special operations forces “might become a uniformed version of the Central Intelligence Agency, used to circumvent congressional restrictions on intelligence activities and the use of U. S. forces in combat operations. “ And although some of the units had been created to combat terrorism, there was concern that “they have since acquired mandates and training to conduct missions to counter insurgencies in Central America, Africa and Asia.”60
The worries about accountability were not, of course, limited to the military’s ultrasecret agencies; there was a fine ambiguity with regard to the military’s larger role in unconventional warfarewhether it fell within the purview of either the military or intelligence oversight committees. To many in the special warfare community, the best compromise was no oversight at all. One account of “suspicions” that Special Forces were involved in covert contra aid observed cheerfully that “while the CIA is subject to American legislative control, the activities of the Special Operations Forces are not accountable directly to Congressa factor that adds to the secrecy surrounding SOF operations.”61 The official position is that such operations would, by necessity, occur under the operational umbrella of the CIA; as one intelligence officer explained, “any such use of them would be directed by the CIA and properly reported to Congress.”62 The usefulness of covert action forces outside the CIA’s formal control, however, was more than merely explored during the period of illegal support for the unconventional war on Nicaragua.
The outcome of the debate was somewhat less than the new service proposed. A Special Operations Unified Command was provided for in defense legislation in 1986 for implementation in the 1987 fiscal year; it was to control its own budget, procurement, and operations, and to report directly to the Secretary of Defense.63 Army General James J. Lindsay was appointed the first head of the unified command in April 1987, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.64 The new legislation also created a post of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict.65