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Mike Vickers’ War

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From Newsweek on the successful rescue of hostages in Columbia:

But Colombia’s dramatic shift in strategy over the last two years also has much to do with a quiet U.S. effort to school allies in counterinsurgency and Special-Operations tactics. Even the strategy of infiltration used against the FARC—a turncoat guerrilla working with the Colombian military was key to the hostage ruse—is one that has been promoted inside the Pentagon against Al Qaeda and other terror groups. While U.S. officials stress that every insurgency and terror group presents unique challenges, similar principles are being applied in Iraq’s Anbar province and now by the new Pakistani government in its Taliban- and Qaeda-infested tribal regions.

American-style counterinsurgency, in other words, is going global. “Colombia has done a really masterful job,” says Michael Vickers, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of Defense for Special Operations. Vickers gives Uribe’s government “the lion’s share” of the credit for the hostage ruse and anti-FARC strategy in general. But he acknowledges that “the Colombians are very close partners of ours and we’ve provided the training and other things.”

Mike Vickers, of course, has achieved some notoriety due to the book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War, wherein he was recruited by borderline-renegade CIA officer Gust Avrakotos to be the logistical brains behind supplying the mujahideen during the Afghan-Soviet War. Even though he was a junior officer at Langley, he had been a noncom and an officer in the Special Forces and ended up being responsible for the largest covert action program in American history, coordinating the fractuous muj insurgency and about a dozen foreign governments, with a budget in excess of two billion dollars. By all accounts, Vickers is without doubt an absolute genius at counterinsurgency. Having him as the coordinator for special ops and low-intensity conflicts is a Very Good Thing.

The story behind the story is that Colombia is just one example of a grand counterinsurgency strategy that is occurring all over the world, from Pakistan to Djibouti to the Philippines. Small teams of  American SF operators are teaching the indigenous armed forces how to fight the dirty, asymmetrical “small wars” of the twenty-first century, while at the same time providing civil services to the population in a hearts-and-minds campaign. Despite the much-publicized setbacks in stabilizing and building a competent military in Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, in many other countries incredibly small numbers of American soldiers are revolutionizing how Third World militaries combat terrorism and insurgencies.

It always amazes me that so many people are ignorant of the fact that the Afghan War was fought and won by a few hundred Special Forces soldiers, CIA paramilitary officers and Air Force close air support controllers acting in concert with the native anti-Taliban forces, not the thousands of conventional troops responsible for SASO (security and stability operations, or “nation building”) that arrived afterwards. Despite the constant media hullabaloo about “a new kind of war,” the fact that the first American war of this century was prosecuted by a handful of men leading Uzbek and Pashtun guerillas on horseback seems to have slipped under the national radar.

The downside to this strategy is that it basically replicates how the British Empire functioned in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, which raises the hackles of conservative isolationists and liberal internationalists alike. The British always liked to control their vassal states by proxy, like the “Arab facade” of the Hashemite kings that ruled large swaths of the Middle East after World War One, with military and colonial “advisors” directing the native governments.

Our strategy is certainly much less heavy-handed than the often-brutal English, but it may be much more effective due to an emerging fact in the globalized world: As many Third World countries are transitioning from repressive regimes to weak, unstable democracies, the politicians come and go, voted out of office or overthrown in coups, but the people responsible for the military and security apparatuses stay in power behind the scenes for years and years. Indeed, in most developing nations and failed states, the military is the only stable institution in the whole country, which means a little training and advice from the finest military in the history of time goes a long, long way.

The American public seems to be happy to pretend that this country has not been relentlessly expansionistic throughout its entire history, but at the same time demand the constant economic expansion that in today’s world almost always comes at the expense of weaker countries. This cognitive dissonance, allowing for a “soft imperialism” while pretending it doesn’t exist, is perhaps the most dangerous issue facing the United States in an increasingly multipolar world, as it prevents any meaningful discussion of our role in the world.


by Tommy Brown

“The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.”

-Niccolo Machiavelli

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