Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990


Introduction

The conduct of foreign affairs by the United States in the latter half of this century has a military dimension that can be seen only obliquely. The awesome military machine that emerged with the Cold War was designed largely for deterrence, for a war never meant to happen. It served, too, for occasional, limited, conventional wars; lesser conflicts; and shows of force. But the manpower and armaments of this behemoth were only a part of the United States' military response to the Cold War. Another, nearly opaque, military dimension entailed what has been variously referred to as secret, special, unconventional, or political warfare. This hidden dimension became the chosen instrument for permanent military action below the threshold of full-scale war or open intervention—another kind of war, that was waged continuously behind the false peace of the post-World War II era.

This secret warfare introduced a unique new element into foreign affairs and into the domestic arrangements of nations friendly to the United States. Its influence was most significant in the lesser theaters of the Cold War—including much of the Third World—where military answers to new global challenges were removed from public scrutiny. Through the efforts of the armed forces' special warfare establishment and the Central Intelligence Agency, the military thread of the new warfare wound around and through the formalities of above-board international relations.

The paramilitary covert operation became the occasional signpost of the secret war, deflecting attention from long-term policies or programs, from the unconventional side of America's regular armed forces, and indeed, from the larger goals of American foreign policy. Responsibility for such operations was usually displaced to the CIA, which was neatly set apart from the regular armed forces—in public perception if not wholly in fact—while the military remained prudently in the shadows. The impact of the armed forces' special warfare apparatus and doctrine was most telling, not in the record of American operations, but in the extent to which it influenced the attitudes, organization, and programs of American allies throughout much of the Third World during the Cold War.

A fascination with special warfare, from guerrilla warfare to the subtleties of ideological indoctrination, was characteristic of U.S. foreign policy makers at the onset of the Cold War. Belief that the Soviets were masters of special warfare, wielding an instrument of great power helped shape our Cold War attitudes toward them while creating anxiety over whether the United States, constrained by its self-proclaimed virtue, could compete in a war without rules.

Argument prevailed that this kind of war was best fought at two levels: through occasional use of overwhelming military power (e.g., Greece and Korea); and through uninterrupted use of the kind of unconventional methods of low-level conflict attributed to the Soviets. I he guardians of the national interest concluded that the United States should respond to communist treachery in kind—fire against fire.

The United States reamed secret warfare from the experiences of World War II, from both its allies and its enemies. American officers were baptized in the fire of what seemed to be a new kind of war in enemy-occupied territories of both European and Pacific theaters. The tactics and attitudes they developed found ready application in the tensions of the postwar world. Officers who had operated with resistance movements were brought together to organize the new special warfare establishment. The Army Special Forces were developed to take American-style guerrilla warfare to nations under Soviet domination.

The men who drafted the field manuals for the American guerrillas— or what they generally referred to as unconventional warfare—used as models, the guerrilla campaigns in the Philippines; the partisan movements in the Soviet Union and the Balkans; the experiences of emigres' co-opted into American service, and former German officers. The Army's secret review of the European partisan movements was assisted by ex-Wehrmacht officers who had taken part in their suppression; they were coauthors of reports that colored American views of the nature of guerrilla (and counterguerrilla) warfare for decades to come. A common view emerged that terror was an essential tool of both guerrillas and counterguerrillas. The American manuals and assorted training materials made explicit reference to the utility—indeed, the necessity—of its use from hostage-taking to selective assassination.

The counterinsurgency era (the subject of Part Two) began with John F. Kennedy's call for a radical reappraisal of U.S. special warfare. His fascination with the Special Forces and the idea of American guerrillas meshed neatly with his Cold War view that the small wars of subversion and insurgency on the periphery of the "Free World" posed the greatest challenge to our national security. In particular, Kennedy emphasized counterinsurgency's use for political and economic reform. Chapter Eight profiles one of the President's principal counterinsurgency advisers, Edward Geary Lansdale, who is known both for his advocacy of reform and "civic action" and for his pioneering role in the field of dirty tricks and psychological warfare.

Until 1961, the purpose of the Special Forces was to train guerrillas, rather than combat them. In accord with Kennedy's wishes, the military redefined counterinsurgency as a discipline of special warfare, departing from the pre-World War II concepts of counterinsurgency based on conventional tactics—i.e., occupation and administration. The unconventional dimension of counterinsurgency became an integral part of American Cold War doctrine. Counterinsurgency became a medium of the secret war directed against internal enemies wherever friendly governments were under threat of subversion or insurgency. These domestic campaigns were aspects of a larger war within which the United States also launched unilateral "guerrilla" operations (which often includcd air and naval support) to overthrow undesirable regimes. The crux of the new doctrine (set out in Chapter Nine), that the adversary was best fought with its own methods, was based as much on assumption as on fact, and proposed that we should become the "mirror image" of what we imagined the enemy to be.

As terror was seen as integral to guerrilla tactics, the counterguerrilla would apply counterterror; guerilla organization (e.g., recruitment surveillance) would be mimicked by counterorganization. Counterorganization, taken to its entail, could (and often did) cutrail placing hundreds of thousands of people under virtual totalitarian control. Which combined with the psychological warfare technique of ideological indoctrination, totalitarian potential could become reality. The consequences were most dramatic in countries where friendly governments uncritically adopted the American model on a massive scale.

The end of the war in Vietnam was a watershed in the development of special warfare, both offensive (guerrilla operations) and, nominally defensive (counterinsurgency). (Part Three outlines the development of special warfare from the end of the Vietnam War to the last days of the Reagan administration.) Jimmy Carter's human rights policy, which might have Ied to a radical reassessment of covert U.S. foreign policy, faltered and failed in the face of political pressure and the intransigence of the military and foreign-policy establishments. By 1980, the spirit behind the housecleaning of the CIA, which had begun with Carter, was superseded by measures strengthening the United States' special operations potential and by open-ended commitments to secret wars in Central America, Afghanistan, and the Middle East.

The real post-Vietnam revival of special warfare—as part of the new concept of "low-intensity conflict"—came with the Reagan administration. The rollback of perceived gains made by the Soviet Union, notably in Central America, was the centerpiece of foreign policy during his first term in office. The apparent American slippage in the Cold War was taken up as a challenge that would justify a newly aggressive pursuit of special warfare. (The rapid buildup of the United States' special warfare apparatus and its role in planning for new wars on the periphery is outlined in Chapter Eighteen.)

Developments in the Middle East during Reagan's first term complicated the administration's response to low-intensity challenges (see Chapter Sixteen). The loss of American lives, particularly the 246 Marines killed in Beirut, prompted a new direction in the White House's action and a new vehemence in its rhetoric. Onto its crusade against the ideological enemy in Central America and the Caribbean was superimposed a campaign against international terrorism. In doing this, the Reagan administration broke with the reticence of past advocates of counterterrorism and openly espoused the logic of adopting terrorist methods to fight terrorists. Implying the legitimacy of a state's turning to terror tactics as a utilitarian means to an end, the Reagan administration publicly extended the logic of covert counterinsurgency in internal conflicts to the sphere of international relations. Despite Reagan's overwrought rhetoric about terrorism, there was evidence that the United States had, indeed, experimented in perpetrating the very kind of terrorism it claimed to oppose.

The new commitment to special warfare was most amply and visibly manifest in Latin America and the Caribbean, from the Windward Islands to the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The consensus of the special warfare experts then, as now, was that low-intensity conflict was intrinsically an "un- American way of war." The substance of the United States' doctrine for these unpalatable, dirty wars, however, was to reaffirm the logic of the 1950s. The special warfare establishment would do whatever was necessary to prevail in secret, political warfare. The United States could wage dirty wars with the best (or worst) of them.

The events of the first three years of George Bush's presidency— most notably the collapse of communism, the invasion of Panama, and the Gulf War—required an epilogue to this study. The end of the Cold War did not eliminate at a stroke the Cold War attitudes, ideology, and military doctrine that fuel the secret war on the periphery; there is little to show that the United States has modified its use of special warfare in any discernible manner. Even if it were to progressively do so, the legacy of decades of clandestine special warfare and its influence on foreign affairs will not readily dissipate. The United States' Cold War doctrine and ideology remain particularly potent for the many "Free World" clients that have used them as a template with which to remodel their societies, political institutions, anal security systems into effective instruments of counterinsurgency. The overarching threat which once welded American special warfare into a cohesive and comprehensive program may be gone, but special warfare remains a principal instrument of low intensity conflict in the new world order.


Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990

© 2002 Michael McClintock