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Of Commandos, Death Squads and Hit Men

Of Commandos, Death Squads and Hit Men

By P G. Buchanan

Paul Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.

Recent news reports claim that the US Special Operations community has not been entirely idle since the invasion of Iraq gave way to its occupation. Special Forces units were at the pointy edge of the military spear that gutted Saddam’s army, but then gave way to conventional troops as the mission shifted from conquest to pacification. This may have been a mistake, given the success of the Iraqi resistance in engaging guerrilla warfare against US forces after the invasion, because it is axiomatic that the way to counter insurgency is to employ guerrilla tactics against the guerrillas. Since guerrilla wars of resistance are frontless asymmetrical wars of attrition in which matters of will matter more than matters of might, the only way to achieve symmetry in combat is to engage in small team hit and run tactics while cultivating support from the local population (if for no other reason than to get reliable real-time intelligence).

Because of faulty assumptions on the part of the US political and military leadership about how to conduct the invasion and its aftermath, US Special Forces units were largely withdrawn from Iraq once Baghdad fell. Instead a large-scale conventional military occupation was installed, with results that are all too apparent.

After eighteen months of low intensity conflict between the Iraqi resistance and coalition forces (where military stalemate equals guerrilla victory), with the January 30 elections for an Iraq National Assembly and provincial councils in danger of being subverted by an incessant wave of attacks against all those involved in holding them, the Pentagon has asked the Special Forces community to resume operations in Iraq. It has been asked to assemble both American and Iraqi hit teams that would target high value targets in the resistance leadership. The objective is to selectively decapitate the resistance, forcing it to increasingly rely on less seasoned fighters for command and control decision-making. Since inexperienced warriors are known to be more tempestuous and bold than pragmatic and clinical, they are easier to trap and eliminate. In the end, by using this more selective approach towards combat, the US military is hoping to neutralize the armed resistance in Iraq while diminishing the amount of damage to the civilian population that larger conventional assaults inevitably entail. In doing so it will hopes to help stabilize the country by promoting increased security while decreasing the US military boot print on the ground.

Some Washington insiders claim that this tactic is copied from the US experience of supporting right-wing death squads in Central America in the 1980s. The fact that senior officials in the Bush security team worked in the Reagan administration that adopted those policies lends credence to the view. However, there is a difference between death squads and military hit teams. The latter are more selective in their targeting and more disciplined in their use of force, with no interest in causing wide spread fear among the general population. Central American death squads, even if funded and advised by foreign governments, were instruments of state terror used by conservative authoritarian regimes against all political dissent, or for symbolic effect (such as the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador while saying Mass in 1979).

Sowing generalized fear by terrorizing the civilian population in Iraq is not on the US military agenda because it would undermine larger geopolitical objectives, so even if Washington hawks take pride in their previous involvement in the dirty wars of Central America, they will not get to repeat the experiment. US Army Special Forces already have close ties to local irregular armies such as the Kurdish Peshmurga in Northern Iraq and moderate Sunni and Shiia factions, which means that they can trade on their relationships with various armed groups when confronting the common enemy posed by the jihadi-Baathist coalition. The issue is whether combat discipline can be exercised upon local operatives with more personal agendas in mind. If the use of hit teams is to be successful, all but clear military objectives must be eschewed, and precise and timely local intelligence is of the essence. This is because Special Forces operations are human rather than weapons-intensive, with street knowledge and trust being more important assets than technological superiority, numbers or firepower.

Reports also have it that US special operations forces operating out of Afghanistan, Pakistan and several Central Asian Republics are engaged in covert intelligence gathering missions in Iran, with an eye towards identifying and destroying clandestine nuclear weapons production facilities. This represents a return to the traditional role of commandos: long range scouting and sabotage behind enemy lines. Although here the front is not strictly military, the closed nature of the mullah’s regime in Tehran means that foreign military operations on Iranian territory will be handled as a direct attack. The Iranians have already promised dire consequences if the reports are true.

Hence, once the political decision to consider the use of force against Iranian nuclear weapons production facilities was made, there was a need to prepare the ground for such. Given the context, that argued for small group tactics of stealth, surprise, autonomy and maneuver. It may be distasteful to some that the US engage in such missions, but even if no more than a disinformation campaign (since the press reports are unusually specific in their coverage of these operations and would seemingly jeopardize the mission), the prospect raises the psychological and physical costs should the Iranians persist in their nuclear ambitions. Real or threatened, that is the type of leverage that creates space for diplomatic solutions (which have not fundamentally altered the Iranian position as of yet).

The US may not be alone in returning to a special operations approach to the conflict in Iraq and the specter of nuclear weapons proliferation in Iran. Several of its allies—the United Kingdom and Australia in particular—are known to maintain their own special operations presence in the region, and there are other US allies who have special forces units with records of involvement in the political history of modern Mesopotamia. Thus, if multinational unit coordination in joint special operations leads to force multiplication in areas of common geo-strategic interest, it could well be that the regional security balance is subtly being tipped in spite of the apparent military deadlock in Iraq.

The argument can be made that these tactical shifts represent a deepening and expansion of US aggression in the Middle East. Others will say that the shift was long overdue, and that it may be a case of too little and too late in pursuit of a losing cause. Still others will see the turn to special operations as a waste of time and argue for a scorched earth policy in areas in which the Iraqi resistance has the most support, and for a massive pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. For most the thought of military hit teams is morally repugnant.

The issue of morality is beside the point. Military operations are an agnostic and practical business rather than a moral imperative (although professional ethics, capability and training is what separates it from organized crime). Moral reasoning is the responsibility of political leaders, and once the order is given, the professional obligation of the armed forces under democracy is to most efficiently address the strategic and tactical realities of the context involved (if not make the most of a bad situation resulting from bad moral choices on the part of the political leadership). Thus, whatever the political spin given the matter, the return to special operations tactics appears to represent a growing realization by US security officials that big is not always better, and that the strategy of shock and awe is of limited value once the symbolic value of overwhelming air and armor assaults has waned (particularly when military disengagement is impossible).

Above all, the tactical adjustment represents a re-appreciation of the age-old need to closely integrate real-time local human intelligence gathering with focused use of military force in order to more precisely deal with the security problems of the region. Regardless of the justification for the war and the intense political divisions it has generated worldwide, were it that such had been the case before the invasion. Unilateral military pre-emption did not have to take on the guise that it did, and in the end, a more nuanced approach to prosecuting the sequel to shock and awe could have spared many lives. As things stand, the success of the latest tactical shift will be determined in the short months ahead, for political rather than military reasons.


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