U.S. Military Trains Foreign Troops
By Dana Priest
On the day before Pakistan exploded five underground nuclear bombs in May, while President Clinton was urgently warning leaders in Islamabad that an atomic test would bring worldwide isolation, the U.S. military was quietly pursuing its own agenda just outside the Pakistani capital.
At the Army general command at Rawalpindi, officers from both countries finished plans to bring together 60 American and 200 Pakistani special operations forces for small unit exercises outside Peshawar near Afghanistan and for scuba attacks on mock targets in Mangla Lake, on the edge of the contested mountain region of Kashmir.
"Inspired Venture," as the exercise is called, is still scheduled for August, despite U.S. sanctions imposed in retaliation for the nuclear blasts. Since 1993, similar ventures between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries have also sidestepped earlier sanctions by Washington designed to punish the country for its nuclear program.
The Pakistani case is not unique. Under a 1991 law exempting them from many congressional and White House restrictions, American special operations forces have established military ties in at least 110 countries, unencumbered by public debate, effective civilian oversight or the consistent involvement of senior U.S. foreign affairs officials.
The law, Section 2011 of Title 10 of the U.S. code, allows the military to send special operations forces on overseas exercises on the condition that the primary purpose is to train U.S. soldiers. Some exercises comply unambiguously with the letter of the law. But a review of scores of missions found that many more have been used routinely for broader aims, including helping foreign armies fight drug traffickers, teaching counterinsurgency techniques in countries concerned about domestic stability and sharing U.S. military expertise in exchange for access to top foreign officials.
As such missions have multiplied since the end of the Cold War, special operations forces, including Army Green Berets, Navy SEALS and Air Force special operations airmen, have become a leading force in exerting U.S. influence abroad. Without firing a shot in anger, they are revising the rules of U.S. engagement with scores of foreign countries.
In the process, military officials questioned about the exercises said, they are becoming familiar with nations where they might one day return to evacuate U.S. citizens as they have done recently in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Albania deliver humanitarian supplies or fight a war. The officials said U.S. forces also pass on their values of respect for human rights, civilian leadership and the need for a nation's military to maintain a professional, apolitical role in society.
Above all, the officials described the exercises, known as Joint Combined Exchange Training, or JCETs, as an indispensable part of the key post-Cold War mission of engaging militaries abroad.
"I'd rather talk to people than hit them with sanctions. [Special operations forces] are the greatest asset we have. They are a force multiplier and a diplomacy multiplier," said H. Allen Holmes, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict.
To determine the scope and content of the JCET missions worldwide, The Washington Post pieced together information based on interviews and reports from the Defense Department, the special operations staffs and units at the United States' five regional warfighting commands, as well as several of the Army and Navy units involved in creating the exercises and training foreign troops from Cambodia to Kazakhstan.
Interviews with dozens of U.S. officers and troops around the world revealed widely inconsistent interpretations of the purpose and even the definition of JCETs. According to military officers involved in the program and Defense Department documents, effective civilian oversight and coordination with the State Department or National Security Council is minimal to nonexistent, a view disputed by Holmes. And, although U.S. ambassadors in countries where they take place are responsible for approving and supervising JCETs, officers and troops said that in many countries the U.S. military group at the embassy or the regional commander in chief, known as the CINC, dominate the process, deciding where to go and, more importantly, what kind of training to conduct.
As a result, JCETs often appear to bring America's premier soldiers into conflict with aims of American diplomacy enunciated in Washington.
However, U.S. special operations forces, unbeknownst to many in Congress who fought for the original restrictions, are legally free of these restraints and have trained hundreds of Colombian troops in "shoot and maneuver" techniques, counterterrorism and intelligence gathering. The special forces training proceeded even in 1996 and 1997, when Clinton "decertified" Colombia for military assistance because of its failure to cooperate with U.S. anti-narcotics policy.
In on-the-record interviews, several officers with longtime experience in Colombia said the human rights records of the Colombian units trained by special forces in these exercises are not evaluated because it would interfere with the unit's ability to work together. Asked about the training, Defense officials initially said correctly that they are not legally required to vet the units. In subsequent interviews, however, they said such vetting does take place.
U.S. officers involved in the training maintained in recent interviews that they were prohibited from teaching Indonesians lethal tactics. In fact, no such restrictions exist. According to interviews and documents, lethal tactics are a regular part of the exercises, which have included instruction in sniper techniques, close-quarters combat, demolition, mortar attacks and air and sea assaults.
The report did not mention that once or twice a year, in an exercise dubbed "Balance Passion," U.S. special operations forces provide instruction to local troops in demolition, patrolling and communications as well as in internal defense tactics and field medicine. In return, according to U.S. officials, American troops have learned about the country's culture and landscape and the tactics of the Papua New Guinea armed forces.
However, the U.S. European Command's special operations branch last year conducted its first training exercise with the Turkish Mountain Commandos, a unit whose chief function is to fight Kurdish guerrillas. The purpose of the exercises, according to a U.S. after-action report, was "to ascertain the future training needs of the Turks and to establish the groundwork" for future bilateral exercises with the unit. The document advised American participants in future such missions to "be prepared to get no [tactical] training value from the exercise."
But the 3rd Special Forces Group based at Fort Bragg, N.C., continues to train scores of local troops in Equatorial Guinea in light infantry skills, including operations planning, small unit tactics, land navigation, reconnaissance and medicine. Although such exercises are supposed to be coordinated through the U.S. Embassy, the embassy in Equatorial Guinea has been closed for budgetary reasons since 1995.
Nevertheless, a team from the 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg has conducted light infantry training and noncommissioned officer leadership classes with dozens of members of Suriname's armed forces as recently as March. Army Special Forces troops first described the deployments as a one-time "security survey" for embassy personnel.
In an interview, Holmes insisted that these missions, like all those authorized by Section 2011, were principally meant to train U.S. troops. Asked whether he believed all deployments fit the letter of the law, he said, "Absolutely, 100 percent. . . . Every single deployment is for the purpose, first and foremost . . . to train special operations forces."
Despite its policy implications, the JCET program has drawn little discernible attention from senior foreign policy officials in Washington. White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, whose National Security Council coordinates diplomatic and military policy for the president, said in an interview that he was not familiar with the program's details and asked for time to study the question. Later, an aide said Berger would not answer questions about the program and referred inquiries to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.
Cohen, a former U.S. senator whose keen interest in special operations dates back two decades, signs deployment orders for most JCETs. However, he declined requests for an interview repeated over several weeks. Instead, he issued a one-paragraph statement through his staff.
"JCETs are the backbone of training for Special Operations Forces, preparing them to operate throughout the world," Cohen's statement said. "In those areas where our forces conduct JCETs, they encourage democratic values and regional stability. In the future, we can expect our forces to confront threats posed by an increasingly diverse set of actors, placing a premium on the skills our forces developed in JCETs."
Critics challenge whether the Pentagon is monitoring the program closely enough to reach that conclusion.
"Due to feckless leadership in the civilian oversight office, we don't have a handle on how the CINCs spend that [JCET] money," said Timothy Connolly, a former special operations officer who was the principal deputy in the Pentagon office supervising special operations from 1993 to 1996, when he was fired after an unrelated policy dispute. "We have no idea what their objectives are, what the units involved are. . . . The definition of [the] training is extremely elastic depending upon the wishes of the decision-makers."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company