U.S. Military Trains Foreign Troops
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The JCET program was born at the end of the Cold War, when the United States suddenly had the opportunity to open new military relationships with dozens of former Soviet- or non-aligned countries. At the same time, the central perceived military threat to U.S. security shifted away from a Soviet-U.S. confrontation to instability and regional ethnic and religious conflicts.
For military leaders, special operations forces seemed ideal for these new missions. Heralded as "the point of the spear" in unconventional warfighting since World War II and throughout the Cold War, special operations forces, often in partnership with the CIA, had led covert operations against communist-backed insurgencies in Vietnam, Laos, Latin America and Africa. During the civil war in El Salvador, advisers from Army Special Forces played a key role in helping the government beat back a leftist guerrilla movement.
Special operations forces are designed to operate in small groups for long periods behind enemy lines, or to live and work amid a foreign population as they are doing today in Bosnia. They pride themselves as "the quiet professionals." Rigorous training, proficiency in foreign languages and political acumen give them a self-sufficiency and versatility in countries where a larger U.S. presence might create controversy both locally and in the United States.
In 1987, the military inaugurated an independent command to consolidate special operations forces Army Green Berets, Rangers and the covert Delta Force; Navy SEALS, Special Boat Units and the covert Team 6; and Air Force special operations and internal defense squadrons. The move was sponsored by then-senator Cohen (R-Maine) and his colleague on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who felt these elite warriors had been neglected.
Just as a civilian secretary is appointed to supervise the Army and the other service branches, the assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (SOLIC) is responsible for overseeing the Tampa-based U.S. Special Operations Command. Devising rules for the new command, Pentagon lawyers determined that "it was unclear" whether the command was authorized to spend money to send its troops on overseas training missions, as the individual regional commanders and the Army and Navy had done for years.
Their solution was Section 2011, an amendment of Title 10 of the U.S. code, which lays out the guidelines for decision-making, money-spending and troop deployment for the military. The amendment gave commanders of special operations forces the authority to deploy and pay for training of U.S. and foreign troops if "the primary purpose of the training . . . shall be to train the special operations forces of the combatant command."
The law also allows the commander to finance part of the foreign country's participation in the training by buying food, fuel and ammunition during the exercise. But the overall budget for JCETs remains minuscule by Pentagon standards $15.2 million for fiscal 1997 in part because it excludes transportation, usually the single largest expense.
Section 2011 created a critical loophole. In most cases, the House and Senate foreign affairs committees preside over how the government spends money overseas, including foreign aid, arms sales, the deployment of "mobile training teams" and the training of foreign military officers in the United States. The committees, which monitor the overall conduct of U.S. foreign policy in addition to appropriating the money and authorizing its expenditure, are the sources of restrictions on U.S. aid to many countries restrictions that ban U.S. military cooperation or impose economic sanctions in response to human rights abuses, support for terrorism or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
However, to preserve the autonomy of special operations forces, Section 2011 comes under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate defense committees, where the same restrictions do not apply and expenditures are authorized through different channels, and where members are traditionally more sympathetic to Pentagon programs. As a result, regional military commanders and U.S. ambassadors enjoy wide independence in directing special forces training missions, including in countries otherwise subjected to restrictions.
"It was groundbreaking," said James A. Locher III, who helped craft the legislation as a Senate staff member and later headed the SOLIC office in the Bush administration. "It has permitted us to go to a lot of different places, to improve our relationships with a lot of different countries. . . . We had foreseen that special operations forces were going to become increasingly important because of their skills and the types of threats we would face, that they would be the forces of choice by the CINCs and ambassadors."
The law has helped fuel a bonanza for special operations forces. Not only have they escaped the military downsizing of the 1990s, they now have a larger force 47,000 people than at any time in their history. Their diverse skills and flexibility have made them a model for other troops dispatched around the globe during a decade dominated by nontraditional missions involving peacekeeping, drug interdiction and humanitarian crises, from Bosnia to Haiti to Somalia.
The increasing importance of special operations forces in the field has coincided with the decline in civilian foreign aid and U.S. diplomatic presence in some regions and the military's withdrawal from many permanent overseas bases. Increasingly, American soldiers have taken on jobs that once belonged almost exclusively to civilian diplomats, spreading U.S. influence, discreetly forging new alliances and cultivating contacts among foreign leaders.
"Our CINCs are being told they have to shape the environment and we're well suited for that," said Brig. Gen. John Scales, until this summer deputy commander of the U.S. Army's Special Forces Command.
JCETs still provide a way to train U.S. troops. For example, the 1st Special Forces Group based in Okinawa, Japan, accommodates Japanese political sensitivities by practicing parachuting in Thailand. Reluctance by U.S. cities to allow training in urban warfare tactics has led to JCETs in Singapore, Lithuania and India. Since the art of jungle tracking has been all but lost among U.S. forces, they now train in Malaysia or the upper jungles of Irian Jaya in Indonesia. When the Air Force's 352nd Special Operations Group, based in England, has needed to practice flying low and without lights at night, they have gone to mountainous Morocco.
But most of the training exercises made possible by Section 2011 appear to have more ambitious goals, with implications across a broad range of U.S. foreign policy.
In once communist or Soviet-aligned countries such as Kazakhstan, Madagascar, Mongolia, Russia and Uzbekistan, JCETs have been used as ice-breaking "first dates" with former adversaries. Plans are in the works for the first such exercises involving U.S. and Chinese troops next year.
In the Persian Gulf, when the Pentagon wanted to beef up ground troops without attracting attention during the confrontation with Iraq earlier this year, it nearly doubled the number of special operations forces participating in "Iris Gold," a nearly continuous JCET in Kuwait. The 234 U.S. troops then became part of the planned operation against Iraq.
In Laos, Cambodia, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Chad where the United States was perceived as either a hostile or aloof power during the Cold War special operations forces have given courses on the relatively neutral subject of removing land mines. Because the troops are forbidden by law from actually removing mines, they may be less helpful to the host countries than civilian technicians. But the exercises are valued as a foot in the door for more traditional military alliances with countries still skittish about U.S. ties, according to U.S. officials.
"There is definitely a political card played with these JCETs," said Wayne A. Downing, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command from 1993 to 1996. "They are a direct instrument of U.S. foreign policy. They may be the most direct and most involved, tangible, physical part of U.S. foreign policy in certain countries."
Staving Off Instability
In October 1997, in a housing project under construction by the Lippo Group conglomerate about 18 miles outside Jakarta, 12 U.S. Army Special Forces troops diagramed a straightforward mission: Find the enemy somewhere in a warren of plywood rooms, blow a hole in the wall and kill or capture as many as possible while trying not to shoot each other.
The participants in the staged drama were 60 troops from Indonesia's special forces unit, Kopassus, and the Jakarta area military command, Kodam Jaya. Using the U.S. Army's "laser tag" equipment and, for atmospherics, a couple of Puma and Super Puma helicopters, American commanders were teaching the Indonesians how to plan and conduct close-quarters combat and other of the finer points of urban warfare.
"We just show them how we do it and they adopted what they want," said a U.S. defense analyst in Indonesia who has taken part in many bilateral exercises. The analyst, who was interviewed in the presence of the U.S. Embassy's public affairs officer but asked not to be named, said that only with some exercises could he make the case that training U.S. troops was the main goal.
No type of JCET training is in greater demand around the world today than instruction in "foreign internal defense," a concept refined in successive battles against communism that has survived the end of the superpower struggle. It remains "our bread and butter," said Maj. Thaddeus McWhorter of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command.
The internal defense training also illustrates perhaps more clearly than any other type how JCETs can be used in the service of other agendas, including domestic concerns in the countries where the training occurs.
Instruction in "fid" has contributed to some of the most celebrated episodes in the history of the special forces, including a 1967 mission to Bolivia to train and equip a new Bolivian Ranger Battalion. Several days after that exercise ended, the Bolivian unit, with the help of the CIA, captured and executed the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, "putting an end to the insurgency and completing a classic example of a foreign internal defense mission," according to a U.S. special operations publication.
Today, in countries including Indonesia, Bangladesh, Fiji, Madagascar, Malaysia, Singapore, Honduras, Panama and Argentina, where armed domestic opposition is negligible or nonexistent, U.S. forces are teaching armies how to track down opponents, surprise them in helicopter attacks, kill them with more proficiency or, in some cases, how to lead house-to-house raids in "close quarters combat" designed for cities.
Instead of communism, the enemy described in current exercises is often internal unrest that could threaten a government. "We are setting the conditions for stability by insuring security," said a high-ranking officer at the U.S. Pacific Command. "The threat of instability, that is the major threat."
The purpose of exercises focusing on "fid" far from the training of U.S. troops mandated by Section 2011 is "to organize, train, advise, and assist" a foreign military so that it can "free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, and insurgency," according to Field Manual 31-20, "Doctrine for Special Forces Operations," issued in April 1990 and still in use.
Promoting stability has sometimes placed U.S. troops in the midst of internal disputes. In May 1997, the 3rd Special Forces Group was in Sierra Leone teaching light infantry skills to 300 troops of the president's honor and security guard when other officers carried out a coup. Members of the 3rd Group, who ended up helping evacuate U.S. Embassy workers, said recently that none of the soldiers they were training was involved in the coup. But Johnny Paul Koromah, the brother of the commander of the camp where they were staying, was its instigator and took power as a result.
In Sri Lanka, U.S. military training is described in a fiscal 1999 report to Congress by the State Department as an effort to "train key military leaders in human rights principles and procedures." In fact, in "fid" exercises the Green Berets and SEALS have trained the Sri Lankan army in long-range patrolling, tactical reconnaissance, rapid reaction air and sea attacks and maritime operations that are aimed at depriving Tamil rebels of easy access to supply bases in Tamil Nadu across the Palk Strait in India, according to Defense documents and interviews. At least 500 Sri Lankan and 115 U.S. troops were involved in the 1996 and 1997 exercises. More have taken place this year.
While traditionally "fid" training "implies an active insurgency," in the words of a senior Army Special Forces officer, this is not always the case on the ground. In September 1996, 106 U.S. troops went to Panama on a foreign internal defense exercise that included maritime operations, light infantry training and live fire exercises. Months before, 84 U.S. special operations forces trained 97 Ecuadorans in riverine operations, aerial supply, close air support and airborne operations described as a "FID" in defense documents.
In the case of Indonesia, where, according to intelligence officials, no external military threat exists and where the internal insurgency amounts to several hundred poorly armed guerrillas, the Indonesian military viewed as "subversive" the many students, church people and political activists opposed to the 31-year military rule of President Suharto, who stepped down in May.
U.S. military personnel in Indonesia insisted they do not teach Indonesians how to suppress domestic opponents. But the kind of training exercises they undertake focuses on mock internal enemies, and some Indonesian officers, asked about what they are learning from the Americans, hold this view.
Five months after last year's urban warfare exercises near Jakarta, U.S. special operations forces went to Serang, on the northwest part of the island of Java, with another Kopassus unit, where they helped set off claymore mines and grenades and taught troops how to rappel from helicopters and conduct quick extractions. At Chamara, on the Javanese coast, they organized a mock sea-launched assault on a communications center. U.S. troops were instructed in tracking and countertracking tactics by Indonesians who specialize in jungle warfare.
U.S. military officials said the exercises are an important part of an American effort to rebuild a strong regional presence diminished after the U.S. closed its bases in the Philippines in 1992. They also described them as a chance to plant U.S. military traditions in the most powerful institution in the world's fifth most populous country.
The training "exposes Indonesian officers to the American system," said Salim Said, an Indonesian political scientist. "It wouldn't suddenly change this country, but it will help expose them to a democratic system. Democracy is a culture."
In interviews, Indonesians emphasized the practical application and status connected to the exercises several officers with the closest American ties are at the top of the institution.
"Our real opponent is the internal riot," said a three-star Indonesian general interviewed in Jakarta this spring as the student-led riots were in full bloom. The United States "teaches us how to stop civilian disturbances."
Rights by Example
When the Indonesian program came to light amid civil unrest that led to Suharto's downfall, members of Congress summoned administration officials for closed-door briefings to explain the origins and purpose of the training, and the reasons they had not been informed.
Cohen postponed a planned Indonesian exercise but did not cancel the program. He pledged to improve reports to Congress about the missions and to have SOLIC approve all training on a quarterly basis.
Holmes, who as the head of SOLIC has responsibility for all special operations missions, described the quarterly reviews, which have not yet begun, as "not an approval process," but "a final check." This is being done, he said, because "we're good listeners" and Congress has asked for increased oversight, not because he or the Defense Department believes there is a problem with the program.
Holmes said he is satisfied that the U.S. ambassadors and the regional commanders in chief are properly coordinating the exercises with U.S. foreign policy goals in mind. Putting himself, the National Security Council or senior State Department officials into the mix "isn't necessary because we have confidence in the judgment and management of the program."
But although responsibility for the program falls to the CINCs, they often do not even share a common definition of the term JCET, making accounting haphazard at best.
In the case of Colombia, for example, the U.S. Southern Command responded to an initial Washington Post inquiry by saying there were no JCETs in the country last year. Later, the command said that 29 exercises involving 319 U.S. troops had actually taken place. Nevertheless, the Defense Department's official report to Congress for 1997 lists just three JCETs in Colombia involving 143 American troops.
When pressed to justify deployments that appeared to hold little direct benefit for U.S. troops, officials advance a variety of explanations. In some cases they maintain that by training foreign troops, U.S. forces were learning how to train foreign troops, one of their main official missions.
That explanation, they said, includes missions such as in El Salvador, where the 7th Special Forces Group provided near-continuous basic training to Salvadoran Army recruits in areas of the country previously in guerrilla hands. The training was scaled back recently after U.S. officials eventually concluded that it was too time-consuming and brought little benefit to U.S. troops.
Officials point out that special operations forces also collect valuable information on everything from topography to the backgrounds of foreign leaders during exercises. They learn about a country's edible and poisonous plants, insects and animals, about water currents and prevailing winds, about what twigs in a forest crack under a human footfall. They improve their language skills and knowledge of foreign cultures, and can evaluate the readiness of foreign troops, special operations officials say.
U.S. troops return from trips with "stacks of maps, stacks of photos," said one Pentagon official. Reports describe landing sites and other information that could be used in an evacuation of U.S. personnel or in humanitarian relief operations.
However, clearly detailed accounts of the missions are not shared with Congress, the public or senior foreign policymakers. Although the Pentagon files annual reports to lawmakers about JCETs, Defense Department officials acknowledged that the reports, which were declassified for the first time this year, are vague and difficult to decipher. In March, before the Indonesia controversy, Pentagon officials requested that Congress repeal the reporting requirement, calling it "unduly burdensome."
The resistance to greater oversight has extended to the handling of human rights issues.
At the request of Congress and the civilian Pentagon leadership, many training exercises include some instruction on the treatment of prisoners of war and noncombatants and on U.S. and international standards of human rights. However, military officials argue that evaluating units for human rights violators as is required under other programs would be counterproductive, and perhaps endanger the missions.
"We're dealing with [individual military] units and you can't tell the host nation who they can have in those units," said a senior SOLIC official who asked not to be named. In some countries, even mentioning human rights sometimes "puts the program at risk."
In practical terms, said Brig. Gen. John Scales of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, "You can't go in there and give them training on human rights; it's by your example" that they learn.
For the past two months, Defense officials have insisted that JCETs will not be affected by restrictions imposed on all other defense programs by a new law, sponsored by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), prohibiting U.S. aid to any unit of a foreign security force that has been implicated in gross human rights violations.
But that view may soon be changing.
In response to questions raised by The Washington Post, State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin said Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright intends to require U.S. ambassadors to use their authority over the scheduling of U.S. military activities to ensure that foreign troops with whom the U.S. military plans to train are vetted for human rights abuses.
"As a general rule," Rubin said in an interview yesterday, "we believe that programs in which American military forces engage with units of other military governments serve an important purpose" as part of U.S. engagement strategy around the world.
"What we need to do is make sure . . . they are not assisting units that are gross violators of human rights," Rubin said. "Secretary Albright is determined to do all we can at the embassy level to make sure" that such assistance does not take place.
It remains unclear how these efforts to increase civilian oversight would work or whether the Pentagon will accept them. But in response to initial proposals that Holmes, the Pentagon civilian who oversees special operations, have greater input into the process, former special operations commander Downing said they would hobble the program.
"That really scares me," he said. "That means the bureaucrats will get back in and do their thing. The people who should have control are the people who actually do things."
NEXT: Special operations forces in Latin America
Researcher Robert Thomasson and The Washington Post's News Research Center staff contributed to this report.
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