In 1986, Michael G. Vickers was a prodigy at the CIA, the chief strategist of the covert program to arm the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union. Contrary to all expectations, the effort reversed the course of the war and helped hasten the humiliating defeat of the Red Army.
Rather than bask in the glory of victory, however, Vickers, then 33, stunned his bosses by quitting. Reckoning that he would never land another assignment remotely as important, he applied to graduate school and cast about for a new career.
A quarter-century later, Vickers is back in government, where a mirror version of history is unfolding.
Once again, Afghan rebels are trying to expel a superpower. This time, Vickers holds a senior position at the Pentagon, where for the past four years he has been in charge of Special Operations forces that are hunting Taliban leaders, including some of the same guerrillas he aided in the 1980s. Once again, Vickers’s star is ascending in Washington.
Last month, the Senate confirmed President Obama’s nomination of Vickers to serve as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, a pinnacle job that oversees the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and other spy divisions that account for roughly three-quarters of what the United States spends on foreign intelligence-gathering. He is expected to be a key deputy to Leon Panetta, whom Obama nominated this week as defense secretary.
Obama administration officials say Vickers’s career trajectory might not end there. Last year, he was a finalist for the No. 2 job in the CIA, and he is considered a potential contender to return to his old workplace someday as director.
Vickers declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a field accustomed to anonymity and colorless functionaries, supporters describe him as a rare combination of brawn and brains. A former Green Beret, he was once honored as Special Forces officer of the year. He is a veteran of secret operations in Grenada and Central America.
Prior to joining the CIA, he trained to parachute behind Soviet lines with a nuclear device strapped to his body. He is also a marksman, a martial-arts expert and no stranger to bloodshed. In 1976, while he was teaching hand-to-hand combat at West Point, another soldier accidentally plunged a Randall hunting knife into Vickers’s thigh, narrowly missing his femoral artery.
At the same time, his thick glasses and proclivity for 50-cent words betray a considerable intellect, colleagues say. After leaving the CIA, he received an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and he recently earned a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His dissertation exceeded 1,000 pages.
In “Charlie Wilson’s War,” a movie about the 1980s Afghan campaign based on the book by George Crile, Hollywood portrayed Vickers as a paramilitary genius and brainiac chess player who, like some kind of Russian grandmaster, would calmly engage several different opponents at the same time.
It was a far cry from his roots in Southern California, where Vickers has acknowledged earning C’s in high school and scraping through junior college before finding purpose in the Army.
Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., a retired Army officer who taught Vickers at Johns Hopkins and later hired him at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an influential national security think tank, suggested that Vickers’s poor performance as a youth was no mystery.
“Sometimes,” he said, “gifted people get bored by the offerings mere mortals get.”
In an intensely partisan town, Vickers has survived and advanced by never visibly taking sides. Although he serves at the pleasure of the president as a political appointee, a search of public records turns up no evidence that he has ever donated to a candidate or party.
Vickers had been out of government for two decades when President George W. Bush invited him and three other experts from think tanks and academia to Camp David, Md., in 2006 to consult on his Iraq war strategy. Vickers said Bush’s plan to rescue the war with a “surge” of troops was misguided; he counseled the opposite, urging a partial withdrawal and more training of Iraqi security forces.
Bush stuck to his plan, which was ultimately credited with helping to reduce violence in Iraq. Nonetheless, the president was taken by Vickers. He told then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to hire the self-assured former Green Beret.
“Bush likes men of action,” recalled Eliot A. Cohen, a Johns Hopkins professor and former State Department official who was at Camp David that day. “Even when he didn’t take the advice, it was laid out in an impressive way.”
Vickers was confirmed as assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict in the spring of 2007. By that time, Rumsfeld had been replaced by a man Vickers knew well from his Cold War days: former CIA director Robert M. Gates.
It was a fortuitous connection. After Gates was asked to remain at the helm of the Pentagon under the Obama administration, he asked that Vickers be allowed to stay, too.
Democrats said it was an easy sell. “He’s unquestionably brilliant,” said Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, who also lobbied the White House to keep Vickers. “He’s that smart and that good.”
Vickers has overseen an expansion of Special Operations activity around the world, including a counterterrorism network that focuses on 20 “high-priority” countries. “The war on terror is fundamentally an indirect war,” Vickers told The Washington Post in 2007. “It’s a war of partners . . . but it also is a bit of the war in the shadows.”
Vickers has been said by some to micromanage the war instead of tending the large bureaucracy that reports to him.
Before his confirmation hearing last month, the Senate Armed Services Committee asked him to explain a comment he once made that he spent “about 95 percent of my time on operations.” In response, Vickers wrote that he had been “effective in fulfilling my duties” and that “the allocation of my time has been appropriate.”
Those who have worked alongside him at the Pentagon described him as disciplined and highly averse to leaks, so much so that during internal debates he takes extreme care to keep his thoughts to himself.
“He’s a complicated guy, because it’s not always clear if what you’re seeing is the real him,” said a former subordinate who admires Vickers but spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a candid assessment. “Other people might say that he treats everybody like a CIA case officer would, that what you see is not the real Mike, that he’s behind all these layers.”
Vickers joined the CIA in 1983 after a decade in the Army. By luck and happenstance, he was immediately thrust into a key job as principal strategist for the agency’s Afghan task force.
The CIA had lost much of its paramilitary expertise after the Vietnam War. Vickers, a Special Forces veteran with an encyclopedic knowledge of Russian weapons, fit the bill.
The Afghan guerrillas had been fighting the Soviets with bolt-action rifles dating to World War I. But Vickers and his boss on the task force, Gust Avrakotos, gambled that the Afghans could win if they were properly supplied. Vickers drew up the plans to arm and train a core group of 150,000 Afghan fighters.
“Mike’s genius was, he knew this was not something that was going to be done with knives and scarves on their heads,” said Nick Pratt, a retired Marine colonel and CIA operative who worked closely with Vickers in Afghanistan. “It was going to be done by people who were professional logisticians.”
The arms and supplies were funneled covertly through Pakistan, but Vickers became well acquainted with many of the Afghan mujaheddin commanders. Decades later, a few are still fighting — this time against the United States and its allies. Among them: Jalaluddin Haqqani, who runs a leading Pashtun insurgent network in eastern Afghanistan; and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a particularly brutal leader of the Hezb-i-Islami faction.
“The people we dealt with are a little bit long in the tooth,” Pratt said. “They’re mostly dead, or not in the field anymore, or somebody like Haqqani — pretty high up.”
Vickers left the CIA after three years. He earned his MBA and worked for a few years in the private sector, but concluded he missed being immersed in national security.
In 1991, he began taking graduate classes at Johns Hopkins, where he was drawn to a cutting-edge theory called the “revolution in military affairs,” or RMA. The theory holds that a handful of technological breakthroughs over the centuries — such as nuclear weapons — revolutionized the nature of warfare.
Proponents predicted that the modern world was on the cusp of several similar breakthroughs that could quickly alter the global balance of power. “It really seized Mike’s imagination,” said Cohen, the Johns Hopkins professor, who became a mentor.
Cohen introduced his pupil to the guru of the RMA school of thought: Andrew W. Marshall, director of the Pentagon’s internal think tank, the Office of Net Assessment.
Marshall is a legendary figure at the Pentagon, where he has served as its top futurist since 1973. He is known as Yoda because of his perceived wisdom, elliptical speaking habits and advanced age. (He’s 89 and still works full time.)
Although Marshall has loyalists throughout the national security establishment, he took a shine to Vickers, hiring him as an intern and later to run war games and consult for the Pentagon. “Vickers in particular proved to be especially imaginative and able,” Marshall said in an interview.
As he pursued a doctorate in strategic studies, Vickers researched the causes of rapid transformations in military warfare, identifying 18 distinct cases over the course of history, from the development of the chariot to “the Stealth-Precision Weapons Revolution” of the last quarter of the 20th century.
Nearly two decades after he started the program, Vickers finally wrapped up his dissertation in July. In the acknowledgments, he credited his wife, Melana, a fellow student in Cohen’s class in 1992, for prodding him “to get the darn thing done.”
He is scheduled to receive his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University’s graduation ceremonies in May. “If he’s not flying around the world, I’ll put the hood on him myself,” Cohen said.
Staff writer Jeff Stein contributed to this report.