LONDON — Over the next few weeks, the Pentagon will begin to put in place a new special-operations command ordered by Congress. The command will bring together such units as the Delta Force, the Green Berets and the Navy Seals in a move designed to improve their performance.
The restructuring of special operations has been forced by a frustrated Congress that believes the military is unwilling or incapable of carrying out covert operations. If recent evidence is anything to go by, Congress is right. Because there is a vacuum of covert capability in the Central Intelligence Agency and the military, the National Security Council was the only institution willing to carry out U.S. policy in Iran. With inexperienced men allowed to play the covert game, the outcome was a fiasco.
Congressional intervention in this area is long overdue. In recent years, the record of the United States in covert warfare has been one of the worst in the Western world. Unlike the French, with their disregard of world opinion, or the British, who rely on an Official Secrets Act and a close-mouthed civil service, the United States seems to lack the capability or the national will to engage in unconventional warfare.
Whether it be the mining of Nicaraguan harbors, an attempted hostage rescue mission to Iran, the invasion of Grenada or countering terrorism aboard the Achille Lauro or hijacked TWA jets, the might of the U.S. military machine has faltered.
These operations have gone awry through a combination of three common factors: poorly trained people, faulty intelligence and weak leadership, both political and military. Such inadequacies have been spelled out time and again by congressional critics or by one of the long list of inquiries that always seem to follow the latest debacle. And still the real lessons have yet to be learned.
Since the arrival of nuclear weapons, the nature of warfare has changed fundamentally. The armies of the superpowers are still armed and trained as if a massive conventional war, probably in Europe, is the most likely confrontation. However, both sides recognize the danger of a conventional war escalating into a nuclear exchange is such that conventional warfare is actually the least likely eventuality. Instead, both have developed an extensive unconventional capability to pursue political and territorial advantage by other means, through what has become known as low-intensity conflict.
Last year there were 43 conflicts taking place involving 45 of the world's 164 nations. In every one the superpowers were involved, jockeying for influence. Outside what can be classed as wars, there are also acts of terrorism that require a U.S. response and a broader campaign to win new friends and gain influence in developing countries.
All such conflicts involve what has become known as "covert warfare," a term that is widely misunderstood. Covert warfare seems to embrace anything from an agent planting a bug in a foreign minister's bedroom to attempts to overthrow foreign governments by political and military means. This all-embracing definition is understandable because the CIA, when first formed immediately after World War II, was charged with seven objectives including political, psychological, economic and guerrilla warfare, sabotage, escape and invasion and "other covert operations." That broad brief enabled the CIA to engage in just about any kind of dirty dealing that took its fancy.
But after a series of fiascoes like the Bay of Pigs, Congress introduced restrictive legislation to curb the agency's paramilitary excesses. At the same time, sophisticated technology emerged that allowed many of the espionage activities normally undertaken by the agency gumshoes to be taken over by computers and satellites. The CIA purges carried out during the Carter Administration cleared the last of the undercover warriors from the agency's ranks.
In the meantime, the whole nature of what constitutes covert warfare has changed. Congressional oversight has meant that long-term destabilization campaigns are very restricted, Castro no longer receives poisoned cigars and, while the CIA still tries to retain its finger in the covert pie, any CIA involvement today is more a reflection of historical accident than current ability. An emphasis on direct covert military action has been replaced by economic warfare, the political, military and economic underpinning of guerrilla forces and a massive effort to fight terrorism, which relies primarily on good intelligence and an available military response by highly trained troops.