Special Operations: Another Secret Army


October 1, 2010: The mass media finally broke the story that the CIA has formed a special operations force, composed of Afghans, to operate across the border in Pakistan to collect intelligence and kill Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. This force of about 3,000 was never a secret to the enemy, or anyone spending time on the Afghan side of the border. But the CIA carried out an effective deception program, based on the fact that Western journalists rarely go to such dangerous areas as the Afghan/Pakistani border. Afghan journalists could be kept out, or any reports they published got lost in the numerous wildly improbably stories they normally publish. The full details of this Afghan force won't emerge for years. But it's probably similar to earlier CIA/Special Forces efforts in this area.

The Afghan "secret army" is similar, but much smaller, than the one the CIA and the U.S. Army Special Forces set up in Vietnam. This one was also based on tribal warriors, who often crossed borders to carry out reconnaissance missions. This effort was started by the CIA in the 1950s, to keep an eye on what communist forces were doing in South Vietnam's western neighbor, Laos. By the end of 1963 the Special Forces had taken over from the CIA, and some 674 Green Berets (Special Forces)  were working with the local tribes (called Montagnards), of whom some 40,000-60,000 were under arms. Since most Montagnards were not interested in getting involved in a major war outside their own home area, the Special Forces set up several military programs that gave Montagnard villagers a choice.  

For Montagnards just looking for self defense against Viet Cong attacks, there were the Regional Forces programs. The Special Forces supplied weapons and training to villagers. While the Regional Forces were staunch in defending their villages, they were not much interested in going out looking for communist troops. For more mobile combat activities the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDGs) were set up. CIDG not only protected the Montagnards from communists and communist influence, but also fought to prevent the passage of Ho Chi Minh trail (in Laos) cargo into South Vietnam. 

In 1965 Special Forces began organizing “Mobile Strike Force” battalions (nicknamed “Mike Force”) using Montagnard personnel, to provide more effective reaction forces for the protection of isolated camps. The idea was that if the VC hit a camp, a Mike Force battalion would immediately be sent in pursuit. These forces proved very effective in keeping the VC in check throughout the Central Highlands. There were five of these Mike Forces. Each consisted of a Special Forces A Team, one or more CIDG battalions, a recon company, and a Montagnard mercenary parachute company. There was one of these Strike Forces for each of the four corps areas in South Vietnam, plus one run solely by the Special Forces.   "Mike Forces" were used to provide a mobile reserve for defending the areas held by CIDG units. These were mostly Montagnards and some non-tribal groups. In the Central Highlands and border areas, the Mike forces got a real workout. These forces were disbanded when the Special Forces left in 1971.

Many of the Montagnards were in it for the money as much as for the adventure. Their own jungle economy made little use of money, so the Special Forces often had to pay them in gold or goods. But this was still cheap. The highest paid Montagnard warrior made less than the lowest ranking U.S. soldier (you could put ten Montagnards in the field for what it cost to send one American out to fight). However, the Montagnards were not comparing themselves to Americans, but to Vietnamese, and they could not but notice that Uncle Sam paid them more than what South Vietnam officers earned. In the elite "Prairie Fire"/ SOG scouts the lowest paid Montagnard in received about $60 a month, more than what a South Vietnamese captain made. The Montagnards were paid in piasters (the South Vietnamese currency), but there were always plenty of traders bringing in goods for the Montagnards to spend their new wealth on. The Montagnards thought this was a most accurate and fair pay scale. The South Vietnamese generally kept their mouths shut.

 By 1965, there were 1,828 Special Forces personnel in the highlands, training and leading some 60,000 tribal fighters. These included 1,800 in Mike Force units, that often crossed the border on reconnaissance missions and raids. By 1969, the tribal forces had been reduced to 37,000, but a quarter of them were Mike Force. In the next two years, all tribal units were disbanded, as U.S. forces withdrew.

 Many of the Montagnards were warriors in the classic sense. Like the Gurkas and similar groups, they literally laughed at death and got on very well with the warrior types attracted to U.S. Army Special Forces duty. Indeed, it was the bond of trust, mutual dependence and fighting spirit between the Special Forces troopers and the Montagnards that produced a unique military organization. Many Special Forces soldiers voluntarily went back to Vietnam for tour after tour so as to keep close to "their Yards." Some of the Special Forces folks went native, moving in with the Montagnards, learning the language and customs and sometimes even marrying Montagnard women. The Yards reciprocated, becoming expert in the use of much U.S. military technology and creating some amazingly lethal combat units. The best Yard soldiers were young men in their late teens or early 20s. Like males their age the world over, they were fascinated by American technology and Americans in general. The Special Forces soldiers proved themselves competent fighters early on and a reputation was made that young Montagnards were eager to partake in. The Montagnards were given U.S. field uniforms to wear and weapons to use. Seeing some of the Special Forces troops dressed up (in person or in pictures), some Montagnards would emulate this. Spending their money on having replicas of Special Forces uniforms made (the green beret and better quality fatigued, starched and pressed), they would unexpectedly present themselves, spit shined boots and all, for inspection. The Special Forces NCOs and officers would go along with this, carefully scrutinizing these well turned out jungle warriors and congratulating those who got it right.

Although the Montagnards were basically mercenaries (although technically they were part of the South Vietnamese armed forces), they were irresistibly drawn to these foreign warriors who shared their desire to kill Vietnamese (at least the communist ones) and who possessed such a powerful warrior ethic of their own. This could be seen by those aspects of American culture the Montagnards were most enthusiastic about. Aside from the military technology, the Yards loved American action movies. Westerns were particular favorites, with the Yards seeing themselves as the cowboys and soldiers and the Indians as the hated Vietnamese. They were among the more enthusiastic fans of John Wayne’s much maligned move, "Green Beret." This film was generally derided even by many Special Forces, mainly for the numerous inaccuracies. But the Yards loved it. Any Western or other action movie that made it to a Montagnard base would be eagerly viewed time after time, despite the fact that most Montagnards had little or no knowledge of English.

The Yards knew the bush. They could track anything over any kind of terrain and could generally detect other troops in the forest long before Americans or Vietnamese could. The Americans brought with them a lot of useful technology. The Americans had the radios and the skills needed to call in air power and artillery. American medical technology not only went to war, but made life a lot more secure for the Montagnard families. The Montagnards were not always ideal soldiers. There is an ancient difference between warriors and soldiers. The former are eager and possess considerable combat skills, but lack discipline. Moreover, the Montagnards often served under their own leaders, which made it more difficult to turn the warrior habits into more disciplined behavior. The Special Forces worked on changing the warrior mentality, but it was slow going. Over the years, by tial, error and determined instructions, more and more of the Montagnards soldiers became disciplined fighters. But there were never enough of the disciplined Montagnards, and many of these were promoted to elite positions like paratroopers and long range scouts. Meanwhile, the Special Forces had to be careful how they used their Montagnard warriors. The Montagnards were stalwart in the defense, but could be difficult to control in an attack and had a hard time coordinating their actions in large scale operations.

In 1970, as the US began to “wind down” the war, administrative control of Montagnard CIDG and Mike Force was transferred to South Vietnam, which converted most of them into ARVN Ranger battalions. Although desertions rose, the Montagnard units remained very effective. For example, during the NVA “Easter Offensive” in 1972, Montagnards formed the backbone of the defense of the Central Highlands, during which most ARVN units more or less collapsed, and Montagnards fought hard in the defense of Pleiku and Kontum in 1973 and 1974. Only late in the war did the Communists made any serious inroads into the Montagnard community. During their final 1975 offensive the communists made promises and payments to some to key Montagnard groups and the South Vietnamese found that some of the Montagnard support they had long taken for granted was no longer there. After the war, however, the Communists engaged in payback against the Montagnards. Not exactly genocide, but if your name was on "the list" you were in big trouble. And all Vietnamese went back to dumping on the Yards.   As the population of lowlanders continued to increase, more Vietnamese moved into traditional Montagnard territory, increasing friction and, ultimately, displacing the Yards.

The Special Forces experience in Vietnam has long been used in Afghanistan. What is known about the special Afghanistan border force is that it is very well paid, and members are carefully recruited and trained. This was an approach that worked for the force that operated across the border in Laos, although the most dangerous operations consisted mainly of Special Forces troops, with a few Montagnard men in each team.




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