Special Operations: Vietnam Versus Afghanistan


October 13, 2013: Although U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) deployed (at their peak) over 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, there is still disagreement over how these forces should have been used. The dispute centers on how much effort should go into developing effective local allies versus using the SOCOM capabilities to just hunt down and kill the bad guys. The largest component of SOCOM, the U.S. Army Special Forces, was founded to organize, train, and advise local allies, as well as carry out commando operations. In the Special Forces each twelve man A Team (or ODA) is selected from among the best infantry troops and then trained in the language and customs of a specific part of the world.

These ODAs are very good at going into an area, establishing local relationships, and organizing more effective local armed groups to carry out missions of mutual (to the locals and the United States) benefit. This process is often slow, requiring months just to get the introductions over with and over a year to produce local forces that can have a serious impact. For that reason, the other approach, using SOCOM personnel to quickly acquire information about the bad actors and then use American forces to go after them. The ODAs are excellent at scouting and setting up informant networks among the locals.

Other components of SOCOM, like SEALs, Rangers, marines, and Delta Force (a commando operation recruited from Special Forces operators) are available for “direct action” (raids) missions. This approach worked in doing a lot of damage to al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan but at the expense of longer-range efforts to strengthen the ability of the locals to keep the Taliban out largely on their own.

There were those who insist that if the long-term approach had been implemented early on it would have just created more powerful warlords throughout “Taliban Country” in southern Afghanistan. The Special Forces training efforts are often accused of just making the troops of some loathsome dictator more effective. Special Forces commanders warn the politicians of this risk but are often ordered to just go train and then are blamed for any unpleasant aftereffects.

The original idea behind the Special Forces was to train and organize resistance fighters during wartime. This can be tracked back to World War II. It was the British who first noted that their newly invented SAS troops were turning into something other than commandos. In fact, the highly skilled and talented SAS men were seen as the sort of specialists capable of helping the espionage agencies that were working with the French resistance. Thus, as part of the preparations for the 1944 D-Day invasion, hundreds of British (SOE or Special Operations Executive) and American (OSS, Office of Strategic Services) agents were landed (by boat and aircraft) in France (and other occupied countries) to assist the guerilla organizations that had developed to fight the Germans. Most of these guerillas were poorly armed, trained, and led.

This effort consisted of several different types of agents. For example, 25 three man Jedburgh teams were parachuted into France to work with the guerilla organizations. These teams concentrated on establishing regular radio contact between the guerillas and SOE and OSS headquarters in Britain. The OSS also had 7 thirty-four man OGs (Operational Groups) that were sent in after the invasion to work with the guerillas. The OGs were doing pretty much what the U.S. Army Special Forces do today, train the locals and fight as needed. This made it easier to get the guerillas weapons, equipment, and instructions for their part in supporting the D-Day invasion and the heavy fighting after the landings. The modern day equivalent of the Jedburgh and OG teams were, for example, the CIA and U.S. Army Special Forces teams sent to Afghanistan in late 2001, to help the Northern Alliance fighters who were still fighting the Taliban (which did not yet control much of the north). Within two months the Taliban government was overthrown and most Taliban fighters dead, captured, deserting, or fleeing to Pakistan.

World War II was notable for the extent of "unconventional warfare" operations.  During this war most of the unconventional war action were guerillas fighting to free their nations from occupying German or Japanese troops. While previous wars had their share of raiders, commandos, and spies, the guerilla aspect of warfare was a major element in World War II. This was particularly true for the Allies (mainly Britain and America). To support dozens of separate guerilla wars America set up the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA and Special Forces), while the British had the SOE (Special Operations Executive). The details of many of these operations are still cloaked in secrecy, over sixty years after they took place. After all, some participants are still alive, and in some areas, like Asia and Europe, passions run generations deep.

The OSS evolved into the CIA after World War II. Many OSS operatives were from the U.S. Army and returned to the army after World War II. By the 1950s these OSS veterans had persuaded the army to create the Special Forces with the idea of repeating the OSS guerilla support missions in any future war with the Soviet Union and to help deal with all the insurrections the Soviets were instigating and supporting around the globe.

The Special Forces have, for over half a century, done exactly what they originally set out to do. Thus it should have been no surprise when, in late 2001, the CIA was discovered to have 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 are still shrouded in secrecy, but it was similar to earlier CIA/Special Forces efforts in this area and the sort of thing the CIA and Special Forces had done in other parts of the world since the 1950s.

The Afghan "secret army" was similar but much smaller than the one the CIA and Special Forces set up in Vietnam during the 1960s. This one was also based on tribal warriors, who often crossed borders to carry out reconnaissance missions in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. What happened with this force is a cautionary tale about the limitations of this approach.

The Vietnam 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 six-hundred and seventy-four Green Berets (Special Forces) were working with the tribes (called Montagnards) in the remote Central Highlands. Some forty-thousand-sixty-thousand of these tribesmen were armed and available for some organized mayhem. 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 VC (Viet Cong, the pro-communist militias in the south) 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. The North Vietnamese were using this trail to supply their forces in South Vietnam. The north had signed a treaty in which everyone agreed to stay out of Laos but was violating it, and no one wanted to go to war over that. 

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 American bases in the Central Highlands. The idea was that if the VC hit a base, 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 CDIG units. These were mostly Montagnards, along with some of the better organized religious groups that maintained their own militias and were extremely anti-communist. 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 noted that the Americans paid them more than what South Vietnam officers earned. In some elite Special Forces scout groups the lowest paid Nung warrior received about $60 a month, more than what a South Vietnamese captain made. Most 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 Central Highlands, training and leading some sixty-thousand tribal fighters. These included one-thousand and eight-hundred in Mike Force units, and these often crossed the border on reconnaissance missions and raids. By 1969, the tribal forces had been reduced to thirty-seven-thousand, but a quarter of them were Mike Force. In the next two years all tribal units were disbanded as U.S. forces withdrew. Through most of the 1960s there were over five-thousand American troops and contract civilians supporting the Special Forces and the tribal mercenaries out in the bush.

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 trial, 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 U.S.  began to “wind down” the war, administrative control of Montagnard CID 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 make any serious inroads into the Montagnard community. During their final 1975 offensive, the communists made promises and payments to some 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, displaced the Yards.

Early on the Special Forces experience in Vietnam was applied in Afghanistan. The CIA and Special Forces organized combat forces from the local tribes. Although the tribesmen were carefully recruited and trained, this was a very different situation than encountered along the Laos border in the 1960s. For one thing the bad guys were all Islamic terrorists and these guys were often recruited from the same local tribes the Special Forces were getting to know.

Present day Afghanistan is actually very different from 1960s Vietnam. For example, all of Afghanistan is tribal, not, like in Vietnam, just the Central Highlands. In Vietnam the lowland population was more numerous and largely ethnic Vietnamese. Like the Chinese (to whom they are related) the “Viet” people were better educated, organized, and armed than the Yards. The Viet had more money and considered the tribesmen a bunch of ignorant barbarians who were a nuisance, not a threat. For the tribes, the lowlanders were a potential threat, and in the last half century the Viets have gradually taken over the tribal areas and subjugated the tribes.

In both 1960s Vietnam and Afghanistan today there were drugs. But the difference is that Vietnam was not the source of ninety percent of the world’s heroin, but simply one conduit for smugglers moving the opium and heroin to foreign markets. At the time, ninety percent of the heroin came from northern Burma, which was way up the Mekong River. Vietnam then is like Pakistan today, just a route for the heroin smugglers to get the drugs out.

In the 1990s the heroin trade moved to Afghanistan, where it is now a dominant factor in the economy and local politics. Heroin money that provides the Taliban with the kind of financing the Montagnards could not even imagine. Remember, Afghanistan was always ruled by the tribes. The Montagnard were just the barbarians up in the hills while the Afghan tribes are Afghanistan. That means making any of the tribes of Afghanistan more effective in battle changes the balance of power in the country. While the Vietnamese were willing and able to establish and run a national government, the Afghans do so only reluctantly and remain loyal more to tribe than nation.

So using Special Forces to do what was done in Vietnam, or even World War II in Europe, wouldn’t work because Afghanistan is so fundamentally different. Many Special Forces operators in Afghanistan would have preferred more emphasis on ODAs being used for intelligence gathering and developing better relations with tribes. A lot of this was and is done, but more emphasis on this was always possible. While Special Forces understood the need for lots of direct action (commando raids) in Iraq, Afghanistan is a unique tribal environment. The tribes are not conquered but they can be defeated, befriended, and understood better. Tribal politics is very personal and volatile. This is what makes Afghanistan so difficult to govern. The tribal culture is also not amenable to rapid change. The Islamic terrorists make friends among the tribesmen because they, like the Special Forces operators, will come by, drink tea, talk, and leave presents behind. Using force just makes more long-term enemies. Drinking more tea makes more long-term friends. But the number of Special Forces ODAs (about three-hundred now) is limited and in demand all over the world.

At its peak, there were about fifty ODAs in Afghanistan and these were worked hard. The Special Forces men were not just the only ones who spoke the language and were able to sit down and talk with tribal leaders but often the best people available to plan and carry out raids against drug gangs and Taliban leaders. The problem with Special Forces in Afghanistan was not that they did not do more of this or that but that there were never enough Special Forces troops to meet the demand for their services. That, it turned out, was a problem with no solution because the high standards for Special Forces operators meant that there could never be enough of them, nor the other SOCOM specialists (SEALs, Rangers, and the like).


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