President Obama delivered the commencement speech for the graduating class at the United States Military Academy (more popularly known as West Point) today, kicking off a 10-day effort to illuminate the public on US foreign policy comings and goings, to wit: “let’s not get too crazy here. A little interventionism, sure, but not too much. A little realism/isolationism, fine, but not too much. Sort of a Goldilocks thing, OK guys?”
Among the many fun and exciting things the US will be doing is stepping up its training of Syrian rebels. Well, strictly speaking, the President said: “I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators,” but what it signals is a bunch of discussions elsewhere about stepping up the support for the good, non-terrorist sorts of Syrian rebels.
After a lot of hemming and hawing, the US did finally get around to helping some (we think) non-terrorist rebels via the offices of some fine gentlemen from the CIA. The train-and-equip program has been operating at facilities in Jordan, Qatar, and Turkey, among other places.
The problem is that the CIA training programs don’t generally put a whole lot of people through training. The CIA’s programs create fewer waves in the press and among politicians because the CIA places emphasis on discouraging unwanted attention. But that same low-profile puts a pretty sharp upper limit on the number of people who can get trained. The CIA might be the right group for training a bunch of hell-raisers, but not enough for a whole army.
That sort of thing more normally falls under the purview of military because of its role in the larger context of low-intensity warfare. Although Special Forces evolved from various sorts of reconnaissance, frogman, and commando activities carried out during the Second World War, by the height of the Cold War, the Special Operations community performed a huge number of training activities all over the place.
Most low-intensity conflicts throughout history have been sort of “come as you are” affairs. On the insurgent side, at least at the beginning, it’s like a bunch of random people showed up for “War Day” at the local bar or whatever. Not a lot of professional competence around.
Even the ostensibly official, “trained” folks don't represent the best and brightest of the South Blankistani cream of the crop.
Meanwhile, the Special Forces guys have gotten really good practice and training for all this and are full of all kinds of helpful hints and tricks.
So, like the old saying goes, clear a position, keep the local strongman safe for a day; teach the strongman to clear a position, and keep him safe for a lifetime. Or until he gets shot in the back by a turncoat, but you get the idea.
Above and beyond that, the locals speak the language and know the area better than any Special Forces guy raised in rural Washington will ever manage. Unless, of course, you’re talking about fighting low-intensity conflicts in rural Washington, in which case, that’s all covered in the Rambo movies.
The US also likes this kind of train-and-equip program because local folks (US-trained or not) shooting other local folks just doesn’t have the same media hook that occurs when the US gets involved in the shooting first hand. Training locals in the finer points of breaking things and killing people makes military intervention in a conflict a lot less politically burdensome for Washington, so win-win, right?
Well, the military training and advisory roles that Special Operations began to fill in the 1950s in Southeast Asia were apparently the gateway drug for the major land war the US later came to know and love as the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, power of poor comprehension married to flawed historical analogies has led some folks (bless their hearts) to characterize the expanded training mission in places close to Syria as “Obama plots deployment of U.S.military advisers to Syria.”
It’s not easy to prove that the US doesn’t have advisers in Syria for much the same reason that it’s not easy to prove that the CIA isn’t using mind control rays to make Solange Knowles attack Jay-Z: it’s a negative. But that said, sending people into Syria is absolutely not what President Obama is talking about. Reading his entire speech, it’s pretty apparent that Obama has no burning desire to suck the US into another major ground war in the Middle East.
The US just wants a say in who wins the war in Syria. The US thinks that only the good kinds of rebels should win in Syria, and intends to bring this dream into being by making sure that the good kinds of rebels are good at breaking things and killing people. Hopefully, just the bad ones.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan