That Defense Secretary Robert Gates is thoroughly shaking up a military bureaucracy desperately in need of a good shaking is a given. When I talk to Pentagon policy folks another name comes up again-and-again as somebody who has also done much to drag the military into a new era: Mike Vickers, assistant defense secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict; one of the few Bush administration DOD holdovers.
Vickers, who most readers probably recognize via Charlie Wilson’s War (less well known is his advisory experience in El Salvador during the 1980s), is a big proponent of the “indirect approach” to combating terrorists and insurgencies: providing advisors and money to work with and improve foreign militaries rather than sending in large ground forces to pull constabulary duty on foreign soil. He talks of “counter network warfare” and using a “network to fight a network”; building small teams of special operators across the globe to battle al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups.
News that the Pentagon is boosting aid to Yemen to build out its special operations forces bears the Vickers imprimatur. Al Qaeda has long used Yemen as a staging ground for attacks inside Saudi Arabia and to support Somali affiliate Al Shabaab. The report says $34 million will go for “tactical assistance” to Yemeni special forces and another $38 million for airlift. American special operators and intelligence agents are known to be in Yemen in an advise and assist capacity.
Gates wrote another policy piece for Foreign Affairs, this time laying out the indirect approach, called “building partner capacity,” to aiding “fractured or failing states.” In the piece, Gates writes of the critical importance of the military’s advisory missions, and echoing another Vickers initiative, putting the best personnel in those assignments. Interestingly, he singles out the Air Force as making the most progress in institutionalizing partner capacity building.
Gates proposes creating a pool, with the State Department, of capacity building funds. Dipping into that pool to fund foreign military assistance would require the approval of both agencies, as the Yemeni initiative does. He writes:
“What I find compelling about this approach is tha it would create incentives for collaboration between different agencies of the government, unlike the existing structures and processes left over from the Cold War, which often conspire to hinder true whole-of-government approaches.”