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Pentagon Takes Indirect Approach to Combating Al Qaeda in Yemen

by Greg on April 21, 2010

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.”

– Greg

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

JMF April 21, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Was it not the indirect approach used in the Soviet-Afghan conflict that precipitated the Afghanistan we have today?


WJS April 21, 2010 at 9:59 pm

It wasn't indirect it was fairly direct just under the table and it caused the defeat of the Soviets. The Afghanistan of today was caused by the Afghanis lack of identity as a country and the complete lack of interest in their situation by the administrations of Bush Sr. and Clinton.


Thunder350 April 21, 2010 at 10:56 pm

I think it was Reagan who screwed up in Afghanistan (And hes my favorite of all), after the defeat of the Soviets, those who planned and did all the work giving money to the Mujahideen, then tried to rebuild Afghanistan, give them schools and hospitals, but the president decided against it… we turned our backs on them, broke our promises to them. They never forgot it.

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend…. until you do all the work for us, then once your done we'll say FU!"


@7thwave April 21, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Sounds like the pentagon is fed up with losing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our military is woefully under trained,undermanned,and out performed by even the least trained insurgent group or terrorist organization.We spend billions on gee wizz weaponry that does not work,under man our ground and air force to the point to where combined arms is a thing of the past, and to top every thing off, we post trivial dribble about the next new tactic to come out of Gate'e mouth and some no name general who could not even lead a dog on a leash, let alone a division sized unit. Our country is pathetic, washed up and just down right defeated by our own ignorance and stupidity.


@7thwave April 21, 2010 at 9:44 pm

So in closing…why not throw lots of money into a future Afghanistan like country that eventually will be ended up being invaded to clear out Al-Qaeda and spawn a new groupof terrorists to finally defeat this and of pathetic losers whose only thing is to run the mouth and spout hype about nothing.


pete April 24, 2010 at 3:52 am

All I can say you traiterous defeatist, its camp X-Ray for you.


@7thwave April 21, 2010 at 10:18 pm

WJS…Afghanistan's lack of identity as a country? WTH? Seems to me they have always had a lack of national identity…first the British tried to give them one…then came the Russians…and now us, the nation of bumbling fools. And in respects to what is going on in Yemen, we are making the same mistake over. And we will continue to make the same mistake over again until some one wakes up gets a different idea. The only way to destroy these world wide terrorists cells that are hell bent to destroy the USA is to go after them directly. Direct action by special operations forces, including civil affairs and psyops. And as a last resort, invade the place and destroy the enemy. We seem to forget tap dancing around a enemy that has no place to call home,breeds nations with no identity. And what happened in Afghanistan in the past,and now the present is going to happen again in Yemen, Qatar, and other south west Asia countries.


@7thwave April 21, 2010 at 10:20 pm

You cannot fight a war by throwing money into failing national governments, expecting a desirable out come. Especially when you are losing wars else where.


Howe April 22, 2010 at 12:40 am

with what money!?!?!

I'm sorry, I love the military as much as anyone else…But as a country we are flat broke, were trillions in the hole…how about we stop giving the money were borrowing from countries, too other countries!

All foreign aid must stop.


@7thwave April 22, 2010 at 7:33 am

But in todays world, with a over hyped national budget crisis, and a clueless public blind to the fact that we waste more money than we spend wisely, crying cut aid to other countries is like p!$$!ng into the wind. We cannot cut aid going into other countries, as Afghanistan is a classic example of what goes wrong when you cut involvement in countries you should have never been involved with inthe first place.


DualityOfMan April 22, 2010 at 4:52 pm

$150 million to Yemen is ~1/22,700 of the national budget.
We spend $25 billion in foreign aid per year.
The military budget, with Iraq/Afghanistan included, is $600-700 billion.
The total budget is $3,400 billion or so.
I don't really see foreign aid bankrupting us.


WJS April 21, 2010 at 10:00 pm


Huh? 420 was yesterday buddy. Put the bong down.


Mad Mike April 22, 2010 at 2:39 am

Low-intensity conflict is the warfare of the future. Maybe, when he was a Cadet, Vickers picked up a book by Col. David Hackworth titled, "About Face." It's amazing how we fail, continuously, to learn from the Vietam War since more than 30 of our top commanders today, are graduates of the US Military Academy's (USMA) Class of 1976.


charles April 22, 2010 at 4:31 am

Vickers was never a cadet here at West Point, I would know..I'm a cadet.


Mad Mike April 22, 2010 at 5:10 am

My Bad. I knew he wasn't a West Pointer, but assumed he was a cadet somewhere. What ever happened to Col. Tex Turner?? He was tougher than nails. I would walk on hot coals for that guy. I'm a former USMA PAO. Go Army!!


charles April 22, 2010 at 1:37 pm

lol, its ok. wow really, thats awesome.

I dont really know what happened to Col Turner, I've never had a brief with him, I'm sure he's visited, probably before I was even here.

Indeed.. Go Army, Sink Navy!


@7thwave April 22, 2010 at 7:42 am

Low intensity conflict maybe the tunnel vision view of how we fight wars in the future. How ever with the history of the U.S. military beings one of the lamest militaries on the planet, its hard to get a mind set to actually fight a war.
War is war. No matter what you call it. When you go to war,you fight to win. Whats happening today, and ever since WWII, is we have too many hands in the soup so to speak. Our military commanders have their hands tied. Continuously at the mercy of some blow hard politician like Rumsfeld, Gates, and others.
Today, we have a problem with the soup example. We are not committing our forces wisely. We are too focused on paying some under equipped military from a country that is falling apart. We are not focused on winning. Period. And when you go up against the likes of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, you cannot afford to be making huge mistakes like we are, period.


@7thwave April 22, 2010 at 7:45 am

This problem in Yemen is not going to go away with just pouring money into their military and providing half-arsed training to support them. We need boots on the ground. Covertly if the overt options fail.We need to hunt these creeps like pigs, and kill them.


Wildcard April 22, 2010 at 12:14 pm

In todays news the Green Berets will utilise their skills that have existed since 1960 to counter AQ in Yemen.


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Charles April 22, 2010 at 4:24 am

Ok, I'm sorry to interrupt but I hate how people refer to it as Charlie Wilson's war. It was actually Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to Carter. He was the brain child of drawing the Soviets into the Afghanistan trap, and using the mujaheddin as pawns to fight our war. If you would have done your homework, you'd see that Brzezinski even had a vendetta against the Russians from the beginning.. he was Polish. Vickers was just in charge of the operation and his lil op allowed the U.S to actually draw blood on Soviet soldiers, not to mention the Soviets spent 12 billion in direct military expenses, while the CIA’s lil operation raised hell on Soviet forces at a discount price of only $200 million. Charlie Wilson was just the politician in Washington who was lobbying to rack up funds and more advanced weapons, he didn't even come into the picture until a few years after Brez. implemented it.

The only reason the Taliban and other Al-Qaeda flourished was because Washington had the genius idea of just peacing out of Afghanistan once the Russians left, leaving a huge void of wealthy warlords with plenty of arms that we provided. Not to mention we paid these Mujahadeen to get the Stingers back. None of these were Vickers fault.

The reason Vickers supports these clock and dagger ops is because they fight unconventional warfare w/ unconventional warfare. An insurgent cant make IEDs if there are no large ground forces to target and can't use propaganda if American soldiers aren't their to accidentally kill civilians and then say hey look, "Americans are killing the civilians..join us."


DualityOfMan April 22, 2010 at 4:59 pm

The Soviets had already invaded Afghanistan… there was going to be anarchy anyway.

I'm curious to see how Vickers was involved in El Salvador. That was really one of the low points in American foreign policy.


ohwilleke April 22, 2010 at 3:44 pm

If the Vickers approach works so well, tell us where he didn't fail. Where has this kind of operation bettered U.S. interests? And, who led it? Find that guy and maybe the pitch would have more credibility.

Seriously. Brezezinkski may have had a hand in it as well, as did Charlie and Ronald Reagan. War is a team effort. But "in charge of operations" in an operation that failed still puts heaps of blame on Vickers. Vickers was a leader in two missions that were disasterous failures.

The Soviet's sending money and getting killed doesn't mean that the Americans are any better off. We'd honestly have been better off if the Soviets had remained in control of Afghanistan.


charles April 22, 2010 at 5:04 pm

What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant "America is better off."

You mention how Vickers "failed" but do not specify as to what you define as failure. Please clarify.


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