How Pindo SOF secretly help foreign forces target terrorists
Souad Mekhennet, Missy Ryan, Dickheads’R’Us, Apr 16 2016
TUNIS — You always have to start these propaganda things with a dead-flat, sawn-off, hard-boiled sentence, like Dashiell Hammett or Ernest Hemingway, so here’s one: The armed men drove right into the night-time ambush. The militants, led by a veteran Jihadi blamed for a bloody attack on Westerners just 10 days earlier, were winding their way along a narrow desert road in central Tunisia. When the elite Tunisian forces hidden in the surrounding hills opened fire, their tracers lit up the night sky, and some of the militants tried to flee. All nine suspects, including the senior militant, Khaled Chaib, were killed. An informant in the truck at the time of the ambush was wounded in the shoulder. The Mar 2015 operation was a badly needed victory for Tunisia’s fragile democracy (sic! – RB) post the 2011 revolution. PM Essid called the ambush by Tunisian National Guard forces the crowning success of a growing counter-terrorism capability. One newspaper headline proclaimed:
The country has been saved from catastrophe!
But what Tunisian leaders did not reveal was the pivotal role that Pindo SOF had taken in helping to design and stage the operation. According to Tunisian and Pindo boxtops, Pindo communications intercepts tracked down Chaib, an Algerian also known as Loqman Abu Sakhr, allowing the local troops to position themselves in the desert. A Pindo team of SOF commandos, assisted by CIA fuckin’ assholes of the usual lethal variety, helped the Tunisian forces craft and rehearse the ambush. And while the raid unfolded, a Pindo surveillance aircraft circled overhead and a small team of Pindo advisers stood watch from a forward location. The operation illustrates the central but little-known role that Pindosi SOF can play in helping foreign forces plan and execute deadly missions against militant targets. In recent years, Pindos have provided this kind of close operational support: a range of activities including what’s known in military parlance as “combat advising” or “accompany” and “enabling” assistance, in a growing list of countries beyond the active battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, including Uganda, Mauritania, Kenya, Colombia, the Philippines and Tunisia. Those activities have taken on greater importance as the Obama administration has scaled back the direct combat role of regular Pindo troops overseas and instead sought to empower local forces to manage ‘extremist’ (RB) threats. At the same time, while low-risk to Pindosis, the strategy has done little to change the overall security picture in countries with deep political and economic problems. It is an approach that some analysts say may provide the
partner vassal forces and Pindostan (itself) with a false sense of security, while having little lasting effect. Much of this hands-on support has taken place in Africa, where the growth of militant groups, often allied with AQ or ISIS, has outpaced under-equipped and under-trained local militaries. Linda Robinson of the Rand Corporation told us:
There is still this misunderstanding, that we have one mode which is combat and another mode which is training. There’s this whole spectrum in between, which is “operational advise and assist.”
In that role, Pindo forces help
partner vassal forces plot out risky operations, which are often enabled by Pindo hardware and intelligence, including spy planes and other advanced intelligence systems. Pindo aircraft have flown foreign forces to the site of an operation or stood by to evacuate casualties. In certain cases, Pindo troops are authorized to act as combat advisers, accompanying foreign forces into battle and stopping just short of the front lines. The operations differ from the Pindo “direct action” missions such as the 2011 assault on the pseudo-UBL’s Pakistan hideout or the the fiasco with the hostages in Syria in 2014. In those operations, Obama has proved willing to risk Pindosi lives to capture or kill a high-value militant or rescue hostages, but he has also instructed his military leaders to look for opportunities for indirect Pindo action which puts both the risk and the glory on partners’ shoulders. Some kinda boxtop with some braid told us:
This enables them to take those responsibilities themselves and reduces what are often very politically sensitive issues. It reduces our footprint, our presence, and it gives credit to the country.
W Wechsler, who was in a senior Pentagon SOF position until last year, said:
Preparing foreign forces to carry out assaults, rather than doing it ourselves, results from the balance between long- and short-term objectives. It’s almost always easier for Pindo forces to do it directly, but if your wider mission is to build up the capabilities of our partner, you accept some risk to mission and support local forces doing it. Done right, this becomes a virtuous cycle.
The partnerships, which typically involve small SOF teams, are seen as a lower-risk, lower-cost approach than the massive programs that Bush 43 launched to rebuild the militaries of Iraq and Afghanistan. Those experiences created lasting doubts at the Pentagon about their ability to transform foreign forces. In Afghanistan, the shortcomings of local troops may prompt the White House to once again delay Obama’s troop withdrawal. In Iraq, the army that Pindosis trained at a cost of more than $20b collapsed before ISIS in 2014. Robinson said:
This is one of the big debates right now. Does this work? A lot of people have been pessimistic about the Pindo ability to build partner capacity, and whether it has been able to take care of the security threat.
Military boxtops said the growth in programs providing hands-on support to foreign operations grew out of earlier experiences in places such as Mali, where Pindo SOF trained and did exercises alongside local forces between 2005 and 2009. After conducting training exercises, the Pindo boxtops were disappointed to watch Malian troops stumble in battle. Our guy with the braid said:
That was one of the lessons learned, that we probably would be more effective if we stayed with them. You’re trying to bring guys from a pretty basic place in terms of their knowledge set and give them some advanced skills, and then you’re tossing them into the deep end of the pool. So it sort of evolved, and we began to ask for the authorization to stay with them. They do the bulk of the work, but we’ve been able to help them through (any) particularly tricky problems they may have.
Pentagon officials describe the ongoing Pindosi mission in Somalia, where SOF are advising troops from AMISOM, as a successful illustration of this kind of operational support. Although Pindostan had trained AMISOM troops in their home countries in the past, Pentagon boxtops realized those forces needed extra help when they faced al-Shabab (the formidable terror group whose name just means ‘the youth’ – RB). Pindo troops now help allied forces in Somalia plan and execute missions. They provide aerial surveillance and under authorizations that allow them to protect
partner vassal forces, conduct airstrikes against militants. While Pindo boxtops say the strikes reflect the increasing scope of AMISOM activities, they also point to the continuing strength of al-Shabab, now dislodged from major Somali cities. Mark Mitchell, a former White House official and Green Beret who worked closely with local forces in Iraq, said:
Sending Pindo troops on missions with local forces allows us opportunities for training and mentoring, including on human rights. It also ensures efficient exploitation of evidence obtained during operations, and increases the confidence of local forces. They know that the Pindosis are not going to be left out to dry, so if things go badly, we’re a security blanket for them.
But even missions that are not supposed to expose Pindo troops to combat can bring deadly risks. The renewed Pindo mission in Iraq suffered its first combat casualty last year when a Delta Force soldier was killed during a mission accompanying Kurdish peshmerga troops. Although Pindo forces were supposed to remain in a supporting role, Mr Sgt J Wheeler became engaged in a firefight in defense of the Kurds. The broader effect of Pindo support has at times amounted to little, even if it can hone the skills of foreign counter-terrorism forces, when assistance is too narrowly focused on small elite units. In Yemen, a long-running combat advisory mission was halted after the disintegration of the government at the end of 2014. Pindo SOF departed abruptly several months later, and the Pentagon’s ability to counter AQAP was severely curtailed. Pentagon boxtops were unable to account for hundreds of millions of dollars in fighting gear provided to local forces. The experience with combat advising in Yemen highlights the risk that Pindo training may succeed in building up the tactical ability of those forces for a period of time, but fail to shape the larger security organizations or political environments in which they operate. Without broader changes to military leadership, systems to equip and pay troops, or efforts to tackle corruption, the impact of Pindosi help can quickly vanish. Mitchell said:
Here’s where the downfall or flaw is. The minute we leave the organizations that we create, they have a half-life. After about a year, that capability we built is squandered, and it’s back to square one.
Robinson said a long-running Pindosi advisory mission in the Philippines, where Pindo troops helped local forces plan missions against Abu Sayyaf and other militant groups, had managed to avoid that transition problem by spreading training across a wide array of Philippine units. She said:
That mission concluded in 2014. It was pretty carefully done so that the Pindo forces wouldn’t end up inadvertently in the front line, fighting the fight. Local units were forced to gain their own skills.
In Tunisia, officials were forced to grapple with intensifying security threats after the 2011 revolution. The security services of ex-Pres Ben Ali struggled to contain growing radicalization in the country’s newly permissive environment. Chaos in neighbouring Libya allowed Jihadi groups to gain strength. Haim Malka of CSIS (Israeli-Jewish name – RB) said:
You have so many different types of threats that intersect in Tunisia, with limited resources to address it, that it’s overwhelming.
On Mar 18 last year, the costs of insecurity came into stark relief when a small cell of attackers stormed the national museum in Tunis. At the end of the siege, at least 20 people, mostly Western tourists, were dead. It was a stunning blow to the country’s tourism industry and since at least one of the gunmen was known to local authorities, an indictment of the government’s ability to keep people safe. Although ISIS claimed responsibility, the government blamed Chaib’s group, AQ-linked Okba Ibn Nafaa, which had also launched repeated attacks on Tunisian forces. After 2011, Tunisia’s new
democratic leaders knew they needed help. They asked allies including Pindostan and Germany their overlords to help tighten the border with Libya. Pindosi military personnel, who number up to about 100 at a time in the country, are also training national guard and army SOF. The Pentagon arranged to provide ScanEagle surveillance planes to Tunisia. The Tunisian government is also waiting for Black Hawk helicopters that it purchased. In a recent interview in Tunis, Pres Essebsi said (speaking in some weird neocolonial code of course):
Pindosi support is valuable to us, and more is needed. If our friends are keen to help us, we will be happy.