Two COINs for a Sunday Night


Rufus Phillips

Rufus Phillips:

In 1954, as a young Army officer detailed to the CIA with little experience, Rufus Phillips became a member of what was then called the Saigon Military Mission – several years before America’s military involvement in Vietnam became a matter of public record. He worked directly under Col. Edward Lansdale, the Air Force officer working for the CIA who was responsible for managing the U.S. presence and advising the nascent South Vietnamese government of President Ngo Dinh Diem – trying, for example, to convince Diem to post realistic-looking election results. As the war progressed and America’s involvement deepened, Phillips led counterinsurgency efforts and won the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit for his work; later, he became a consultant for the State Department and served as an adviser to Vice President Hubert Humphrey until the 1968 election.

Phillips wrote a book Why Vietnam Matters and gave a lecture and Q&A session on it at the Pritzker Military Library on 11.22.2008. Phillips was concerned with outlining the lessons he learned in Vietnam and how they applied to Iraq and Afghanistan. One interesting observation Phillips made is on the domino theory in response to an audience question. He argued that the domino theory was very much in play in the mid-1950s in Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. There was no organized native government at all so a few Commie insurgents showing up with a rifle was enough to constitute a government. This was less true in later years when those nations had developed some institutional strength, though it’s interesting that Laos and Cambodia followed South Vietnam in succumbing to Communist rule rather quickly…almost like dominoes.

There is a video of the lecture here and an MP3 here.

Lt. Col. R. Alan King

Lt. Col. R. Alan King:

Middle East expert Col. R. Alan King is a retired leader of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. Under his command, the unit became the most decorated civil affairs battalion in the history of the US Army.King served 16 months in Iraq with the U.S. Army, first as a Civil Affairs battalion commander, then later as a deputy director of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. King was the top civil-military adviser in Baghdad when the previous Iraqi regime fell in 2003. He is also credited with leading the coalition’s tribal affairs and Sunni outreach programs and served as a senior member of the April 2004 ceasefire talks in Fallujah. During his 16 month tour of duty, King met with approximately 3,500 sheiks, clerics and other local Iraqi leaders and was made a sheik himself.

King discusses his experiences in his book Twice Armed: An American Soldier’s Battle for Hearts and Minds in Iraq in a lecture and Q&A session at the Pritzker Military Library on 6.12.2008. King was quite successful in handling the sheiks until he was undermined by the greatest threat facing the American soldier: Army bureaucracy. King had arranged for a terrorist cell leader to turn himself in in exchange for his son’s release from prison. The terrorist leader turned himself in but the Army somehow reached deep into its best Vietnam traditions and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. They failed to release the son, King lost his credibility with the Iraqi sheiks, and violence spiraled out of control.

There is a video of the lecture and Q&A here and an mp3 here.

Cross-posted on The Committee of Public Safety.

6 thoughts on “Two COINs for a Sunday Night”

  1. There are several descriptions of CIA and “Big Army” bureaucracy frustrating the folks on the sharp end in Bob Baer’s first book “See No Evil” and Gary Berntsen’s “Jawbreaker.” At one point Big Army brass arrived in Afghanistan and ordered the Special Forces who had won the war fighting with the Northern Alliance and who had won their confidence by, among other things, growing beards and riding horses with them, to “shave and get into uniform.” WEB Griffin has exactly the same scene in one of his books so it must be common in the relations between the “Chairborne commandoes” and the warriors.

    Baer’s book is full of stories of Clinton Administration fecklessness and CIA incompetence. Baer was due to retire after his tour as the CIA man in Uzbekistan where he had been interviewing Afghan refugees and reporting on the Taliban. The CIA told him they had no Dari speakers but they would send a sexual harassment investigation team to his station. His successor fired his best agent, a Russian general, for drunkenness.

    Lansdale was, of course, the lead character in Eugene Burdick’s “The Ugly American.” This has caused me no end of heartburn when I hear people refer to inept Americans in foreign countries as “ugly Americans.” In the book, the Ugly American was the hero who sat in the dirt to talk to the native people. It was based on Lansdale’s success in the Philippines with the Huk rebellion.

  2. I think it worth noting that Thailand would have almost certainly tipped had it not been for its unique history in the region.

    Alone of all the polities in pre-colonial southeast Asia, Thailand was an integral empire in its own right. Its borders where fairly firm and it had a few centuries of continuous government under its belt. By contrast, most of its surrounding neighbors where split into multiple kingdoms, warlord domains or were colonies of local Asian powers (Vietnam was a colony of China for nearly a thousand years). When the Europeans showed up they gradually flowed into to fill the vacuums of law and order that the local chaotic regimes lacked. Regions like the Thai empire, Bali and Japan escaped colonialization because they had stable established governments with at least rudimentary rule of law.

    By the time the Cold War rolled around, Thailand was a long established integral nation with a long history of self-governance. Its royal family possessed enormous moral and religious authority, especially over the rural poor who were the most susceptible to communism. Indeed, the Thais recognized Communism for what it was, just another form of Western cultural imperialism and largely rejected it out of hand.

    Even so, Thailand would have had a hard time of it had we abandoned southeast Asia entirely in the late-40s as most leftist today insist we should have. Fighting off the communist invasion of Indochina from 1945-1973 bought time for Thailand to create a modern military and to develop at least rudimentary modern governance. Had they had to a faced a united Communist front in 1955, (again most leftist today argue today that we should never have resisted any communist invasions either covert or overt) it is unlikely they would have survived.

  3. Totally off topic: Somewhere I read that the King of Siam offered Lincoln elephants, wanting to come in on the Union side in a war that he saw as moral. This was influenced by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Okay, neat anecdote, but how much does that indicate that in the nineteenth century the nation (royal family) had some sense of individual rights?

  4. Matt Gallagher in his book KABOOM (a ground-view history of our Iraq presence 2007-09) brings the “big Army” into a light similar to what is discussed above. He refers to big Army’s “re-centralizing” their previous COIN efforts, and draws attention to the difference in thinking between Cold War army officers and the GWOT junior officers. HIs view is biased, but probably pretty accurate. The bureaucracy never allows too much free thinking and rewards compliance with the status quo above all else.

  5. I will second Michael Kennedy’s endorsement of Baer’s See No Evil, it is a fascinating read, not just for Baer’s colorful stories ( Baer is the guy on whom the George Clooney character in Syriana is very loosely based) but as a window into the due process/PC mentality of the upper echelons of Clinton’s national security community.

    Michael left out the kicker where the CIA dispatched Baer to Kurdistan to try to undermine Saddam Hussein’s regime and an irate Sandy Berger unsuccessfully tried to get the DOJ to prosecute Baer from trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein, which would have destroyed Baer professionally, lost him his pension and sent him to Federal prison. Nice guy that Sandy.

    A postscript: after returning to private life, Berger was caught trying to steal classified documents from the National Archives (he stuffed them in his socks) that reflected unfavoirably on the Clinton administration’s handling of terrorism threats. He was convicted of a misdemeanor (he plea-bargained down) and was fined $50,000 and surrendered his law license.

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