The following is based on a short student exercise I composed a while back. I had been meaning to write a post based on the same research, and the recent New York Times story about CENTCOM increasing its covert activities encouraged me to start working on it. However, rather than waste time rewriting the same material, I decided to simply cut and paste the entire document, polishing certain areas to make it more suitable for a blog format. As a result, the post is longer than I would have preferred, but the benefit is that the original argument structure – including footnotes – remains intact. If the writing style seems a bit different from my usual work, it is because the body of the document was written some time ago, and for a different audience.
I take anything in the New York Times with several tablespoons of salt, especially when the topic is covert operations. I recall reading very similar articles in the past, and the article does not suggest that CENTCOM is doing anything more substantial than increasing its liaison activities with friendly governments in the region. However, it does raise the question of the advisability of the unacknowledged use of military force.
Covert paramilitary action is one of the most difficult, risky, and controversial instruments of state power. In the realm of foreign policy, where there are only bad choices, it has often been considered an ideal third option between inactive passivity and the overt use of military force. However, in the U.S. experience, covert paramilitary action has often resulted in spectacular failures that did not achieve their objectives, embarrassed the United States, undermined policy, and damaged prestige. This post will assess the viability of covert paramilitary action as a policy instrument by briefly surveying some known US operations in an effort to extract key lessons.