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Armed Advice

A brief history of military advisors in foreign lands.

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381091 16: President John F. Kennedy speaks at a press conference about North Vietnam March 23, 1961. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)

The announcements by the governments of Britain, France, and Italy this week that they would be sending military personnel to Libya to aid rebel groups in their fight to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi are but the latest in a long tradition of military and political needle-threading.

Indeed, “military advisors” have been a hugely popular implement in the grand strategy tool kit for at least the past half-century, not least because “advisor” sounds like an innocuous enough role — a position that lies somewhere on the white-collar employment spectrum between management consultant and personal assistant. To be sure, sending troops to a far-flung country is a lot more palatable when it’s for the purpose of dispensing advice, not firing bullets: Putting combat boots “on the ground” (a step U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates virtually promised wouldn’t happen in Libya under his watch) is a notoriously tough political sell.

But history also shows that, whether by means of strategic sleight of hand or mission creep, the military advisor’s pencil can easily be sharpened into the tip of a broader military campaign’s spear. Here’s a brief history of the recent ways in which military advisors have found themselves flirting with deepening engagement.

Vietnam

By the time U.S. troops had pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, the war had left a terrible legacy: polarizing the United States, staining the country’s reputation on the world stage, and resulting in the deaths of 55,000 Americans. But it all began with a mere 750 military officers sent by President Dwight Eisenhower in the late 1950s to advise the Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem in its battle against a communist insurgency.

As North Vietnamese rebels continued to make progress through the 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. government increased its commitment. By December 1961, John F. Kennedy’s administration had sent 3,200 advisors to Vietnam, along with $200 million in equipment and aid. By 1963, the number of advisors had grown to 16,000. There were few or no restrictions on what those advisors were permitted to do: In theory, they were there to train South Vietnamese troops, but in practice, they were often commanding those troops in battle.

Dismayed by the South Vietnamese lack of professionalism, the United States quietly escalated its commitment. When covert U.S. naval operations in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 were met with North Vietnamese resistance, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson requested permission from Congress to wage full-scale war in Vietnam. After the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the United States may have still had military advisors in Vietnam, but there was no mistaking that U.S. troops had assumed responsibility for the fight.

National Archive/Newsmakers

El Salvador

In 1979, as the United States was still recovering from its involvement in Vietnam, the Sandanistas, a communist rebel group, nearly toppled the government of El Salvador, Washington’s close Central American ally. President Jimmy Carter immediately sent military advisors to support Salvadoran forces, but it was Ronald Reagan, elected president in 1980, who decided to put significant political capital behind the mission, arguing that it was a vital front in the struggle against the Soviet Union.

He faced stiff resistance from Congress and the press: Many were reminded of the mission creep that had ensued in Vietnam. In March 1981, the Reagan administration reached a compromise with Congress that set a 55-person limit on the number of U.S. advisors permitted in El Salvador at any given time. They were also restricted from engaging in ground combat.

The American public kept a wary eye on the mission in El Salvador — the assassination of a U.S. lieutenant commander on the grounds of the Central American University in San Salvador by Sandinistas in 1983 was referred to by the press as the first of what was presumed to be many future U.S. casualties — but Washington maintained its limited advisory role until the rebels finally laid down their arms in 1992.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Croatia

The Balkan wars of the 1990s proved that military advisors needn’t be official representatives of the governments they’re serving. Although U.N. Resolution 713 had made it illegal to provide military assistance to any of the participants in the Balkans conflict, the Pentagon quietly directed the Croatian military to confer with Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), a private organization that referred to itself at the time as “the greatest corporate assemblage of military expertise in the world.” MPRI quickly signed two contracts to advise and train the Croatian military, and a team of retired U.S. military officers was promptly dispatched to the region.

The exact nature of MPRI’s work for Croatia is still disputed to this day. Officially, its job was to offer advice about the role of an army in a democratic society. But shortly after MPRI advisors began their work, the Croatian military launched a series of bloody offensives against Serbian troops and civilians. Most notorious was Operation Storm, during which some 170,000 people were driven from their homes. Some analysts say that it would have been impossible for the poorly trained Croatian military to carry out such a coordinated campaign — which integrated air power, artillery, and rapid infantry movements — without the assistance of MPRI. Some also suspect that MPRI helped the Croatians organize clandestine arms purchases from Eastern Europe totaling some $1 billion.

In July 1995, Washington decisively joined Croatia and Bosnia in the battle against Serbian aggression, organizing a NATO bombing campaign that led to the cessation of hostilities formalized by the Dayton Accords, signed in December of that year.

MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Rwanda

According to a 2008 investigation by the Rwandan government, French military advisors were complicit in the genocide perpetrated in that country in 1994 by Hutus against the Tutsi minority group. France had been an explicit military backer of Rwanda’s Francophone Hutu one-party regime since the 1960s. When Anglophone Tutsi rebel forces mounted a Ugandan-supported insurgency in 1990, France sent military units to defend the Hutu government. According to multiple reports, French military operatives remained attached to key units in the Rwandan army throughout the civil war from 1990 through 1993 — and those French advisors were still in place when the murky assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana resulted in the frenzied attacks by government-sponsored Hutu militias against Tutsis in April 1994. Some 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu “collaborators” were killed in approximately 100 days.

The genocide prompted Tutsi rebel groups to renew their offensive against the Hutu regime. As Tutsi rebel forces gained ground, the French responded by increasing their military presence in the country. In June 1994, the French government sought and received a mandate from the U.N. Security Council to implement Operation Turquoise, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting civilians. According to Tutsi rebels, however, the 2,000 French soldiers dispatched to Rwanda were primarily concerned with bolstering the Hutu population, including those genocidaires who remained in the country. When the Tutsi rebel groups gained political control of Rwanda at the end of 1994, France’s special relationship with the country was terminated and its sundry advisors were sent packing.

PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images

Afghanistan

In organizing Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 — the post-9/11 campaign against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime and its al Qaeda allies — Washington decided that the first order of business was sending advisors to aid the country’s existing anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. A team of CIA operatives and U.S. Army Special Forces arrived in Afghanistan in late September and early October to confer with the Northern Alliance and organize an ouster of the Taliban. A massive campaign of airstrikes in support of their effort followed.

The unorthodox operation made speedy progress, quickly liberating the cities of Herat, Kunduz, Kandahar, and the capital Kabul. By the end of December 2001, the United Nations had transferred political control over Afghanistan to an interim Afghan authority, and a NATO mission had been organized to maintain the newfound peace. But critics say that Washington’s failure to commit sufficient troops during and after the initial invasion prolonged the conflict, allowing Taliban and al Qaeda fighters to escape Afghanistan for Pakistan in late 2001 (most notoriously at Tora Bora) and permitting their insurgency to gain momentum since. Today, a decade later, there are now 98,000 U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan. And it all began with a handful of military advisors.

Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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