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The Shadow Wars of Michael Vickers
The Pentagon’s former “secretary of everything” on handling hijackers, subverting Soviets, and ending Osama.
By All Means Available
Memoirs of a Life in Intelligence, Special Operations, and Strategy
by Michael G. Vickers
Knopf, 559 pp., $35
IT WAS A SOCIAL STUDIES TEACHER, Dr. Anthony DeRiggi, who started it all. In 1971, he slipped a New York Times article about a CIA covert operation in Laos to a desultory high-school student by the name of Michael Vickers. A dream was launched, writes Vickers in his new memoir, By All Means Available: “I imagined myself leading secret armies in far-off lands and winning against impossible odds.” That dream was realized and much more. Vickers went on to become a Green Beret, a CIA operations officer, and then one of the most consequential defense and intelligence officials of the past four decades.
Numbingly brutal military training is the subject of the first chapter of Vickers’s autobiography. Having enlisted in 1974 in the Special Forces (SF), he acquired an endless succession of martial skills: the Ranger course consisting of “hand-to-hand combat, obstacle courses, land navigation, raids, ambushes and recon patrols, mountain climbing, small boat operations, jungle training, and survival training”; multi-hour night swims in the frigid waters of the Atlantic; the advanced mountain course; counterterrorism close-quarter battle training; the Special Forces engineer/demolitions course; winter warfare training; free-fall parachuting course, and even the special atomic demolition munition course. He learned how to parachute behind Soviet lines with a small nuclear weapon strapped to his back. On top of all this there were books:
I read Army Field Manuals, special operations studies from the Vietnam War, military and intelligence histories, memoirs and biographies of great commanders and CIA officers, spy novels—really anything I thought would make me a better SF soldier.
By age 27, Vickers had become a Special Forces officer with an astonishing multiplicity of capacities. A lot of action followed, including a riveting episode of airline hijacking in Honduras in 1982 in which a group of terrorists were brandishing a nitroglycerin explosive that had become unstable thanks to the hot weather. “After conferring with our bomb disposal experts, we hastily procured kitty litter at a grocery store in Tegucigalpa and provided it, along with instructions, to the terrorists on board the plane. It was a field expedient, but it worked. The kitty litter stabilized the bomb.”
In 1983, in pursuit of his dream of running secret armies, Vickers left the Army for the CIA. (When a CIA psychologist, perhaps thrown off by Vickers’s “owlish glasses,” tells him, “You know, you don’t look like a Green Beret. I would have guessed that you were an insurance salesman,” Vickers wonders whether he should start doing pushups in her office. Instead, he replies: “This is the CIA. Aren’t we supposed to look like something other than what we are?”) Much more training ensued. And more action, including intimate involvement in the American invasion of Grenada. By the following year, the superbly well-equipped Vickers was given, over the heads of many senior officers, the plummest of plum assignments: “a great commission to wage a secret war against the Red Army in Afghanistan and to directly confront Soviet power.” Vickers, at age 31, became responsible for the covert action plan to train and arm the Afghan guerrilla forces who were fighting to dislodge the Soviets from their country following its invasion in 1979.
Vickers tells the story of the war, and his own significant place in it, in close detail. The war-winning strategy he devised entailed providing the insurgents with the military appurtenances they needed, including not only high-tech weaponry, but also mules for transport, twenty thousand of which were imported from China to close a looming “mule gap.”
Under fierce military pressure from the Afghan mujahideen, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, became convinced by late 1985 that defeat was inevitable. Vickers, with the enthusiastic support of CIA Director William J. Casey and President Reagan, did not let up the pressure. Indeed, it was intensified with the introduction of Blowpipe and Stinger missiles to bring down Soviet aircraft. In the end, by 1988, the Soviet Union turned tail and withdrew all of its forces.
The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, which contributed to the collapse of the USSR, remains perhaps the CIA’s greatest operational success. But it also contained the seeds of failure. In reviewing what the CIA got right and wrong, Vickers notes that the agency “missed the strategic significance of the ‘Afghan Arabs,’ the volunteers who would provide the foundation for al-Qa’ida.” This was a lapse with consequences that became fully apparent only on September 11, 2001.
By that time, Vickers had long left the CIA for various ventures: an MBA at the Wharton School; a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (under Eliot Cohen); employment as a civilian at the Pentagon under Andy Marshall, the fabled director of the Office of Net Assessment; and the establishment of a highly regarded defense think tank, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
But this progression was interrupted when the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were struck. Vickers regards the 9/11 attack as a policy failure as much as it was an intelligence failure. “With the benefit of hindsight,” he writes, “after 1998 we should have conducted a military and covert action campaign to deny al-Qa’ida’s sanctuary in Afghanistan.”
For the first five years after 9/11 Vickers served as an occasional consultant to the Pentagon on strategy, including also meetings with President George W. Bush to discuss the war in Iraq. But in 2006, he was offered, and accepted, a slot in the Pentagon that had been created just for him. It bore the alphabet-soup acronym of ASD SO/LIC&IC, which stands for assistant secretary of defense for special operations, low-intensity conflict, and interdependent capabilities.
The position’s remit was extraordinarily broad, leading some people to joke Vickers was “secretary of everything.” Among other responsibilities, Vickers became a key player in waging the Afghan war, this time not on the side of the insurgents (offense) but on the side of the Afghan government (defense) which proved to be a far more difficult task. Stepped up Predator drone strikes became one of his major contributions to wiping out al Qaeda. He also became one of the few high-ranking defense officials in the Bush administration who in 2008, with the presidential transition underway, was asked by President-elect Barack Obama to stay on.
It was in that capacity that Vickers became an indispensable participant in Operation Neptune’s Spear, the raid to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. This chapter of the memoir is a highlight among many other close candidates for that spot; even though we know the ending, it makes for intensely suspenseful reading. Vickers reviews the planning process for the operation, which includes working through five “finish” options, including the one finally settled upon, a SEAL force helicopter raid on Osama’s suspected complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Vickers also rehearses the fierce debates among Obama’s key advisers about whether to proceed. Vice President Joe Biden, he reminds readers, was an opponent, arguing vigorously for the need to wait for better intelligence proving definitively that Osama bin Laden was actually at the complex.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also an opponent. Vickers recounts the personal appeal to Gates that he mounted (together with undersecretary of defense for policy, Michèle Flournoy) to persuade him to change his mind: “I pulled out his memoir from his CIA days and noted how important he felt it was to tell one’s boss privately when you think he or she is wrong.” The appeal worked. In the end, Gates, who had Jimmy Carter’s failed Iranian hostage rescue mission on the forefront of his mind, supported going forward with the risky raid.
OVER A PERIOD OF DECADES, Vickers formulated and executed policy toward almost every hotspot in the world. But this outstanding memoir is not merely an account of one official’s doings during his service. It is also a searching treatise on low-intensity warfare, counterterrorism, and covert action, along with a postmortem of key chapters of national-security policy, with judgments of American policymakers along the way.
Vickers’s treatment of the tragic endgame in Afghanistan is particularly scathing. He notes that Donald Trump’s “peace deal” with the Taliban did not include the Afghan government as a party to the agreement. But it did include the release of five thousand Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners who immediately returned to the battlefield. It was not a peace deal at all but a “surrender agreement.”
Together with President Biden, who in pulling out of Afghanistan committed his own grave policy sins, Trump “turned a stalemate that protected U.S. interests into a defeat that has placed our interests in jeopardy.” It was, Vickers continues, “a major and completely unnecessary strategic blunder” that may come to haunt us as terrorist groupings reconstitute themselves.
Vickers is now back in private life, but if he were to surface in the future as a secretary of defense or a CIA director it would be unsurprising; he has the chops. Whatever his future, in the present he has produced a memoir that is gripping reading, but also much more than that. It is about some things that, amid the deepening degradation of our political culture, have been lost: sacrifice, integrity, leadership, and patriotism. It is not only Michael Vickers who owes thanks to Dr. Anthony DeRiggi for getting all this started, but the nation as a whole.
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