Pentagon pushes to resume work of irregular warfare proxies in Ukraine
The secret military program was suspended during the beginning of the war in Ukraine due to legislative obstacles and concerns of provoking Russia.
The US is mulling reinstating top-secret programs in Ukraine that have been previously suspended following the beginning of the war last year, which would permit American Special Operation officers to manage a team of Ukrainian operatives to monitor Russia's military activities.
According to a report by The Washington Post, citing former and current US officials, the Pentagon is pushing Congress to restart the funding of the programs.
However, such a decision will probably be determined next fall when planning begins on the Pentagon's policy and budget for the upcoming year - 2024, the report said, adding that officials from the Department of Defense are currently working on the proposal, which, if approved, could put the programs back at work in 2024.
Biden will have to revise his 'no US troops in Ukraine' policy
US President Joe Biden earlier announced that no American troops are operating on the ground in Ukraine and that there are no changes in that policy for the foreseeable future.
US military commanders and advisors, according to Washington, are currently offering assistance and guidance to the Ukrainian army from neighboring countries, such as Poland.
If the request is approved, the question remains whether Biden will allow US troops back into Ukraine to manage the operations of the Ukrainian operatives or his administration will maintain the current status quo of handling the operations from neighboring countries.
Program suspension caused loss of intelligence information
Congressional officials said it is difficult to predict the outcome, particularly with Republicans split over the vast sums being spent on Ukraine. Others argue that the programs’ relatively small expense — $15 million annually for such activities worldwide — is a bargain compared with the tens of billions of dollars being committed to train and arm Ukrainian forces and replenish US stockpiles.
According to the news site, some officials from Congress are concerned that the outcome of resuming the program is difficult to foresee, especially with Republicans arguing against the large sum of money being spent on Ukraine.
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However, the report adds that other officials argue that the relatively small expense of the program, approximated at $15 million annually on worldwide activities, is a good investment given that the US is spending tens of billions of dollars to train and arm the Ukrainian army, in addition to replenishing US stockpiles that have been reported to be on the verge of depletion after being sent to Ukraine.
“When you suspend these things because the scale of the conflict changes, you lose access,” a retired three-star general, who previously led US Special Operations in Europe when the programs first launched in 2010, told WaPo.
He continued that losing access “means you lose information and intelligence about what’s actually going on in the conflict.”
Scope of operations
While similar programs have been financed for years in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa to employ foreign military and paramilitary units - dubbed “surrogates” - to fight against militant groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the programs adopted in Ukraine are considered a form of “irregular warfare".
The newer surrogate programs are mainly used against adversaries who are in direct competition with the US but not in open conflict with it, such as China and Russia.
Some officials on Capitol Hill warn that taking this step might drag the United States to be more involved in the war in Ukraine.
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However, DoD officials insist that the activities of the "surrogates" and the US troops will be limited to nonviolent tasks.
Following Washington's decision to supply Kiev with advanced weapons, especially its M1 Abrams main battle tanks, reinstating such programs enables US troops to handle the operatives more closely, offering them greater control on the battlefield.
The US military teams are usually deployed within the host country, however, the operating teams of the US Special Operations troops have adapted in recent years to manage and assist operatives far from the front lines, including while present in neighboring countries.
Background on the program
The "surrogate" operations, such as the ones deployed in Ukraine, are called "1202 programs".
The law currently specifies that these programs are not permitted to operate during a “traditional armed conflict,” which prompted their suspension following the start of the war in Ukraine.
Despite Pentagon attempts to push Congress to revise the language in the provision to enable the restart of the programs, such attempts were so far unsuccessful.
However, according to a US official cited by WaPo, the Pentagon considers the upcoming budget work as an opportunity to convince lawmakers to revise the law to reinstate the program in Ukraine and guarantee that such prohibitions won't happen with similar programs in the future in other parts of the world.
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A retired three-star general, who led the Army’s Special Operations forces when the "1202 authority" was proposed and passed, told WaPo that there is concern among the military that such restrictions have ended a valuable source of information in Ukraine and will risk placing the military in the same situation in other conflicts.
“We have a habit of doing this,” Gen. Kenneth Tovo told the newspaper, “where we turn things off, pull people out after years on investment as an immediate reaction to a change in a conflict, and then we’re surprised when we have less information and less understanding of what’s going on as a result.”
Critiques of relaunching the program argue that Moscow might see this as a provocation and react by expanding the war.
This concern is one of the main reasons that will make the Pentagon's effort to pass the law difficult against skeptical legislators.
“What started as a reconnaissance mission can quickly turn into combat when the surrogates start getting shot at,” the official noted.
"I think that’s a real possibility in Ukraine, and I’m not sure how the department is going to change people in Congress’s minds about that,” he added.
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A defense official told the news outlet that Congress is more familiar with "counterterrorism" programs - as opposed to "surrogates" that operate against adversaries, also known as "irregular warfare" programs - which would make the issue hard to explain for the lawmakers.
“We don’t want to start a third world war with bad decision-making surrounding surrogate units, but they aren’t out there finding, fixing and finishing like in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Mick Mulroy, a Pentagon policy official during the Trump administration, told WaPo.
“There’s an element of command and control” in the "surrogate" programs that don’t exist in other relationships between US military personnel and foreign partners, Mulroy added.
"That’s what makes it effective. It allows us to move more quickly.”
A mission of the program: Spying on Russian personnel and equipment
Both the counterterrorism and irregular warfare programs are exempted from human rights screening by other foreign military and paramilitary units before US military personnel can operate with them.
The "counterterrorism surrogate programs" have drawn criticism for blurring the line between where the United States is engaged in armed military operations and where the local host countries are.
An individual in the Special Operations community told the newspaper that before the war began, the US Special Operations troops were engaged in two irregular warfare surrogate missions in Ukraine.
In one of them, “We had people taking apart Russian propaganda and telling the true story on blogs," they said.
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In the second program, the US personnel would "train surrogates to go collect signals intelligence off a Russian radar battery … stuff like that,” another government official told WaPo.
“We weren’t training and paying Ukrainians to go kill Russians for us,” he added.
The report added that according to the retired general, Schwartz, when the program started, Russian spies were widespread in Eastern Ukraine.
“There were all these indications of Russian influence, and we wanted to call it out,” he noted, adding, “But we didn’t necessarily want to be seen as the ones calling it out.”
However, the retired general claimed that the US did not provide the Ukrainian "surrogates" with training or arms that might create problems later if misused.
“We weren’t going to equip Ukrainians with sophisticated means to employ demolitions, because if they wind up sneaking that across the border into Russia and using U.S. explosives for sabotage operations that we didn’t authorize, that would be escalatory,” he added.
Limits of the renewed program
The news outlet said that if the program was reinstated, it will be limited to non-combat missions.
Section 1202 of the provision specifies that surrogate operatives can’t undertake any missions US Special Operations forces “are not otherwise legally authorized to conduct themselves.”
The clause was inserted by Congress after US military officers used the "counterterrorism surrogate program" to carry out operations that lawmakers were not previously informed of nor authorized, which caused a backlash when the operations went wrong.
In 2017, a Green Beret team and its surrogate unit in Niger led a second Green Beret team into an ambush, which resulted in the death of four American soldiers. Congress was outraged, according to WaPo, as they did not know that US troops deployed in Africa were partaking in such dangerous operations.
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“Niger was a seminal moment for a lot of members,” the congressional official told the newspaper.
“They were worried about authorities like 127e and 1202, and the possibility that they allow Special Operations forces who are ostensibly not authorized to engage in combat a chance to engage in activities that look and smell a lot like combat.”
Following the Niger incident, Pentagon limited its irregular warfare "surrogate" programs to Europe, where US Special Operations troops have no authority in engaging in direct combat, added the newspaper, according to current and former officials.
“We were told to focus on Europe as a proof of concept for Congress,” said one, “because nothing kinetic was going on there and it seemed like counter-Russia was a bipartisan thing that no one would argue with.”