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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 4, 2010

Asian special ops air their concerns

 •  Wanted: Wounded vets

By Richard Halloran

Addressing a gathering of leaders of special operations forces from Asia in Honolulu last week, a senior American officer urged them to speak up candidly, saying: "We need to hear every voice here."

In response, the Asians were sometimes critical of American special operations in combating terrorists and insurgents, sometimes suggested better ways to carry that fight to the common enemy, and sometimes asked for American help in countering threats to their homelands.

"The U.S. is often successful in using force against terrorists but is losing the political fight against them," said a South Asian. A Southeast Asian agreed: "There is an overreliance on the use of force. Instead, everyone must become propaganda-minded."

The conference organized by the Special Operations Command Pacific, a component of the Pacific Command here, drew 250 officers and civilian officials from 19 nations in this region. To encourage candor, the organizers asked that speakers and the audience not be identified.

Special operations are not well understood outside of the military world either in the U.S. or in Asia partly because the lingo of special operations, beginning with that term itself, is deliberately vague and euphemistic. "Direct action," a mission of special operations, for instance, can mean "kidnap" or "assassinate."

Moreover, soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in special operations are often asked to operate out of the public eye even when training or assisting forces of other nations. Thus they prefer to keep their faces off television and their names out of the newspaper.

In the conference, the threat to the U.S. and Asia was identified as "aggressive terrorist networks, local insurgents, totalitarian governments, transnational criminal organizations, and regional competitors." There was wide agreement that overcoming those threats required a "whole-of-government" strategy in which many ministries, not just military forces, would be engaged.

There was equally wide agreement that achieving that would be difficult because of bureaucracy. And there was agreement that better ways must be found to share information, within each government and between governments, to combat terror.

South Asians pointed to Sri Lanka where the government consistently lagged behind insurgents in getting propaganda out in the 20-year running fight with Tamil insurgents. A South Asian lamented: "Why does the government take so long to answer terrorists?"

Among the nations without officers in the conference was China, which cut military exchanges with the U.S. after Washington announced a large arms sale to the self-governing island of Taiwan. Indonesia may have been miffed after President Obama twice postponed a trip to Jakarta recently. It was not clear why India, which the US has been cultivating for several years, did not take part.

Among the requests Asians made of the U.S. was an appeal from Cambodia for equipment and training for a maritime patrol unit to combat pirates and smugglers. Mongolian officers, having seen U.S. non-commissioned officers in action as leaders, asked for help in training professional NCOs. Japanese officers asked to observe the training of U.S. special operations troops before they deployed to Iraq.

A Southeast Asian reported on a program to "de-radicalize" Muslim captives who had been terrorists. "Understanding how a Muslim came to be a terrorist is crucial to getting them to change." He noted that Muslims who had been converted from another religion, such as Christianity, were harder to deal with than those who had been born into Islamic families.

Another Southeast Asian contended that simple programs were often more effective than elaborate policies or high-tech investments. Getting people to use bamboo pipes to carry water into fields for irrigation was better than something that relied on satellites. "If young men 18-25 are outside kicking a soccer ball that you gave them," he said, "they probably won't be inside making bombs."