American Commandos Once Tried and Failed to Back Korean Guerrillas
Mistakes during the Korean War offer important lessons for Iraq and Syria
Winter was approaching, and the Korean Peninsula was at war. North Korean armies had blitzkrieged over the border, overrunning much of South Korea. The United Nations waged a desperate defense … and counterattacked.
U.N. armies outflanked the North Korean armies with the amphibious landing at Inchon, liberated Seoul and pushed north. The whole time, Korean — and pro-U.N. — partisan units sprung up. But with tanks and soldiers leading the push, American commanders paid little attention these local fighters.
The U.S. military and the Office of Strategic Services — the predecessor to the CIA — had worked with guerrillas in Europe and Asia during World War II, but many American officers had a certain disdain for this sort of “cloak and dagger” warfare. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.N. forces in Korea, “had a long-standing antipathy toward the OSS during World War II,” Army historian Richard Kiper wrote in Special Warfare magazine in 2003.
In October 1950, everything changed.
U.N. troops approached the Yalu River — the border with China — and Beijing intervened. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers flooded over the border. Overwhelmed, U.N. units routed or collapsed entirely. The irregular fighters became swept up in the retreat. Others stayed behind.
Three months after the Chinese intervention, communist forces captured Seoul for the second time. At the same time, reports reached American commanders that thousands of partisans were ready to unleash a guerrilla war in communist-controlled areas.
The Eighth U.S. Army – the ground combat branch’s top unit in Korea – quickly formed the “Attrition Section,” hidden inside the equally bland sounding “Miscellaneous Division,” to handle the new fighters. The Army’s plan was for Korean partisans to make life Hell for the Chinese and North Koreans until U.N. forces could regroup for another counterattack.
The Air Force and CIA created special groups to work with the irregulars. After a number of administrative disputes between the services and the agency, the Pentagon created a single, central organization to run the guerrilla campaign, called the Combined Command for Reconnaissance Activities, Korea.
But the offensive never came. A different kind of political showdown – between MacArthur and Pres. Harry Truman – ultimately changed the face of the Korean War. In April 1951, Truman ordered the widely popular MacArthur relieved from command after the general repeatedly and publicly criticized the White House’s policies.
Three months later, the front lines stalemated close to where the de facto border between north and south had been before the war. U.N. and communist troops battled each other for another two years, but neither side gained or lost much territory in the process.
But the partisans found themselves on their own, trapped behind enemy lines with no prospect of a big army coming to their rescue. With more than 20,000 members at their peak, the guerrillas clustered on off-shore islands or in coastal areas near the center of the peninsula — where, if attacked, they could more easily make a getaway.
“U.S. control was largely exercised by issuing or withholding logistic support-in effect by using supply as an incentive or sanction for operations,” the Operations Research Office at John Hopkins University observed in a 1956 report. “The majority of operations were not observed by U.S. personnel, and no means for evaluating partisan effectiveness were developed.”
The partisans spent almost all of their time harassing communist forces and supply lines. Out of nearly 4,500 partisans missions between May 1951 and July 1953, almost half were attacks on enemy soldiers. Just shy of eight percent were “attacks on civil administration” – what we might today consider terrorist attacks.
Early in 1954, the American-led U.N. Command on the Korean Peninsula shut down the partisan army. With an armistice firmly in place, Washington turned control of the guerrilla units over to the South Korean military.
In the end, “the partisan forces were never ready to carry out their original mission,” the John Hopkins team concluded. “Instead … the U.S. Army was employing them in a manner that held no promise of contributing significantly to the outcome of the U.N. campaign.”
Without heavy weapons or the promise of a major U.N. offensive, the partisans were doomed to be nothing more than a pinprick from the start. Without the promise of a larger, conventional force to reinforce them, the units would be at the mercy of enemy patrols, the research staff noted. And even if the U.N. armies made another push northward, the lightly armed partisans could only be effective “in areas of peripheral importance.”
The partisans weren’t just of dubious strategic value. In their report, the Johns Hopkins researchers claimed the irregulars inflated their body counts – they claimed to have killed almost 70,000 enemy troops by the end of the war – with innocent civilians.
“Claims for material captured or destroyed and casualties inflicted are open to question,” the evaluators explained. “The figures for casualties inflicted probably are three to 10 times too high, and further, many of the killed and wounded were civilians.”
To this day, Pyongyang and other critics continue to highlight partisan human rights abuses and war crimes. In 2013, North Korean authorities arrested 85-year old veteran Merrill Newman, who had been visiting the country as a tourist, because of his work with a Korean partisan unit.
After more than a month in custody and being coerced into a public apology, the insular communist regime released Newman.
Despite these problems, Washington’s guerrilla fighters in Korea laid the ground work for America’s current commando forces, which regularly advise and assist foreign troops around the world. What the United States tried — and failed — to do in Korea is increasingly how the U.S. military does business in the 21st century.
But that doesn’t mean the problems in the Korean War couldn’t – or wouldn’t – crop up again in the future. Already, we’re seeing echoes of this strategy in Iraq and Syria as the United States deploys commandos to help guerrilla units on the ground.
“We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria,” Pres. Barack Obama told the nation on Dec. 6. “The strategy that we are using now – air strikes, Special Forces, and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country – that is how we’ll achieve a more sustainable victory.”
The Pentagon is pushing forward with this plan and stepping up its fight against the brutal Islamic State terrorist group. At the same time, American officials may want to consider the lessons of the Korean partisans to make sure they are not setting up new allies for failure.
In Syria and Iraq, the Pentagon and the CIA are already running into the same sort of problems that plagued their predecessors in Korea. With Islamic State spread across two countries and embroiled in Syria’s already multi-faceted civil war, American officials have had difficulty finding a unifying strategy.
Rebels in Syria largely have different priorities from their benefactors in Washington. Many of the groups would prefer to boot Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad from power first before worrying about the Islamic State.
And just like with the Korean partisans, Washington has tried to sway both Syrian fighters and the Iraqi government to their way of thinking with deliveries of weapons and other gear and air strikes. The results have been equally spotty.
While elite Iraqi troops and the better-equipped and trained Syrian groups have made significant advances, unreliable and outright bad actors are tagging along for the ride. Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, Al Qaeda-linked militants and others are all still in the mix.
We can see the effects in various military assistance projects, such as training Syrian rebels. After having such trouble vetting potential Syrians recruits, the Pentagon finally shut down its training program in October. There were never more than 200 trainees involved in the project – less than a tenth of the original goal for this year.
The CIA’s effort has been much more successful, but it also appears to be much more hands off. After Turkish jets shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter bomber in November, Turkmen rebels from the 1st Coastal Division shot at the crew as they parachuted to earth – a war crime under the Geneva Conventions – and blew up a rescue chopper with an American-made TOW missile.
And with the White House insisting that American troops will not be bogged down in another major Middle Eastern ground war, the Pentagon does not have significant number of troops on the front lines to keep a close eye on their allies – or whoever their friends might be that day.
This is especially true in Syria. In October, Washington announced plans to send a team of commandos to Syria to help manage American assistance to rebel forces. But similar to the latter stages of the Korean War, there are no plans for a major ground offensive or to do more to influence these groups beyond dolling out guns and other supplies.
“They are not going to be out and about … the way we are, in some cases, in Iraq,” a senior defense official told reporters at the Pentagon on Oct. 30. “The point is to get some guys on the ground, get eyes on, work with the units that are there … and see what more is possible.”
Unfortunately, the Pentagon still plans to keep these special operators largely confined to their command posts. A separate team will be in charge of unilateral raids against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.
As happened in Korea, the special operators will mostly be able to train rebels and local troops in both countries and supply weapons and equipment. Beyond this, they may not be able to offer any real incentives to stick to Washington’s vision for the region. Without a unified plan, America’s allies may not be as effective as they might otherwise be against Islamic State … or any other opponent.
And this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone in the White House or the halls of the Pentagon. With experiences like the guerrilla campaign in Korea, Washington knows all too well that partisan armies need more than just guns and hope.