Hunting Che: Harbinger or Anomaly?
Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer, Hunting Che: How a U.S. Special Forces Team Helped Capture the World’s Most Famous (New York: Berkley, 2013)
If strategic manhunts can broadly defined as “the deployment of American military forces abroad for a campaign in which the operational objective is to capture or kill one man,” then, between the 1885-1886 Geronimo Campaign and the current search for Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, there have been roughly a dozen such campaigns in U.S. military history. These operations have tended to fall into 2-3 distinct periods: from 1885 to 1933 (including the hunts for Geronimo, Emilio Aguinaldo, Pancho Villa, and Augusto Sandino) when the U.S. was either expanding or enforcing hemispheric hegemony; from 1989 to 1993 (Pablo Escobar, Manuel Noriega, and Muhammad Farah Aideed) during the post-Cold War “Unipolar” moment; and from 1998-present (Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Ayman al-Zawahiri) as part of the War on Islamic Terror. (And yes, that is how the architects of Operation Iraqi Freedom – rightly or wrongly – perceived the campaign to remove Saddam Hussein,). Notably absent is the Cold War era, since during that period potential interventions to capture or kill dictators, insurgents, or narco-traffickers had to be weighed against the strategic consequences for America’s global competition with the Soviet Union.
The outlier to this pattern is the subject of Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer’s Hunting Che: How a U.S. Special Forces Team Helped Capture the World’s Most Famous Revolutionary. In April 1967, U.S. Special Forces under Major “Pappy” Shelton were deployed to Bolivia to create and train the Second Ranger Battalion of the Bolivian Army, which would hunt Che Guevara as he attempted to foment a Communist insurgency in that nation’s mountainous border region. Two months later, CIA agent Felix Rodriguez and another covert operative were deployed to assist the Bolivians in tracking Che’s guerrillas. In August and September, operating on tips from the local populace, the Bolivian army chased the previously elusive guerrillas through the southeastern jungles of Bolivia, slowly attriting the group and killing Che’s comrades. Based on captured documents and interrogations of captured guerrillas, Rodriguez convinced the Bolivians to deploy the Second Ranger Battalion to Vallegrande, where they subsequently trapped Guevara’s band in a jungle canyon on October 8th. Guevara was wounded and captured during a three-and-a-half-hour battle, and was summarily executed by the Bolivians the next day over U.S. objections.
Hunting Che is a breezy, engrossing retelling of these events, told primarily through the eyes of the three key players who wrote memoirs of the campaign: Shelton, Rodriguez, and the commander of the Bolivian rangers who captured Che, Captain Gary Salmon Prado. Weiss and Maurer expertly synthesize their accounts – as well as details drawn from archival research, interviews, and other secondary accounts of the campaign – into a popular history that reads like a military thriller. The authors (one a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the other a co-author of No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden) have written several books about the military, and credibly capture the motivation of soldiers, the grind of training professional soldiers, and the excitement of the skirmishes that marked the rise and fall of Che’s Bolivian campaign.
Although the authors’ decision to utilize some literary license (i.e. a Bolivian officer feels “a trickle of sweat run from his collar down his backbone” . . . was this in his after-action review?) and emphasize storytelling makes the book more readable, Hunting Che glosses over several important analytical points about why the hunt for Guevara was successful. This represents something of a missed opportunity, as the Bolivian campaign epitomizes several key lessons drawn from the larger universe of strategic manhunts that remain relevant to current and future operations:
- HUMINT matters as much, if not more, than technology for successfully targeting individuals. Che’s guerrillas (much like Kony’s LRA or Aideed’s militia) were not reliant on radios that could produce SIGINT, and Bolivia’s jungle defeated attempts to locate them through the air. It was a tip from a local farmer that led to the successful ambush of Che’s band that netted “Paco,” a Bolivian guerrilla whose subsequent interrogation led Rodriguez to recommend focusing the search on the Vallegrande region. Similarly, on the morning of the 8th a campesino walked into the army barracks at La Higuera to inform Captain Prado he had seen 17 men walking through his potato field, intelligence that led to the climactic battle in El Churo Canyon in which Che was captured.
- “Human terrain” is more important than physical terrain. Throughout the history of strategic manhunts, the attitudes of the local population prove to be a more significant variable than the terrain over which the campaign is conducted. As Weiss and Maurer note, Che’s attempts to win “hearts and minds” by propagandizing the Bolivian peasants were met by stony silence, as the “Bolivians were more concerned with providing for their families than [Che’s] Communist revolution.” This lack of popular support both denied the guerrillas vital sanctuaries and enabled the Bolivians (and CIA operatives advising them) to obtain actionable intelligence.
- U.S. troop strength is less important than the presence of reliable indigenous forces. The success of the hunt for Che Guevara calls into question the conventional wisdom that the more U.S. troops the better in a manhunt. A total of sixteen U.S. personnel were committed to pursuing Che, and were strictly relegated to a training and advisory role – In addition to superior knowledge of the local terrain, indigenous forces’ language and cultural skills allow U.S. forces to better develop the HUMINT necessary to target individuals. Moreover, because of the need for operational surprise, smaller is often better in strategic manhunts. The Bolivian Rangers only needed two companies to trap Che’s band in the decisive battle, and if they had waited for a larger force to arrive to seal off every possible exit it is likely Che would have lived to fight another day. (U.S. forces made similar observations during the pursuit of Geronimo and Sandino, and a raiding force was eschewed altogether in the June 2006 operation that killed Zarqawi for fear it would tip off the al-Qa’ida leader’s lookouts. Thus, the Che manhunt shows that large troop strength is not necessary for operational success, particularly where a reliable indigenous force is available.
The evidence to argue this case is woven throughout Weiss and Maurer’s narrative, but in the absence of any substantive discussion of lessons learned, readers are forced to infer any conclusions for themselves.
This decision against drawing any broader analytical lessons is puzzling given that the authors clearly recognize that their subject matter has larger implications – they even add an afterword (written by an active duty Special Forces officer) entitled “Why the Hunt for Che Matters Today.” Although strategic manhunts are at best imperfect policy instruments, future policymakers will continue to deploy U.S. forces abroad in order to capture or kill individuals. This is because, first, it is easier for presidents to rally public support for conflicts by personalizing them through flesh-and-blood villains rather than acknowledging the complexity of strategic problems. (As a simple thought exercise, which option would have been easier for the LBJ administration: To resolve the centuries-old socio-economic disparities that fueled sympathy for leftist revolutions in Latin America, or to kill Che Guevara?) Additionally, U.S. policymakers’ aversion to collateral damage and the growing dangers posed by individuals or small groups due to the diffusion of lethal technology and the increased lethality of dual-use technology create a strong motivation to kill or capture individuals who threaten national security. Yet, given the American public’s war weariness and creeping isolationism (as suggested by recent Pew, NBC/Wall Street Journal, and CBS/New York Times’ polling), there will also be increasing pressure on policymakers to rely on covert and/or training/advisory missions to avoid the costs both in treasure and lives that the large-scale deployment of U.S. forces entails.
In fact, the operations template used by Pappy Shelton and his team has been successfully utilized by modern Special Forces teams. Shelton’s Green Berets provided free health care and helped to build a new schoolhouse for the villagers of La Esperanza, the town where the Bolivian Rangers were trained. Shelton frequently strolled down to the general store that served as La Esperanza’s village center to play guitar and lead impromptu sing-alongs with the villagers. These civil affairs efforts were important to gain the trust of the local population, thereby turning them into an intelligence asset rather than a liability. Similarly, since 9/11 U.S. forces in the Horn of Africa and the Philippines (amongst other places) have used civil affairs operations to gain the political space necessary in order to conduct training and advisory missions of indigenous counterterrorism forces as part of the broader war against al-Qa’ida and its affiliates.
Yet at the same time, it is important not to extrapolate too much from the Bolivian case study. Lost amidst the lionization that has made Che a Hollywood icon is the fact that he and his band were generally incompetent from both a tactical and strategic standpoint. Although Che’s guerrillas could conduct basic ambushes, their information security was abysmal. In addition to consistently being betrayed by unsympathetic peasants and captured colleagues, in March 1967 hundreds of documents listing their “entire Bolivian network of urban contacts, friendly Communists outside Bolivia, and several bank accounts” were left unsecured in a parked jeep discovered by Bolivian police, a trove that helped lead to the dismantling of Che’s support network. Che divided his forces unnecessarily, failed to conduct any serious logistical planning, and made such basic tactical errors as failing to post far-side security on river crossings. Prior to the battle at El Churo Canyon, regular Bolivian forces had inflicted significant losses on Che’s guerrillas. Thus, although Shelton’s team conducted its training mission in exemplary fashion, it is likely that Che’s incompetence was as important a variable in determining his demise as anything U.S. forces did.
In the end, Hunting Che is the most entertaining book written to date on this campaign and marks a useful entry point for those seeking to learn about foreign internal defense missions or strategic manhunts. But serious students of unconventional warfare will be disappointed at the lack of any deeper analysis into the issues Weiss and Maurer are content to gloss over.
Benjamin Runkle is a former Defense Department and National Security official and the author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden.
Photo credit: son_gismo