Phoenix: High Value Target Teams in Historical Perspective

By Fletcher Schoen, Research Associate, Center for Strategic Research


High value target teams, special operations, AfghanistanMost people know the United States uses special operations forces or other government agencies to target terrorists and insurgent leaders, but they may not know how hard this is to do right. While researching the Phoenix program from the Vietnam War, I could not help but compare it to the high value target teams that helped turn around the war in Iraq.

A new study from the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University (“Secret Weapon: High-value Target Teams as an Organizational Innovation,”) explains how interagency high value target teams decimated enemy leadership by fully integrating all-source intelligence collection with swift operations, and then integrated those operations with the broader counterinsurgency effort. This success was not easily achieved, however. It required much trial and error by innovative leaders over a period of years. Their accomplishment seems all the more remarkable when compared to the Phoenix Program used in Vietnam. The fight against the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) was conducted under the most unified civil-military command structure ever devised by the U.S. government. Even so, the anti-VCI effort did not achieve the seamless and effective operations and strategic impact of the high value target teams in Iraq.

Three major problems marred the effort:

1) The Intelligence Agencies did not Work Together.

After February 1967, intelligence coordination functions took place under the auspices of the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support command (CORDS). CORDS and the CIA funded and staffed the Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation (ICEX) program, which was renamed Phoenix in 1968. Phoenix and its Vietnamese counterpart program, “Phun Hoang,” drew on existing intelligence assets to staff centers at the province and district levels that were supposed to unify collection, exploitation, and operations. However the CIA lacked sufficient staff to place advisors at the district level. It fell upon CORDS to staff the district Phoenix centers with over 700 advisors, mostly military intelligence lieutenants. The lack of CIA expertise meant that these advisors had their hands full learning how to run intelligence operations. What really handicapped these new centers, however, was the unwillingness of intelligence agencies, especially South Vietnamese intelligence agencies, to share information.

2) Intelligence and Operations Were Separate.

The Phoenix program was further handicapped by its lack of operational capability. ICEX/Phoenix centers were supposed to generate intelligence for direct action assets but had no authority over those assets. For instance, the CIA retained control of their anti-VCI forces (PRUs: Provincial Reconnaissance Units), which collected their own intelligence and moved to kill or capture the targeted Viet Cong. Although PRUs were limited by their small number, which never surpassed 5,000 men countrywide, they were considered one of the most effective of the anti-VCI elements. Other units like the National Police Special Units, American special operations forces, conventional forces, and the regional militias were also part of the anti-VCI campaign. But these elements had different priorities and differing levels of buy-in to the Phoenix program and therefore were not always available or willing to give priority to anti-VCI operations.

3) Phoenix and PRUs were not used strategically.

The greatest failing of the anti-VCI programs was that they were not coordinated into a coherent strategy. Simply killing or capturing Viet Cong cadres would not produce strategic benefits unless such operations were coordinated with other military, political and informational initiatives. Because of the way Phoenix was conceived and organized, most operations were conducted without the reinforcing effects of other CORDS programs or conventional action. In fact, PRU activities often went on without the knowledge of the district CORDS/Phoenix advisors who were the ones supposed to be coordinating the anti-VCI efforts in the area. The impact of VCI neutralizations was bound to be local and temporary—even harmful to the other pacification objectives within district or province—unless it was coordinated within a larger strategy.

The HVTs in Iraq faced the same organizational obstacles to success, but overcame them. HVT’s bridged the operations and coordination gap that had existed between the Phoenix program and the direct action forces in Vietnam. Their leaders blended the operational and intelligence capabilities of many agencies and units together for a holistic multi-organizational approach that was able to effectively “find-fix-finish-exploit and analyze” enemy leadership networks. Then, and again, after much experimentation, the HVTs began coordinating their local efforts with the resident conventional force commanders who were working with other U.S. and local government agencies to pacify the population. Even more importantly, and unlike the PRU’s of Vietnam, the new leadership team of Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus recognized that HVTs operations could be a powerful strategic tool if they were tightly controlled and integrated into the larger counterinsurgency effort. When this happened, HVTs became a strategic asset rather than just a highly effective tactical tool.

If this subject interests you, I highly commend the new NDU study to your attention, as well as a good RAND study: “The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency.”

Vietnam and Iraq were vastly different conflicts but the lessons learned from comparing efforts in the two wars to target enemy leadership networks are instructive. The HVT experience in Iraq should be established as a best practice in counterinsurgency and juxtaposed with the Vietnam experience to illustrate why best practices matter. I can only hope that somewhere in the upper echelons of the U.S. government senior leaders are paying close attention to this “lesson observed” so that it actually becomes a “lesson learned.”


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