by a former Special Forces Officer
“I know that I will be called upon to perform tasks in isolation, far from familiar faces and voices.”
-The Special Forces Creed
Romanian Ministry of Defense (Image Credit: This other World website)
July 2004. Romanian Ministry of Defense, Bucharest, Romania.
“We have a National Treasure—our HUMINT teams” said the Romanian Chief of Military Intelligence as we sipped plum brandy with him in his office.
Known for his keen intellect and strategic vision, the Romanian Lieutenant General smiled wryly as he waited for his words to sink in. My colleague and I from the Defense Attaché Office were intrigued and listened intently. The Romanian general, who had also been an attaché in the United States, knew he had piqued our interest.
The General had requested a meeting to discuss an important new phase for the Romanians in the global war against terrorism, one that was critical to the United States, the employment of Romanian tactical human intelligence (HUMINT) collection teams to support the coalition.
As the General laid out his vision, the wheels in our own minds were turning, analyzing the potential of his proposal. The General had two main objectives, to improve the capabilities of his tactical HUMINT teams, and get them deployed into theater. No national caveats, they were at the disposal of the coalition as needed.
The General also made it clear that, as he saw it, Romania had a unique strategic “window of opportunity,” and he wanted U.S. support. We would advise, assist, and help equip his forces and shape how they would be employed in theater. In exchange, he offered unfettered access to the most sensitive areas of his operation… it was a military attaché’s dream come true.
A Real Choice Mission.
“Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission…”
-Captain Willard, Apocalypse Now
From a professional standpoint, the Global War on Terrorism seemed far removed from my distant posting in Eastern Europe. But now, this meeting proved to be, in the words of Captain Willard, a “real choice mission.” It was the catalyst that set into motion a unique opportunity, to “capacity build” with a key ally and help get that capability into the fight.
Today when American’s think of the Global War on Terror, they think mostly of the major actors in that conflict, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the American military. But there were many other players, namely our coalition partners, 69 nations to be exact.
Many of our coalition partners had longstanding relations with the United States, Great Britain, and Germany for example. But many of our partners were from the former Warsaw Pact, new NATO members, eager to demonstrate their mettle in support of the coalition. Several of these countries had only recently joined the league of Western nations and lacked military capabilities that allowed them to operate effectively within NATO. Capacity building became the saveur du jour and the United States undertook a concerted effort to assist these new allied nations.
What those nations lacked in capability; they made up an eagerness to contribute to the cause. And allies were crucial, as the United States launched a truly global fight against terrorism.
Life Blood in the Global War on Terrorism.
Since September 11, 2001, Romania emerged as one of those new, steadfast allies. Romanian forces deployed in support of the coalition as early as 2002 and distinguished themselves as being professional, proficient, and willing to provide a myriad of support. One area of support that caught the interest of U.S. operational planners was in the field of tactical HUMINT collection. Actionable Intelligence has been described as the “life blood” in the fight against terrorism and Romania was identified as a partner that could help provide that intelligence through its tactical HUMINT teams.
In 2004, with coalition operations picking up in intensity, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) recognized a critical shortage in tactical HUMINT in theater and was interested in leveraging partner capabilities to fill those gaps. An urgent call went out to engage with partner nations and assess their capabilities (and willingness) to commit to combat operations.
With the CENTCOM directive and after our meeting with the Romanian Chief of Military Intelligence, we had our marching orders. Operating in a two-to-four-person team, our mission was to observe Romanian tactical HUMINT teams, assess strengths and weaknesses, provide advice, operational assistance, and equipment to improve their capabilities and then serve as “connective tissue” with coalition partners to assist in their employment. It was a daunting task and we found ourselves embarking on a multi-year mission that would take us from the fringes of Romania to front-line operational bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.
By… with… through Partner Forces
Since the 1800s when countries first began exchanging military attachés, observing the host nation’s military at war was an integral part of the attaché mission. Our plan was straightforward, every six months, corresponding with the Romanian’s troop rotation cycle, we would deploy with them in theater. We flew in their aircraft, embedded alongside their teams for several days, to several weeks at a time, observing and assisting as needed. Upon return, we reported our findings. This included a tête-à-tête meeting with the Romanian Chief of Military Intelligence to back brief him on our mission.
Across these deployments, we would develop more thorough insights of our Romanian counterparts, our close interactions providing awareness at a whole new level. This in turn would help us to understand and better prepare them for their task.
It was through these shared experiences that our respect for their capabilities grew and we began to observe certain operational characteristics that shaped how we sought to accomplish our mission.
Our priority was to better understand how the Romanians trained their tactical HUMINT teams. This took us from Bucharest to the ancient town of Oradea in the far western corner of Romania. One of the most important economic, social, and historical cities in Romania, Oradea was an ideal location as the home base for Romanian HUMINT training.
Arriving in Oradea, we were briefed on their training center and given unrestricted access to their facilities. To our knowledge, we were the first military attachés afforded the opportunity to see these facilities. While observing a team preparing for deployment, it was apparent that the Romanian’s had developed a unique training approach.
In general terms, Romanian Military Intelligence views tactical HUMINT as a “highly qualified” intelligence operation, one that requires highly trained operators. Indeed, from the Romanian perspective, the division between tactical and strategic HUMINT collection is not as distinct as in the United States. Having only a small cadre of soldiers with HUMINT capabilities requires training to be at a level commensurate with all HUMINT collection requirements, be they at the tactical or strategic level.
Because of the level of training received, Romanian HUMINT units are viewed as an elite formation within the Romanian Armed Forces. Their recruits are drawn from all ranks of the Romanian military, but particularly from reconnaissance and airborne units, and they are trained to a high degree of proficiency.
In this somewhat novel approach, each HUMINT operator is trained as a “unique, highly skilled asset.” Only after a rigorous pre-screening and selection program do candidates attend the Romanian Intelligence Training Center. Operators-in-training first receive entry-level training in the same skills required of other elite soldiers within the Romanian Armed Forces. After this common core training, the training pipeline bifurcates, soldiers destined for other elite Romanian units attend advanced training in Special Forces operations, or reconnaissance, while HUMINT operators attend basic and advanced level training in HUMINT operations. HUMINT personnel then receive specialized instruction focusing on language skills; cross cultural communications; detailed area studies, and advanced skills training.
As we would later observe, having a solid background in airborne operations, reconnaissance, and small unit tactics made the Romanian HUMINT operator a more self-confident and self-reliant soldier, enhancing their operator abilities. From the Romanian’s optic, viewing tactical HUMINT collection as a special operation, rather than a combat support activity, promoted the development of a certain mindset that made for a more competent and effective capability.
After completing our time at their training facility, our next task took us “down range,” to observe and work alongside Romanian HUMINT teams in the field.
Tallil Air Base, Iraq (Image credit: Author Archives)
Impressed by what we had seen at their training center, we were anxious to understand how the Romanian teams operated in theater. Our first trip took us to observe operations in Iraq.
We obtained the necessary theater clearances and approvals to travel and then awaited transport. Once all the preparations were completed, we boarded a Romanian C-130 to begin the hours long flight to Tallil Airbase, Iraq. As the C-130 lumbered skyward, I recalled that these C-130s were old and had been provided as “excess defense articles” to the Romanian military. To the credit of the Romanian Air Force, they had managed to not only keep them airworthy but were one of only a handful of coalition Air Forces that self-deployed their forces into theater.
Romanian tactical HUMINT teams were dispersed to several locations throughout Iraq. Getting to our destination to link up with the teams became its own challenge. The Romanians had few resources available to them so often our movement was by any means available. Sometimes we were fortunate enough to hitch rides on U.S. or coalition aircraft, but often we found ourselves in Romanian vehicles driving in coalition convoys. On one occasion we rode “shotgun” with the drivers of a private contractor truck convoy as they delivered supplies to a remote base. Getting to these locations was a harrowing experience for our team.
Wherever we arrived in Iraq, the Romanian teams always welcomed us and provided full transparency to their activities. Knowing that we were also a conduit to their own senior military, the teams did not hesitate to share their concerns as well. They knew our advocacy would help get what they needed, so they were often frank and candid in their discussions.
Over the course of our time in Iraq, we had the opportunity to witness the Romanians in action and observe firsthand their effectiveness. One key characteristic noted was that the individual maturity of the Romanian HUMINT operator factored into their success.
The ability to build rapport and establish close personal relationships, as well as operate with little direct supervision, often depends on the maturity of the individual and those are critical skills when conducting HUMINT. The Romanian Military Intelligence Directorate looked for maturity and “life experience” when selecting their operators. The average operator was typically in their late 20s or 30s and had been recruited from the noncommissioned or junior officer ranks. Most came from operational units, and many already had an operational tour in a previous unit. While rigorous selection and training gave the Romanian HUMINT operators an advantage, these alone were not the sole factors contributing to their success. Much of the achievement enjoyed by the Romanian HUMINT teams came because of the maturity and experience of their operators, a less tangible, but vitally important attribute when conducting special operations.
After each of our ventures into Iraq, we returned to Bucharest with new insights and new taskings. We began leveraging resources to assist the Romanian teams, which in turn generated more requirements for our team.
Streets of Kabul, Afghanistan (Image credit: Author Archives)
After our visits in Iraq, we next traveled to Afghanistan to observe how Romanian teams operated in a very different clime and climate. Like Iraq, the Romanians had teams in several locations throughout Afghanistan and once again, by hook or by crook, we made our way through the country to spend time with each element.
One key factor noted during our time in Afghanistan was the Romanian teams’ ability to understand the nuances of their operational environment. The Romanian HUMINT teams appeared adept at building professional and interpersonal relationships, establishing rapport quickly with other coalition partners and the local populace. When queried as to why this was so, many operators attribute it to their being “a Latin people.”
To better understand this statement, it is necessary to understand a bit of the history and culture of “Romania.”
Dacia, as the ancient territory of Romania was called, flourished from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D., under the leadership of a series of successful rulers. With the expansion of the Roman Empire, Dacia and Rome collided, engaging it in two fierce wars (101-102 A.D. and 105-106 A.D.), before finally being conquered. Dacia was integrated into the Roman Empire between 106 and 271 A.D. and the Dacian population adopted the vulgate Latin language of the Romans. A “Daco-Roman” population formed, becoming the basis of the present-day Romanian people. Facing the onslaught of several barbarian invasions, Emperor Aurelian withdrew the Roman military garrisons and civil administration south of the Danube in 271 A.D. leaving the Daco-Roman population to fend for themselves. These communities survived successive invasions and continued organized life during eight centuries of barbarian migrations across their lands.
The assimilation of the Dacians into Roman culture and the subsequent “Romanization” of the Dacians set Romania apart from its neighbors in Eastern Europe. Often described as a “Latin island surrounded by a sea of Slavs,” throughout history Romania has maintained its Latin-based culture.
Social characteristics of any culture are a complex subject. In general, those characteristics are often developed because of larger environmental demands; the nation’s evolution is determined by both internal as well as external factors. These factors shape, to some degree, the national character of a people and in Romania’s case, some of these factors indirectly contributed to their success in HUMINT collection.
Like “Latin” peoples around the world, it is this “Latin” influence that makes the Romanians generally a warm, gregarious, and personable people, a trait that served the Romanian HUMINT teams well. The ability to establish and foster inter-personal relationships with their contacts in the field can, of course, be attributed to their training, but the persuasive influence of Romania’s “Latin” heritage cannot be discounted. Romanian operators quickly adapted to the local style of dress, improved upon their fledgling language capabilities, mingling with the locals as much as possible and seized every opportunity to establish contact.
Many operators easily blended in, having physical characteristics that allowed them to look like people from the area, no small factor when working to establish rapport. In one instance, a Romanian operator in Afghanistan looked so much like the locals he was mistaken for one of the local cleaning personnel assigned to the base.
The “Latin” influence in the Romanian culture also made them less averse to certain cultural norms, such as physical contact. The willingness to engage in close physical proximity to their male contacts, in a male-dominated society, helped them to communicate on a social level that many Americans would find uncomfortable. Romanian HUMINT operators often embraced their contacts, reflecting the cultural norms of the region. The ability of Romanian teams to build rapport, win the confidence of their contacts, and convince them to provide information largely resulted from of their cultural affinity to build these close personal relationships.
With Romanian team members, Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan (Image credit: Author Archives)
Another factor observed was that the Romanian teams were very adaptive. As mentioned, throughout history Romanians have learned to adapt to the changing forces surrounding them, at times, being both passive and resistant so as to preserve themselves.
This characteristic has become, over time, an integral part of the national psyche. Mental agility, adaptability and improvisation prevail in the Romanian mindset. In the Romanians, their instincts for adaptability, and flexibility were honed by life under the brutal police state of Nicolae Ceausescu. It developed in the people a natural tendency to be observant, to be compliant, to “survive” under a harsh totalitarian regime.
Romanian HUMINT teams quickly ascertained and exploited the local operational environment to their success. The Romanian teams appeared to quickly comprehend the “informal” networks that existed, who the key individuals and leaders were, both formal and informal within a community, and then worked to exploit this understanding. This innate ability to understand complex webs of family, tribal, business, and criminal networks, alliances and associations can be indirectly attributed to their own “national experiences” under the harsh conditions of Ceausescu’s regime. For in a totalitarian regime, the ability to understand who has control and influence can mean the difference between life and death. Having historical insights and experiences of living in just such an environment clearly benefited the Romanian teams.
Romanian Team in Kabul, Afghanistan rehearsing immediate action drill. (Image Credit: Author Archives)
With the success of the teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reputation of the capabilities of the Romanian HUMINT teams greatly expanded. As a result, not only were more teams requested in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. European Command (EUCOM) also recognized the need for additional coalition support in Kosovo and the Romanians once again answered the call.
Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo (Image credit: Casa Blog)
In Afghanistan, and Iraq, the Romanians helped fill critical shortages in tactical HUMINT and distinguished themselves as being outstanding in the field, so much so that both U.S. and coalition partners requested additional Romanian HUMINT teams to support operations.
With proven capabilities, EUCOM recognized the value Romanian HUMINT teams brought to the fight and saw an opportunity to employ them in operations in the Balkans. Indeed, the Romanian teams proved so capable, that teams in Kosovo worked directly in support of the U.S.-led task force.
Several factors contributed to this direct support arrangement. Romanian HUMINT teams were always eager for new missions, especially when working alongside Americans. They readily accept additional taskings, adjust to the requirements of new assignments, and accept uncertainty as an inherent part of their work.
Of particular use to the task force was the Romanian’s ability to work in Serb dominated areas, locations that few coalition forces, and almost no U.S. teams, had much success. Having had historically positive relations with the Serbs, and their affable “Latin” character, made the Romanian teams much more welcomed than other coalition members.
It was the Romanian’s can-do attitude and proven capabilities that made them an invaluable asset to the U.S. led efforts in Kosovo.
A Center for Excellence.
Intelligence training and operations, by their very nature, are sensitive subjects. To go completely “open kimono” with the U.S. was a bold and unconventional move by the Chief of Romanian Military Intelligence. This was a fleeting opportunity during war, to not only improve their capabilities but demonstrate their support to the United States at a critical time. That decision, and our mission, were not without their detractors from within the senior Romanian military establishment. But for the Chief of Romanian Military Intelligence, the gains far outweighed the potential risks. It was an audacious move but one that paid great dividends, for Romania, the coalition, and for the United States during the global war on terrorism.
Today, the Romanian Armed Forces continue to invest in the development and expansion of this niche capability. Romanian HUMINT expertise in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo proved so pervasive that Romania became an internationally recognized leader in the discipline and hosts the NATO HUMINT Center of Excellence. Established at the training facility first visited by our team, the NATO HUMINT Center of Excellence was founded in Oradea in 2010 and serves as the focal point for NATO HUMINT training.
Romanian HUMINT teams have certainly proven themselves to be an vital asset and a “national treasure” for Romania. No doubt today they continue to play a pivotal role, supporting Romania and NATO.
NATO HUMINT Center of Excellence, Oradea, Romania established in 2010 (Image credit: DiGi 24 Oradea)
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.