Ghosts of Gladio: Mapping Out a Stay-Behind Strategy in Taiwan

By Noah Schwartz and Alison O’Neil

An American helicopter in Taiwan after typhoon Morakot in 2009
Image Credit: DVIDS

Plotting out a potential invasion of Taiwan by mainland China has been a grim pastime of grand strategists for years, but they often fail to capture the form this invasion would likely take and America’s best strategy to help Taiwan combat it: a stay-behind operation.

Popular conceptions of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan often rely on grand cinematic images of China’s People’s Liberation Army mounting a massive amphibious landing campaign or, as Oriana Mastro argued in last summer’s piece on the “Taiwan Temptation,” using tools such as blockades or airstrikes against Taiwanese or U.S. targets. Terms like “T-Day” reinforce grandiose imagery of soldiers dismounting a landing carrier and occupying a beachhead.

Others argue, however, that Taiwan’s geography and population preclude it from resembling D-Day in any meaningful way.

A PLA attack on Taiwan would most likely take a gray-zone approach. Modern war thrives in the gray zone, a fact Taiwan’s defense approach would likely reflect. A major facet of gray zone warfare is the use of so-called ‘stay-behind’ operations. Stay-behind operations aim to deter a potential adversary through the promise of a bloody insurgency campaign, rather than through conventional means.

An invasion of Taiwan would require hundreds of thousands to over a million PLA soldiers to not only cross the Taiwan Strait and subdue the island, but also to enforce reunification (possibly through counterinsurgency).

As such, a stay-behind operation in Taiwan could comprise a valuable strategic tool for the United States, which has historically preferred financial and military support for proxies over direct great-power conflict.

The United States has already committed to a stay-behind strategy in Europe, as demonstrated by the United States Special Forces’ current activities in 33 of 44 European countries.

The U.S. justifies its stay-behind operations under Section 1202 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which states that “Section 1202 Authority may be used to provide support to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups or individuals engaged in supporting or facilitating ongoing and authorized IW (Irregular Warfare) operations by US Special Operations Forces.” 

The recent confirmation that United States special forces have been in Taiwan for a year and that Marines have been training Taiwanese troops in Guam seems to indicate that Section 1202 is not confined to Europe. With these revelations, it seems appropriate to reflect upon the history of American ‘stay-behind’ operations and gray-zone warfare to assess the ramifications of this strategy’s use in Taiwan.

Cautionary Tales

The U.S. established a precedent for stay-behind operations during the Cold War, when the CIA began arming and training resistance groups capable of responding to a potential Soviet invasion. 

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the CIA worked alongside the Iranian government to develop stay-behind plans if the Soviet Union invaded Iran (a possibility that Iranian and American planners believed increasingly likely after the beginning of the Korean War).  

The CIA looked into training Iran’s Qashqai tribal group as anti-Soviet resistance fighters, establishing networks of resupplies and safe houses throughout the country, and even making plans to liquidate Iranian oil refineries in the event of a Soviet invasion. 

While the Iranian stay-behind operation was eventually abandoned (in part due to the Qashqai’s support for then-Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who was later ousted in a CIA-backed coup), research into the proposed operations and their European counterparts offers insights into the possibility of contemporary stay-behind operations.

Operation Gladio is perhaps the most infamous and large scale of all Cold War-era stay-behind operations. Gladio featured the creation of a massive secret army across Western Europe that would become activated in the event of a Soviet occupation.

Gladio encompassed the creation of weapons caches hidden across Europe — weapons caches that would later be connected to a 1972 car bombing in Italy by a neo-fascist that killed three policemen. This is the first of many connections between Gladio and the Years of Lead, a period characterized by terrorist attacks across Italy.

The prime recruits for stay-behind operations would have to possess a strong sense of nationalism. Any individual likely to take up arms in a guerilla conflict would need to subscribe to a larger ideological project than mere self-preservation.

As other Cold War-era stay-behind operations have shown, such projects can require American support for unsavory characters. Walter Kopp, backed by the CIA in a stay-behind operation in the Kibitz region of Germany, was described by his own CIA handlers as an “unreconstructed Nazi.” 

Despite Kopp’s Nazi past, his “militant anti-Communism, pro-Western orientation, and his desire to see Germany rid of the Russians” made him an ideal candidate for anti-Soviet operations.

Other case studies — from the United States’ support for Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to anti-Castro fanatic Luis Posada Cardilles — reveal that arming and training moderate insurgents can result in unintended consequences that backfire on American interests.

Past Becomes Present: The Future of Stay-Behind Operations in Taiwan

Any sort of potential ‘stay-behind’ operation in Taiwan could face the same problems that plagued Cold War-era interventions. How can American planners accurately separate potential extremists, who might target civilians and delegitimize the insurgency, from professional guerillas?

Operations like Gladio raise the question of weapons caches: how can planners ensure such stores fall into the right hands and avoid misuse by malicious actors? 

And how, as the Iranian case study asks, can planners account for the many contingencies that may hinder the implementation of successful stay-behind operations in-country? 

While these questions are undoubtedly difficult to answer, a ‘stay-behind’ strategy in Taiwan does appear attractive for several reasons. As the Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments has laid out, “Hard Roc 2.0 [Taiwan’s Defense Approach] would emphasize virtual, rather than physical attrition and operational approaches that draw inspiration from guerilla warfare and place premiums on delay, resilience, furtiveness, and deception.”

This approach has strategic benefits, as the results of the Millennium Challenge show; a smaller, cheaper, and more agile asymmetric force can defeat a massive enemy. 

Furthermore, prioritizing an approach that focuses on insurgency and agility rather than procurement of conventional weapons of deterrence could foster positive breakthroughs in diplomacy.

Taipei’s divestment from larger American conventional weapons systems like the F-35 in favor of a cheaper asymmetric approach could reassure the PRC that Taiwan is not being used as a base for an attempted Washington-led strike on China. Adopting an insurgency-focused approach could lead to an unraveling of the offense-defense paradox that has defined cross-Strait relations.

Moreover, the prospect of maintaining a protracted counterinsurgency campaign could change the PRC’s strategic calculations with regard to an invasion of Taiwan. The Taiwanese balk at the notion of reunification with the PRC and would undoubtedly challenge any PRC counterinsurgency campaign.

As Wang Mouzhou points out in The Diplomat, “The PRC could surely count on some fifth-column support in the event of an invasion or asymmetric campaign but the reality is that most individuals in Taiwan fear PRC rule and would actively resist … Therefore, in the highly likely event of an asymmetric invasion’s failure, the CPC’s political leadership would have to face a hard choice: accept a massive symbolic defeat, which could jeopardize the Party’s legitimacy, or escalate an asymmetric operation into a full military invasion with all attendant risks.” 

Taiwan risks presenting China with a quagmire, especially in the event that the U.S. arms and trains insurgents in a stay-behind operation. Rather than helping Taiwan prepare for conventional defense by hitting targets in the Chinese mainland — a strategy that could further provoke the PRC while failing to match the PLA’s superior firepower — the United States should encourage Taiwan to develop its asymmetric capabilities. 

The United States has supported covert operations specific to Taiwan’s interests before: while not a stay-behind operation per se, Operation Paper offers some interesting lessons for the present day.

Paper, an effort to arm Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang irregulars in Burma in the 1950s, attempted to weaken communism in China’s Yunnan Province by sending insurgents over the border to fight the Chinese military. 

The operation ultimately foundered — the irregulars failed to achieve their military objectives, and the U.S. halted the operation because it feared escalation might provoke the PRC to invade Burma.

After much vacillation from Chiang, many of the irregulars were themselves evacuated to Taiwan. Despite the operation’s final results, however, Operation Paper illuminates key insights about the US-Taiwan relationship with regard to covert operations. 

For one, it demonstrates that the U.S. and Taiwan have a precedent for covert collaboration against mainland China. Paper also illustrates the relationship between Taiwan’s dependence on American aid and American leverage over Taiwanese military decisions.

Michael A. Hunzeker, Assistant Professor at George Mason University, argues that the U.S. must “confront” Taipei about its current preference for weapons of conventional deterrence over asymmetric means. Operation Paper indicates that the U.S. is capable of “strongarming” Taiwan into adhering to its interests when it needs to, a truth that no doubt holds true today against the backdrop of a far more powerful Chinese military.

Finally, Operation Paper demonstrates that the United States must tread carefully with regard to covert operations. While the architects of Paper initially set out to damage communism through the use of a seemingly innocuous proxy, the actions of US-backed irregulars damaged Burma’s relationship with America as well as Taiwan’s relationship with modern Myanmar.

It is unclear whether the United States could conduct a war of attrition, or even whether such an undertaking would be desirable for the long term goals of the United States. However, given this history, it is clearly an option on the table that America will be considering should China attempt a takeover of Taiwan.

The battle for Taiwan will not be defined by ‘T-day’, but rather by the dialectic between insurgency and counterinsurgency that has defined warfare in the 21st century.

Noah Schwartz is a senior at George Mason University studying Government and International Politics. He specializes in Chinese grand strategy and Left Realism.

Alison O’Neil is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a freelance writer on international affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @Alison_Does_IR

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