I took a deep breath knowing I had just opened a back door to a foreign government without permission…
The phone on my desk rang. I looked at it for a second before picking it up. A phone call here was a fairly uncommon occurrence. “Major Miani” I answered plainly without identifying my office. Few people would have a need to call me while on exercise in Thailand and anyone with this number knew what organization I belonged to.
The voice on the other end was delayed as the signal bounced off a satellite overhead. “Lino, it’s Bill. Something’s come up. I need to talk to you on the secure line.” Bill was the leader of the small MC-130 detachment that had flown in from Okinawa to support my battalion. We were the only tactical special operations unit in the exercise and Bill made it clear from the beginning they were eager to work with us and ready to be flexible. It was the best air support I ever had and we quickly developed a relationship of trust. I acknowledged and hung up the phone. As I walked to the back room where we had our secure communications gear, I wondered what could possibly require its use. Since nothing in our exercise was secret, I concluded there had to be a real-world concern behind the strange call. When the phone rang I picked up the red handset and dismissed the soldier on duty. It was Bill. “I’ve got to stand my unit down Lino,” he said. “There’s been an incident in the Maldives.”
Camp Suritsana was a great place to have an exercise. Nestled in a sharp bend of the Khek River near the northern Thai city of Phitsanulok, the camp was a relic of the last century’s war in Indochina. The small cluster of barracks, motor pools, headquarters buildings, and an overgrown airstrip occupied a flood plain in steep hill country near the Laotian border. There were no fences to keep people out. In fact, a wooden suspension bridge over the river linked the base to the surrounding countryside where we enjoyed long runs through primitively cultivated fields and dry forests. The tiny settlements along the dirt trail in the hills gave me a sense of traveling back to a time when life consisted only of work, family, love, God, and death. An afternoon run in those hills had a rejuvenating spiritual tranquility that seemed to erase the chatter of thousands of boy scouts on their annual jamboree and the bustle of half a battalion of Thai, American, and Japanese commandos on exercise. Despite the crushing heat and my general distaste for jogging, I did so daily.
Seventy-five kilometers to the east, on the far side of the misty hills of Thung Salaeng Luang National Park, raged a battle of my own creation. This was Cobra Gold, the largest annual military exercise in the world. Nine nations were taking part this year, three in the Special Operations domain. After three interesting weeks orchestrating both sides of an imaginary war in the remote Lom Sak district of Petchabun Province, things were starting to wind down. The battalion command team and all the company commanders had gone to Chiang Mai for the weekend leaving me the ranking American officer on the camp. Now in charge, the news from Bill threatened to destroy the sleepy atmosphere in my happy wonderland.
Affairs of State
In the early morning hours of 7 February 2012, President Mohammed Nasheed, the first popularly elected leader of the Maldives, resigned under pressure. His spectacular demise was the endgame in a political struggle between his party and that of the country’s long term autocrat, former President Maumoom Gayoom. Protests on both sides escalated throughout January following the arrest of the country’s chief justice on charges of blocking prosecutions of Gayoom administration officials for abuses of power. The reluctant Nasheed, a repeat political prisoner of Gayoom, avoided authorizing violence until it was too late. By early February, the struggle pitted the police, initially supportive of Nasheed, against the Army which stayed with him throughout. In a combined assault on the military headquarters in the capital Malé, anti-Nasheed protesters and the nation’s police force took the popular president into custody. He would later claim to have resigned at gunpoint.
Though the circumstances of Nasheed’s resignation are disputed, it was immediately clear the Vice President was calling the shots. Conflicting reports suggested he had suspended all traffic in or out of the country’s only international airport in Malé. Though this later proved to be untrue, we had to plan for the worst. The few international media outlets that paid any attention to the accelerating crisis would report little of value in the coming days. Not only were their broadcasts controlled by the new administration generally, but they had no awareness of the one thing that was focusing my mind as I listened to Bill’s report on the red phone: one of my Special Forces A-teams was stranded in a remote part of the Maldives.
Unsurprisingly, plans were rapidly developing to recover our team. Like everything the US Military does, the plans were big, expensive, unwieldy, and dependent upon a massive application of American power. They involved the movement of ships and aircraft from all over the Pacific and Indian Oceans to a staging base in Diego Garcia where they would wait for the order to retrieve our team. Bill’s MC-130s were of course a major part of this plan and their involvement would shut down my air operations in Thailand for an indeterminate period of time. If what he was saying was true, I would not only lose my air support, but the proposed force packages would eclipse the combat power of the Maldivian military and could be seen by a nervous junta as an invasion of the Maldives. I rubbed my forehead incredulously.
I hung up the phone and started reaching out to the SOF enterprise for information. My first call was to our team in the Maldives. With their Maldivian counterparts recalled to barracks to respond to events, Special Forces Operational Detachment-A 1423 (ODA 1423) found itself feeling isolated on an atoll with what they thought was an agitated civilian population. Resources were scarce, and there was concern the team would become a burden on the local community. In reality, the “village” was probably a settlement of workers from a military headquarters on the island but at the time the ODA was unsure of the situation. Despite this the team leader was optimistic. He had enough food and water for well over a week and should the unthinkable occur, they had enough ammunition to defend their position. He was an experienced Warrant Officer and a long time friend and I trusted his judgment. We had some time.
The team leader’s report framed the problem for me and I made additional calls to my headquarters in Washington state and to the detachment from Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC) that served as our higher headquarters in the exercise. My conversations revealed that planning was proceeding without input from the Maldivians, the battalion headquarters (me), or the SOCPAC element in theater. They were as frustrated as I and were not shy about sharing that with me. Worried about the outcome, I decided to make one more call that may give us another option if required.
I first met “Khalid Ismail” a few years earlier when we worked closely together on an assignment in Asia. He was of medium height and build, did not look particularly tough, and wore his hair long. Though physically unremarkable, he was a Maldivian Special Forces officer. He did not fit the physical stereotype of a special operator…but neither did I; superficialities mean nothing when it comes to SF. Instead, he stood out in other ways. He was imperturbable, quiet in his demeanor, and one of the most intelligent human beings I ever encountered. Selected repeatedly for foreign training and education, I believed Khalid Ismail was more important in his country than his humility otherwise suggested. Though it had been a couple years since I had seen him, I knew he would answer if I called. If anyone could help get 1423 out of the Maldives, he could.
I dialed the only number I had for him and hoped it was still valid. When the line connected, a familiar voice greeted me. “Khalid Ismail,” I said, for he always used both names. “It’s Lino. How are you?”
“Lino!” he replied. “It’s been too long. I’m well and I hope you are too.” We caught up very briefly before he addressed the topic at hand. “I think I know why you’re calling.”
I wasn’t surprised he was well informed. There are very few secrets in the Maldives and at that time, Khalid Ismail was serving as Executive Officer for one of the regional commanders. Following his lead I didn’t mince words. “We may need some help getting our guys out of your country.” I filled him in on the situation and we discussed options for the operation.
Closure of the airport was the main logistical challenge but it was also a political one. Thousands of tourists were trapped in the Maldives by the coup. Pressure would build daily to send them home yet moving them would be difficult. With the capital city Malé in a state of semi-lockdown, there was simply no place to put them while they waited for flights. This was even more true about our A-team which had a lot of gear I did not want a crowd of nervous tourists to see. Any move of the ODA from their location in the south had to be closely choreographed with their air transportation out of the main airport. Given the distances involved and the type of vessel required, the timing would be tricky even in ideal circumstances. Though it seemed likely the government would reopen the airport on a limited basis before long, we could not risk moving the team to Malé without first having that decision in place.
Neither of us was sure what our higher headquarters’ were doing or if they were even coordinating with each other. The US Defense Attaché, normally based in Colombo, was fortuitously stranded in Malé during a visit but was having communications problems and there was no indication he had any access to the military. I asked Khalid Ismail if he could find out but we both knew the Maldivian National Defense Force (MNDF) was very busy with other things. It was not hard to imagine they might actually prefer to let our guys cool their heels on the beach for a while until the crisis blew over. Knowing that American generals were re-tasking ships and planes to respond, I urged Khalid Ismail not to let that happen. Careful not to reveal what little I knew of evolving American plans, the scope of which would almost certainly cause a significant diplomatic incident, I suggested we might move the team instead to the former British base on Gan which had a runway that was probably accessible by Bill’s MC-130s. He confirmed the plan’s feasibility and having established two workable options, we set a time for a follow-on call and agreed on a list of information requirements before hanging up the phone.
I took a deep breath knowing I had just opened a back door to a foreign government without permission. But this was how things got done in a crisis and the relationship it was built on was the reason the US Military stays engaged with partners around the globe. I shared my plan with the operations officer at the Group headquarters in Washington state. An intelligent but unimaginative bully, he wasn’t interested even in passing on Khalid Ismail’s contact information. It seemed planning for the “invasion” of the Maldives would continue apace without us.
The next day our team in the Maldives reported the MNDF would evacuate them by boat to the airport in Malé where they would catch a scheduled flight home. The in extremis evacuation using US military assets was no longer necessary meaning Bill and I could get back to our business in Lom Sak. When I later spoke with Khalid Ismail, he repeated the story from the Maldivian perspective. According to his tale, he passed on our plan to the MNDF but it was the US Defense Attaché that finally made it happen.
Still, it was not at all clear why the new government decided to reopen the airport at that time (if it was ever actually closed). Though there was an obvious need to do so and do it quickly, it is not hard to imagine the information I provided to Khalid Ismail, and the urgency my request for help must have implied, would have indicated that the airport’s closure had a direct impact on the military interests of the United States of America. This is no small matter. Though unaware of the specific plans, the rarity of being asked for help by the United States would not have been lost on the Maldivians. Secondly, it is not clear what influence Khalid Ismail’s message had in motivating the MNDF to expedite the movement of ODA 1423 and to do so from Malé rather than Gan, which would have been quicker if not cheaper and easier for them.
Khalid Ismail was cautious when answering these lingering questions about the sequence of events. I suspected there was more to the story than he was willing to share but that was to be expected; we were both finished making bold moves. Though we cannot claim to have saved the day, ODA 1423 was safe and the sovereignty of the Maldives remained intact. We will never be certain but it is entirely possible our coordination is what delivered the satisfactory result. I would do it again if given the chance.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and secret savior of the Maldives. For his death-defying heroics he will happily accept an all expenses paid trip for two to the Shangri-La Villingili Resort & Spa in Addu City…