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From Operation Gideon to Afghanistan Rescue: The Decentralized CONOP

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My understanding of a military Concept of Operations or CONOP, as it is known within military and overhead units, had changed dramatically. What I once saw as a formal document of how a joint force commander visualizes accomplishing a task including what resources would be needed, had been revised. In my simple mind, some administrative butter bar or Captain in the military’s chain of command examined a carefully drafted tactical operations plan in order to make the decision to approve or deny it. I didn’t realize that in the next few seasons, some significant considerations would take place in public spaces. For example, when at the ‘circle bar’, on the casino floor of the Venetian, several ex-Special Forces operators attempted to recruit preselected cohorts for a significant unofficial clandestine action dubbed Operation Gideon. 

‘Circle bar' had been an offsite meeting place during most of my visits to Shot Show: the largest firearms convention in the US. Often a site for discussions for new business relationships between some of the show’s vendors, fresh marketing ideas, or even the unofficial disclosure of proprietary product information, it provided a semi-private escape from the masses. But could it serve as a location for openly discussing operational security for what should be classified material? It seemed my understanding of a CONOP and information normally reserved for a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) deserved to be redefined. Veterans, as dynamic as I thought the group was, were changing the way operations were being planned and executed, using a grassroots or decentralized method. What impressed me was the sheer patriotic and/or monetary motive of SOF veterans determined to change the geopolitical conditions that did not favor the old American method of democracy and freedom.

Andrew Coussens Operation Gideon Decentralized CONOP

Bryan and I stood apart in one of the vacant upper levels of the Las Vegas Airport’s parking garage, holding tightly to the leads of our Dutch Shepherds.

“The stakes might be high but the payout’s worth it.”  Bryan said, his voice reverberating off the low concrete ceiling.

Bryan was a trusted friend, former Ranger and Special Forces Diver, who had been contacted by someone looking for seasoned operators. The scene looked more like a hastily scheduled dog fight than an airport pick up.

“Who’s the client?’ I asked, persistently.

The look on Bryan’s face betrayed his anxiety over the opportunity. I know he wanted to open the flood gates and boast about the proposed secretive mission that could change his economic disposition tremendously. I wanted that for him. Like most veterans, he had been through marital and financial ups and downs since his separation from the army. Like many ex-operators, Bryan also wanted to stay relevant after leaving a tactical environment and found himself floundering about in stateside jobs.

“Can’t tell you any more than I have, brother.”

He had told me just enough to pique the interest of someone who held a Top Secret Security Clearance and was still in the pipeline for occasional security contractor deployments.  Bryan’s opportunity consisted of an incursion into foreign soil, somewhere in the southern hemisphere; I managed to get that much. There were a few hotspots in South America, most notably Venezuela, but I couldn’t even get that specific location out of him. We were both due at Shot Show at the Sands Expo and the largest vehicle that I could procure, a Chevy Suburban, awaited us and our two alpha, driven, and adversarial working dogs. 

Operation Gideon arrested
Prensa Presidencial – Government of Venezuela, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

As it turned out, later that Spring, Operation Gideon was an abject failure that netted those involved lengthy sentences in Venezuelan prison after they were captured. A quick examination of the failed operation revealed gaping security lapses (besides circle bar meetings) and a hasty launch in hopes of a large payday based on the reward for President Maduro’s capture. Luckily Bryan had turned down the offer. Just when I felt confident that informal strategic planning had no place outside secure military or government facilities, the fall of Kabul brought many veterans and contractors back together again. This time it was to conduct a rescue operation for numerous American lives put at risk by controversial foreign policy decisions. The fall of Afghanistan had overwhelmed the American trained Afghan National Army who all but capitulated to the Taliban as they overran the country, including Kabul, the capital.

Twenty-four hours after Kabul fell, the media disclosures started pouring out about American citizens and assets trapped in and around the city. Former associates, contacts, and friends of the special operations and intelligence variety began deliberating on how they might contribute to the rescue efforts using encrypted messaging apps. Without compensation being a factor, the ideas flowed and I, like most of the others contributing to the discussion, got sucked into the arousing idea of operating on the ground in Kabul once again.

As an impromptu and informal CONOP was in development by multiple players with variable backgrounds over a phone app, many of us soon realized our biggest logistical hurdle: getting a flight into an airport that had been overrun by Americans and refugees looking to flee the country. At the time, virtually no US security apparatus was in place, all while the Taliban and ISIS threat continued to encircle the exposed airport. The odds seemed insurmountable. A former teammate, friend, and character inspiration for my fiction novel, call sign Loki, was already flipping through his mental Rolodex for pilots or contacts who owned or operated aircraft. Another associate with a background in signals intelligence was setting up an impromptu TOC or Tactical Operations Center on his own network at home, compiling names and locations of US citizens still trapped in the country. 

Andrew Coussens A Failed Stated Author

No sooner had I begun to mentally scour my list for contacts who would be interested in hastily forming a team to begin the arduous work of extracting Americans from Kabul than I came across a social media post from a trusted associate named Aaron Epstein of Global Surgical Medical Group. Aaron had started a GoFundMe to raise money for a Boeing 737 to insert into Kabul, and hopefully fill the seats with trapped Americans. As fast as developments were on the ground, numerous players were committed to meeting the tactical and logistical objectives to help.

To make matters even more challenging, the US military was set to pull out on the 30th of August, barely 5 days from the jointly constructed CONOP. Operationally grounded as I contracted COVID, the GoFundMe raised considerable money but fell short of the cost of a 737. The resources combined through the decentralized CONOP allowed others (including Loki) to work their way in-country independently and link up with a task force of veterans responsible for a multitude of rescues.  Regardless, a jointly crafted and informal CONOP was victorious enough to make a notable difference in the lives of many Americans and Afghanistan allies, giving me renewed faith that decentralized tactical planning can fit outside the box I always thought was required for successful operations. Social media, encrypted apps, and email communication had become the new and tested way of drawing from a myriad of mixed resources and mission planning, effectively challenging the old method of waiting for the chain of command to laboriously approve plans and ideas.

[Photography Courtesy of Andrew Coussens.]

Andrew Coussens Operation Gideon Decentralized CONOP

About the Author

Andrew Coussens is a former intelligence contractor, owner of Forward Movement Training and author of the novels A Failed State and Relapse: The Cost of War.

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