CIA Operation BG/Fiend
The first major CIA paramilitary operation took place 71 years ago.
The joint Anglo-American Operation known as BG/FIEND was the first major CIA paramilitary action to attempt to roll back the Soviet Iron Curtain on June 22 of 1949. The plan aimed to remove the Communist government of Albania. The well-entrenched Enver Hoxha was a revolutionary resistance leader who had climbed the ranks and became the Communist dictator. With Soviet support, he was able to fortify his position, politically and militarily.
The commitment and support from Soviet measures supported by consistent supply and maintenance of a 65,000-man army and 15,000- security forces acted as an unmatchable adversary. The Soviets had seen Albania as a base of strategic importance, valuing its geographic use. Therefore, the Soviets poured humanitarian aid and heavily committed to Albanian forces. They provided more than 250,000 tons in supplies in the first seven months of 1949. This included military aid consisting of artillery, tanks, and military vehicles. The humanitarian approach was just as significant as tons of wheat stockpiles were provided. This sought to mitigate any unpopularity with the current regime and keep the citizens from pursuing revolt if things were to go south for Hoxha. Thus, the U.S. created several objectives to counter the Soviet presence and operations within Albania and the surrounding region.
The prevention of Soviet accessibility to the ports, especially the ones located on the Adriatic proved to be crucial in maintaining naval supremacy for the U.S. in the Mediterranean.
This entailed U.S. many strategic objectives for American security interests. The first was containing the Soviets and pushing them back to their own accord. Secondly, the economic interests of controlling trade routes in warm-water ports were also incredibly important. Finally, the global interest in securing geostrategic objectives while dealing a psychological blow to the Soviets was crucial. This would reflect the powerful ideology of superior American power.
The plan was brought to the table by the British later in the year of 1948 and resulted from Albanian military aggression as British warships had been harassed and were fired upon, resulting in the mining and sinking of two British vessels in the Corfu Channel. This along with the continued rejection to accept an International Court of Justice decision against Albania in regard to the Corfu Channel aggression enraged the British even further. Consequently, Britain sought U.S. aid. A delegation was sent, and the U.S. happily agreed to kill two birds with one stone. They would remove Hoxha and rolling back the curtain. As a bonus, they would also test out the CIA’S regime change strategies and capabilities. After all, they say, practice makes perfect.
The plan was to use Albanian exiles to mount the operation and form a paramilitary force.
In Paris on August 26 , the Albanian exile commander held a meeting detailing the concepts and declared the creation of an Albanian National Committee.
In a CIA report, it concluded that “the possibility of foreign intervention in conjunction with widespread popular unrest and anti-government hostility… represents a serious threat to the regime” .
For the former to occur, the Albanians needed to be unified, setting aside their differences among each other and form a unified Albanian force.
This desired strong characteristics of management and cohesiveness rather than quarreling over their differences, in other words, they had bigger fish to fry.
The cohesiveness of the Albanian exile force paired with military, humanitarian, and logistical aid from the U.S. or the British would increase the likelihood of success for the objective of a successful mission. The recruitment of the exiles was difficult because they couldn’t set aside their political differences and complicated the recruitment process by requiring strict quotas. About 80 percent were drawn from the Balli Kombetar and King Zog factions as they were the most popular, while the rest was composed of the less prominent political factions. BG/FIEND had been a poorly planned and executed operation. Moreover, it lacked a strong foundation from the beginning, and the resources consumed were great and the CIA was starting to get impatient. Yes, the benefits of achieving a possible regime change along with intelligence gathering, harassment of the Hoxha regime, practice for the CIA at the cost of no CIA Case Officers were minor gains yet quite useful.
However, the chance of escalation was too high, WWII had come to a close in 1945, and the dust was still settling.
The U.S. also understood that they needed to fully commit and provide full air support if the exiles were to be given a chance, but it wasn’t going to happen.
The inability of the U.S. to fully commit and their premature launch of an exile force without the full support of and unison of the Albanian people led to the failed operations that followed.
The U.S. policy implemented on the ground was not successful and many men and resources were lost. The U.S. suffered significant losses with minimal or no gains. For instance, the BKI operations which strung out from February of 1949 to August of 1951 were sloppy and resulted in many casualties. A total of seventeen agents divided into four task forces were sent to Albania, one of the teams had conducted operations for about seven months, with the two other units continued on for nineteen months. The fourth team that was air-dropped landed in the north of Albania and had remained in the area of operation for an undocumented amount of time of only which can be described as “several months.” The inability to supply the fourth team adequately due to being engaged in skirmishes with the opposing security forces led to the team’s demise as four of its five members were eventually killed while the fifth was captured after being badly wounded. In another instance, a number of other agents were killed in the field, and a significant number of locally-recruited supporters died on duty as they assisted the BKI teams.
The remaining three north Albanian teams had faced several problems still, despite gathering support for their operations, Team One was able to recruit a significant force of 120 armed supporters.
A team leader proclaimed that nothing could be done if they weren’t supplied properly with weapons, ammunition, and food rations.
Unable to meet these demands Team One fled to take shelter in Yugoslavia after spending about eight months in north Albania. The other teams, Two and Three had been supported by the locals as well and continued to maintain the flow of information concerning the capability of resistance in north Albania.
The conclusions from the on-ground feed were that anti-Communist forces were inefficient, steadily eliminated due to extensive escapes to Yugoslavia. The superiority of Hoxha’s forces was too great. The failures in the subsequent years of July 1951 botched operation who had groups parachuted into Albania and wiped out almost upon landing while others were brutally massacred as they were encircled in a house and killed. This reflected the fate of many Albanian opposition fighters.
All in all, the operations in Albania had been a failure of U.S. objectives. However, the CIA was able to use Albania as a proving ground to mount further operations. The chance of turning the tide when it came to rolling back Soviet support and influence in the Balkans presented itself as too great of an opportunity to pass up. The U.S. was willing to risk resources to a certain degree in attempting to achieve the goals, however, when push came to shove, the U.S. understood that in the long run, it would not be able to sustain the exile forces.
The exile forces knew that they were the guinea pigs and simply pawns in a geostrategic game of chess. The U.S. concluded that in the end, it was not possible to do without overt air and military support both from the U.S. and England. The local population wasn’t a significant force to achieve the objectives. The U.S. used this as a proving ground. This had showcased how difficult these regime changes were to successfully carry out as Iran and Guatemala had almost failed. So one could hope the lesson to be learned was to be less optimistic and more realistic.