Afghanistan: The Great Game Is Over

June 22, 2017–The bells are ringing, the lights flashing. The silver ball is disappearing between the flippers, now unable to knock it back into play. If you didn’t score high enough to become top dog you’re done. It’s one more major operational initiative down the drain. I’m referring to Afghanistan, and the pinball wizards of the White House and Department of Defense, who myopically never seem to see beyond their own rhetoric, or make strategic decisions based on real world conditions.

History, it is said, plays out the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. In Afghanistan we’re at the second stage. The first game went to the Afghan tribes–175 years ago in the Hindu Kush–when the Brits who were playing it failed to recognize the warning signs of widespread uprising. As a result their triumph in the first Anglo-Afghan war turned into military disaster when a British-Indian army tried to withdraw from Kabul in January 1842. Only a handful of troopers, maybe just one Englishman, survived the ambushes in the mountain passes as the army tried to edge past the insurgents and reach the relative safety of Jalalabad. The British failure had everything to do with failure to emplace an Afghani government acceptable to the tribes and their members.

American pundits today are fond of picturing Afghanistan as the nation’s longest war. We could actually have ended it over half a decade ago. Instead we have the generals mulling over whether to send three to five thousand extra troops to supplement the eight-thousand four-hundred we already have in the battle zone. Let’s review the bidding.

In 2009 new president Barack Obama ordered up a policy review for the war in Afghanistan. The scuttlebutt was he didn’t want to be visiting wounded GIs in hospital–he wanted to staunch the flow of casualties. Plus there were estimates the war might cost a trillion dollars over another ten years. At the time the Pentagon was offering another incremental troop increase. Prodded by Obama, they took up the field commander’s proposal for a “surge,” like the one that had been carried out in Iraq. General Stanley A. McChrystal, the field man, resisted doing anything by half. President Obama settled on McChrystal’s 40,000-man recommendation, but coupled it with a decision that eighteen months after the troops deployed, America would start to exit the war.

So the troops went in. Starting in 2011 the drawdowns began. Masses of equipment were brought out. Our NATO allies and other troop contributing countries among the ISAF command began to take the lead in the war, but also to conduct a parallel force reduction. Masses of equipment were brought out. More was designated surplus and handed over to the Afghanistan government forces we had been supporting.

That would have been the “clean” withdrawal. The surge buying a decent interval so Afghanistan could get its affairs in order and beat the insurgents. But the allies–who included the British, back for a fresh pinball game–had never solved the political equation. And the generals–primarily Americans–could not put down the game, plumping for a residual force to continue supporting the Afghan military and conduct a core program of commando strikes. As the country’s situation deteriorated, the generals convinced President Obama to slow the rate of withdrawal. His administration ended with 8,400 instead of 5,500 troops still on the Hindu Kush. In addition to everything else, we are well on the way to reaching the trillion dollar mark that Mr. Obama feared spending there by 2019.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, caught within a complex mosaic of tribal loyalties, could not build a unified polity. His government, perched atop a warlord system, always functioned to favor one or another faction. Karzai, on the CIA’s payroll for $1 million a month, used the money to play favorites. Recognizing elements in U.S. tactics that were most objectionable to Afghans, Karzai increasingly denounced, then forbade, U.S. night raids and air strikes.

Allied strategy, which resisted anything that could be termed “nation building,” contributed little to building Afghan institutions. Karzai has left the Afghan government corrupted, and his successors could not even form a government until months of conversations brought forth an uneasy compromise. President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun, has never honored commitments made to Vice-President Abdullah Abdullah, a Tadjik. Recent Ghani moves against one governor (read warlord), Rashid Dostum, demonstrate his desperation. Ghani’s decision to permit the return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another figure from the warlord era, show his increasing political isolation. Afghan politics is swiftly returning to the modalities of the early 1990s, when warlords fighting among themselves permitted the Taliban to take over in the first place.

The allies resisted efforts to settle the conflict by negotiation during the “surge” period of ascendency, then encouraged them when the Taliban enemy grew increasingly powerful–and less willing to talk. As U.S. and ISAF troop strength progressively diminished a new phenomenon arose–insider attacks by soldiers of our Afghan army or police. No doubt there are a certain number of Taliban infiltrators in the Afghan national army, but the spectacle of the foreign power that came in, mobilized Afghans to its will, and now leaves them before an implacable Taliban is a sufficient motive. Over the past few months insider attacks have been the main cause of U.S. casualties. Afghan government forces are increasingly reluctant to fight. The dependence on Afghan special operations forces now becomes questionable when the latest insider attacks come from within their ranks.

The Taliban have had some problems of their own, most recently the challenge from an even more lethal offshoot of the ISIS/ISIL “caliphate” front. But either faction will fight, and the Afghan government has been losing ground steadily. Towns have been captured and held. The war is no longer an affair of posts and police stations. The insurgents are now believed to have a foothold in more than half of Afghan villages. Dangers became plain early in June when powerful car bombs exploded in the most heavily-guarded sector of Kabul, the diplomatic quarter. Almost two hundred were killed and five hundred wounded. Afghans marched in protest of their own government’s failure to protect them–whereupon government troops opened fire on the crowd, killing, among others, the son of a senior parliamentarian. Taliban bombers struck again at the funeral marches for some of these victims, inflicting yet more casualties in the heart of Kabul. In short, national authority appears to be collapsing before our eyes.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress last week that the U.S. has not been winning in Afghanistan. That is  true. So true that the Trump White House is giving the Pentagon the liberty to decide for itself what to do in the war. President Trump wants nothing to do with the next decision on Afghanistan. Little wonder. At a certain point the U.S. residual force there will become a target in its own right. A Mattis incremental reinforcement, even 5,000, won’t make a difference. If the U.S. could not grind a weakened Taliban into the ground with 140,000 American and ISAF troops, ten or fifteen thousand will accomplish little more than to make a more lucrative target for a surging enemy. It could be like the British in the Hindu Kush in 1842. Folly follows tragedy.

Spooks Gone Wild !!

October 29, 2016–By now you would have to be an ostrich out in the Australian outback with her head in the sand not to have heard the latest blast from the Federal Bureau of Investigation–the FBI is re-opening the Hillary Clinton email case on the strength of unspecified, mysterious, material allegedly found on laptop computers shared by Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her separated husband, Anthony Weiner. This requires comment, both in particular and from a broad perspective. Sadly, my house requires upkeep and painting, and I’ve not been able to spare the time the latest horror deserves, but let me put in a few words now. My guess is this story continues to spiral out of control and will be there for further comment in coming days, even weeks.

First of all, the Bureau was investigating Anthony Weiner, not Hillary at all. Of course, it was inevitable, in these last days of a presidential election, where the underdog has been desperately trying to use the Clinton email secrecy issue as a claw to recover lost ground, that a blow struck at Weiner/Abedin would reverberate as a shakedown of Clinton. The Trump campaign is taking it precisely that way. If FBI director James B. Comey thought it would be taken any other way he is foolish–and no one thinks that of him.

So, why this? Why now? Director Comey has been under strong fire from Republicans for, supposedly, shielding Clinton in the original investigation, which found the issue did not merit additional investigation. To revive the investigation might get the FBI a little credit, and at this time in a critical political campaign, a lot of ground with Republicans. The timing is doubtless partly due to this, partly due to the discovery on computer drives seized from Weiner of the Abedin/Clinton material. Comey probably calculated that if he delayed action, that fact was sure to leak, adding to FBI’s political problems. Unfortunately by the action he took, Comey buys into an even bigger problem.

I’ll return to the specifics of the secrecy investigation in a moment, but first a crucial point absolutely needs making: the “October Surprise” revival of the Clinton email investigation absolutely insures that, whoever wins the election, it will be followed by a purge of the intelligence community. Ms Clinton will be furious at the way FBI handled this matter. Comey’s tenure at the Bureau expires in the middle of the next president’s presumptive second term and you can be certain he’ll be unable to protect anyone the White House decides to go after. Comey himself will be frozen out of the halls of glory. If Donald Trump becomes the next president, he will purge because he’ll know that whoever fixed the cards against Hillary can tell that story on him, representing an incredible political danger. Plus, the unnamed culprits could do the same to the Donald, so they must be stamped out.

Yet I say purge of the whole intelligence “community.” That is the entity of sixteen agencies (or however many there are today) under their Fearful Leader, General James Clapper. In Spanish there is a slang word, flojo, literal meaning “flimsy” but used for pathetic weakness. Clapper’s “leadership” falls in that category. Running around with his hair on fire about North Korean missile tests and ISIS militants under every rug, Fearful Leader first casts our own intelligence officers as the greatest danger to American national security, and then he stands aside while James Comey takes an action that undoubtedly does affect national security. Obama was wrong not to get rid of Clapper when Fearful Leader escalated the NSA blanket surveillance scandal by perjuring himself before Congress. Now Clapper has been ineffectual in the face of an FBI action that may derail the prospects of Obama’s favored successor. Add to that that Clapper is unable to energize the CIA to do anything useful in the real ISIS war, in Syria, and you have an intelligence mess across the board.

There’s more painting to do and I have to go. But before I leave, a few words about the actual stimulus here. Director Comey does not know there’s any problem here. He supposes that because the computer was, in part, used by Huma Abedin, it may contain some of the same emails that have figured in the controversy over the Clinton emails and their classification status. Even if so, where’s the beef? For there to be a secrecy issue at all, Hillary Clinton needs to have sent emails with secret information from the Abedin/Weiner computer to another link that was not secure. Message traffic that is retrospectively graded secret does not count. Messages that copied Abedin at this address along with sending to her at other places (ever done that?) do not count. Messages that Abedin sent Hillary do not count. Messages that were mistakenly addressed do not count.

Readers of this space will know I have said repeatedly that the email controversy shows that the security regulations need to change once the system becomes so awkward a senior official cannot function without breaking the regs. This business of the alleged security violation over a secondary computer shows exactly what I mean. It becomes impossible to conduct the business of government this way. The system needs to change.

The Spooks & Trump–No Match Today

August 20, 2016–By now you will have heard that this past week presidential candidate Donald Trump received his first intelligence briefing from America’s top spy organs, led by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). You’ve probably also heard what Trump had to say going in about how he trusts our spooks: “Not so much from the people that have been doing this for our country. I mean, look what’s happened over the last ten years. Look what’s happened over the years. It’s been catastrophic. And, in fact, I won’t use some of the people that are sort of your standards . . . because they’ve made such bad decisions.”

On the other side you have former senior CIA officials like Michael Morrell saying the country cannot afford to have Donald Trump for its president, or agency director Michael Hayden insisting that if Trump is in charge and wants to carry out his promise to torture people, he’ll have to bring his own bucket.

This is really quite an odd circumstance. Think about it. Mr. Trump has based his entire campaign on selling fear, the fear of an existential threat from which only he can rescue the nation. Meanwhile our intelligence community has been selling fear also. The continuing terrorist threat and so on, so much so that in this space we have taken to calling the present DNI, General James Clapper, our Fearful Leader (and Michael Hayden–who devoted his tenure at CIA to an attempt to preserve the torture program– a fabulist). That sides with such comparable worldviews eye each other so darkly says something about the reality of the United States today.

First to Trump. Take his ten year standard. Actually you can do better and go back to September 11, 2001. No American has died on U.S. soil from an islamist terrorist attack since then. There have been a host of remote conversions and gun massacres, from Orlando to San Bernardino, to Aurora; but it remains debatable whether those represent disturbed individuals grabbing the cloak of jihadist justification or true terrorists. There have also been an even larger number of cases where weak individuals have been converted in entrapment schemes by our own security services and then condemned as terrorists. If Trump’s point is that the FBI and others made dubious decisions in those cases, he’d be right, but somehow I don’t think so. He would also be right if he meant the intel pukes miscalled the growth of ISIS, or Iran’s alleged rush to the bomb, but that’s not Trump either–he is about threat to the homeland. Anyway, bottom line is that on his decade-long measure of merit, intelligence performance has not been “catastrophic.”

As for the spooks themselves, it is a matter of both relief and concern that they speak up about the Trump candidacy and his specter of fear. The intelligence chieftains’ protests give us relief because they show the spies themselves recognize the danger inherent in the stoking of paranoid fears, and they agree that Trump, as the personification of that irrationality, would be dangerous in the White House. But the spooks themselves seem not to understand that their own fear-mongering created the atmosphere of hysteria in which a Donald Trump could flourish.

Suddenly the spies find themselves in a situation where Mr. Trump could actually become President of the United States. And the Donald has promised to sweep their halls clean of the old spooks if he wins. Fearful Leader and the others ought to have thought long ago about the consequences of their fear-mongering.

Belgium on My Mind

March 26, 2016–The ISIS/ISIL terrorism story is moving quickly in the wake of this past week’s bombings in Brussels. I haven’t the time to write much but here are two quick points:

A lot is being made of supposed gaps in Belgian security, failure to prod the Abdeslam character on his knowledge of future attacks as if that were an intelligence failure. The truth is we’re talking apples and oranges. Police apprehended Abdeslam and the Belgians and French are building a criminal case against him. By definition that is a police matter. The nature of police work is that it is backward-looking, and oriented to legal action. Intelligence attempts to peer into the future. This is not an intelligence failure, it is an inevitable consequence of the orientations of different kinds of activity. I bet you Abdeslam, if only to brag, said something about the Paris attacks. Had he been shaken down first from the intelligence perspective, he would have clammed up (as he did in the event), and the Belgians would have gotten nothing out of him on any matter.

Also important is that Belgian intelligence and police action has evolved past the point where Abdeslam’s knowledge or lack of it is relevant. They have leads on other suspects, have already taken down different elements of the terrorist network, and are moving on from there.

Second point. Today’s speculation is about threats to Belgian nuclear plants. Some of the writing is breathless, as if a bunch of terrorists can waltz into a nuclear plant, extract a pile of uranium, and explode an atomic bomb. That’s highly unlikely. Apart from the fact that nuclear plants tend to have good security, the fact is that nuclear fuel elements are set into the reactors or held under a highly regimented (and secure) regime to protect from radiation leakage. Extracting fuel would require expert knowledge. Making nuclear fuel into a bomb would also require specialized knowledge. And equipment.

It’s not clear that an atomic bomb is attainable as a practical matter. A “dirty bomb,” in which radioactive material is used in a bomb in the same fashion as nails or shrapnel, is the more likely possibility. Either way, the radioactive material broadcasts its own energy signature so our terrorist would be in a race with security services looking for that giveaway.

The most likely scenario–if any of this should be regarded as at all probable–is an action designed to cripple a nuclear reactor in place, in effect, to trigger a Chernobyl or Fukushima. While an event such as that is certainly highly dangerous and would inflict grave damage, it is also within the range of failure modes which authorities have long considered possible, and presumably for which they have prepared contingency plans. I recognize this is a wish and a prayer, and that like many contingency plans, everything may go wrong when the moment for implementation comes, but this is a whole lot less dangerous than the specter of an atomic bomb exploding in a major city. Let’s try and keep some perspective here.

If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Brussels

March 23, 2016–Once again events cry out for people the world over to stand in unity with a nation afflicted by a damaging terrorist attack. This time the locale was Brussels and the target transportation, specifically the airport and the Brussels metro. At this writing, casualties from the atrocious attacks stand at more than 31 dead and 300 injured, but that is sure to increase. I wanted to post something yesterday, in the moment, but I happened to be out of pocket and without access.

In America’s heartland for a speaking engagement, then at the airport for the plane home, and here at a bar awaiting an evening reception, there was unusual opportunity to observe–not only the horrifying events but the operation of the 24/7 news cycle, particularly television broadcasters. I don’t think it was pretty.

The TV people have a certain number of correspondents stationed in key places, and some others who focus on particular subjects. Broadcast news functions by pulling these people into the action while meanwhile surging other reporters into the area. Big Name moderators of shows also go to the scene–or not, as in this case, where a number of Big Names were in Cuba for President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Havana, and found themselves broadcasting full time coverage of Brussels from a Caribbean island. To supplement the Big Names and the reporters, news stations bring in commentators–who often have knowledge of the general subject, but lack any specific information beyond what the journalists themselves possess.

An important preliminary point is that the reporters, like all the public, are dependent on information handed out by authorities. The Belgian police and civil officials quite early put a lid on news releases. Subsequently they even asked media to refrain from reporting details that might reveal where authorities were focusing their investigation. Add to that the five-hour time difference between Brussels and even the United States east coast and the fact situation was this: incidents that occurred during pre-dawn hours U.S. time were under a news embargo at a moment U.S. broadcasters were filling the air with Brussels.

What resulted was an extravaganza of repetition and an exhaustion of insight, plus a premature rush to judgment that is almost certainly wrong. Much too frequently the reporters were “interviewing” each other, journalists barely arrived on-scene were described as assiduously “working their sources” when most likely they had none to speak of, and commentators were retailing draconian measures, egged on by Big Names, without any consideration of the practical.

With time to fill and drama to create, for example, multiple broadcasters repeatedly cited the contents of an Islamist safehouse raided last week as evidence of a far reaching plan for new attacks on top of the ones in Paris on November 13, 2015. What was this deadly arsenal? One AK-47, a certain amount of a type of plastique common in suicide vests, some detonators, and an ISIS flag. Someone in this apartment could have fashioned a bomb, but they had yet to stockpile the munitions for a war–and there were hardly the weapons to defend against an assault they had to know would come with overwhelming deadly force.

The lone survivor of the Islamists who carried out the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, escaped when this apartment was raided, and phoned ahead to warn comrades. As it happened he phoned someone the Belgian police were already watching, immediately putting himself back on the grid for authorities. His capture followed.

At that point others in the network were on notice that time had run out. The Paris attacker would be interrogated. He might blab, but that almost didn’t matter–modern forensics, applied to the first apartment, as well as to the one where Abdeslam was captured, and to the computers and phones found there, and on the persons of each subsequent suspect, would inevitably lead to the files, addresses, and indications of network members. Each one captured would provide a jumping-off position to reach for another.

The scenario that makes the most sense for what happened in Brussels is: remnants of a network, understanding they are about to be run down, lash out to inflict the maximum of damage they can manage before their chances for martyrdom are taken away from them. The actual targeting of the Brussels bombs is consonant with that scenario–militants attacked the airport, and their chieftain, who had accompanied them as insurance, left on the subway, dropping a bomb as he got away. The hour that passed between the different bombings is also consistent with travel from the airport to the city center. This was most likely an act of desperation.

Broadcast news has it that a long-planned terrorist “offensive” was accelerated due to the Abdeslam capture, and that the militants struck targets off their list. There is am element of revenge against the authorities for the take-down of a terrorist leader. The implication is opposite to the scenario described above–here we watch the unleashing of an extended bombing campaign.

Time will tell which of these visions is accurate. But what broadcasters said yesterday was all too reminiscent of September 11, 2001, when television went on and on about a terrorist offensive when what had occurred was a carefully prepared one-off operation. The television yapping does the public a disservice, adding to hysterical tendencies, and inviting the sorts of intelligence and security surveillance that saps liberty and ends democracy. When that happens the terrorists will have won after all.

 

FBI/NSA/KGB: Obama Crosses the Line

February 20, 2016–President Barack Obama dropped his veil this week, lending White House support to the misguided and dangerous push from James Comey, the FBI and Justice Department, and law enforcement generally, to obtain entry into individuals’ private information. This time we’re not talking phone numbers, “metadata,” and private records–although that is the excuse. We’re talking about nothing less than the creation of a tool that will permit 24/7 surveillance of anyone, anytime, in real time as well as in retrospect. This is scary, ghastly, sinister, put on it any adjective you want.

Readers of this space will know we’ve been following the electronic surveillance issue. We’ve commented in the past about how our fearful leaders– no longer just James Clapper the DNI, but Comey the DirFBI, John Brennan the DCIA, and Mike Rogers the DirNSA–have spoken with forked tongues. Barack Obama made plenty of concessions to them, and this week the White House went all in. Obama has drunk the koolaid. We’re headed toward abuses of the sort documented so sordidly in The Family Jewels.

Let’s dispense with the foolish excuses first. Ostensibly the FBI needs cellphone access to the devices used by San Bernardino murderers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik as part of its investigation into their December killing spree now understood as an ISIS terrorist attack. Farook and Malik were killed in a shootout with authorities within hours of their attack. They are not going to be shooting anyone now. Nor does the FBI need evidence for a trial. In terms of linking the two to Farook associates, the FBI seized direct evidence with a search warrant just the other day. The phones will be no help there.

The New York City Police Department entered the ring on Thursday with a claim that it has been denied access to some 175 communications devices. Sounds like a lot until you put it into the context of how many cases the NYPD has open at the moment.

The real questions are proportionality and privacy. Authorities want to use these cases as a lever to force the technology companies to furnish them tools with which they can access all manner of devices. In the San Bernardino case the Apple Corporation is resisting, including resisting the court order the FBI obtained.

The Department of Justice snidely asserts that Apple is using its resistance to the FBI as a marketing tool. Maybe that’s true–but the term “marketing tool” applies only because of previous actions of both the FBI and NSA, which violated the privacy of millions of individuals everywhere. Apple and other corporations woke up to realize that, absent the installation of encryption, their products were on the way to the junkpile.

Apple’s stance may be bogus, but the security agencies are being positively mendacious. There is little investigative value to be gained from the phone devices at issue in this court order. But there is enormous value (not investigative, but intelligence value) in gaining access to the backdoor software that will enable entry into millions of devices. That is, until the world abandons American-owned technology corporations in pursuit of ones which offer more secure products. Here’s where proportionality comes in: at issue is the record of every person’s contacts, the record of communications, the texts of messages sent from iphones or texting, the apps, the record of usage, increasingly bank records and other financial information–the Big Enchilada.

That’s way out of proportion to what the FBI can discover from Farook’s iphone.

You want to make America great again? Stop the hysteria, drop the pretense, tell the truth, restore privacy. The security agencies’ present course is an invitation for some very large businesses to leave the United States, impoverishing us all the more.

Do They Work for Us? (2)

November 20, 2015–Just a short thing today. John Brennan of CIA is getting much too much mileage out of his tirades on alleged “limits” curbing intelligence effectiveness. The fact is that, if there is blame to be assessed for the Paris (and other) attacks, it is to the CIA, U.S. and Western intelligence at large for failing to appreciate ISIS. The fact is that the Pentagon inspector general right now is engaged in an investigation of the degree to which senior officers at Central Command suppressed the views of intelligence analysts who warned of the morphing ISIS challenge. The New York Times has already carried several lengthy exposes of U.S. intelligence failures over ISIS. Only the reality that Mr. Brennan no longer heads all U.S. intelligence (he commands only the CIA) prevents his being directly responsible. But guess who is? That would be Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Fearful Leader. No doubt his consiglieri Robert Litt is getting ready to tell us that General Clapper was thinking of something else at the time.

Meanwhile, also since the Paris attacks, FBI chief James Comey has come out of the woodwork yet again to blame it all on encryption of telephone devices. Today’s Washington Post contains the latest round of charges but ends quite usefully by quoting a senior Silicone Valley executive who says the cellphone encryption programs were in development well before Edward Snowden’s leaks and had no impact on their introduction. Considering the time it takes to design, operationalize, and perfect a product, I have no difficulty believing that. The Snowden affair literally had nothing to do with the predicament the intelligence agencies find themselves in today. That’s worth keeping in mind.

And one more thing– where is the evidence–not just jeremiads but evidence–that the Paris attacks were planned using high level encryption programs? The shootout in which the terrorist Abbaaoud perished shows every sign of an incident in which security services had complete knowledge of their target, not likely if police had been stumbling around blindly.

Syria–Fools Rush In

November 16, 2015–Lots of you-know-what is flying in the wake of the ISIS attack in Paris. Here in the United States we have pundits speculating that how to deal with ISIS has supplanted all other issues in the political campaign for the next president. Mitt Romney, a loser in the last presidential race, advocates for “whatever it takes” to beat the hell out of the shadowy adversary. And here is James Clapper, our Director of National Intelligence, the Fearful Leader–who is now so afraid he’s willing to appear only as an anonymous source in the New York Times. The Paris attacks, Clapper says, are “a game changer.” He goes on, “We have to look hard at what happened in Paris, at the trajectory of the group and the potential threat it poses to the entire international community . . . . Paris shows that they can attack soft targets on any day, anywhere, including in any major American city.”

Clapper wants “a greater sense of urgency in how we go about trying to combat these kinds of attacks.” Great. The first thing we need is more forthrightness and much greater consistency. The intelligence official an anonymous source? As I’ve said before, Mr. Clapper is about scaring people. –And his “attack any day” comment does exactly that. But where is the consistency? The intelligence community said–and General Clapper has more recently denied–that CIA pulled people out of China after the Chinese hack of United States personnel records, which would have revealed the identities of CIA undercover agents who’d been issued security clearances. On ISIS more specifically, an investigation is currently underway into senior officers at Central Command suppressing intelligence of the surging radical group, substituting a complacent view instead.

As with the intelligence so with the policy. The United States was not going to intervene in Syria. Then it did. The U.S. was going to help Syrian defeat the Assad government. Then CIA and the Pentagon, each with their own programs, stopped short of providing effective aid out of fear of helping some other radical group. The U.S. professed itself to be against Assad but its strategy effectively helps him. President Obama denounces Assad’s chemical weapons and sets a red line where he’ll bomb if the Syrian government utilizes such munitions. Then Assad did that but Obama stayed his hand. Then, after not bombing, the U.S. begins to drop on Syria because of ISIS, not chemicals. More recently, with evidence ISIS has used chemicals, there has been no evident U.S. response. Washington declared it would send no troops to Syria. Another policy honored in the breach. And Obama pulled out of the Iraq war, so now he goes back in.

All this fighting has generated a massive wave of refugees, and at this writing it appears ISIS inserted some of its own militants into the flow. That’s a classic spook tactic which, if Fearful Leader did not expect it, then Clapper is even more of an idiot than I make him for. During the Cold War the Soviets and East Germans did that with the flow of displaced persons out of Eastern Europe and later East Germany. The Vietnamese inserted people in the refugee stream during the Southeast Asian troubles. The Soviets did that against the Afghan mujahedeen in the Afghan war of the 80s. Pakistanis have done it against the Indians and the Indians right back.

More useful is to unpack just what the potentialities are. The other day we asked if the various recent attacks were related–a multifront activity sort of like the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. That seems to be true. Evidence being uncovered in Paris right now is confirming the ISIS link of some of the militant attackers. We’re at the point that the fair assumption is that infiltrators are past the checkpoints and able to move about to targets. The ISIS propagandists have done a good job of radicalizing citizens of other countries in place. This has been looked at as a recruitment mechanism for the war in Syria, but it’s better as a tool for mobilizing in-place helpers for militant fighters entering for the next link in this unrolling overseas offensive. To the degree that Fearful Clapper’s maunderings mean anything this is it.

But there are important distinctions between now and then. This is not Tet. ISIS militants do not possess global logistics, global financing, or an in-place network of cadres the way these things existed across South Vietnam during the war there. That adds up to something more like a special operation–like 9/11–a one shot deal. Unlike Vietnam, the adversary cannot strike at will and repeatedly. Capabilities may differ in certain specific locales, places like Beirut or Cairo, perhaps France or Britain with the culture wars in those lands in recent years. More likely the capability, once used, will be expended.

Also probable is the expiration of “sleeper cells.” That is, the massive security crackdown that has already begun, in search of information, will haul in so many fish that the resulting data will reveal such capabilities ISIS may have in the West that were not employed in the Paris attacks. Some sleeper cells may survive the security blanket but the much greater likelihood is that such networks as ISIS may possess will be significantly degraded.

Finally, look at the nature of the “target set”–unfortunately harsh language that represents the way military planners view reality. Bars and restaurants, a music concert venue, a sports stadium. The Estade de France, the highest profile target, also had some defenses,  and there the militants failed completely. Places they succeeded had no protection at all. ISIS congratulates itself that it struck dens of iniquity, but the truth is it made lemonade out of lemons.

This is not the “game changer” that Fearful Clapper wants us to believe in. We are seeing a wave of one-off incidents, separated in time and locale, against innocents who bore no ill will. The most likely change in the game will be to stimulate political movements likely to demand intervention in Syria, or conversely to heat up culture wars in the West. Perhaps that is the true aim here. If so it is still misdirected, for Muslims oppressed as a result of resentments triggered by ISIS are just as likely to blame the Syrian militants.

Meanwhile, France has already made a start with a new wave of bombing in Syria. The United States will be right behind. Even Israel is jumping on the bandwagon, using the opportunity to curry favor with European states that have been scandalized by its policies in the Occupied Territories. But as discussed here on other occasions, the United States in particular, and the West in general, lack a coherent strategy that leads to an attainable goal in Syria. It is foolish to rush in without considering that. The other day I wrote that here it feels like the moment in the Vietnam war just before the Tonkin Gulf Incident, a time the pressure for escalation is palpable but the successful way forward is not. I want to repeat that judgment here.

 

The Attacks– Are They Connected?

November 14, 2015–Just the other day I was wishing a French friend “Happy Armistice Day.” Now I have to say, “Aujourd’hui nous sommes tous parisiens!” The drumbeat of senseless attacks is distressing. Our hearts go out to all French people, including Muslims, all African varieties, and Caribbbean and Indian-Pacific ones as well.

But I just want to raise the connectivity issue. The targets of all the recent attacks share one characteristic–they have acted against ISIS/ISIL.

The Russian airliner belonged to a country which, while primarily attacking other Syrian rebels, is supporting the Assad government, and that also means opposing ISIS. Indeed, just to look even-handed the Russians have run some of their strikes against ISIS targets.

Hezbollah in Lebanon, of course, intervened in Syria in favor of Assad and that puts them on the outs with ISIL. The bombings in Beirut a few days ago were aimed at suburbs where Hezbollah are dominant.

France is only the latest. The French took their first military actions just very recently. Considering the scouting, planning, and preparatory work which had to have gone into a simultaneous attack on multiple targets in Paris, ISIS must have been expecting the French to adopt the course they have, and must have begun preparations before the French did much in Syria. To come full circle, ISIS has now guaranteed that whatever misgivings the Hollande government might previously have had against intervening in Syria, these will be stilled.

Readers of this space will know that in the wake of the bombings in Istanbul which preceded the recent Turkish elections, I speculated the deep state might be responsible. The Erdogan government blamed ISIS. I will say it is true the targets of that bombing, the Kurds, are indeed involved against the islamists in Syria and Iraq both. Though I’m not yet fully convinced, in the context of the latest bombings it seems more plausible the Istanbul parade strike might have been ISIS-related.

Watch out for near-term terrorist actions against the United Kingdom, which has joined the Syrian alliance as well; the United States; and Iran, which backs the Hezbollah group. If ISIS were plotting a strategy to strike at each of its enemies, those are the missing ones.

 

Eyeless in Syria

November 5, 2015–Walter Pincus is a senior reporter for the Washington Post. He focuses on defense and intelligence matters. I met him one time, when we both shared a podium at the International Spy Museum. In small talk Mr. Pincus marveled at the ability of authors to wait months and years for their works to arrive in print. Pincus averred that he feels bereft if the paper appears without something from him in it.

The other side of that coin, though, is that when you publish something every day you end up stretching the material, and your ideas, and at some point you go beyond the pale. In the Post on November 3 there is an example. Pincus has an article which earnestly assures the reader that President Obama does have a strategy in Syria, and that there has always been such a strategy. Since 2011, Pincus declares, the strategy has been to end the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and in 2012 Mr. Obama added the use of force to degrade and defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). The Pincus doth protest too much.

These pious words obscure the incoherence of United States strategy in Syria. In the first place Pincus confuses goals with strategy. Both things that he names are aims of policy. Strategy is a means to achieve those aims. Since learning a few days ago that the U.S. will send some Special Operations Forces (SOF) to Syria I’ve been meaning to write something on this, and the Pincus story offers a good opportunity.

Mr. Pincus quotes a statement released from talks last week in Vienna among the warring Syrian factions (minus ISIS) which declares that the Syrian people will decide the future of their country. That indeed has been Obama’s stance, and it stands unchanged since the time of the Arab Spring. The problem has been that the Syrians proved unable to settle their future, deadlocked for long enough that outside forces like ISIS could create a foothold and then move to control Syria themselves.

President Obama’s response at every stage of the Syrian developments has been to increase the U.S. profile in hopes of empowering favored Syrian factions. First the encouragement of local allies. Then a CIA covert operation, then a Pentagon one, then the return of U.S. troops to Iraq, after that U.S. bombing, then the creation of a coalition to widen the action envelope, now the introduction of SOF into the area.

This ceased being all-Syrian action a long time ago. And actually this moment–even its Special Forces component–has the feel of Vietnam just before the Gulf of Tonkin. Then, in 1963-1964, you had the same phenomenon of an intractable situation, with U.S. officials and military people arguing that the more the United States could control actions the nearer we would get to our goals. This unilateral action strategy led to the infamous OPLAN 34-A, specifically designed to use SOF to disrupt the North Vietnamese adversary.

The problem in Vietnam, just as in Syria today, is that there is no charted avenue for U.S. actions to lead to Washington’s goals–hence the incoherence of strategy. In both cases, Washington’s response has been to escalate in hopes of success at a higher level of violence. The Syria imbroglio has led to widespread destruction and a wave of refugees fleeing the country. Let us hope that that tragedy leads to some deeper thinking in Western capitals, because so far this incoherent strategy has only brought a mess.