Stupid Foreign Policy = Damaged National Security

June 9, 2017–When President Donald J. Trump sashayed over to Europe on his first foreign trip, in this space we commented about the stupidity of the foreign policy. The context there primarily concerned NATO and how snubbing our great friends in the alliance was certainly not a good thing. Our coverage mentioned the fabulism involved in thinking that Israel and its Arab neighbors were moving along converging pathways. Now I want to return to the Middle East to show just how stupid all of this has been.

Let’s start with Syria. The cruise missile attack on the Russian-Syrian airbase has come and passed. As Jack Kennedy once said, it’s like taking a drink–after a while the effect wears off and you need another. Trump is there now. The U.S. is upping the ante, sending in more Special Forces for more active roles, and moving ahead with heavy arms for Syrian rebel troops. But since the target is ISIS, America is effectively ranging itself alongside the Syrian government (and against the rebels we are arming) and the Russians. This was a problem for Obama policy too–made in this space years ago now–but Trump has not solved it.

Next to Qatar. This one is all Trump. The president insists he encouraged the Saudis to act aggressively against supporters of terrorism. Saudi Arabia and a number of other locals–some of them on Trump’s travel ban list, by the way–joined together to ostracize Qatar. Now it happens that Doha, Qatar’s capital, is a main transit point for American soldiers headed for Afghanistan and a site for diplomatic contacts, with the Taliban, among others. Qatar also hosts Al Uedid, the major U.S. airbase from which the Syrian war is being conducted, as well as a sophisticated command center that wages it. Trump not only supports the Saudi initiative he went on twitter to claim credit for encouraging it. Saudi Arabia is angry at Qatar for supporting the other side in its Yemeni war. U.S. policy in that affair is completely at odds with our interests in Syria and Afghanistan.

Now Iran. The Trump-era CIA has just refashioned one of its mission centers to target Iran–with which we are supposed to be improving relations because they are keeping their side of the nuclear bargain (something the U.S. concedes). Worse, ISIS is now attacking Iran too. So, in Iran Mr. Trump now has the United States allied with ISIS?

President Trump’s grasp of American national interests is so tenuous that policy careens from pillar to post. Stupid foreign policy damages U.S. security.

[EDITOR: This piece was actually written to appear before the “update” on this website but it appears the posting instructions were entered incorrectly. Sorry!]


CIA: Do They Work for Us?

November 17, 2015–Readers here will have seen me from time to time lamenting the antics of people like Fearful Leader–Director of National Intelligence James Clapper–or agencies such as the CIA and NSA. It’s time to do it again today. It seems the security services have forgotten that they work for the American people, and not the other way around. Let’s be certain no mistake is made here.

Yesterday at a Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CIA director John O. Brennan used the occasion of the Paris attacks to make strident demands for new powers of investigation, intrusive and insistent. It is stunning–and shabby– that the CIA director should use the tragedy of the Paris attacks to advance these demands. They involve a question already asked and answered. There was a presidential decision. It went against the CIA. Who does Brennan work for?

I let pass an opportunity to comment some weeks ago, when the current FBI director, James Comey, went around demanding that the NSA and FBI be given the power to dictate encryption standards for communication devices, or at a minimum that the security services have a “back door” built into encryption programs so they can surreptitiously read messages people think are secure. I thought the issues had been thoroughly aired in the debate after the Snowden affair. Congress has passed a law. In the last week the Courts have again ruled the NSA eavesdropping unconstitutional. And even President Obama, friend of the intelligence agencies, ruled against Comey’s demands.

Then come the Paris attacks. Yesterday I commented on Fearful Clapper latest mongering. Afraid even to reveal his name, Mr. Clapper set the stage for Brennan’s CSIS appearance, and his remarks spy chieftain Brennan presses for the same things Comey did. As if the decision had not already been made. As if CIA can force Obama to reopen the question. As if the security services can reargue any issue until it comes out the way they want. It’s the same arrogance CIA displays over declassifying its dirty laundry on torture.

At Reuters I posted a piece on manhunts in the wake of Paris. There is good reason to suppose the attacks will end up damaging the jihadi perpetrators far more than the French republic.  This is with only the presently-existing techniques. (And, indeed, I am not aware the security services, U.S. in particular, are short of any technology or authority they need to find the bad guys.) Do not listen to the fear mongers!

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.

We’re All Kurds Now!

October 10, 2015–Many readers will have heard of the horrors in Ankara today, where bomb blasts ambushed protesters gathering to march for peace. The marchers represented Turkish progressive political factions and the majority-Kurdish political group People’s Democratic Party, HDP by its Turkish initials, which is a united front grown from the Kurdish national movement. The toll from the bomb blasts–already nearing a hundred with twice that number of wounded–is the largest in recent Turkish history. As needed to be said after the appalling attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdromedaire this past January, “We are all Kurds now!”

This is especially true for Americans. Evolving events in the Middle East are placing Americans–all Americans–in a false position and light.

Americans deplore the violence and political insanity in Syria, making so many of its citizens refugees to flee the country. United States policy on Syria has been to encourage the departure of its leader Hafez al-Assad, helping to arm rebels who fight him. But our main activities in Syria right now, including the most vigorous military activities conducted by the U.S. today, are aimed at the rebel group ISIS/ISIL that, like us, opposes Mr. Assad. We also oppose other anti-Assad groups because we view them as linked to Al Qaeda. The net effect is to prolong the Syrian war, increase the toll of dead, lengthen the casualty lists, and generate more refugees.

Washington deplores the rise of Russian action in Syria. Vladimir Putin’s government has put boots on the ground and actually sent troops, tanks, and planes to Syria. Like us, the Russians say they are against ISIS. But their attacks have aimed primarily at the rebels we support, including those of the Kurdish minority, others trained by the CIA, and the broad range of anti-Assad rebels. If pressed the Russians will say they are merely carrying out long-standing commitments to the government of Syria. In that, at least, there is some consistency.

Back to the Kurds. Not so many months ago the ISIS rebels were pressing against Kurdish settlements that lie up against Syria’s border with Turkey. American airpower was important in holding back the ISIS attackers, and U.S. diplomatic pressure on Turkey helped in that nation’s decision to permit Kurdish volunteers from Iraq to march to the aid of their compatriots in Syria. The United States wanted Turkey in the fight against ISIS.

Now, the Turks. For longer than anyone cares to remember the Turkish government has considered its Kurdish minority as an enemy. The on-again, off-again conflict between Turkey and the Kurds a few years ago had seemed to have become muted. The HDP party, in fact, formed to create an avenue to incorporate Kurdish interests in the Turkish political discourse, and potentially offered a vehicle to integrate the two communities in important new ways. In June elections the HDP scored an upset, for the first time recording enough votes for Kurdish candidates to enter the Turkish national assembly.

Enter the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Several things about the Turkish government need to be noted. Number one, it has been losing the hearts and minds of its citizens. Its record of malfeasance and corruption has soured many Turks on Erdogan’s leadership and even his personal honesty. Ankara has been experiencing what Americans might call a “Watergate period,” in which a succession of revelations have ripped away the cloaks hiding the dark underbelly of the government. But so far Erdogan’s power has been enough to keep a grip, purging the police and military, and putting down the public demonstrations. Nevertheless, the June elections signaled his fragility, and another national vote is scheduled for next month.

Now to the security service. The National Intelligence Organization (MIT by its Turkish initials) appears to be under Erdogan’s solid control. Where Turkish intelligence had once been considered a military entity that is no longer true. Nearly 40 percent of MIT personnel were military assignees as of 1990. Today that figure is less than 5 percent. However, in Turkey the military had played a praetorian role and attempted to mediate between political factions. No longer. Mr. Erdogan’s political party was exceptional in Turkish politics for dispensing with a secular approach and openly siding with Muslim religious tendencies.

In terms of United States policies, Erdogan’s proclivities had no operational meaning until the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. Ankara no doubt appreciated that Washington’s desire to bring Turkey into its coalition for action on Syria gave it a certain freedom of action. The Erdogan government declared against ISIS. But most of the air strikes it carried out were against Kurds. Cooperation in helping the Kurds besieged along the border was desultory. And MIT? The Turkish spooks have variously been reported as running guns to ISIS, arresting border police who blew the whistle on that action, and even helping ISIS fundamentalists to get their prospective recruits from Turkey into Syria.

Early this year MIT warned of ISIS attacks against foreign embassies in Turkey. Toward summer there were several terrorist incidents in border towns, again attributed to ISIS. Ankara is already laying a basis for claiming fundamentalists carried out these bombings. But ISIS benefits from making attacks inside Turkey only to the degree its actions help the Erdogan government. If Turkish intelligence has been covertly assisting the fundamentalists they would be foolish to carry out actions that enrage Turks. More likely is an MIT-designed move to rekindle animosities between Turk and Kurdish ethnicities and blame it on the Syrian fundamentalists.

The United States, having encouraged Erdogan’s government to enter the Syrian conflict, now has its hands tied as the Turkish leader manipulates the ethnics and, in fact, objectively behaves in much the same way as Putin’s Russians whom President Obama loudly denounces. Stay tuned to what Washington has to say now. And American citizens need to say, “I am Kurd too!”

Winnability versus Balancing

September 5, 2015–As noted here the other day (“When is a War ‘Winnable,'” September 1) the operational method of remote/proxy war, as applied to Syria, is not likely to succeed. This is for a host of reasons. The ISIL adversary’s system is simply too distributed to be seriously impacted by isolated air strikes or drone attacks that hit at one or a few control nodes. The remote campaign lacks the weight required to inflict serious losses by itself on ISIL ground strength. The air campaign does not directly impact ISIL relations with the populations it controls, except to the degree that collateral damage drives Syrian citizens into the arms of the enemy.

More damage has been done to ISIL by the worldwide drop in oil prices than by the United States air campaign.

As for the ground effort, covertly arming anti-ISIL Syrians to fight the new enemy, President Barack Obama walked into that with his eyes open. He asked for–and the CIA produced–a study of past covert paramilitary operations. The secret study reportedly shows that the overwhelming majority of these projects fail, while those that succeed do so in unanticipated ways. These are not striking conclusions. I could have written them myself. In fact, I did. Twice. In the books Safe for Democracy a decade ago, and Presidents’ Secret Wars, reissued a decade before that, those were leading conclusions in both cases. No one should have needed spooks with crystal balls to have appreciated the obstacles to success.

Still, despite the cautions in the open literature and whatever wisdom his secret soothsayers imparted, President Obama went ahead with his campaign. On the ground he started up a paramilitary training activity, and had the CIA arm what we considered reliable Syrian resistance groups. This led to immediate difficulties. In Syria the Nusra Front, among the most successful of the partisans, is affiliated with Al Qaeda, America’s sworn enemy. To have any chance a Syrian resistance group must have some relationship with Nusra. There is also the issue of what weapons to give “our” partisans, starving as they are for food, medicine, and everything it takes to wage war. Some of our weapons will end up on the black market. Too potent and they will hand our own enemies a stinger. Too feeble and our partisans get nowhere. Which is, in fact, where they are. So Obama pulled in the Pentagon and had them fire up a parallel resistance training and arming activity. It has had equally poor results.

The most recent signs are of escalation. They involve the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). This past spring an Army Delta Force band (for more on Special Forces see  my recent book on this subject) inserted into Syria for a raid against a purported senior ISIL commander. He escaped, but his wife was apparently captured, along with computers and other records. The records and interrogations led to other attacks, and in recent weeks several top ISIL commanders have been blasted in drone strikes. This week, as I traveled to Chicago to give a talk, it emerged that JSOC has now been melded with the CIA–the agency’s Counter Terrorism Center is now supplying intelligence Targeting for JSOC drones. The administration describes this as an integration of the expertise of both services.

However successful, the drone attacks represent but a tiny fraction of the campaign. In Iraq there have been more than 4,000 air strikes in the year since this operation began. Cost is said to be $9.9 million a day, which would make it $3.6 billion so far. There have been 2,450 air strikes in Syria. Even at that cost, and counting all strikes in both countries, that amounts to an average of 17 aircraft flights per day, hardly enough to cover the territory much less exert significant weight of force. Increasing efficiency by employing JSOC and the CIA is working at the margins. The Pentagon and CIA covert ops are said to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s a fraction of the air campaign.

Mr. Obama cannot much increase the intensity of operations without engaging the war powers issue. Plus, we infer, the president is aware that as a covert operation the Syrian venture has little chance of success. So what’s up here?

Analysts of geopolitics used to talk about different approaches to power. One was “hegemonic,” a quest for total power or control–“winnability” or victory. Another was “balance of power,” the employment of quantities of force sufficient to prevent any of the warring factions from winning, in hopes the fighters will simply exhaust themselves. Mr. Obama may be engaged in precisely this sort of balancing act.

But balancing has consequences of its own. In the Syrian case, the conflict is rapidly turning into a humanitarian disaster, with cities destroyed, services wrecked, and populations fleeing. Citizens are becoming refugees at an exponential rate. The current European quandary in the face of a refugee tsunami is a direct consequence of the fighting in Syria. A balance of power strategy, deliberately extending the war, directly contributes to the refugee problem. Obama’s policy in the Syrian war, to be complete, therefore requires a United States that helps to cope with the Syrian citizens fleeing their war torn land. Think of that over this Labor Day weekend.

When Is a War “Winnable”?

September 1, 2015–This is a question everyone ought to be asking. In place after place today, most recently in Syria and against the fundamentalist group known as ISIS (the Islamic State or “caliphate”). American tactics centering on the use of air power and unarmed aircraft, or “drones,” have proven insufficient. Some observers are calling for boots on the ground. Already U.S. troops have returned to Iraq, which we left only a few years ago, to resume training an Iraqi army that failed miserably against ISIS. The CIA and Pentagon have both spun up operations to train and arm Syrian resistance fighters against ISIS, bands that have not gained much ground against the fundamentalists. Special operations forces have entered Syria too, on pinpoint raids against enemy leaders or hostage rescue missions (for a light primer on Special Forces see my new book here). The U.S. bombing campaign in Syria has just passed its first-year anniversary. So far the only apparent results are lengthening casualty lists and more destruction. The same kinds of activity characterize U.S. operations in the Yemen. The lack of results there runs in exact parallel.

Any pattern of military and paramilitary operations that assumes a routine shape can be said to have become a tactic or operational method. The pattern used in Syria and Yemen, developed to its present state of sophistication by the Obama administration, can be called “remote/proxy warfare.” Operational methods can be usefully reviewed and analyzed. The most direct avenues do so by asking, what does the tactic accomplish against the adversary, how practical is it in the context of friendly forces and capabilities, and what are foreseeable consequences of the interaction. It is also important to ask whether relevant information has been left out of the review.

Sometimes the most experienced and creative practitioners, taking full advantage of capabilities and their imaginations, fail to achieve the results anticipated. When that happens it is fair to ask if the conflict is winnable.

Here’s an example from the bad old days of the Vietnam war: Major General William E. DePuy led the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, renowned as the “Big Red One,” in the region north of Saigon over the period from March 1966 to February 1967. DePuy is a great example not just because he was an innovative military officer but because he actually did innovate the operational methods utilized by an allied coalition to win the First Gulf War of 1990-91.

General DePuy was also perfectly placed to produce results. Like others of his generation, the man was a product of World War II, and a small circle of officers from his unit, the 90th Infantry Division, became very notable moving between conventional and special warfare assignments. They were, perhaps, more open to unconventional thinking in their tactics. DePuy moved back and forth from the Army to the CIA (where he worked on covert operations against China), and from field units to operations staffs. It was one of his colleagues from the 90th Division cabal, Richard G. Stilwell, who not only brought DePuy into the CIA behind him, but also to Vietnam as the operations officer for General William G. Westmoreland’s top Vietnam command, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). There DePuy gained Westy’s full confidence, and he had two years to develop his understanding of the nature of the conflict.

Thus when General DePuy assumed command of the Big Red One he had everything going for him–a powerful and capable force, the full confidence of his commander-in-chief over the intervening level of command) and MACV headquarters, an imaginative and innovative nature, and a developed idea of the nature of the war. So what happened? DePuy performed exactly as his superiors must have hoped. He introduced new tactics–right down to giving his troops an improved way to dig their foxholes–kept up a high tempo of operations, emphasized helicopter assault techniques, and so on. The Army’s official historian ranks the Big Red One’s performance in a series of operations called “El Paso” up with the 1st Cavalry Division’s actions in the Central Highlands in late 1965 (the ones popularized in the book We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young). DePuy even changed field on the National Liberation Front (NLF) armed forces by staging a reverse ambush, where the 1st Division baited a trap by sending a road column into NLF-controlled territory after carefully preparing intervention forces to support it, artillery to match, and making sure to leak (only) the part about the road column to a known NLF spy. By several accounts General DePuy’s performance at the 1st Division shone.

Back in Washington the general was assigned to head a special office at the Pentagon that controlled military special operations and liaised between the armed services and the CIA. Then came the Tet Offensive of early 1968. Now, DePuy had been a very successful division commander. His successors had continued to attrite the enemy, which was General Westmoreland’s strategy. Yet at Tet the NLF and North Vietnamese were able to attack all across South Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) ordered his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to inspect the front and propose countermeasures. When they came back with Westmoreland’s request for a huge new troop contingent, Johnson asked a group of advisers he called the “wise men” to look at the claims. General DePuy would be tagged to present the military briefing to this group, which included generals and statesmen, past and present. DePuy briefed Tet as a U.S. military victory and relied upon his experience to describe the Vietnam war optimistically. Next the wise men turned around and told LBJ that Vietnam had become a disaster.

The president, stunned, demanded the briefers who had addressed the wise men repeat their presentations for him. DePuy later conceded that the briefers were perhaps a tad overwhelmed by the Washington point of view (pessimistic) on Vietnam, but the general stuck to his guns. The encounter proved chaotic–President Johnson was making phone calls even while the briefers droned on, and entertaining his grandson, a toddler at the time, giving him drinks from a bottle of Coca-Cola. But LBJ concluded there had been nothing wrong with what DePuy and the briefers had told the wise men.

What had happened was that William E. DePuy, the maker of victory, had been present at the moment when senior government officials decided the Vietnam war had become unwinnable.

The Big Red One, despite the ingenuity of DePuy and others like him, left Vietnam in 1970 having suffered 20,770 casualties, more than its toll in World War II, and nearly 85% of its losses in World War I, the division’s most costly conflict. Of its losses, 3,181 names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, combat deaths in the field.

Now, back to remote/proxy warfare. That operational method did not work in Libya, its first major application, which seems at this writing to have disintegrated into a warlord state. In Pakistan, the province of the CIA, the proxies pocket the money and follow their own agenda, while the drones serve as a recruiting tool for the enemy. In the fight against ISIS the air campaign has had a modicum of value as a mechanism for tactical air support of proxy troops fighting ISIS, but very little value against the adversary as a movement. That is because the ISIS “state” is a very distributed network, while the air campaign has nowhere near the military weight that would be required to seriously impede ISIS logistics, exports, etc. –Plus, that weight of effort cannot, as a practical matter, be generated. If it were, as in Pakistan, it would be a recruiting tool for the enemy. A ground intervention is not sustainable in terms of public support or budgetary commitments. U.S. efforts to rally other nations to prevent individual persons from going to Syria to join ISIS will, in my view, involve such a level of social intervention as to also be unsustainable. The remaining question is when will we decide the war is unwinnable–and will there be a William DePuy character there to see it.

New Panaceas at the CIA

November 20, 2014–Remember when torture practiced on prisoners held at CIA black prison sites was going to win the war on terror (by revealing terrorists’ plans)? Or how about the time when the NSA’s dragnet eavesdropping was going to do the same, by making the terrorists’ identities pop out, after which they could be apprehended (there have been three payoff cases after trillions of pieces of data intercepted over more than a decade). Less known, but the same general idea, when Michael V. Hayden (who had also started the NSA eavesdropping) led the CIA he started a campaign to up its “operational tempo,” and get at the terrorists by means of a blizzard of activity. Every intelligence director, it seems, feels a necessity to contrive some new formula that will bring us victory. Let’s put aside for a moment the victory “over what” question and just focus on this matter of presumptive panaceas.

Today brings news of a fresh attempt at a perfect solution–revamping the CIA. Its current director, we are told, is considering a scheme to create offices that mix intelligence analysts and operatives to focus on some special subject or area. That ought to sound familiar too. It is the latest version of the idea of creating “fusion centers,” which actually traces as far back as the CIA of the 1990s. For a time, in fact, fusion centers seemed the wave of the future and not just at CIA. After 9/11 the entire homeland security regional organization based itself upon fusion centers that brought local police and federal agencies together to pool their data. John O. Brennan, our CIA chieftain, headed an early incarnation of a fusion supervisory staff that was known as the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. That, in turn, was a precursor to the National Counterterrorist Center, which is a fusion unit.

The notion of mixing analytical and operational skills is superficially attractive but the issue is more complex than that. The CIA has traditionally consisted of an intelligence directorate that comprised offices which specialized in either regions of the world (e.g. Near East and South Asia) or particular subject areas (such as “global issues”); plus an operations directorate (now called the National Clandestine Service) whose branches were either comparable or functional (things like “special activities”–paramilitary operations).

With the end of the Cold War the idea of functional foci became popular and the fusion centers–which actually harked all the way back to successful intelligence operations of World War II–were born. But breaking down the walls between analysts and operatives has not actually brought the hoped-for results. One of the first units of this sort focused on counternarcotics. The drug trafficking has never been eliminated. There was the counterproliferation center. That had mixed success, inducing Libya to dispense with its nuclear program but succumbing to Bush administration desires for CIA endorsement of an Iraqi nuclear threat in service of its plans to invade that country. The fusion center in charge of intelligence on ground weapons also fell into line with the Iraq invasion scheme. The CIA’s counterterrorism center failed to eliminate Bin Laden in the 1990s, and way oversold the prospects for obtaining intelligence by means of torture in the oughts.

A significant drawback of fusion centers that have an operational role is the drive to find reasons (read contrive intelligence reporting) why their operatives should be in the field on an issue. Now let’s bring back the question of “victory” as it pertains to the intelligence reporting. Al Qaeda has been virtually wiped out. The local and regional terrorist groups that exist do not have the heft–or represent the same threat. No terrorist strike has taken place in the United States–“imminent” or otherwise–since 2001. Yet the National Counterterrorist Center (NCTC) steadfastly resists any conclusion that the threat is diminished. Instead it argues the threat is greater. In the Yemen, in North Africa, Somalia, and Iraq (now Iraq-Syria) the NCTC has each time pictured jihadi movements as Al Qaeda offshoots, which is true only in the sense that the various movements are made up of religious fundamentalists. The NCTC is probably relieved right now that the jihadists of ISIS/ISIL seem so fierce because it lends some credence to their hard line.

To reorganize the CIA into a collection of fusion centers like this appears to me as a long step in the wrong direction. The last thing we want is an intelligence agency made up of wannabe operators.


Leyte Gulf and ISIS

October 26,2014–Seventy years ago today the United States fleet was off the Philippines, hurling bolts of lightning at the remnants of a Japanese fleet in frantic retreat from what was the greatest naval battle of World War II. The fight was the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Americans were in the Philippines to make good on General Douglas MacArthur’s promise that “I shall return!” The Japanese responded because loss of the Philippines would cut the Home Islands off from their major source of raw materials and fuel. The Imperial Navy was being destroyed without a fight. It might as well make a last stand.

In history, the Leyte Gulf battle climaxed yesterday in October 1944, with U.S. warships pursuing the fleeing Japanese down Surigao Strait, where the Allies had soundly defeated the Imperial Navy; while other Americans mopped up the last active Japanese aircraft carriers off of Taiwan, and yet other American ships desperately sought to defend themselves against a huge Japanese battle fleet that had suddenly materialized out of the dawn.

It is that last piece of the story that’s of interest here. In October 1944 all the decks were stacked in favor of the Allies. The fleet supporting MacArthur outmatched the Japanese in numbers in every category from torpedo boats to battleships, way more in tonnage (therefore size of the fleet) and in numbers of aircraft; with huge advantages in combat logistics and organization–plus highly capable intelligence. It had been a full year since the Japanese fleet had laid a glove, other than pinpricks, on the Allies. The Imperial Navy had no chance. The admiral who led that battle fleet which came out of the dawn told his captains, “You must all remember there are such things as miracles.”

As it turned out, Leyte Gulf more or less followed the pattern. The detached Japanese force in Surigao Strait was largely destroyed, the core of the carrier force was sunk, and the battle fleet suffered tremendous damage. But what is most significant is that three years into a war Japan was losing by a wide margin, its sailors, by dint of determination and fighting spirit, were able to turn the tables on the Allies despite all their advantages, and put that battle fleet up against a greatly inferior detachment of the Americans. The miracle seemed like it was happening after all.

The Japanese squandered their opportunity. Thus seventy years ago today it was Americans mopping up fleeing Japanese and not the other way around. But that is a story for another day. What is more interesting for right now is the parallel we can draw with the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the foe whom Americans and other allies are today fighting across both those countries. Today again the allies have many advantages. The ISIS fighters have only a small amount of heavy equipment, limited to what they have been able to capture from the Syrian government. The allies have air power–and complete control of the air–and can strike anywhere in the region with complete flexibility against an adversary who must move on the ground under the constant threat of air attack. ISIS fighters are also far outnumbered by the troops of the Iraqi government, the Kurds, and the other Syrian partisan factions, not to mention the forces of the Syrian government.

But like the putative Allied dominance at Leyte Gulf, the situation in the Middle East today is not so clear cut as would seem. Like the Japanese seventy years ago, what ISIS has going for it is determination and the willingness to die. That has carried it a long way under the rain of aerial munitions already. The Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga have proven much less determined. The Syrian islamist fighters other than ISIS have been divided against multiple enemies. The Turkish government, having promised to help, is effectively dragging its feet.

Those Americans at Leyte Gulf who took a complacent view of the Japanese were destined to be shocked. Do not be surprised if the same happens with ISIS today.