Archive for August, 2008

[Originally published on AmericanDiplomacy.org.]

A retired CIA station chief and Soviet specialist examines the Agency’s heritage from the OSS of World War II and finds that it produced a bias toward covert action to the detriment of intelligence gathering. As CIA evolved and gained experience, its intelligence capabilities improved, but it had little success in divining Soviet intentions during the Cold War. The Politburo was a tough target; so are today’s Middle East terrorist groups. – Ed.

Prior to World War II, the United States had no centralized intelligence collection, analysis and production structure. The State Department was involved in the overt and some minor ad hoc covert collection of intelligence. The FBI was active collecting information in Latin America in what were essentially criminal law enforcement activities. The military had its tactical military collection imperatives, and there was a small unit, the Signals Intelligence Service of the U.S. Army, collecting signals intelligence. All of these activities were minor, unconnected, and uncoordinated.

During the Second World War, the requirements for intelligence and intelligence-related activity rose sharply. This hot war on foreign soil brought with it U.S. support of anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese guerrilla operations in Europe and East Asia. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was formed in 1942 to deal with those realities and soon went into business full bore, conducting resistance operations, which were essentially covert action (CA) operations that were not assigned to other agencies.

Numerous guerrilla groups had sprung up spontaneously in occupied Europe, China, and French Indochina. In Europe, France, Holland, Belgium, and the occupied Scandinavian countries all had their movements. The British, who had long had their own intelligence organizations, were in touch with many of those resistance movements. They were also very much involved in getting the OSS off the ground and properly trained. Ultimately, OSS established contact with a number of resistance groups, and as the war progressed toward the Allied invasion of Europe, the OSS got more involved in coordinating and leading some of those groups in demolition operations and in harassing German occupation troops. The late CIA Director William Colby parachuted into both France and Norway to lead resistance activities against the Germans.

That was the primary OSS activity — contacting, supporting, and leading these resistance groups by parachuting personnel into occupied Europe. In effect, the birth of OSS was a hot war reality that demanded extraordinary heroism from its personnel. It also signaled the onset of CA operations, including resistance operations, on behalf of the U.S. government. It was a really high-risk business that attracted heroic and adventurous people who did their jobs well.

OSS was disbanded at the end of the war in l945. The State Department took over the research and analysis function. To preserve OSS’ clandestine intelligence capability, the War Department took over secret foreign intelligence (FI) and counter-espionage (CE) activities under the aegis of the newly formed Strategic Services Unit. This unit was then transferred to the Central Intelligence Group in 1946 and became the Office of Special Operations (OSO) when the CIA was created under the National Security Act of 1947. In 1948, the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) was created to oversee all psychological and covert action (CA) operations. It was absorbed in 1952 into OSO. Thus, the hot war covert action capability of the OSS, most emphatically including many of its personnel, was preserved in the new CIA.

CIA was created at the beginning of the Cold War in response to the ongoing Soviet geographic expansion into Eastern Europe as well as Soviet attempts to expand into Western Europe. CIA’s job was to stop Soviet expansion and, in the minds of the wishful thinkers of the time, to bring down the USSR.

Under these conditions, it was predictable that the CIA would go back to its roots, back to the activities it had known and successfully carried out during the war. It got heavily into émigré operations in East Europe and the USSR, which were designed to overthrow the USSR’s satellite governments. In that context, it supported resistance movements in Eastern Europe, dropping agents and supplies behind the lines as in World War II. At the same time, CIA prepared for guerrilla “stay-behind” operations. In anticipation of successful Soviet expansion into Western Europe, it buried caches of arms, supplies, gold, and communications gear throughout the European countryside.

In the early days of the Agency, there were normally two stations in most of the important countries around the world. The OPC station was responsible for all covert action operations, and the OSO station was responsible for intelligence collection, counter-espionage, and counter-intelligence operations. This proved to be a self-defeating structure, as it put the two CIA stations in competition for identical individual sources. For that reason, in 1952 the two entities were combined both in the field and at headquarters under the Directorate of Plans. Despite a few name changes, the structure of the Directorate remained pretty consistent throughout the Cold War.

U.S. intelligence collection requirements for the USSR were two-pronged. The Pentagon needed to know what military hardware was under research and development in Soviet design bureaus, and the White House wanted to know what the Soviets planned to do with this hardware — what their intentions were. Any time a case officer talked to a new Soviet defector, refugee, or agent, the mandatory first question was, “Does the Soviet Union plan to attack the United States?” It was felt that these national requirements could best, if not only, be filled through clandestine human recruitment operations.

By the mid-1950s, a modest number of Soviet officials had volunteered to work with the CIA. The cumulative experience showed the CIA just how productive such sources could be in fulfilling the basic requirements. So, the word went out to the CS (clandestine service, or directorate of plans) that we were to recruit Soviets of high intelligence value.

This was during the Eisenhower administration when John Foster Dulles was Secretary of State and his brother Allen was Director of Central Intelligence. It was a time when the United States was wildly paranoid and anti-communist. It was a time when the covert action arm of the clandestine service was being tasked continuously with the overthrow of foreign regimes that were thought to be heading toward the Soviet camp.

Even though there were discrete components in the CS that were tasked solely with operations against the USSR and her East European allies, there was not much interest within the CS in running operations against those targets. This came for a number of reasons, the most important of which was that the management of the CS was comprised mostly of OSS veterans who, because of their wartime experiences, were far more interested in and comfortable with covert action operations than they were with intelligence recruitment operations against the Soviet Union. In addition, it was generally understood in the CS that recruiting Soviets was the most difficult task it faced. It was easier to do covert action, even including the often-dangerous business of overthrowing governments; and for the career-minded officer, success was far more likely.

It is additionally true that during the l950’s CIA was not terribly adept at the conduct of operations behind the Iron Curtain. There was absolutely no experience with such operations in the conditions that existed there. Our officers were under virtually constant surveillance, or at least had to assume they were. In the early post-war years they had not yet developed the techniques or the understanding of that kind of environment which were necessary to safely run sensitive and productive operations. The Penkovskiy case demonstrated the extraordinary access to important intelligence that such an agent had. At the same time, his arrest by Soviet authorities in Moscow underlined the need for new, operationally secure approaches to the problem of agent handling in those denied-area environments.

The Penkovskiy case was a really mixed bag for the CIA. Its positive aspect was the extraordinary product that Penkovskiy provided. The down side was that Agency management lost faith in the ability of the CS to securely run such cases and began a period of not approving even potentially productive cases for handling.

In the late fifties and early sixties, officers were chosen for assignment to the denied-area posts on the basis of the strength of their cover. An experienced officer who had done anything that might have come to the attention of the KGB was automatically disqualified. Young officers with no field experience who were thought probably not to be known to the Soviets, were the ones selected for those posts. This was a two edged sword. If a potentially productive case came their way, their inexperience was likely to disqualify them for handling agents. On the other hand, they were not afflicted by either operational preconceptions or relevant operational training and so were free to let their creative juices flow. Suffice it to say that by the mid-sixties, every station in the Warsaw Pact countries had the operational techniques and personnel needed to securely handle the most productive cases.

One might think that by that time, with White House pressure for intelligence production and the personnel and operational techniques needed to produce that intelligence, the CIA would have been in very good shape against the USSR and her allies. Quite the opposite was true. The CS, with the exception of those components and personnel charged with Soviet operations, was essentially disinterested in the work of recruiting Soviets. It was far too interested in other operational pursuits to use its time and budgets on such difficult and, up until then, unproductive efforts.

Senior management talked a good game. With few exceptions, every station’s operational directive listed the USSR as its primary target. Yet the process never took hold, largely because it was still the OSS veterans in charge and they had other fish to fry. Agency managers, in the true OSS spirit, permitted its field personnel to choose whatever targets were on their lists, without sufficient managerial pressure to pursue the most important Soviet target. The simple result was that the CS ran a virtually ad hoc operation against the Soviet target, whereas it should have been running a focused and concerted, CS-wide attack aimed at the production of high level intelligence on Soviet military R&D and Soviet intentions.

None of this explains the fact that while the CS was successful against Soviet military R&D targets, it was largely unsuccessful collecting intelligence on Soviet intentions. During the early Cold War years, Soviets abroad were very much the products of the Stalin era. They, too, were paranoid. At any given function, they huddled together in their colorless, bell-bottomed suits in one corner of the room, talking only to each other. Clearly, the Soviet Union had not evolved to the point where its representatives abroad had any professional reason to get out into the foreign community.

This changed pretty radically sometime in the sixties, as did the nature of Soviet man. He lost the bell-bottomed trousers, bought Western style clothes, got advanced degrees in the West and learned Western languages accent-free. He fit right in, and on some occasions it was impossible to tell whether or not the person a case officer had just met was a Soviet or a Westerner.

This was a problem for the Soviets. They had political, economic, and foreign policy imperatives that made it mandatory for Soviet citizens to get out and about. At the same time, that removed them from the strictures of Soviet society and put them squarely in the middle of the temptations of the West. It also put them in touch with CIA case officers who were completely comfortable in that world.

And the CIA had its problems, too. Perhaps this came because of the lack of success the Agency had in the fifties and sixties in Soviet recruitment operations. It would be difficult for senior managers who thought themselves to be outstanding to admit that there was anything wrong with the Soviet recruitment program they had designed and were running. It simply may have been less threatening to posit that the Soviets were 10 feet tall. If, as they postulated, the KGB had sufficiently penetrated the CIA, then they would know of any “successes” that the CS had against them.

According to this logic, any and all such “recruitments” would have been controlled by the KGB and thus invalid as producers of intelligence on behalf of the CIA. That attitude prevailed through the sixties and only came to an end in the early seventies with the retirement and reassignments of its chief proponents and the assignment of new management to the Soviet recruitment effort. At that point, CS success against the Soviet target began slowly to increase. Those increases continued and grew until the demise of the Soviet Union.

It is a gross overstatement, as for example in the recently published “unofficial” CIA history by Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes, to say that the CIA was a failure against the Soviet Union. It is not an overstatement to say that we could have done a lot better. The reasons for that are complicated but involve some of the following realities.

The CIA is a part of the executive branch of the U.S. government. When the president speaks, presumably legally, the CIA follows. In the fifties, U.S. presidents were preoccupied with the overthrow of foreign governments and in weakening the USSR and were less concerned about intelligence on the USSR. The CIA hamstrung itself during the sixties with its paranoid conviction that it was impossible to successfully penetrate the Soviet Union. However, perhaps the most important element in this continuum was the legacy from the OSS. The CIA was managed by a group of fine men whose experiences were from the hot war. They never really turned the CS loose against the USSR, and because most of them had never run clandestine recruitments, they never really understood what post-World War II clandestine operations were all about.

The Cold War CIA was what it was. It was a product of the OSS experience of World War II and was run by officials of that organization. As it matured and grew out from under the OSS influence in the sixties and seventies, it became increasingly successful at its designated tasks. In fact, it produced some extraordinary intelligence on Soviet weapons research and development. Its significant lack of production came in the area of Soviet intentions. But to produce hard intelligence on that topic, given Soviet realities, required a penetration of the Politburo. The Soviet system did not make such people readily available to foreign cultivation and, as a result, CIA officers rarely, if ever, even saw them. That was the reality of the Cold War.

The same situation of access probably exists today in our efforts against terrorist targets. Given the realities that obtain in the Middle East, It’s tough for an American to establish contact with the terrorists lurking in Waziristan’s caves. That may change as terrorist movements mature, but it puts us roughly in the same predicament with terrorism today as we were with the USSR in the fifties.

The moral here is that any intelligence organization, regardless of the regime it serves, is not only at the mercy of the policies of that country, but of the realities of the targets against which it is operating. That really never changes.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. He was educated at Exeter and Dartmouth, served in the Army Security Agency, undertook Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations, recruiting and handling agents or managing that process. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.

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American policies provoked Russia

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

The ongoing tiff between the United States and Russia over Georgia has far less to do with Georgia than it has to do with mounting Russian revanchism and Russia’s concerns about what is happening in its “near abroad,” the 14 former Soviet Republics, and in its former “satellites,” their seven former East European Socialist “allies.”

Compelled as they are by their history, the Russians will pay dearly for their compulsive incursion into Georgia and for their threats against Poland. How that works out remains to be seen, but at minimum, their Georgian adventure will precipitate a worldwide re-evaluation of Russia’s goals and tactics that will not be favorable to Russian interests.

All that aside, America has vital interests in a viable, non-hostile Russia and for that reason, we need to be very cautious and thoughtful in how we deal with them on these emotional issues.

Russia’s concerns are historical, going back to the early days of the Russian Empire. As with most empires, Russia has a long history of armed conflict with most of its “near abroad” and many others, including its former satellites. This reality has led, understandably, to a high level of Russian anxiety and paranoia. They have always viewed the outside world with grave suspicion.

During the Cold War, the Soviets complained constantly about the “capitalist encirclement” of the USSR, and they were right. We surrounded them with NATO and SEATO from Europe to East Asia. They in turn, had their “near abroad” and European satellites as buffers against Western encirclement.

That could and probably should have ended with the USSR’s demise, but by 2004, we had added 10 former Soviet properties, all seven former Soviet satellites and three former Republics, to NATO. Russia saw this as pure provocation. NATO was once again encircling Russia, and, as NATO looked more and more threatening to them, they returned to the more traditional and aggressive geopolitical tactics of both Soviet and Imperial Russia.

It should be noted here that Russia’s historical behavior has added to this unsettling mix. Small countries that for ages have existed precariously on the periphery of an aggressive Russia are understandably nervous about what appears to be the resurgence of Russian geopolitical ambitions.

In the post-Soviet world, Poland, Georgia and the Czech Republic, small, vulnerable countries on the fringe of Russia, as well as the seven others that have joined up with NATO, have sought big power protection. They would all like to maintain their democracies and their territorial integrity. Their long and bitter experiences have taught them that when it comes to Russian geopolitical imperatives, big power protection is mandatory. NATO led by America is that big power.

There is a great deal in the balance here. There is the fate of a democratic Georgia threatened by Russian regime change. There are the Georgian pipelines, the only petroleum pipelines from Central Asia to the West that are not controlled by Russia. There is the message that Russia is sending to its former territorial appendages in the “near abroad” like Ukraine and the Central Asian Republics, that they must not flirt with the West or NATO. Finally, there is the Missile Shield and NATO.

The real question here is what we see as the future role of NATO. The Russians see it as simply a continuation of the Cold War, with essentially unchanged goals. In that respect, at least as long as it remains primarily a military organization, NATO is and will remain a provocation to the Russians. It’s hard to see how a still militarized NATO, built for the Cold War, has any viable role today other than to intimidate Russia.

The same is true of the “Missile Shield” to be deployed initially in the Czech Republic and Poland. Despite concrete assurances to the contrary (remember Russian paranoia), the Russians see our explanation that it is designed to defend the United States against nuclear missiles (as yet non-existent) from nuclear armed rogue states (also as yet non-existent) as a fiction designed to cover its real target which they see as Russia. This has resulted in an intemperate Russian threat against Poland. With talk of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, Russian paranoia has hit high C and prompted the Georgian invasion.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia today does not represent a strategic threat to the United States. We need to decide if there is anything positive to gain from continuing policies that do little other than provoke the Russians. Yet we continue to do just that with the Missile Shield and NATO.

Perhaps we are still punishing Russia for its role in the Cold War. Perhaps our concern is based on the resurgence of a powerful Russia, fueled by its oil wealth and pursuing what we think of as its old imperial goals. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that Russia seeks world domination as it did in Soviet times. It is more interested in protecting its own turf and “near abroad.”

As a result of our current Middle East adventures, America today has little diplomatic leverage in the world. We can shout and threaten all we want, but the Russians know we are toothless and that they can do pretty much what they like. With our military totally committed elsewhere, all we have are our nukes – not a terribly flexible asset.

Lacking any credibility or flexibility, a continuing American struggle with Russia is not in our own interest. For many reasons, not the least of which is safeguarding Russian nuclear warheads from the rogue states and terrorists we fear, we have long hoped to see Russia integrate into the West. Yet we continue to provoke them with these policies, making such integration far less likely.

Unless we seek further confrontation with, or humiliation of Russia, bringing Georgia into NATO would rank as sheer stupidity, to be matched only by continuing to aggressively pursue the questionable “Missile Shield” in Eastern Europe, or by failing to demilitarize NATO.

It’s one thing to be tough when you have muscle; it’s another thing when all you have is flab.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who worked in East and West Europe and the Middle East, primarily against Soviet targets. He lives in Williston.

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When Biden speaks, duck and cover

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

There are times when having a chatty White House official given to winging just about any topic before him can be entertaining, even positive. Such an official can be used purposefully to float trial balloons or to cagily suggest an openness to different approaches. However, it is seldom helpful in serious foreign affairs matters, particularly when such an official apparently is speaking or writing without coordination with White House policy makers.

Meet Joe Biden. Everyone knows that he drops gaffe after gaffe, so why should anyone take him seriously? The problem, in this instance, is that his most recent gaffe is focused on Russia – one of the world’s more paranoid nations. Even if literally everyone in the world knows not to take Biden seriously, there will always be an important element in the Russian leadership that believes that what he says really reflects true American policy.

There simply isn’t much wiggle room for gaffes when dealing with Russia. But why should anyone care?

The Russian issue is very simple. Russia is a member of the United Nations Security Council and, as such, has veto power over any and all Security Council resolutions. That veto, or a lack thereof, can mean success or failure for the United States on some of today’s most critical international issues.

Take North Korea. North Korea, the DPRK, has at least one nuclear weapon as well as delivery systems that will most certainly destabilize Asia and could conceivably threaten the United States. Russia has supported U.N. sanctions against North Korea since the DPRK exploded their first nuclear device in 2006. Early this month, Russia renewed its support for U.N. sanctions designed to halt North Korea’s efforts to expand its nuclear arsenal.

The inclination of Russia to support these critical sanctions is certainly based on the Russian national interests. However, this policy has been encouraged by the clearly more-friendly attitude of the new Obama administration, in contrast to the essentially hostile policies of the Bush years.

Will this inclination continue to be favorable in the face of Biden’s rhetoric? Just how much of it are the Russians prepared to overlook? And remember, when and if they turn against this sort of international cooperation that is so important to us on critical security issues, they always have their Security Council veto to use against us and any sanctions we might choose to propose against North Korea.

Iran is a bit different. There is no sixty year history of close ideological and international cooperation with Iran, as there was between the USSR and North Korea, so the Russians are not emotionally or historically bound in the same way to Iran as they are to the DPRK.

In December 2006, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran, “blocking the import or export of sensitive nuclear materiel and equipment and freezing the financial assets of persons or entities supporting its proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or the development of nuclear-weapon delivery systems.” Both Russia and China supported the resolution.

The United States is heavily involved in the Middle East today. We are fighting insurrections in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan while trying to figure out what to do next in Iran.

Russia has been traditionally involved for centuries in the area in question. Although they do not label it with the highest political importance of their “near abroad”, they have fought wars there, attempted coups, and supported their political allies while battling their foes. Today their involvement is based on commercial interests, arms sales, a threatening lack of security to their south and their desire to be considered a major world power.

With a history of American involvement in Iran to the detriment of Russian (Soviet) interests, they are not about to abdicate what they see as their historical role in Iran, even if that only means countering our interests.

If America and the West are going to deal successfully with Iran’s growing nuclear capability, it would be an infinitely simpler task with the involvement of a supportive Russia. That makes it extremely difficult to understand how the Obama administration would say, as Biden did, that “Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years”, in effect, writing them off.

If you want to infuriate the Russians and weaken their inclination to support, or at least not oppose, our goals in the Middle East, that’s a pretty good start.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who worked primarily against the USSR in East and West Europe and the Middle East. He lives in Williston.

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Afghanistan makes Iraq look easy

[Originally published on Nieman Watchdog.]

A former CIA station chief writes that Obama and McCain should think again if they believe nation-building in Afghanistan can be achieved without an enormous cost in blood and treasure. History suggests otherwise.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain appear to believe that the pacification and rebuilding of Afghanistan is a national imperative. But if they think Iraq has been complicated, just wait till they sink their teeth into Afghanistan.

If we have learned nothing else from Iraq, it is that pacifying and rebuilding a country with ethnic and confessional differences and problematic neighbors is anything but a cakewalk. And indeed, the similarities between Afghanistan and Iraq are striking. Also, as in Iraq, today’s problem in Afghanistan is not terrorism; it is a hostile entity, the Taliban, which we defeated in 2002 and which has since morphed into an insurgency against us and the government we installed in its place.  Terrorist organizations hardly ever win anything significant — though insurgencies almost always do.

The differences between the two countries, however, suggest the challenge in Afghanistan is even greater. Where Iraq is fairly flat, Afghanistan is mountainous — perfect for an insurgency and terrible for conventional warfare.  Afghanis display characteristics common to many mountain people: They are basically unconquerable and ungovernable.  They are Middle East versions of the Hatfields and the McCoys.  They are brave, bellicose, fiercely proud, loyal to their clan, tribe or family, wildly independent, and have a highly developed sense of honor.  They are normally armed to the teeth, ready to fight, and they are good at it, having spent millenia fighting each other and themselves.

Even if it becomes possible to defeat the Taliban insurgency, Afghanis are not ideal candidates for pacification or nation-building.  Foreigners have tried and failed many times. The British tried off and on from 1839 to 1919. Between 1979 and 1989, the Soviets committed well over 100,000 troops there.  They lost 15,000 soldiers and whatever favorable image they had in the world. And it cost them billions of dollars, which almost certainly played a role in the demise of the USSR in 1991.

As a people, Afghanis are not terribly interested in being ruled by anyone outside their own tribe or clan, let alone their nation.  The have tried that before.  If our goal in Afghanistan is to pacify the country, or bring them democracy and free enterprise, we should think again.

Pakistan, Pashtuns and Poppies

One of the starkest realities we face in Afghanistan is the fact that almost half the population is Pashtun – 13 million souls located in southern Afghanistan.  The same Pashtuns total 28 million in contiguous Northwest Pakistan – about one sixth of the overall Pakistani population.

The Taliban is overwhelmingly Pashtun.  Pakistani Pashtuns have long supported and supplied the Afghan Taliban.  In addition, the Taliban has always been supported by the Pakistani intelligence service and to this day, there remains much active support in Pakistan for the Taliban.

Any real attempt to crush the Taliban in Afghanistan will necessarily involve their supply lines and suppliers in nuclear Pakistan.  At this moment, the Pakistani government seems incapable of or disinclined to get involved with our Pashtun problem in Northwest Pakistan.  This creates a de facto safe haven for the Taliban in Pakistan.  To our peril, we may well find it impossible to solve the Afghan problem without getting more heavily involved in Northwest Pakistan. But if we alienate that country sufficiently, we could end up creating a brand new, nuclear-armed enemy.

Poppy production now accounts for half of Afghanistan’s annual national income of $8 billion. Eighty percent of that opium is grown in Pashtun territory and the Taliban now gets around 40% of its income from the opium trade.  Afghanistan’s poverty is a real issue here and, legal or not, opium is an important crop.  Eradication would bring increased poverty and hardship.  Switching poppy farmers to other crops won’t be easy.

And all of this in Afghanistan, a country which is traditionally and inherently corrupt.

Not Really a Military Problem

As in the case of Iraq, our problem in Afghanistan is only superficially a military problem.  Under the surface are crucial economic, religious and political issues.  If we do ramp up in Afghanistan, it is going to be wildly expensive because, in the end and even after military success, we are going to be back in the long, drawn-out, expensive business of pacification and nation building in a country that will not be easily or naturally united.

We had best be prepared for these realities, and given our total lack of preparedness for a similar situation in Iraq, it must be carefully thought through.  We are not dealing here with post-war Germany or Japan.  We are dealing with a Muslim country in which people think their Islamic-based system of governance is perfectly OK.  There may be discontent in Afghanistan, but it is not with Islam.

We have little going for us here and changing Afghanistan will be an incredibly expensive, dangerous and difficult task, if it can be accomplished at all.

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[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and the Rutland Herald.]

Barack Obama has articulated his goals for Afghanistan. In doing so, he becomes the first significant American politician since 9/11 to honestly lay out what he really wants for a country in the Middle East. John McCain has spoken favorably of the need for additional troops in Afghanistan.

Obama said during his recent visit to Afghanistan that “losing is not an option.” In the course of spelling out his plan to commit additional troops to the struggle there, he has said that he wishes to “rebuild the country.” His further goals are to stabilize the country, promote a rising standard of living and disable al-Qaida and the Taliban to the point where they cannot cause problems for anyone.

For those of us who are old enough to remember the 20th century, Obama is proposing another attempt at nation building. At that time, that is, before George W. Bush took office, invaded Iraq and turned his party upside down, Republicans were almost universally opposed to nation building. Democrats have never been so opposed, so it would appear that a more favorable climate may exist today for such an experiment in Afghanistan.

Nation building is the notion, favored by today’s Republicans for implementation in Iraq, that after a war, you can, by force of arms and occupation of the nation in question, successfully force a lasting change to a democratic form of government. Iraq provides us with a living example of the vicissitudes of nation building.

Many in this country view the current American approach in Iraq as “successful.” In fact, the “surge” has lowered the level of violence in Iraq. However, the originally stated purpose of the surge was to provide sufficient stability to enable the ethnic and sectarian groups in that country to successfully settle the basic political and economic issues that currently divide them. That has not been accomplished and if history is a decent guide, it will be a very difficult result for them to attain.

And now, we sail off into Afghanistan! It is almost as if, in the aftermath of 9/11, we are morally obliged to do that. We have to find Osama bin Laden. After all, he launched that attack on us from Afghanistan, with the protection of the Taliban – the same organization that has now morphed into an insurgency against our presence in their country.

Historically, where terrorist organizations hardly every win anything significant, insurgencies almost always do.

One truly hopes that our leaders understand enough of today’s realities and past history of that country to enable them to devise a workable plan for accomplishing their goals. If they do not, we may find a similar result there to what is facing us in Iraq.

Afghanistan is very different from Iraq. Where Iraq is fairly flat, Afghanistan is anything but. The terrain is mountainous and not favorable for conventional warfare. The people are different. Although they are not Arabs, but a mélange of Central Asians, Persians and other minor groups, they are 80 percent Sunni and 20 percent Shia. Their main languages are Indo-European and their culture is tied more to Persia than to the Arab world. They have the reputation of being unconquerable and ungovernable.

The Afghanis display characteristics common to all mountain people. They are Middle East versions of the Martins and the Coys. They are brave, bellicose, fiercely proud, loyal to their clan, tribe or family, wildly independent, have a highly developed sense of honor and are normally armed to the teeth and ready to fight. And they have spent eons fighting each other and themselves. They may have invented internecine warfare!

Even if it becomes possible to defeat the Taliban insurgency, these are not ideal candidates for pacification or nation building. In fact, foreigners have tried. Apart from the historical occupation of what is today Afghanistan by regional conquerors, in more recent centuries, both Britain and the Soviet Union have tried.

Britain meddled actively in Afghanistan for over many decades in the 19th century. During that time, they were involved in three wars against Afghanistan. All in all, they never achieved any real victory or peace.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. They remained 10 years. They committed 100,000 troops backed up by at least that many more. They lost 15,000 soldiers, whatever favorable image they had in the world before the invasion and spent billions of dollars, which fact almost certainly played a role in the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. These represent powerful lessons for us today.

As a people, Afghanis are not terribly interested in being ruled by anyone outside their own tribe or clan, let alone their nation. The have tried that before. If our goal in Afghanistan is to pacify the country, or bring them democracy and prosperity, let’s think again.

The issues are Pakistan, Pashtuns and poppies.

One of the starkest realities we face in Afghanistan is the fact that almost half the population is Pashtun – 13 million souls located in southern Afghanistan. The same Pashtuns total 28 million in contiguous Northwest Pakistan – about one-sixth of the overall Pakistani population.

The Taliban is overwhelmingly Pashtun. Pakistani Pashtuns have long supported and supplied the Afghan Taliban. In addition, the Taliban has always been supported by the Pakistani intelligence service and to this day, there remains much active support in Pakistan for the Taliban.

It would seem likely that any real attempt to crush the Taliban in Afghanistan will necessarily involve their supply lines and suppliers in Pakistan. At this moment, the Pakistan government seems disinclined to get involved with our Pashtun problem in Northwest Pakistan. We may well find it impossible to solve the Afghan problem without solving the Pakistan problem.

Then we have the poppy problem. Opium production now accounts for half of Afghanistan’s annual national income of $8 billion. Eighty percent of that opium is grown in Pashtun territory. The Taliban now gets a large portion of its income – something on the order of 40 percent — from the opium trade.

Afghanistan’s poverty is a real issue here and, legal or not, opium is an important crop. Eradicating it would bring increased poverty and hardship. Switching poppy farmers to other crops won’t be easy. Our best hope is that rising world food prices will seduce Afghani farmers to grow food crops.

As in the case of Iraq, our problem in Afghanistan is only superficially a military problem. Under the surface it is an economic, religious and political issue. If we do ramp up in Afghanistan, it is going to be wildly expensive because, in the end and even after military success, we are going to be back in the long and drawn-out business of pacification and nation building.

We had best be prepared for that and given our total lack of preparedness for a similar situation in Iraq, it had better be carefully thought through. We are not dealing here with post-war Germany or Japan. We are dealing with a Muslim country in which people think their Islamic system of governance is perfectly OK. There may be discontent in Afghanistan, but it is not with Islam.

Changing whole cultures is not easy. Think how difficult it has been for America to come to grips with the prospect of a female or black president. Before we take up the mantle of bringing change to the world, we had best understand that not the entire world wants what we have to offer and adapt our goals in Afghanistan to a continued Islamic framework. That may be the only thing that works there.

This will be an extremely expensive and difficult task.

Haviland Smith served in Eastern and Western Europe and the Middle East.

He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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