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Archive for July, 2009

[Originally published on Nieman Watchdog.]

What makes Obama think more troops are the answer in Afghanistan? A former CIA station chief questions the wisdom of banking on a centralized solution for a fragmented country.

We have been sold a real bill of goods on Afghanistan.  We have allowed ourselves to be persuaded that in order to reach our goals there, whatever they may be, we will have to defeat the Taliban insurgency.  According to a recent statement by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, that is a “long-term prospect.”

This scenario raises a number of crucial questions about our Afghan adventure:  What are our goals there? What should our goals be? Must we “defeat” the Taliban to reach those goals? How much does the situation in Pakistan affect our chances for success?  What is the likelihood that we can succeed? Finally, how much additional treasure are Americans prepared to commit there?  How great is our patience for this war?

The Taliban doesn’t have to “win” in Afghanistan.  It simply has to avoid final defeat, something insurgencies know how to do and something the Taliban has actually accomplished since 2001.

Much was written about our goals for Afghanistan under the Bush Administration, which most notably includes wanting to “kick someone’s ass” on the heels of 9/11.

Obama Administration spokespeople have variously described our goals in Afghanistan as rooting out al Qaida and the Taliban forces, preventing their return, supporting self-governance, and ensuring security, stability and reconstruction.

The president told McClatchy Newspapers last year: “I can tell you what our strategic goals should be. They should be relatively modest. We shouldn’t want to take over the country. We should want to get out of there as quickly as we can and help the Afghans govern themselves and provide for their own security. Our critical goal should be to make sure that the Taliban and al Qaida are routed and that they cannot project threats against us from that region. And to do that I think we need more troops.”

Vice President Biden in February 2009 called for a “comprehensive strategy… that brings together our civilian and military resources, that prevents terrorists a safe haven, that helps the Afghan people develop the capacity to secure their own future.” Secretary Gates told U.S..troops in December 2008: “Significantly expanding [Afghanistan’s national security forces] is, in fact, our exit strategy,”

Our one truly legitimate goal in Afghanistan should be very clear:  We need to be sure that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary and training ground for Al Qaida or any other group that seeks to do us harm.

In order to accomplish that, however, we must understand some of the basic realities from Afghan history.  Traditionally, power in Afghanistan has rested in the many tribal chieftains who, in effect, have long run their own areas of the fragmented country.  Central authority and power have almost always been illusory.

But we are now training tens of thousands of national security forces in Afghanistan who are true products of their environment, having been recruited from all the tribes and ethnic groups in the country.  In this traditionally tribal society, to whom do they owe their true loyalty: the central government or their tribes?  Whose interests will they support when tribal and central government interests are at odds, which they nearly always are?  Since they exist with divided loyalties, how effective can they be in carrying out central national policy when that policy by definition will come at the expense of their own tribes?

There are tribes in Afghanistan that do not have a natural affinity for the Taliban.  We identified and worked with many of them during our 2001 invasion.  We now have the opportunity and obligation to work with them again, in our goal of eliminating Al Qaida.

And we need to help our new allies without continuing to try to militarily destroy the Taliban, which only brings them more Afghan recruits against the foreign invader.  Make no mistake about it, that is how we are viewed and as long as that is true, we will unite the Afghans – as much as they can be united — against us and our goals.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief, who served in Eastern and Western Europe, Lebanon and Tehran and as chief of the counter-terrorism staff.

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

On the Fourth of July, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he is optimistic that, unlike the Soviet forces that were driven from Afghanistan 20 years ago, U.S. forces can succeed there.

“The Russians were sent running as they should have been. We helped send them running. But they were there to conquer the country. We’ve made it very clear, and everybody I talk with in Afghanistan feels the same way: they know we’re there to help and we’re going to leave. We’ve made it very clear we are going to leave. And it’s going to be turned back to them.”

Leahy, as a senior senator, is normally very much in tune with Obama administration policies, but if this position accurately reflects President Barack Obama’s policy, and the rationale behind it, the president is on shaky ground.

Why the Soviets and America got involved in Afghanistan is clear. The Soviets were there at the request of the then-ruling government of Afghanistan, the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan to fight against the Islamist mujahideen resistance, which was trying to take over Afghanistan. The Soviets did not enter Afghanistan to conquer it, they went in to destroy the government’s enemy and maintain the PDPA in power. They failed.

And why are we there?

America first invaded Afghanistan because much of the planning and training for 9/11 was carried out there. We have just recently stepped up our troop levels and military aggressiveness in order to conquer the current government’s enemy (the Taliban) and turn the country over to its current leaders (Hamid Karzai and Co.). We probably will fail.

From the Afghan perspective, apart from the fact that we represent democracy and the Soviets represented Communism, there is no difference in our motivation. We both invaded for our own political reasons. After “victory,” we and the Soviets planned to hand the country over to our respective “friends.”

The situation is complicated by what Afghans and other Middle Easterners think really motivates us. They are used to having Russia as a neighbor. It’s déjà vu. As a country with no winter access to the oceans because it has only northern ports, Russia has been trying for centuries to force its way into warm water ports to its south.

America is a totally different matter. With very little history of military involvement in the region, suddenly we are seen invading Afghanistan and Iraq. The only conclusion Islam can make is that America is the new crusader. This is simply because the most memorable and formative thing that has come at them from Europe and points west has been the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries.

During the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, there was much discussion in Republican and neoconservative circles about bringing democracy to Iraq. What do you suppose the difference is between a Muslim being brought Christianity in the first crusades and democracy in the current crusade? There is no difference. Make no mistake about it, the prevalent opinion in Islam, specifically including Afghanistan, is that Americans are the new crusaders.

The real question here is why we think we are going to be successful when no other country has succeeded in conquering Afghanistan? Anyone who reads history knows the odds against success are unlimited. There are a lot of reasons for that history: inhospitable terrain, tribalism, xenophobia, corruptibility, bellicosity, and more.

All those foreign invasions of Afghanistan over the centuries failed because they were undertaken for the benefit of the invaders, not the Afghans. Ours is no different.

Historically, counterinsurgencies seldom win because the insurgents hold most of the cards. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says we will require a five- to 10-year timeline to defeat the Taliban insurgency. Any U.S.-run and financed counterinsurgency is viable only as long as American voters support it. That support will require visible, sustainable progress of the type we are unlikely to see.

American public support, weary after six years of questionable military involvement in the region, will wane. All the Afghans have to do is successfully avoid final defeat, which they certainly can do.

Like George W. Bush, all this president will have accomplished is to kick the Afghan can further down the road for a future administration without solving anything.

That cannot be a legacy President Obama would seek.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East, as chief of the counterterrorism staff and as executive assistant in the director’s office. He lives in Williston.

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Respecting the diplomatic path

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

There are a number of ways to deal with threatening foreign policy issues. You can deal with such problems confrontationally, which is easy because it requires little real understanding of the more subtle facts on the ground. Or you can be smart and deal with them more thoughtfully and subtly. The problem with that is that subtlety requires patience and intelligence.

We have recently faced just such situations in both Iran and Honduras. While almost all our Republican congressmen and pundits have adopted the confrontational mode, President Obama has chosen to take a different, more sophisticated and subtle approach to the problems at hand.

Republicans in the Congress and the media seem to champion any cause that might conceivably embarrass Obama. The recent Iranian election and its aftermath have given them the opportunity to castigate the president for not being more forceful (confrontational) in his comments on the situation there.

By way of background, it should be noted that aggressiveness has been a standard Republican response to evolving foreign policy issues. It’s part of the Neocon philosophy. Yet, there is ample evidence that suggests that this sort of confrontational approach is more likely to have negative results. Where did “axis of evil” and all the other Bush rhetoric get us? Into a nightmare of a war.

It’s not easy to go the other way. Subtlety and finesse, if they are to be successful, require that the implementer of the policy really understands what is going on in the area concerned, as only a profound understanding is likely to bring success. Our recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, examples of aggressive military confrontation, are perfect examples of the pitfalls involved in the confrontational approach. A different, less aggressive approach might have brought a far more palatable result.

Israel is pushing every button it can reach to involve us in military action against Iran. The Israelis would like us to attack Iran directly, or failing that, to condone and militarily support an Israeli attack. Many Republicans have openly supported this approach. “Bomb, bomb Iran…..”

In Honduras, the situation is very similar and very different. To be understood, it must be viewed against the history of various American administrations in the past fifty years overthrowing “leftist” regimes at will, a reality that has created extraordinary anti-American feelings across the region.

Now, a left-leaning Honduran president — who is a friend of the Castros, Hugo Chavez and the other left-of-center Central and Latin American presidents — has been deposed in a military coup. Given our past history of meddling there, President Obama has decided to play this situation very carefully and along with virtually all the other regional presidents and the OAS, has supported the deposed president and the attempt to reinstate him.

The reaction from congressional Republicans is that Obama is supporting all the wrong people in Latin America. This has brought a tirade of criticism focused not on the policy of reinstatement itself, but on the premise that we are in league with the leftists whom they have always seen as their enemies.

In both Iran and Honduras, this new subtle policy is creating real problems for those whom the Republicans would have us confront. The Iranian people know we did not meddle in their riots, partly because we stayed non-confrontational. Ditto for the Hondurans. They know we are on the right side of their issue. Our enemies will suffer more as a result of this new, more thoughtful policy.

For critics of Obama policy in Iran and Honduras, there is no acceptable course of action but to take on the evil doers (Persian clerics and Latin leftists) in a way that makes it crystal clear precisely where the United States stands: Against the Mullahs in Iran and against the leftists to the south. According to those critics, it is impossible to have a valid foreign policy if you do not take the moral high ground and tell everyone else how good we are and how bad they are.

Under that kind of policy, there is no room for subtlety. If aggressiveness worked, it would be OK, but it doesn’t seem to. This new administration is trying a new, more sophisticated way of approaching our foreign policy issues.

Think how constructive it would be if they were not constantly being carped at by the owners of all our most recent confrontational foreign policy disasters.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.

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[Originally published in the Baltimore Sun.]

The ongoing turf battle between Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, and Leon Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has brought back unpleasant memories of the ill-conceived and poorly drawn Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, a legislative process that was started in the wake of 9/11.

It seems almost impossible that there could be a dispute going on over the authority of the DNI to appoint non-CIA officers as station chiefs abroad. It took until close to the end of the Cold War for the CIA to mature to the point where its station chiefs were no longer the product of OSS and the Second World War, but rather of the collective operational experience of the Cold War CIA. Only then did most stations come under the kind of operational management that brought hope for broader success.

And now the DNI wants to put neophytes in those jobs? That is simple insanity. Clandestine operations really do require as much experience as is available. Otherwise, surprises can be very embarrassing.

The simple process of drafting that 2004 law permitted all the knives to come out. It was time for all the angry and ambitious agencies that felt they had suffered or chafed under the overseas coordinating authority of the CIA and its station chiefs to go after increased (if not total) autonomy in their overseas operations. If they could not get autonomy, they wanted to wrest control from the CIA as it was reflected in the role of the station chief. Clearly, what you see today in the tiff between the DNI and the CIA director is a reflection or continuation of that tussle.

All the agencies involved – State, Defense, the FBI, the National Security Agency and others – wanted and presumably still want to be either on top of the overseas intelligence collection effort, or at least free from domination by any other organization. None of those agencies agreed with the concept, as spelled out in the original National Security Acts of 1947 and 1949, that the intelligence community abroad had to speak with one voice and that that voice should belong to the only organization that was involved purely in clandestine intelligence operations: the Central Intelligence Agency.

If you strip away all the politics and petty jealousies, the problem is that there are activities and responsibilities that are best carried out by the CIA, which has been running successful clandestine human intelligence-collection operations for 60 years. They may not be perfect, but they are the best we have.

The other part of that operational collection process is the conduct of liaison with foreign intelligence services. That liaison is critical in today’s operations against terrorist organizations. Liaison services can and do operate highly effectively in environments where it is often extremely difficult for our officers to move unnoticed. Conducting liaison relationships requires the same level of experience and expertise that is demanded by collection operations.

These activities require the best, most experienced clandestine collection personnel in the U.S. government. To vest responsibility for those activities anywhere else at a time when intelligence collection is often a matter of survival is sheer folly. To give an operationally naive DNI that responsibility is irresponsible. It’s just like the Cold War days, when most chiefs of station had been trained for World War II in the OSS. It didn’t work well then and it won’t work well now.

What the DNI can do perfectly effectively is run the intelligence community and the community’s analytical processes. Let them be responsible for the production of Intelligence Estimates. That is an important job that, to an outside observer, appears recently to have been poorly done, particularly in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. What seems to have been missing is the ability or inclination to speak truth to power. To discharge that critical responsibility, the DNI will truly have to control the flow of analysis to the White House.

Of course, what is really needed here is a second look at the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. Because of the pressures generated by 9/11 and the prejudices that existed at the time, it was poorly designed from the start and contains anomalies that need to be corrected. Given the extraordinary lack of interest in Washington, that probably won’t happen, but at very least the DNI needs to take himself and his growing number of troops out of the operational business.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East, as chief of the counterterrorism staff and as executive assistant in the director’s office.

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