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Archive for June, 2010

[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

There is a major difference between the conduct of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. Critical to the process is correctly identifying the problem and then using the appropriate tools to combat it.

Terrorism has rarely if ever been defeated with military power. Historically, the best tools to use against it are police and intelligence organizations. They are often successful.

Insurgencies have rarely been defeated. This is particularly true when the insurgents are being fought by a foreign government as with the French in Algeria and Indonesia, with the British in Aden, Kenya, Cyprus and Malaysia and with us in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Even under the best circumstances, as in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers, who began their insurgency in 1976, were only defeated in 2009 and then, if truly defeated, by the Sri Lankan government itself!

We went to Afghanistan in 2001 to deal with a terrorist threat. We destroyed the Al Qaida camps and put them on the run. We did serious damage to their hosts, the Taliban. We were still fighting terrorism.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, there was absolutely no terrorism involved in the equation. We won a brief war and then entered into a counterinsurgency. The insurgents were joined by a terrorist group under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who had managed to coalesce a number of Kurdish Islamists and foreign fighters around him. They were ultimately recognized, if somewhat reluctantly, by Al Qaida Central as Al Qaida in Iraq.

They came to Iraq because they were attracted by a target-rich environment that gave them a perfect training ground and recruiting tool for future militants, as well as increased fundraising potential. They worked within the framework of the Iraqi insurgency against US forces. The primary US strategy in Iraq was to conduct a counterinsurgency operation.

By 2009, a number of spontaneous developments had calmed the situation in Iraq, permitting us to refocus on Afghanistan, which, we were told by both Bush and Obama, was the primary scene of the struggle with terrorism.

Yet, Afghanistan 2009 and 2010 is another US counterinsurgency in which our conventional forces have no involvement with counterterrorist operations—simply because Al Qaida has left Afghanistan, primarily for Pakistan and abroad.

What brought us to the Middle East was our concern about terrorism, yet our military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with insurgency.

Counterinsurgencies, however carefully they are run, are magnets for the recruitment and training of terrorists and for fundraising on their behalf. Just look at our recent missteps in Afghanistan and the numbers of noncombatants killed.

Our struggle is for hearts and minds. In fact, moderates, the overwhelming majority of Muslims, hold the key to the success or failure of Al Qaida and militant Islam. Whoever wins them over will win the battle. Moderates are potentially the most effective enemy of and counterbalance to the fundamentalists.

Everything we do in our counterinsurgency operations has the potential to make our struggle with terrorism more difficult because it has the potential to alienate moderates. The mere presence of the US military, let alone their counterinsurgency operations, represents an advantage for Al Qaida that it simply could not create on its own.

The facts that rankle all Muslims include: US military presence in the Muslim world, with the concomitant occupations; the killing of Muslims; US support of repressive and despotic regimes; and the unbalanced US approach to the Palestine problem. These facts all remain, yet all can potentially be changed, particularly and most simply our military approach.

The question is, when and why did we decide that it was OK to run counterinsurgency operations when our original motivation was solely to deal with terrorism? Precisely what do we hope to accomplish with this approach?

We can disengage militarily. The internal US political response to this strategy is a repetition of the “failed state” argument, which holds no water. Terrorists don’t need failed states and they have proven it in Europe and the U.S. Furthermore, there is every indication that the Taliban has had it up to the ears with Al Qaida and would never permit them to re-open in Afghanistan.

If we were to address those problems enumerated above and created by our policies in the Muslim world, we would cut the legs from under Al Qaida and all the other Muslim fundamentalist terrorist groups simply because they would lose the support, even the grudging tolerance, of moderate Muslims.

That’s why Al Qaida approved so strongly of the Bush approach and of the Obama adoption of the Bush strategy.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. A longtime resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in The Herald of Randolph.]

David Kilcullen, one of the world’s leading counterinsurgency experts and preeminent advisor to the US government, says that we must meet certain markers if we are to “succeed” in Afghanistan: We must face the realities of historical and contemporary Afghanistan.  There must be agreement between Afghans and Americans on our goals.  We must eliminate the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan.  There must be a solid, long-term US commitment including a flexible timeline.

However, before anything else, the Obama administration must define the words “success” and “win”.  As the leading free enterprise democracy in the world, we habitually insist that any enterprise in which we are inclined to invest be prepared to show us that it is making progress that will profit us.  That is no less true for the Afghan war than it is for Microsoft, yet our goals have never been defined by either the Bush or Obama administrations.

As a result, there is no way for anyone in this country to measure progress in this war.  Without that ability, we will predictably become more easily disenchanted with our Afghan war than we would if we knew fairly precisely what it was that America is fighting for.  Having once defined those goals, we must face Kilcullen’s realities as outlined above.

First, we need to face Afghanistan’s historical and current realities.   Afghanistan is geographically inhospitable, tribal country whose people are corruptible, indomitable, bellicose and armed to the teeth. The tribal Afghans have never had or wanted a strong central government.  They have often been invaded by foreign armies and as a result are strongly xenophobic.

The governing ideals for the majority Pashtun people are embodied in the “Pastunwali” or Pashtun Way.  It is designed to motivate its followers to support their way of life and resist by force of arms all attempts by anyone, particularly foreigners, to change it either by force or subterfuge.  It is clearly the product of a people who have often been under the gun from foreign cultures and who have evolved their own very efficient way of dealing with such incursions.

Second, we must get to the point where the American administration and people believe that the Afghan political establishment and people share with us a common definition of “success”, whatever that proves to be.  We are, after all, fighting this war for the people of Afghanistan, not for ourselves.  What do they think we want and do they share that goal? The fact that most Afghans believe that the recent “election” of Premier Karzai was massively fraudulent makes agreement on our current activities problematical at best.

Third, we must deal with the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan.  As long as that  exists, we will never “win”.  The Pashtun people who basically comprise the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, straddle the border between the two nations.  That is one of our most difficult problems. If we are to “win” over the Taliban in Afghanistan, we will have to deny them sanctuary in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, The Pakistan military establishment has long supported the Taliban, seeing it as a potential counterbalance in its endless conflict with India.  They are reluctant to do much against the Taliban in Pakistan because of its perceived role in any future battle with India.

Finally, we must be prepared to commit American resources to Afghanistan for a protracted period.  When we invaded Iraq in 2003, the US Army Chief of Staff told us that we would need half a million troops to successfully occupy that country.  The post-invasion period in Iraq showed clearly that he had a point.  We are now dealing with our Afghan problems with just over 100,000 troops.  A look at a topographical map of Afghanistan will tell even the dullest among us that Afghanistan is a far more geographically complicated and challenging country than Iraq and that if we are to “win” there, we will probably need many more troops than we ultimately employed in Iraq.

To deal successfully with this, we will have to back off the 2011 withdrawal deadline given by President Obama and be prepared to extend our involvement there for years.  The most optimistic estimates from General Petraeus now range around a military commitment of at least seven additional years.

In conclusion, we are faced with unavoidable Afghan historical, cultural, tribal and political realities as well as waning world support and Pakistani ambivalence.  Then consider our own realities of growing fatigue and discontent with the longest war in our history and severe economic and fiscal problems at home.  It seems doubtful we will be inclined to continue our Afghan military involvement sufficiently long to achieve any sort of “successful” conclusion, even if we knew what that meant.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.  A longtime former resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.

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Why we lack intelligence

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

The director of National Intelligence, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, resigned from his post in late May. The miracle is first, that given the endemic structural and political issues in the intelligence community he accepted the job at all and, second, that he lasted as long as he did.

The intelligence structure of the United States is broken. It started with Bill Clinton’s “peace dividend” after the fall of the Soviet Union, when many of the most substantively and linguistically talented CIA officers opted for early retirement simply because their ship was rudderless under a White House that should have been at the helm.

It was that rudderless CIA ship that limped into 9/11 and ultimately took the fall for the overall ineptitude of the entire intelligence community.

When the federal government is faced with a crisis and really doesn’t know what to do, it reorganizes. It was inevitable that 9/11 would bring us a “Patriot Act,” a piece of legislation that bears testimony to the fact that its authors and supporters had no idea what they were doing.

The Patriot Act inserted yet another layer of bureaucracy on top of an already dysfunctional, uncoordinated and stratified intelligence community. It created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence when it already had a position with essentially the same coordinating authorities and responsibilities, the director of Central Intelligence.

Because of the way Washington usually functions, a succession of DCIs either was not permitted by the White House to carry out their intelligence community oversight responsibilities, or felt insufficiently secure to try. None of the other myriad organizations in the intelligence community ever had any intention of allowing the DCI, or today’s DNI, to oversee its operations. And it was often politically difficult for any given White House to establish or support the primacy of the DCI, as is clearly the case today with the DNI.

The problems that confront this country in the intelligence arena are many and complex. They start with the totally irrational expectations of the American people who, fed by Jason Bourne, 007 and “24,” really think that they can be protected from evil-doers by the wondrous workings of the intelligence community.

In a world of increasingly self-motivated self-trained singleton terrorists, it is irrational to think that we will somehow escape this period unscathed. The underwear bomber and Times Square were lucky breaks for us, but that sort of thing will happen again and we won’t be so lucky. What we need to avoid at all costs is the real WMD.

We need to keep terrorists from detonating a nuclear device, the only true WMD, on our soil. That is where we need to concentrate our real counterrorism operations – on the potential sources of such weapons and the networks that would be expected to move them should they become available. In relative terms, however unsettling, a car bomb in Manhattan is peanuts!

Intelligence collection and analysis are imperfect arts. Critical analysis is not possible without excellent collection because, by and large, only clandestine collection has the potential to obtain critical information on the capabilities and intentions of our enemies (strategic intelligence).

There has always been a conflict between the collection of tactical military intelligence and strategic intelligence, particularly in time of war. It is safe to conclude that, as in the case of Viet Nam, since our 2003 invasion of Iraq, CIA has been increasingly tasked with the collection of tactical military intelligence in support of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s hard to imagine that the hundreds of CIA officers who have probably been committed to the region for political reasons, have been working on terrorism and WMD. Certainly since 2006, terrorists have become increasingly scarce and it’s clear that the WMD never have existed there.

Rivalries and jealousies exist throughout the IC. Sharing operational information is unusual and IC member management is interested In using the intelligence they gather or protect their relative positions in the IC. Thus the intelligence process, the primary purpose of which is to speak truth to power, always has been used by Washington’s politically ambitious to forward their organizational interests and careers.

Washington could well do away entirely with the DNI structure. It could be replaced by returning the authorities, responsibilities and the DCI title to the CIA Director, where they resided from 1946 until 2001. If they had the political guts, which seems unlikely, they could put enough real teeth into the DCI’s authorities to enable him to really oversee the IC and thus measurably strengthen it.

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 Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

The Soviet Union joined the “nuclear club” in 1949. From that point until the demise of the Soviet Union some 40 years later, America and the Soviets, at the height of their international rivalry, managed to avoid nuclear annihilation.

During the Cold War, the U.S. policy used to counter Soviet geographic expansionism was called containment. It was our policy to “contain” the Soviet Union within the boundaries of what later became the Warsaw Pact nations.

Part of that containment policy was called MAD. They had the bomb, we had the bomb. Each side knew that if it used its bomb, it would be annihilated in retribution — mutual assured destruction. As power-hungry, brutal and paranoid as the Soviet leadership was, they were not suicidal, and MAD probably saved the planet from nuclear devastation.

What, then, makes Iran such a different problem? We coped successfully with a far more dangerous situation with the Soviet Union for four decades. It really did have the military wherewithal to be an existential threat.

An effort has been made to portray Iran as an existential threat to the United States. How can that be when it has no bomb today and, even if it did, has no way to deliver it to the United States? One day we are told that Iran has given up its nuclear weapons development program. Then, days later, we are told that it is going full-tilt. What is the truth and why does it matter?

In the interest of a real examination of the subject, let’s stipulate that Iran is developing the bomb. In fact, in that dangerous part of the world, given the historical animosities between Iranians and Arabs and Shia and Sunnis, and under constant threat of military action from the United States and Israel, it is not hard to understand why the Iranians would want it. With the bomb already in the hands of neighbors Pakistan, India and China, they have even more motivation.

So, they are going ahead with the bomb. Why are they doing that? They are doing that because having a bomb is the ultimate lever of power, and staying in power is what today’s Iran is all about. Whether it is the ayatollahs, the Revolutionary Guard or the current political leadership, their obsessive aim is to maintain their grip on power. Given the hostile realities of their neighborhood, they correctly see the bomb as a critical component in that quest.

At 77 percent, Iranians are highly literate. They have a long and distinguished history. They know who they are, and they believe they should have more influence in their neighborhood than has been granted them since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. But remember, they are not suicidal.

Iran was a player in the Cold War and understands how the West dealt with the Soviet threat. The Iranians understand MAD. They know that if they were to acquire the bomb, any use they might make of it — say, against Israel or some other American friend in the region — would result in the obliteration of their country.

In short, like all other members of the nuclear club, they know that the bomb is useful only as a threat. It is essentially useless as a weapon because its use leads inevitably to annihilation.

That is the knowledge that makes MAD feasible: Iran is a nation run by intelligent people who do not want to lose power, but who also do not want to be destroyed. Having the bomb is one thing, using it is another.

This is precisely the kind of situation that is made to order for a successful containment policy in which the salient feature is mutual assured destruction. The difference is that in the case of Iran, there is no “mutual.” We have all the hardware on our side and even if Iran chose to do so, which is highly unlikely, it would take it endless decades to get to the point where it could even effectively challenge, let alone destroy, us.

Finally, Iran knows full well that any unprovoked attack against Israel would amount to an attack against us, with all its horrendous consequences for Iran.

There simply is no reason for us to attack Iran and endless reasons, like our vulnerable presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, for us not to.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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