Archive for July, 2010

Russian fears are product of centuries

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

Nations get to be the way they are as a result of the broad sweep of their own histories. The Afghans are a tribal/warlord society because they have survived that way for centuries in a hostile world. The Polish are skittish because they have no natural, effective geographic defenses, and as a result, over the centuries, they have suffered land invasions from every direction.

The recent arrest and exchange of Russian spies underlines some very real Russian realities for us. Over the past millennium, the Russians have found that they are seldom immune from foreign meddling. For them, their “near abroad,” or the countries surrounding their borders, particularly to their west and south, is a national fixation, an imperative that is unlikely to change. It is their buffer against a constantly dangerous, potentially hostile world.

This is particularly important when you consider the fragile, unstable and vulnerable multinational nature of pre-Soviet Russia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It is part of the Russian psyche and for us to be able to deal effectively with them, we have to know and understand that.

This reality under the recent Bush presidency was either not understood or simply ignored. Like so many administrations before it, the only reality that the Bush administration acknowledged was the reality of internal U.S. politics. In the past decade this can most clearly be seen not only in U.S. policy toward Russia, but also in our Middle East policies. We rarely, if ever, let facts on the ground influence our national security policies — intelligence, diplomatic and military. Instead, those policies are crassly governed by the effect they will have on our domestic politics.

We Americans have our Monroe Doctrine, which states essentially that any attempt by foreign countries to meddle in the Americas (our “near abroad”) will be viewed by the U.S. as an act of aggression requiring our intervention. It was last implicitly employed in the Cuban Missile Crisis, or perhaps Grenada or Panama. The Russian “near abroad” doctrine, their Monroe Doctrine, doesn’t differ materially from ours in intent.

During the eight years of the Bush II administration, we took every opportunity presented to us to stick our thumb in the Russian eye, particularly when it came to their “near abroad.”

We pursued the integration of the Warsaw Pact countries into NATO. We solicited the cooperation of the intelligence organizations of the European “near abroad,” ostensibly against terrorism and international instability. We openly spoke of and planned the extension of our “missile shield” into the Russian “near abroad,” claiming it was designed to defend us against nations like Iran, even when those nations did not have the capability to launch nuclear weapons against us. We got involved in the Georgian spat with Russia, once again successfully pushing their “near abroad” button.

All of this was wildly threatening to the Russian weltanschauung, or view of the world. In their normal state of mild paranoia, irrespective of what we said we were doing, they knew what it really meant, and it represented a direct threat to them.

The last century had a powerful reinforcing effect on the Russians’ weltanschauung. During that period, the Russians have been confronted every step of the way by a variety of alliances led by the Western countries and designed to inhibit the growth, influence and power of the Soviet Union and its successor government — and they know it.

For that reason, it is naïve and probably dangerous to fall prey to the premise that today’s Russians are going to succumb to President Obama’s “reset” of American policy and suddenly become our best friends, however well-intentioned we may be.

With centuries of national insecurity behind them, the Russian psyche is simply not capable of such an abrupt “resetting” of the bilateral relationship with America. It is naïve, even dangerous, to think that they are. Having always been beset by enemies, both real and imagined, they have learned that no matter how rosy things may look for the moment, they will ultimately fall apart. Their national life experience compels them to hedge against such calamities.

That is why the Russians “reluctantly” incorporated the KGB Illegals Directorate into their new intelligence service in the 1990s, why they permitted it to operate, why there were 10 “illegals” arrested in the United States, why more will be found elsewhere and why more will be trained and dispatched for work here in America.

Given their history and experiences, the Russians have no viable alternates. It is simply in their DNA.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who worked during the Cold War in East and West Europe and the Middle East, primarily against the Soviet Union and its allies.

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Possibly seeking the impossible

[Originally published in Nieman Watchdog.]

The American effort in Afghanistan is doomed if the Afghans don’t share our goals, and if the Taliban have a sanctuary in Pakistan. Are we prepared to stay there as long as it takes?

We will not reach our goals in Afghanistan unless the Afghans share those goals, and until the Taliban are denied sanctuary in Pakistan.

But these two preconditions raise possibly unanswerable questions.

Q. What has led the Obama administration to believe that there is anything in the history or present realities of Afghanistan that suggests we will ever be able to convince Afghans that our goals, particularly as foreigners, have anything in common with theirs?

Afghanistan is a geographically inhospitable, tribal country whose people are corruptible, indomitable, bellicose and armed to the teeth. The governing ideals for the majority Pashtun people are embodied in the ”Pastunwali” or Pashtun Way, which motivates its followers resist by force of arms or subterfuge all attempts by anyone, particularly foreigners, to change their way of life. Afghans have often been invaded by foreign armies and are strongly xenophobic. They have never had or wanted a strong central government. And most Afghans believe that the recent election of Premier Hamid Karzai was massively fraudulent.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan military establishment has long supported the Taliban, seeing it as a potential counterbalance in its endless conflict with India.

Q. Can we continue our special operations and drone activities in Pakistan without further angering and alienating Pakistanis? Is there any chance the Pakistani government will change policy and actively join our efforts to eliminate the Taliban safe haven in their country?

We are now dealing with our Afghan problems with just over 100,000 troops. Our peak commitment in Iraq was of over 150,000 troops. Afghanistan is a far more geographically complicated and challenging country than Iraq and if we are to “win” there, we will probably need many more troops than we ultimately employed in Iraq. That would entail backing off the 2011 withdrawal deadline set by President Obama and preparing instead to extend our involvement there for years. The most optimistic estimates from General David Petraeus now range around a military commitment of at least seven additional years.

Q. Given our precarious economic and fiscal status and growing, competing national priorities, will we be able to continue the level of support that will be required? Is an increasingly disillusioned America emotionally and politically prepared to commit its treasure to achieve a “successful” conclusion — even if we knew what that meant?

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

In today’s America, it is the exceptional, bright, educated, aggressive and politically aware warrior who gets promoted to four-star general.

Certainly, Gen. Stanley McChrystal fits that mold. West Point and Harvard educated, Rangers, Special Operations, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. Before running afoul of Rolling Stone, he had pretty much punched all the required tickets.

Successful military commanders from all nations can tell you about every notable military campaign in the history of mankind. They are, after all, students of warfare. Thus, Gens. McChrystal, David Petraeus and all their savvy peers are aware of Afghan history, even if our less well informed national civilian leadership of the last 10 years apparently has not been.

An examination of the history of foreign invasions of Afghanistan will not give comfort to those who believe that America will “win” in Afghanistan, even if it were possible to define the precise contextual meaning of that word. In modern times, many have tried and none has succeeded.

Why, then, would either Mc-Chrystal or Petraeus, both knowledgeable students of their trade, take on a mission that has never been successful? They are both intelligent, so the reason must lie somewhere between hubris and politics. Either our military leaders believe they are so good and so smart that they can accomplish the heretofore impossible, or they are reluctant or afraid to tell their commander in chief that the job never has been done and probably can’t succeed. Sadly, as our diplomatic policy is driven in the Middle East by internal American politics, so now is our military policy. Forget reality and past history. After 9/11 it became politically attractive (or, perhaps in Obama’s case, necessary) to invade Afghanistan.

In forcing McChrystal’s resignation, however righteous that act, Obama took a major political risk here at home. That risk was mitigated solely by his politically inspired choice of Gen. Petraeus, McChrystal’s boss, as McChrystal’s successor. In today’s divided and hostile American political world, any other choice, however highly qualified, would almost certainly have seen Obama attacked by the Republicans.

What can we expect from a new Petraeus era? Are we to believe that he is any less well-educated or informed than McChrystal? He was, after all, his commanding officer and shares with him in abundance all those qualities that successful senior American commanders have. Since he already has signed on with the American policy now in force in Afghanistan, it would seem we will see no changes.

On the other hand, what seems clear is that this unexpected change will create a dynamic which will make it difficult for President Obama to turn down any “reasonable” request from Petraeus for support for this Afghan counterinsurgency. Petraeus has already spoken of an “enduring” American commitment that could last years.

Of course, the critical issue is whether Gen. Petraeus believes we can “win” and how he defines that word. In that arena he has already shown flashes of understanding that are not overly politically acceptable in the United States. He has said that the lack of a fair and safe resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is having an ongoing negative effect on the success of our military operations in the Middle East. That is certainly a political no-no in this country.

More recently, the Marjah operation, which is the model to be used in Kandahar, has proven to be fairly effective during daylight hours, but not so great at night when the Taliban sneak back into town and maim or murder those who cooperate with the Americans.

Gen. Petraeus has acknowledged that our summer plans for Kandahar will be postponed until fall, because there is evidence that the majority of Kandahar residents do not want it to happen. More recently we hear that even Afghan children, who used to be quite friendly to our troops, now tend to throw stones at them.

The post-Iraq re-invasion of Afghanistan, which was cynically sold to the American people as part of the “War on Terror,” has now been belatedly acknowledged to be a counterinsurgency issue, as al-Qaida is no longer present there in any significant numbers.

The nature of counterinsurgency is winning hearts and minds. As either Gen. Petraeus or McChrystal will tell you, we will not be able to “save” the Afghan people if they don’t want to be saved.

Whose job is it to explain Afghan realities to the president? Or do the pressures of internal American politics trump those realities?

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 recent arrest of 10 Russian citizens in America on charges of espionage at first blush appears to be a typical Cold War scenario. But it clearly is not.

Human intelligence operations are uniquely equipped to ascertain an enemy’s intentions. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union ran extensive intelligence operations against the United States. They targeted just about any American they could, many of whom were insignificant employees of the U.S. Government and members of the armed forces. In short, the Soviets were omnivorous. They would take anybody. That is not to say that they were unsuccessful, only that their standards were not too high.

The Soviet espionage apparatus included an “illegals program.” “Illegals” were normally Soviet citizens who were documented as citizens of other countries. Armed with the necessary language fluency and area knowledge, they were dispatched to the United States and other countries, primarily to conduct the most sensitive and productive operations that the Soviets had. They had no contact with U.S.-based Soviets.

A Soviet couple who were exhaustively trained intelligence officers, carrying carefully forged or altered Argentine passports and speaking native Argentine Spanish might be sent to New York City to set up a support mechanism for the most sensitive and productive Soviet agent in the U.S. government in Washington. This would be done on the normally valid assumption that, as “Argentine” citizens, they would not be subject to U.S. surveillance and could thus securely handle the important assets in question.

They ran these illegals because they knew that their official representatives were subject to regular U.S. surveillance that might uncover Soviet intelligence’s most sensitive and productive American sources.

When the USSR came to an abrupt end in 1991, there were probably a handful of such illegals already in the U.S. There certainly were KGB officers in Moscow who had worked in support of illegals during the Soviet era. They would have stayed on and joined the KGB’s successor, the SVR, and continued to run illegals operations, albeit at a reduced pace, perhaps putting the Illegals they already had here on ice and continuing to infuse their original program with new blood.

The point is that the expertise required for running such costly, complicated and sensitive operations has almost certainly been alive and well in Russia since the fall of the USSR.

So, why is this different from the Cold War?

It has recently been reported in the media that in 2002 or 2003, at President Bush’s insistence, then-Russian President and former KGB officer Vladimir Putin quietly agreed to no longer run intelligence operations out of Russia’s legal rezidenturas (overseas intelligence offices) in diplomatic, trade and other official Russian enterprises in the U.S. Clearly in the knowledge that the old Soviet illegals program existed at minimum on paper, Mr. Putin had little difficulty acquiescing to President Bush’s proposal.

In addition, it now seems fairly obvious that not only had this Russian program been in place and functioning in the United States for a decade or more but that the FBI has been onto them for a number of years. It does seem a bit unusual that the arrests were not made years ago, which has led to additional press speculation that the White House, for reasons not yet explained, had not permitted the roll-up of the net until now.

Whatever the ultimate truths about this drama, it is clearly not a Cold War remnant. According to documents released by the government, these Russians were here not to handle the most sensitive Russian penetrations of the American body politic, as in the past, but to function as spotters of prospective new agents for the Russians to recruit outside the United States.

Maybe it’s as simple as the Russians sticking with Mr. Putin’s promise to President Bush not to conduct espionage from their legal rezidenturas, maybe they simply wanted to make use of old assets, but it’s more likely that they have simply changed their targeting.

Given the fact that they are now using illegals, their most complicated, costly and sensitive assets, in the mundane process of spotting Americans who have knowledge of and influence in important policy circles, the Russians clearly become far more selective in their targeting.

They would appear, finally, to have come to understand that in today’s post-Cold War world it is no longer profitable to target every American in sight and that the only Americans of any real espionage importance to Russia are those who can report on the most secret American intentions.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East. His 24-year career was focused on the Soviet Union.

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