Tag: intelligence

McChrystal and Direct Action

Fred Kaplan and the New York Times say that the decision to replace General David McKiernan with Lt. General Stan McChrystal as the principle US commander in Afghanistan is another step in the COINification of the Pentagon under Robert Gates. They say we’ve replaced a conventional warfare guy with an unconventional warfare guy.

That’s too simple. McChrystal is known for his mastery of the sharp or kinetic end of the counterinsurgency mission. The command he headed from 2003 to 2008 – Joint Special Operations Command – is essentially the operational component of Special Operations Command, which has really become a fifth service. JSOC organizes special operations missions in war zones.  According to many officers, JSOC has also become enraptured with direct action. That means using intelligence from various sources to plan raids, often kicking down doors in the dead of night, interrogating people to generate more intelligence, doing it again immediately, and eventually capturing or killing insurgent leaders with the intelligence gleaned. 

Bob Woodward’s latest book argues that JSOC’s role in employing these tactics in Iraq was crucial to the supposed success of the surge. But some informed observers beg to differ, arguing that standard counterinsurgency tactics and the contributions of Iraqis themselves mattered far more.  Some complain that JSOC’s aggressive tactics and limited coordination with those in the regular chain of command undermined pacification efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the (recently released!) book on the post Cold War evolution of the US military that I co-edited, Colin Jackson and Austin Long have a chapter discussing the politics of special operations command. They argue that the direct action theory of victory in counterinsurgency is a close relative to the air force’s theory of decapitation, which says you can defeat a nation by attacking its leaders from the air.  They explain that direct action has long been the favored tactic of secret or “black” SOF organizations like Delta Force, but that the wars made it the dominant mission in SOCOM as a whole, crowding traditional “white” counterinsurgency missions like population protection, force training, and civil affairs. To them, that is a problem, because the direct action theory of victory is badly flawed.  You can’t kill your way to victory in these sorts of wars, they argue. That’s particularly true in Afghanistan, I’d add, where distance and poor roads make the exploitation of intelligence far more time-consuming.

I don’t know to what extent McChrystal shares the black SOF worldview. He would probably say that direct action is just part of the toolkit.  It is possible, however, that his appointment reflects a decision to downplay nation-building in Afghanistan and focus more on killing raids and training Afghan soldiers.

It is also interesting to speculate about what Michael Vickers (the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, Low Intensity Conflict and Interdependent Capabilities) had to say about this. Vickers – a key advisor to Gates and a carry-over from the Bush administration – is said to be skeptical about troop surges in counterinsurgency, preferring to train local forces.

According to Greg Grant of DoD Buzz:

In a speech before a defense industry gathering last month, Vickers said he foresees a shift over time from the manpower intensive counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to more “distributed operations across the world,” relying on close to 100 small teams of special operations forces to hunt down terrorist networks, part of a “global radical Islamist insurgency.”

I don’t like the across the world part, but if this appointment means more limited objectives in Afghanistan, it’s good news.

A final note on McChrystal: he reportedly runs many miles a day, sleeps only a few hours, and avoids eating until evening to avoid sluggishness. Apparently the iron-man thing goes over well with Rangers, but I think commanders, whose job is mostly thinking, should get a good night’s sleep and three square.

Pakistan Troops Pour into Swat Valley

The Associated Press reports that Pakistani troops have taken the fight to militants in the Swat valley, ending a three month truce between the government and Taliban forces.

As I argued in the Washington Times almost a year ago, Pakistani government peace deals with militants have a tendency to collapse. Thus, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see the latest “Shariah for peace deal” in Swat already begin to fray.

With this in mind, U.S. policymakers and defense planners must keep in mind the constraints Pakistani leaders are operating under. After 9/11, Pakistan was caught in an unenviable and contradictory position: the need to ally openly with the United States and the desire to discreetly preserve their militant assets as a hedge to Indian influence.

For example, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who heads Pakistan’s Islamist political party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, led large anti-US, anti-Muaharraf, and pro-Taliban rallies in major Pakistani cities after the U.S. began bombing Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan. JUI and other influential Islamist organizations fiercely criticized Musharraf and the military for aligning with the United States and Pervez Musharraf himself was condemned within Pakistan for aligning with America in the war on terror. This dynamic has not gone away.

As I argue here, Pakistan’s six-decade rivalry with India is the biggest impediment to success in Afghanistan. It’s an open secret that elements of Pakistan’s military-dominated national intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), assist the powerful jihadist insurgency U.S. and NATO troops are fighting in Afghanistan; Pakistan’s objective is to blunt the rising influence of their rapidly growing nemesis, India, which strongly supports Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s regime. Thus far, the United States has been unable to encourage Pakistan to ignore its traditional rival and ultimately, Pakistan’s civilian leaders and defense planners must determine if insurgents or India poses a greater threat.

Unfortunately, aerial drone strikes and other stop-gap measures do little to address the strategic drift between Washington and Islamabad. Unless President Obama can reassure hawks within Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus that India no longer poses an existential threat to their country (a promise impossible to guarantee) then the U.S.-NATO stalemate in Afghanistan will persist.

The War in Afghanistan Is about to Turn Nastier

afghanistanWhile Iraq’s security situation has been improving–though the possibility of revived sectarian violence remains all too real–the conflict in Afghanistan has been worsening.  The challenge for allied (which means mostly American) forces is obvious, which is why the Obama Administration is sending more troops.

But the administration risks wrecking the entire enterprise by turning American forces into drug warriors.

Reports the New York Times:

American commanders are planning to cut off the Taliban’s main source of money, the country’s multimillion-dollar opium crop, by pouring thousands of troops into the three provinces that bankroll much of the group’s operations.

The plan to send 20,000 Marines and soldiers into Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul Provinces this summer promises weeks and perhaps months of heavy fighting, since American officers expect the Taliban to vigorously defend what makes up the economic engine for the insurgency. The additional troops, the centerpiece of President Obama’s effort to reverse the course of the seven-year war, will roughly double the number already in southern Afghanistan. The troops already fighting there are universally seen as overwhelmed. In many cases, the Americans will be pushing into areas where few or no troops have been before.

Through extortion and taxation, the Taliban are believed to reap as much as $300 million a year from Afghanistan’s opium trade, which now makes up 90 percent of the world’s total. That is enough, the Americans say, to sustain all of the Taliban’s military operations in southern Afghanistan for an entire year.

“Opium is their financial engine,” said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “That is why we think he will fight for these areas.”

The Americans say that their main goal this summer will be to provide security for the Afghan population, and thereby isolate the insurgents.

But because the opium is tilled in heavily populated areas, and because the Taliban are spread among the people, the Americans say they will have to break the group’s hold on poppy cultivation to be successful.

No one here thinks that is going to be easy.

Indeed.

The basic problem is that opium–and cannabis, of which Afghanistan is also the world’s largest producer–funds not only the Taliban, but also warlords who back the Karzai government and, most important, the Afghan people.  The common estimate is that drugs provide one-third of Afghanistan’s economic output and benefit a comparable proportion of the population.  Making war on opium inevitably means making war on the Afghan people.

As both Ted Galen Carpenter and I have been arguing, most recently in speeches to various World Affairs Councils, diverting military attention to the drug war risks the entire enterprise in Afghanistan.  Already some drug-running warlords have been refusing to give intelligence to allied commanders and are killing government anti-drug officials.  Broader popular sentiments also turn against the allies when they deprive farmers of their most remunerative livelihood.

Washington has no obvious long-term answer to the opium trade–only legalization/decriminalization would take the money out of illicit drug production, but American politicians refuse to admit the obvious.  In any case, the Obama administration should focus on the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.  Ultimately, we should emphasize a solution which safeguards America’s fundamental security objectives in Afghanistan, namely, which precludes any terrorist training camps and sanctuary for those who attack Americans.  Once we achieve these goals and bring American military personnel home, we can debate doing more about Afghanistan’s opium fields.

“Soft” Interrogation Yields the Best Results

My colleague Chris Preble sketches out some of the moral pitfalls that come with authorizing torture in his post.  Beyond that, history shows that utilitarian claims that torture has enhanced our safety are also mistaken.

While torture can in some instances provide valid intelligence, it can also produce false information motivated only by a desire to end suffering.  Successful interrogators from World War II to the modern day have used rapport and psychology, not brutality, to get inside the heads of their enemies.

The Air Force interrogator who helped bag Abu Musab al Zarqawi, writing under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander, says that the difference between an interrogator and a used car salesman is that the interrogator has to abide by the Geneva Conventions.  No torture there, and a good read to boot.

This theme is echoed in Kyndra Rotunda’s book Honor Bound:

I knew one CITF agent and one FBI agent who were Muslims, and both knew how to coax the truth from detainees’ lips.  One word captures their effective, secret ingredient to successful interrogations - patience.  They each spent hours visiting with the detainee, sharing tea, bringing gifts of dried fruits, and talking endlessly about family, Allah, and the Quran.

This should come as no surprise, since it is a repackaging of the techniques of World War II interrogator Hanns Scharff, “Master Interrogator of the Luftwaffe.”  Scharff treated downed Allied pilots humanely, gaining their trust and sympathy while gleaning significant information about Allied air power and advance warning of the D-Day landing.  The Allies wanted to prosecute him after the war for interrogating their pilots so effectively, but dropped the charges when they couldn’t substantiate him so much as raising his voice.  He came to the United States after the war and did mosaic art work at Walt Disney World.

So color me unsurprised when a former FBI supervisory agent says that we gained actionable intelligence by traditional interrogation techniques, and that torture backfired on us.

The release of memoranda authorizing torture will help prevent the U.S. from ever traveling this dark path again.  The U.S. has consistently taken the moral high ground in armed conflicts, contrasting our behavior with the savagery our enemies engaged in for decades.  The historical record shows that mercy, not might, is the key to successful interrogation.

What Is a “Fifth Column” Anyway?

@RadleyBalko points to a Washington Examiner column in which Jim Kouri, Vice President and Public Information Officer of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, says that Obama administration policy changes with regard to the “global war on terrorism” allow “suspected Fifth Column-type groups … to make symbolic demands on agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency.” He says the Council on American-Islamic Relations has called on the FBI to confirm or deny that a number of Long Island mosques are under law enforcement surveillance.

It’s hard to find the answer to the first question this raises: “So what?” Kouri does not make the case he implies: that something sinister lurks because this group, having a suspicion of something they see as wrongdoing, asks the agency in question whether it’s happening or not.

But the piece raised another question for me: “What’s a ‘Fifth Column,’ anyway?” The expression has been around forever, but what does it really mean?

Ahead of the Siege of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War, a general under Francisco Franco claimed that he would take the city with the four columns of troops under his command and a “fifth column” of nationalist sympathizers inside the city.

The city never fell to the nationalists, but fear of this “fifth column” caused the Republican government under Francisco Caballero to abandon Madrid for Valencia and it led to a massacre of nationalist prisoners in Madrid during the ensuing battle.

So a “fifth column” is not so much an insidious group of spies or traitors as it is the threat of such a group which causes the incumbent power to miscalculate and overreact. That doesn’t clear up what Kouri is trying to get across, but it does have the air of unintended confession.

Obama and the Interrogation Memos: The Right Decision

President Obama’s decision to release Bush-era memos discussing “enhanced interrogation techniques” is the right decision. Critics, such as the one featured in this Politico article, fail to comprehend terrorism as a strategy. Thus, they are locked into counterproductive policies like secrecy and torture.

Let’s start with the strategic logic of terrorism: By goading strong powers into overreaction and error, terrorism weakens those powers and strengthens itself. Among other things, overreaction and misdirection on the part of the strong power draw sympathy and support to terrorists as it confirms the terrorist narrative that they are in a struggle against evil powers.

Torture or credible accounts of torture provide confirmation of a suspicion among relatively unsophisticated observers in the Middle East (once known as the “street”) that the United States is a colonist and an oppressor of Muslims and Arabs. Secrecy is a way in which such stories grow and multiply. The results of torture and secrecy are millions of people who believe, suspect, or worry that they and their culture are on the losing end of a battle for supremacy in the world. (We have some of those on the American street, too.)

From these millions emerge individuals and groups — eventually perhaps networks — who devote their creativity to developing and eventually mounting attacks on the United States and the West. (The path to terrorism is not simple or well-understood. Several panels in our January counterterrorism conference explored dimensions of this question.)

Just as important, non-participants in terrorism who are ideologically or physically nearby to inchoate terrorists decline opportunities to undermine the terrorism brewing around them. Terrorists are bad people with ugly ideologies, and their neighbors know it, but these neighbors will overlook all that if they see the United States as a wrongdoer. Because of secrecy and torture, the United States loses these natural allies and the security they would otherwise provide.

But what about the loss of enhanced interrogation techniques? “Publicizing the techniques does grave damage to our national security by ensuring they can never be used again,” says a critic, “even in a ticking-time-bomb scenario where thousands or even millions of American lives are at stake.”

The ticking-time-bomb scenario is a movie plot that evidently thrills some in the counter-terrorism community. But the chance of a significant weapon being acquired and used by terrorists is very small. The chance that U.S. authorities will know about it and know who to interrogate at just the right moment: pure fantasy. Such a moment would only arrive as the result of many, many failures on the part of U.S. intelligence and security organizations to protect our interests.

Even assuming that torture actually works, which is very much in dispute, the security given by having the sympathy of millions of people in the Muslim and Arab worlds is much, much greater than the security of having legal authorization to torture. The security of having world goodwill helps ensure that we never arrive at the ticking time-bomb moment.

If that’s frustrating to torture hawks, there are video games where they can avenge the 9/11 attacks over and over again. The rest of us will rue the failings that allowed 9/11 to happen while we work on sophisticated, strategic counter-terrorism that actually secures the country. Many in the intelligence and security communities have sophisticated views on counter-terrorism and are eager to get on with policies that aren’t counterproductive.

President Obama has made the right decision in releasing the memos — and not just right in some abstract legal or moral sense. It is the correct strategic decision for countering terrorism.

His critics’ focus on one or two trees — saplings like the “ticking time-bomb” fantasy — obscures the forest that would grow higher still should the United States persist in being a secretive torturer.

Mike German on ‘Intelligence’ Reports

On the ACLU blog (“because freedom can’t blog itself”), Mike German has a great write-up that captures the depth of error in recent DHS “intelligence” reports on ideological groups.

German shows that any ideology can be targeted if the national security bureaucracy comes to use activism as a proxy or precursor for crime and terrorism:

A Texas fusion center warned about a terrorist threat from “the international far Left,” the Department of Homeland Security and a Missouri fusion center warned of threats posed by right-wing ideologues, and a Virginia fusion center saw threats from across the political spectrum and called certain colleges and religious groups “nodes of radicalization.” These are all examples of domestic security gone wrong.

“Gone wrong” means weak in theory, threatening to liberty, and not helpful to law enforcement:

If these “intelligence” reports described recent crimes and the people who perpetrated them, there would be little problem from a civil rights perspective, and it could actually be helpful to the average police officer. Instead, they have followed a “radicalization” theory popularized by the NYPD (PDF). That theory postulates that there is a “path” to terrorism that includes the adoption of certain beliefs, and political, religious, or social activism is viewed as another step toward violence. Actual empirical studies of terrorism conducted in the Netherlands and Britain refute this theory, but the idea that hard-to-find terrorists can be caught by spying on easy-to-find activists appears too hard to resist to U.S. law enforcement.

The takeaway: “Threat reports that focus on ideology instead of criminal activity are threatening to civil liberties and a wholly ineffective use of federal security resources.”

Mike German was a participant in our January conference on counterterrorism strategy.