Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

How Much for a Schlub?

Over at The Corner, Rich Lowry put up a post on detainee interrogations that I responded to. Follow-up posts are available here and here.

Jay Nordlinger steps in to offer the view that, with terrorists, the difference between a “schlub” and a “monster” isn’t much. A pathetic radical can cause a lot of damage with just a little bit of luck.

This may be true, but there is a valuable ends-means calculation that must be considered (also addressed in Julian Sanchez’s post here).

How many times must we use coercive interrogation and get nothing, suffering the inevitable backlash in public opinion and enemy recruiting, for each intelligence success? If you are willing to torture a dozen/hundred/thousand men for each schlub, you will motivate a sufficient number of monsters to make a small tactical victory a pyrrhic one at best, and a strategic debacle at worst.

The big picture trends against torture, or any use of force that crosses the line between mutual combat and violating human rights, or the use of indiscriminate force. The attack on September 11, 2001 crossed that line, and we justifiably responded with military action. The use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT’s) crossed that line, and the enemy used it as propaganda fodder.

The British faced a parallel situation in Northern Ireland in 1971. After employing mass arrests that stoked the fires behind the IRA, the Brits employed “special interrogation techniques.” Former FBI Special Agent and successful terrorist group infiltrator Mike German covers this in his book, Thinking Like a Terrorist (citing Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA):

Among the methods used on the internees were the “five techniques”: placing a hood over the head; forcing the internee to stand spreadeagled against a wall for long periods; denying regular sleep patterns; providing irregular and limited food and water; and subjecting people to white noise in the form of a constant humming sound.

Sound familiar? Violence in Northern Ireland increased as a result of these practices. The Brits crossed the line again on Bloody Sunday when they fired into a crowd of peaceful protestors (possibly a response to IRA gunfire at British paratroopers). The tide shifted in favor of the IRA until they broke the unwritten rules of the game on Bloody Friday, detonating twenty-two bombs in Belfast that killed nine people. Tactically masterful, but a political disaster.

The Bush administration changed tactics in its second term in office, discarding EIT’s and moving away from physical coercion of detainees. This was a sensible decision, and there is no reason for the Obama administration to change course.

Torture and the Broken Window Fallacy

Pouring millions of dollars into some government program, however ill-conceived, typically generates some sort of visible benefit to somebody—if only those who find jobs staffing it. Conservatives normally understand perfectly well that this is precisely what makes bigger government so appealing to so many people: The benefits are indirect and apparent, while the costs are diffuse and hidden, because it’s hard to measure innovation that doesn’t happen. They also understand that it’s a terrible way to assess whether a program is beneficial on the whole.

Yet in his most recent response to David Rittgers—which David himself has already ably tackled below—Rich Lowry falls for a surprisingly crude version of the so-called Broken Window Fallacy:

Unless Rittgers believes that every single one of these captures was of someone of no consequence, or would have happened anyway and just as quickly, he has to admit that the interrogation program helped us track down terrorists expeditiously. Most people would consider that a success and would doubt whether part of Rittgers’s preferred interrogation regime would be quite as effective — dangling the promise of reduced sentences.

This is a pretty strange decision procedure, and one I assume Lowry would recognize as wrongheaded in almost any other context—akin to arguing that a jobs program must be ranked a success if the particular jobs it funds wouldn’t otherwise exist.  Stipulate, strictly for the sake of argument, that some of the particular intelligence we got was obtained more quickly under torture than it would have been otherwise, and that there were particular non-buffoonish terrorists we therefore apprehended more quickly than we otherwise would have. There isn’t actually an argument offered for this proposition—just the assertion that “most people…would doubt” its denial—but forget it, he’s rolling. There’s still a problem here. You can count your intelligence “hits,” but the misses—the intelligence not acquired and the terrorists not caught as quickly as they would have been under a different strategy—are, by definition, unseen. But at least some experts—like former FBI agent Asha Rangappa—offer good reason for expecting the costs to be substantial:

But getting people to flip is primarily a psychological game rather than a material one. After all, the FBI is asking its targets to commit the ultimate act of disloyalty to their country—treason. Few people are willing to make this leap quickly, even in exchange for the most lucrative or attractive offer. It’s an FBI agent’s job to slowly win the target’s trust and help him rationalize his decision to switch his allegiance. In my experience as a former FBI agent who both participated in and observed successful recruitments, it’s much easier to do this when a target has, at some level, a sense of admiration and respect for the United States. A nugget of goodwill toward America offers an agent the chance to step in, gain the target’s confidence, and convince him that playing for Team USA is worth the risk.

Policies like the use of torture make it more difficult for the FBI to develop relationships based on trust. Even when torture is used on a few people and in another country, and by a different agency, it casts doubts on the U.S. government’s overall willingness to act in good faith. Targets often project the skepticism about the United States that torture fosters onto individual FBI agents, who are often the only face of the government they see. In short, torture is fundamentally at odds with the image of the United States as a country that will play by the rules, and that is how the FBI must be perceived in order to do its job.

Conor Friedersdorf offers a longer list of the “strategic drawbacks” of torture, among them:

eliciting false intelligence that squanders man hours; the fact that a torture policy causes some upstanding intelligence professionals to resign, and others to remove themselves from interrogations, hurting our capacity to gather good intelligence; that torture pushes more Muslims into the radical camp, increases anti-American sentiments, aids terrorist recruiting efforts, and undermines support for the war on terror even among significant numbers of Americans; that it causes allied countries to cooperate less with our counterterrorism efforts; that it reduces the morale of soldiers and intelligence professionals; and that “enhanced interrogation techniques” have demonstrably bled into military prisons, undermining our mission in a critical theater and leading to the rightful imprisonment of American soldiers, who were denounced even by the Bush administration.

What kind of national-security analyst ignores all that to argue that because KSM was waterboarded, sleep deprived, and later gave some useful information, the strategic case for “enhanced interrogation” is definitely vindicated?

Again, by their nature, these costs are hard to quantify directly. You’re never going to know about the guy who didn’t flip or approach the FBI voluntarily because he didn’t view the United States as trustworthy. You know what intelligence you did get from the detainee who broke under torture; you don’t know what you never learned from the guy in the next cell because harsh tactics destroyed the chance of building rapport. What seems wildly improbable, though, is that the costs are non-existent. Yet that’s the only assumption on which Lowry’s hasty inference from some benefit to net benefit makes any sense.

Lowry and Interrogation

Veronique de Rugy put up a post at The Corner referencing Rich Lowry’s defense of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and my response. Rich has since responded.

With regard to the apprehension of Uzair Paracha, an Al Qaeda facilitator in New York, it seems likely that the apprehension of Majid Khan in Pakistan four days after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s (KSM) apprehension came from material picked up with KSM and not from interrogation. The key here is that when Majid Khan was in Pakistan, Paracha was pretending to be Majid Khan in communications with immigration officials. Detective work was probably what brought this guy under the microscope.

However, I’m willing to lay that aside because, as Rich points out, there is probably more to the story that shouldn’t be declassified. As I said on Bill O’Reilly’s show, we cannot end this argument until we have declassified all of the dead ends we pursued, which has some serious strategic drawbacks. The CIA recently asserted in court that it cannot reveal any more without compromising sources and methods.

Rich also says that my preferred method of interrogation is “dangling the promise of reduced sentences.”

This is not my preferred method, but it is one that ought to be available to interrogators. Under the Army Field Manual, an interrogator cannot promise anything in the court system. As Matthew Alexander points out in his book, the Iraqi Central Criminal Court has the death penalty attached to almost all of what we consider “material support of terrorism.” I am saying that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is an effective tool if a lesser included offense is on the table so that the first to squeal gets a few years and the others get the noose.

But let’s not discount the lawful interrogation techniques. When I attended SERE, the psychological techniques were far more compelling than the physical ones. We were all young and tough, but the mind tricks that turned brothers in arms against each other were downright disturbing.

Making Enemies in Afghanistan

Yaroslav Trofimov’s article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal explains how Ghulam Yahya, a former anti-Taliban, Tajik miltia leader from Herat, became an insurgent. The short answer: because the American master plan in Afghanistan required the retirement of warlords. The trouble is that in much of Afghanistan “warlord” is a synonym for “local government.” Attacking local authority structures is a good way to make enemies.  So it went in Herat. Having been fired from a government post, Ghulum Yahya turned his militia against Kabul and now fires rockets at foreign troops, kidnaps their contractors, and brags of welcoming foreign jihadists.  Herat turned redder on the color-coded maps of the “Taliban” insurgency.

That story reminded me of C.J. Chivers’s close-in accounts of firefights he witnessed last spring with an army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley. According to Chivers, the Taliban there revolted in part because the Afghan government shut down their timber business. That is an odd reason for us to fight them.

One of the perversions of the branch of technocratic idealism that we now call counterinsurgency doctrine is its hostility to local authority structures.  As articulated on TV by people like General Stanley McChrystal, counterinsurgency is a kind of one-size-fits-all endeavor. You chase off the insurgents, protect the people, and thus provide room for the central government and its foreign backers to provide services, which win the people to the government. The people then turn against the insurgency.  This makes sense, I suppose, for relatively strong central states facing insurgencies, like India, the Philippines or Colombia.  

But where the central state is dysfunctional and essentially foreign to the region being pacified, this model may not fit. Certainly it does not describe the tactic of buying off Sunni sheiks in Anbar province Iraq (a move pioneered by Saddam Hussein, not David Petraeus, by the way). It is even less applicable to the amalgam of fiefdoms labeled on our maps as Afghanistan. From what I can tell, power in much of Afghanistan is really held by headmen — warlords — who control enough men with guns to collect some protection taxes and run the local show. The western idea of government says the central state should replace these mini-states, but that only makes sense as a war strategy if their aims are contrary to ours, which is only the case if they are trying to overthrow the central government or hosting terrorists that go abroad to attack Americans. Few warlords meet those criteria. The way to “pacify” the other areas is to leave them alone. Doing otherwise stirs up needless trouble; it makes us more the revolutionary than the counter-revolutionary.

On a related note, I see John Nagl attacking George Will for not getting counterinsurgency doctrine. Insofar as Will seems to understand, unlike Nagl, that counterinsurgency doctrine is a set of best practices that allow more competent execution of foolish endeavors, this is unsurprising. More interesting is Nagl’s statement that we, the United States have not “properly resourced” the Afghan forces.  Nagl does not mention that the United States is already committed to building the Afghan security forces (which are, incidentally, not ours) to a size – roughly 450,000 – that will annually cost about 500% of Afghanistan’s budget (Rory’s Stewart’s calculation), which is another way of saying we will be paying for these forces for the foreseeable future.

It probably goes too far to say this war has become a self-licking ice-cream cone where we create both the enemy and the forces to fight them, but it’s a possibility worth considering.

Afghanistan = Bottomless Pit of Massive Social Engineering

Obsidian Wings echoes my frustrations about the debate surrounding the war in Afghanistan. Publius notes, “The goal of preventing Taliban control isn’t a sufficient reason to stay.”

That analysis is absolutely right. As I mention in my forthcoming white paper (co-authored with TGC), Escaping the Graveyard of Empires: A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan, the resurrection of the Taliban’s fundamentalist regime doesn’t threaten America’s sovereignty or physical security. The Taliban is a guerilla-jihadi Pashtun-dominated movement with no international agenda or shadowy global mission. Even if their parochial fighters took over a contiguous fraction of Afghan territory it is not compelling enough of a rationale to maintain an indefinite, large-scale military presence in the region, especially since our presence feeds the Pashtun insurgency we seek to defeat (as Publius also acknowledges) and our policies are pushing the conflict over the border into nuclear-armed Pakistan, further destabilizing its already shaky government.

Even if the Taliban were to reassert themselves amid a scaled down U.S. presence, it is not clear that the Taliban would again host al Qaeda. In The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright, staff writer for New Yorker magazine, found that before 9/11 the Taliban was divided over whether to shelter Osama bin Laden. The terrorist financier wanted to attack Saudi Arabia’s royal family, which, according to Wright, would have defied a pledge Taliban leader Mullah Omar made to Prince Turki al-Faisal, chief of Saudi intelligence (1977–2001), to keep bin Laden under control. The Taliban’s reluctance to host al Qaeda’s leader means it is not a foregone conclusion that the same group would provide shelter to the same organization whose protection led to their overthrow.

Moreover, America’s claim that the Taliban is its enemy seems less than coherent. After all, although some U.S. officials issued toothless and perfunctory condemnations of the Taliban when it controlled most of Afghanistan from September 1996 through October 2001, during that time the United States never once made a substantive policy shift toward or against the Taliban despite knowing that it imposed a misogynistic, oppressive, and militant Islamic regime onto Afghans. For Washington to now pursue an uncompromising hostility toward the Taliban’s eye-for-an-eye brand of justice can be interpreted as an opportunistic attempt to cloak U.S. strategic ambitions in moralistic values.

On a side note, another conservative joins George Will for getting out of Afghanistan.

Turning Our Back on Torture

NRO’s Rich Lowry just weighed in on the torture debate with some false assumptions and already-debunked assertions. He says that the Obama administration turned its back on “life-saving intelligence-gathering” techniques.

In point of fact, the United States turned its back on “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EIT’s) a long time ago. American soldiers used waterboarding to gain intelligence in the Philippines occupation immediately after the Spanish-American War. The response? President Roosevelt, who led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill, demanded that the soldiers employing the “water cure” be prosecuted. American soldiers who employed waterboarding in Vietnam were likewise court-martialed. A previous post at NRO’s The Corner makes this clear.

The bottom line? The Geneva Conventions apply to the modern battlefield, asymmetric or not. The Supreme Court said so in 2006, so a new memorandum from the OLC finding that the Geneva Conventions do not apply is out of the question. Re-authorizing EIT’s is a legal impossibility. While the Right tries to argue their efficacy in a partisan fight to prevent prosecution, this is an argument limited to a political rehabilitation, not a legal one.

Lowry also exaggerates the importance of corroborating information that Khalid Shaykh Mohammed (KSM) gave under EIT duress:

According to the IG report, KSM’s cooperation led to the arrest of a truck driver in the U.S. named Iyman Faris who was plotting attacks on New York landmarks; of a sleeper operative in New York named Saleh Almari; of an operative named Majid Khan who had easy entree into the U.S.; and of two Pakistani businessmen whom KSM “planned to use to smuggle explosives into the United States.”

“Saleh Almari” appears to be Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri. I’ve written extensively about al-Marri, who was apprehended in December, 2001, long before KSM was in custody. Here is the indictment.

As Peter Bergen points out, Iyman Faris won’t make the terrorist all-star list any time soon. “In 2002 he researched the feasibility of bringing down the Brooklyn Bridge by using a blowtorch, an enterprise akin to demolishing the Empire State Building with a firecracker.”

Bergen also sheds some light on the collars of Majid Khan and the Parachas (the “two Pakistani businessmen”):

The Parachas are a father-and-son team; the former, arrested in Thailand in the summer of 2003, is being held at Guantánamo and has yet to face trial, while his son was convicted in 2005 of providing “material support” to al Qaeda.

Majid Khan was arrested in Pakistan only four days after KSM was captured, suggesting that this lead came not from interrogations but from KSM’s computers and cell phones that were picked up when he was captured.

The only valid criticism that Lowry levels is with regard to the limitation of the new High-Value Detainee Interrogation Task Force, but not in the way you might think. While limiting interrogations to the techniques in the Army Field Manual keeps brutality off the table, certain law enforcement techniques such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma are valid and ought to be used. Terrorist networks are more like crime syndicates than an infantry battalion in organization; if promises of reduced sentences can get terrorists to talk about their comrades then by all means use them.

George Will Says It’s Time to Leave Afghanistan

Conservative columnist George Will wants out of the war in Afghanistan.  And his recommendation is getting some notice.  Reports Mike Allen in Politico:

George F. Will, the elite conservative commentator, is calling for U.S. ground troops to leave Afghanistan in his latest column.

“[F]orces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters,” Will writes.

President Obama ordered a total of 21,000 more U.S. troops into Afghanistan in February and March, and casualties have mounted as the forces began confronting the Taliban more aggressively. August saw the highest monthly death toll for the U.S. since the invasion in 2001, the second record month in a row.

Will’s prescription – in which he recalls Bismarck’s decision to halt German forces short of Paris in 1870 - seems certain to split Republicans. He is a favorite of fiscal conservatives. The more hawkish right can be expected to attack his conclusion as foolhardy, short-sighted and naïve, potentially making the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The columnist’s startling recommendation surfaced on the same day that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, sent an assessment up his chain of command recommending what he called “a revised implementation strategy.” In a statement, McChrystal also called for “commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort.”

With a liberal Democrat having become president and made Afghanistan his war, and George Will leading the charge, might conservative Republicans rediscover their inner anti-war feelings?