The Best Defense

No matter what Gentile and others wish, counterinsurgency just isn't going away

By Col. Robert Killebrew, USA (Ret.)

Director, Best Defense office of Market Garden studies

Even as the war in Afghanistan continues to boil, the defense intellectual crowd has wandered into an unnecessary and counterproductive debate about whether the United States can avoid being involved in future counterinsurgency wars. "Unnecessary and counterproductive" is an appropriate description of a largely contrived argument that distracts brainpower from focusing on the real issue -- the changing nature of warfare in the emerging century.

Of course the U.S. is going to be involved in counterinsurgency in the future, just as we will be involved in all kinds of wars, period. Insurgency is one of the oldest forms of warfare -- an uprising against a government. But the terms under which rebellions are put down are changing fast. Until very recently, the Westphalian attitude of the times reinforced the authority of governments to suppress internal rebellions without too much regard to sensitivities or legal restraints; both the American revolution and Napoleon's war on the Iberian Peninsula, for example, featured insurgencies that were brutally suppressed by regular forces, but there was no thought of holding commanders -- much less governments -- responsible for brutal reprisals.

All that is changing as the world is changing. Nuremburg mattered a lot. The WWII Germans felt no need for a counterinsurgency doctrine -- their reaction to resistance in occupied countries was just to round up hostages and shoot them -- but after the war some commanders were held to account despite the argument that they were only obeying orders, a legal landmark. Punishing commanders for massacres was not only simple justice, but an indication that civilians were no longer just an incidental backdrop to a war. Rather individuals began to be regarded as having rights that continued even during warfare, and even when they rise against their rulers. That principle of the universality of human rights in war is a historic change that is now considered applicable even in modern struggles against the medieval brutalities of al Qaeda or the Taliban. In the 21st century, international law is struggling to replace the Westphalian compact as the new firebreak against indiscriminate barbarism.

This is the nub of the challenge of counterinsurgency (or COIN, as it is known by its unfortunate acronym). People may rise in rebellion against their government, or against the government of a conquering power, but the government's reaction can no longer be to slaughter them wholesale -- as is happening now in Syria -- for two reasons. First, sanctions to punish indiscriminate killing are spreading and increasingly effective, as the Syrian leadership will eventually learn. This is the emergence of the new sensibility of human rights, which will accompany widespread political changes in the new century (as we are seeing today in the Arab world). Second, and more practically, killing alone doesn't work against a determined opposition -- never has, in fact. Insurgency, which stems from political dissatisfaction, ultimately requires a political solution, so the greatest part of any successful COIN campaign requires political solutions that address the fundamental issue that started the insurgency in the first place, while security forces -- both military and, increasingly, police -- try to contain violence and drive it down to tolerable levels.

All this can frustrate soldiers when they get tasked to fight insurgents under restrictive rules of engagement and with little backing from the political class. An American military that in the 1990s trained for violent high-tech short wars has been understandably frustrated to find itself bogged down in an inconclusive, decades-long war that its political leadership has either misunderstood or backed away from. The "COIN is dead" school of military thought is a reaction to that frustration -- and to the damage that our protracted focus on counterinsurgency has done to other, essential military capabilities -- but it is wrongheaded for a number of reasons.

First, insurgencies aren't going away, and the United States will fight more of them. For a variety of reasons, populations and individuals today are more empowered than ever before, and governments are under more pressure to meet the expectations of their people. Political dissatisfaction, mass migration, widespread armaments, and crime are producing an international landscape that will challenge weak governments for decades, and often insurgencies will be supported by outside powers hostile to the United States or our friends. Aggression by insurgency is an old strategy that will recur.

Second, because they're hard doesn't mean we can't win them. In fact, insurgencies are more unsuccessful than otherwise. When states react to insurgencies wisely, insurgents are usually defeated. Colombia is in the process of defeating an insurgency that was threatening its survival a decade ago. The once-inevitable revolution in El Salvador is long over. The government of Iraq is consolidating power and looks to be on a success curve. In all cases, political reforms marched hand with increasing military and police capabilities and the collapse of the insurgency's outside sponsor. One significant point for military planners is the degree to which military power must be blended with the state's police and other civil powers, which until recently was contrary to U.S. military tradition and practice. Nothing changes tradition and practice, though, like hard lessons in the field.

Thirdly, American military (and political) planners and doctrine-writers must understand that the U.S. is not, and never will be, the primary COIN force -- our best course will always be to work "by, with, and through" the host country in the lead, with Americans playing a supporting role. This is a profound change for soldiers who are trained to take charge of dangerous situations. Even in Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. forces faced the worst-case COIN scenario possible -- the absence of a government to support -- ultimate success has not been, and will not be, possible until the local government shoulders the load. We were far too slow to understand this in these two theaters, and too slow to plan and resource local leaders once we did understand it.

Finally, wars are never fought the same way twice, though armies invariably prepare for the last one. The American military faces a daunting challenge -- to correctly draw lessons out of a decade of experience in two wars that will prepare them for the next one, without falling into the last-war trap that a decade of war has prepared for us.   Additionally, the military services know they will be the ones on the ground compensating for weaknesses in the other branches of government. Getting this right in the manuals will be very tough, and may challenge deeply-held Service beliefs and organizational imperatives; a noted COIN authority is fond of reminding his friends "counterinsurgency is more intellectual than a bayonet charge."  That is certainly true -- but no reason to walk away from it.


The Best Defense

Your questions for Crumpton -- and his answers about Tora Bora, torture, Cheney, 'Thunderball,' and good books on intel

Tom: As I expected, your questions for former CIA officer Henry Crumpton, posted as comments or e-mailed to me, were better than mine. So you guys got to ask most of them. Here goes.

Best Defense reader: Do you know who actually made the decision not to reinforce your people at the battle of Tora Bora? How engaged were Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush in the operational details, and did they intervene at any point to specify a different approach or overrule General Franks?

Henry Crumpton: I spoke with General Tommy Franks, CENTCOM Commander, about the need for more American forces at Tora Bora within hours of the request from my men in Afghanistan. The details of that conversation are in the book. I do not know if he spoke with the president, secretary of defense, or others about my request.

Several days earlier I did have a conversation with President Bush in the Oval Office about the possibility of enemy leadership escaping into Pakistan. I showed him maps of the area with possible escape routes, explaining that it would be impossible to seal that border although I noted that more recon/interdiction forces would be helpful. We provided our best intelligence, including confirmation of UBL's presence, and offered our best recommendation but this was ultimately a military decision. Finally, please note that the Tora Bora battle was an overwhelming U.S. victory with hundreds of the enemy killed and no U.S. KIA -- but a victory blemished by UBL's escape.

Best Defense reader: Why haven't we experienced a Mumbai-like attack, with a suicidal group creating havoc in an urban area with small arms and explosives? Is something like that not important to any terrorist group (if not, why not), or are our defenses too effective, or something else?

Crumpton: The Mumbai style attack, with a team of well trained operatives armed with small arms attacking an urban area, has not happened primarily because UBL preferred a massive attack inside the U.S. against an iconic target, an attack with great symbolic and strategic value. Now that he is dead, there might be emerging AQ leaders who opt for more traditional commando-like attacks aimed at dispersed, soft targets. The 2009 attack at Fort Hood, with 13 dead, is one example of an isolated, successful terrorist attack in our homeland. There have been other attempts, including approximately 10 failed attacks in NYC in the last decade.

There would have been many more attempts, some probably successful, if not for our offensive CT operations abroad. There are daily operations in South Asia, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, which keep the enemy at bay. Many of the enemy must worry about surviving (some of them, of course, do not survive) rather than attacking our homeland.

Tom: I know that torture has long existed and been used by governments. But I never thought that the United States would make the use of torture official policy. Do you think I am being naïve?

Crumpton: No, you are not naive. You raise an important point, which prompts important questions. What is torture? (My personal view is that none of the U.S. government approved enhanced interrogation techniques were torture -- except for water boarding.) Are these techniques effective? (I have no experience in these operations, but many CIA officers whom I trust believe that they are useful. In my role as an intelligence customer while coordinator of counterterrorism at the department of state, I benefited from many reports that came from CIA detainees.) If these techniques are effective, should we use them? (This is a decision for the U.S. policy makers, reflecting the will of the American people, because it goes to who we are as a society. The CIA and even the president alone certainly should not make the decision. In our deliberations we must ask what price we will pay for intelligence. And, what price will we pay for not using such techniques.)

Best Defense reader: It appears likely [Crumpton] crossed paths with Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent who has been a critic of CIA. I wonder what Crumpton's opinion of Soufan's reliability might be.

Crumpton: Yes, I did encounter Ali Soufan when he deployed as part of a large FBI contingent to Aden, Yemen, in October 2000 to investigate the al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole. I was there leading the CIA response team. My impression of him at that time was positive: He was knowledgeable, hard working, and his Arabic language was especially useful. I have no way of measuring his reliability, however, during that time or more recently. I have not read his book or otherwise paid attention to whatever criticism of the CIA he has made.

Best Defense reader: Was Osama bin Laden's significance known or understood at the time he was in Sudan? Why did President Clinton decline Sudan's offer to turn him over to us? 

Crumpton: The CIA knew about bin Laden and his emerging role as a terrorist leader when he was in Sudan. There was extensive intelligence reporting about him. I cannot measure the specific impact of that intelligence, however, on the policy makers who received the reporting -- although I can surmise it was minimal given the weak policy response then and throughout the coming years, until 9/11.  

Tom: Was VP Cheney's office a help or a hindrance to your operations?

Crumpton: The vice-president seemed quietly supportive of our Afghanistan campaign during the fall of 2001. He seemed to endorse my briefings with nods of approval and occasional constructive questions and comments. He was always polite and encouraging to me in these meetings. His leadership role in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, set back our efforts in Afghanistan and hurt our intelligence and foreign policy relationships with many Middle Eastern and other allies.

Best Defense reader: What do you miss most about the clandestine life? 

Crumpton: My friends in the CIA, other U.S. government organizations, and foreign allies, including some heroic unilateral sources. I do not miss U.S. government employment. My 26-year run was wonderful, the realization of a boyhood dream to serve our nation. But, now, I love the private sector, especially serving some great clients with great missions of delivering free market power to many parts of the world. I also love the creative freedom and opportunities available to a small business leader and entrepreneur.

Tom: Which national security commentators do you follow, if any?

Crumpton: David Ignatius, Fareed Zakaria (read his book: The Future of Freedom), Tom Friedman, Elliot Cohen, Peggy Noonan, Steve Coll, David Brooks, Lee Kwan Yew, Joseph Nye, Martin Indyk, James Fallows, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and of course Sun Tzu. 

Tom: What is the origin of the feud between you and David Kilcullen?

Crumpton: I did not know there was a feud. Perhaps a brief history? I met David at a Johns Hopkins SAIS conference in 2005 and soon thereafter hired him as a strategist working for me when I was the coordinator for counterterrorism at the department of state. This was an unprecedented bureaucratic and political feat -- hiring an Australian national in that new role -- thanks to the intervention of DNI John Negroponte and others. This effort, I believe, helped advance the important security relations with one of our most important and effective allies, Australia. David proved very competent and worked tirelessly, helping me develop regionally-based counterterroism strategies.

In early 2007 General David Petraeus called me and asked if I would loan David to him, to help craft a counterinsurgency plan for Iraq. I agreed. A couple of years later, after I had launched my consulting firm, I hired David again. He worked for me in that private sector capacity for a year, then departed to pursue other work. I hope that he will continue to contribute to our collective understanding of irregular warfare.

Best Defense readers: What is your favorite movie about intelligence operations? Your favorite novel? And which do you think are the worst? 

Crumpton: Movies. Thunderball....okay...okay....not a great instructive film or a great work of art, but it had a profound influence upon me as a young boy and helped inform my dreams of national service and grand adventure. One of the great suspenseful espionage movies: North by Northwest. One of the worst spy movies: Syriana.  

Books. The novel Body of Lies by David Ignatius, particularly the focus on the relationship between the CIA operations officer and foreign liaison chief, and the operations officer and a local unilateral agent. Other novelists such as Le Carre and Greene are superb artists but I grow weary of the pitiful moral angst, self-loathing, and pessimism that permeates their novels. For a great instructive biography, read Sir Richard Francis Burton by Edward Rice. What a brilliant, brave operative who epitomized empathetic understanding of diverse cultures and the collection of deep, profound intelligence. The worst spy book . . . too many to list.

Best Defense reader: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to become an analyst for the CIA?

Crumpton: Know yourself. If you don't get that right, nothing else matters including your analytical judgments, which will be skewed and contorted. Knowing yourself requires constant testing and measurement, which only happens in stressful, real-life environments. So get out of the classroom and employ and hone your intellectual virtue. Then, reflect upon your actions, recalibrate your course as needed, and practice and practice with deliberate reasoning, emotional value, and enthusiastic optimism. Never quit -- while remembering that a sense of discipline will keep you alive and a sense of humor will keep you sane.