C.I.A. under Pompeo to join Defense Department in endless, pointless war against Taliban in Afghanistan

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Afghan soldiers on patrol in 2011 (DoD photo)

The New York Times reported Sunday that the C.I.A. broadened its Afghanistan mission from hunting al-Qaida and developing Afghan intelligence capability to fighting the Taliban. The piece explained the significance best:

“The C.I.A. has traditionally been resistant to an open-ended campaign against the Taliban, the primary militant group in Afghanistan, believing it was a waste of the agency’s time and money and would put officers at greater risk as they embark more frequently on missions.”

The CIA has a complex history in Afghanistan. From 1979 to 1989, it provided weapons and financial assistance to Islamic fighters with ties to Pakistan during Operation Cyclone. The program was portrayed in the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War starring Tom Hanks.

After the Islamic fighters, or mujahideen (literally those who commit jihad), defeated the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan in 1992, the C.I.A. mostly abandoned the country until the 2001 invasion in retaliation for the al-Qaida terrorist attacks on September 11th.

With the help of a handful of special operations troops, the C.I.A. allied itself with a group of fighters in Afghanistan called “The Northern Alliance,” to overthrow the Taliban government. The Pakistan-backed Taliban took power in 1996 after a bloody civil war as a partial result of the C.I.A.’s involvement in the 1980s.

Then, the C.I.A. let the conventional military begin what has become known as the forever war: dozens of rotations of military officers and units fighting in 6-14 month deployments in Afghanistan with less than ideal continuity between them. After a decade and a half of this, with troop numbers ranging from a few thousand to 100 thousand, the Taliban implausibly controls more territory now than it has since 2001.

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Afghan and U.S. soldiers on patrol in 2010 (DoD photo)

But now under the leadership of Director Mike Pompeo, the former Congressional Representative from Kansas, appointed by Trump, the C.I.A. is back in the Taliban fighting game.

Pompeo is not known for his wisdom or restraint. As a Congressman, he said many foolish things on national security. Whether he was making the point that saying the words “radical Islamic terrorism” was the key to our success overseas, or lying about the support of American Muslims for domestic terrorists, he developed a reputation for deplorable brashness.

Most recently, he was caught boldly lying about the agency’s conclusions on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and saying the C.I.A., shamed by revelations of torture in the past decade, should be “more vicious.”

So, the agency’s counter-terrorism direction under Pompeo may not come as a surprise to some. But it is important to understand that whether the C.I.A. kills more Taliban or not, clandestinely killing militants is not a strategy. The United States and Afghanistan governments both plan on fighting Taliban years from now.

If the U.S. wants to bring peace to Afghanistan — a prospect it pays lip service to, but there are few signs this is a true policy objective —  the only way forward is via political settlement with the Taliban. Merely doing away with deadlines to signal to the Taliban that they cannot wait the U.S. out, as the top general in Afghanistan recently told NPR, will not work.

The U.S. cannot wait out the Taliban. Endlessly prolonging combat is not a strategy to defeat the Taliban, let alone bring peace to Afghanistan. Yet, the only public strategy from U.S. officials is: stay forever, kill terrorists (and Taliban). The Taliban are not considered terrorists under the State Departments Foreign Terrorist Organization list, but the distinction seems moot at the moment since they are getting the same treatment.

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Delta Force and C.I.A. officers in Tora Bora in 2001 (Wikimedia Commons photo)

To bring peace to Afghanistan, the Taliban must be invited into the political process. They will not stop attacking coalition forces — whom they consider foreign “invaders” and “crusaders” — or the U.S.-backed government in Kabul until they have a political stake in it.

A model for this kind of absorption of an armed insurgency into the government as a political party exists in South Africa, Lebanon, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland, among others. The Taliban is unlikely to come to the bargaining table while the C.I.A. are on patrols killing their fighters. After all, killing Afghan soldiers and C.I.A. officers has been much more effective for them so far.

Taliban control districts remain unchanged from last year, despite troop increases and heavier C.I.A. involvement. Additionally, Afghan soldiers and police are dying by the thousands. At least 6,785 Afghan soldiers and police died in 2016 and in 2017 casualties remain “shockingly high” according to the United Nations.

However badly the U.S. is performing in Afghanistan, its leaders — some elected by the American people, the rest appointed by those elected — continue to fight on aimlessly overseas. As the New York Times Editorial Board quoted retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich on Sunday, “A collective indifference to war has become an emblem of contemporary America.”

Five Years After Killing Bin Laden: The Failure of Decapitation Strategy

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Artwork by Surian Soosay

Exactly five years ago last Monday, United States Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden during a raid on the compound where he lived with his family in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

I remember where I was when I heard Bin Laden was dead: in the open bay, cinderblock barracks at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, during mobilization training for a deployment with the Oklahoma Army National Guard. The mood then among fellow soldiers was mostly surprise and perhaps a little incredulity — after all, there was no evidence of a body. Junior enlisted soldiers are, by nature, suspicious creatures.

It took almost ten years after the Bin Laden-directed attacks on September 11th, 2001 in the United States, but on the evening of May 2, 2011, President Barack Obama told the world during a televised address from the White House, “After a firefight, [a small team of Americans] killed Osama Bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

“Looking at al-Qaida’s position in the world today versus in 2011, it is hard to make a good argument that killing Bin Laden worked.”

According to President Obama himself during that very address, the killing or capture of Bin Laden was, until then, the top priority of the war against al-Qaida. But for all the resources that went into Bin Laden’s killing, did, as President Obama put it, “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaida” actually disrupt, dismantle or defeat it?

Looking at al-Qaida’s position in the world today versus in 2011, it is hard to make a good argument that killing Bin Laden worked. In 2011, al-Qaida’s core in Pakistan was suffering from seemingly endless drone strikes, disrupted communications, constant threat of infiltration, and the inability to meet in large groups. Killing Bin Laden did not much change the operational ability of al-Qaida’s core.

However, pre-Bin Laden raid, al-Qaida’s affiliated groups in Africa and the Middle East, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) were much less active.

Since the horrific car bombing in Algiers in 2007 that killed and wounded 180 people, AQIM attacks had essentially dropped off, with no AQIM-attributed casualties in 2008 or 2010 and only 12 in 2009. But after Bin Laden’s death, attacks saw an uptick, with casualties increasing every year, culminating in two large attacks this year using gunmen in Burkina Fasso and Ivory Coast, resulting in 100 casualties — relatively high for attacks not using explosives and a marked expansion from their Algeria-centric operations prior to Bin Laden’s death.

AQAP has seen tremendous growth in the past five years. In 2009, AQAP was estimated to have only 200-300 members, but grew to nearly 1000 in 2014. Because of the Saudi-backed war in Yemen against Iranian Houthi rebels, AQAP has been able to consolidate its power, enjoying the control of a mini-state along the Yemeni coast, much like the quasi-state under the control of Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.

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Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters in the Algerian desert. The stones spell “La ilaha ila Allah (There is no god but God)” (Voice of America photo)

Another al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as Nusra Front or Nusra), did not exist before Bin Laden’s death. But after the start of the Syrian Civil War, Nusra began operating as the official arm of al-Qaida in Syria with the blessing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then-leader of the Iraqi affiliate, AQI. Since its formation, Nusra has become one of the strongest and most organized rebel groups in Syria, second only to IS.

IS itself was once the al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq and then known as AQI. During the time of the Bin Laden raid, AQI was nearly defeated. But the death of Bin Laden, the civil war in Syria, and the withdrawal of American troops combined with an extremely weak government in Iraq created ideal conditions for AQI/IS to seize control of large swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria. While not affiliated with al-Qaida anymore (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has eclipsed al-Qaida’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and perhaps even Bin Laden), IS is certainly more powerful than al-Qaida ever was — before or after Bin Laden.

“The US and its partners must, at a minimum, work harder to quantify the results of their counterterrorism strategies and end the practices that are counterproductive.”

So, if al-Qaida and global jihadism have only become stronger since the death of Bin Laden, it is fair to say that killing Bin Laden was a poor top priority for the United States in its war against al-Qaida. This does not come as a surprise to all. In 2008, Aaron Manness published a study which found that decapitation strategy is not only limited in efficacy, but may actually be counterproductive when used on religiously motivated terrorist groups, who have been found to become more violent when their leaders are killed.

One could theorize that Bin Laden would have been more useful captured alive, but the point is now moot. His death, once the top priority of the US, has done nothing to defeat al-Qaida. Indeed, al-Qaida’s greatest foe today may not even be the US, but rather IS, who is competing with (and for the moment, winning against) al-Qaida to be the world’s premiere Salafi jihadist group.

Should the US defeat either IS or al-Qaida by killing its members, the other will directly benefit. If decapitation strategy does not work, the US and its partners must, at a minimum, work harder to quantify the results of their counterterrorism strategies and end the practices that are counterproductive. The killing of Bin Laden was only one of hundreds of “high value targets” that have been killed in countries the US is not technically at war with — to unimpressive results. Next, the US and its partners must identify a strategy that does not benefit al-Qaida while IS is degraded or vice versa. If they do not, this 15 year old war is not likely to end any time soon.