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By Michael Scheuer
Posted March 9, 2008
In this age of mindless phrases, such as "out-of-the-box thinking" and "a time for change," another silly phrase -- favored by presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush -- is causing America's defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq. The phrase is "small, light and fast," and it refers to the kind of military that they think we need to have.
"Small, light and fast" means not your grandfather's Army -- far fewer heavy weapons and far less of the ground infantry that made up the conventional forces the United States has always relied on in major wars. Instead, its proponents believe, the U.S. military should rely more on covert operations and special forces to fight counterinsurgencies and irregular wars.
To varying degrees, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama want this as well. Obama, for example, recently called for "more special operations resources along the Afghan-Pakistan border."
But this approach cannot work. One lesson of the last decade is that our leaders' efforts to win wars with the CIA-led clandestine service and U.S. Special Forces in the lead only delivers defeat. We cannot fight a worldwide uprising of radical Islamists with the type of forces once thought most appropriate to suppress rebels on tiny Caribbean islands.
Afghanistan is the best example of this reality. U.S. covert forces performed superbly there, winning the first battles against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 -- but they lacked the personnel and firepower to annihilate the enemy, against whom we are now losing the war.
This should not be surprising. The clandestine service and special forces were never designed to be war winners; they are meant to complement the application of America's overwhelming conventional forces against U.S. enemies. Anyone who reads works on the recommended book lists of the Army chief of staff and the Marines Corps commandant -- books by such writers as Stephen Ambrose, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and Dwight Eisenhower -- will find little indication that wars can won by clandestine and special forces. Only Max Boot and his brethren at the Weekly Standard, Commentary and the National Review preach such nonsense as gospel.
I know something about the limitations of these kinds of operations because I managed CIA covert operations aimed at Al Qaeda and Sunni Islamists for 15 years. It is clear to me that the most that covert forces can do is to hold the ring until conventional forces arrive to destroy the foe. The CIA was suggesting this back in 1997 -- see Page 349 of the 9/11 commission report -- and it remains true.
Simply and callously put, covert forces cannot kill the number of enemies that require killing.
But if that is the case, then why have recent presidents advocated so consistently for this losing way of war?
The sad truth is that Washington's increasing over-reliance on clandestine and special forces to fight our enemies is the result of our political class' terror of condemnation by the media, academia, the just-war theorists and the European elite if it uses America's full military power. Notwithstanding the murderous war in the Balkans and the Rwandan genocide, U.S. leaders have bought into the ahistorical assertion that human nature and war today are radically different from and far less bloody than they were in the eras of Alexander and Caesar.
Unwilling to apply full conventional military power against our enemies, American officials instead hope that light forces, counterinsurgency tactics and precision weapons will beat our foes with few casualties, little or no collateral damage -- and no bad publicity.
Well, bunk. Victory is not possible if only covert forces are employed, and presidents from both parties have lied about their effectiveness because they will not tell Americans the politically incorrect truth. The fact is that in this global war against non-uniformed, religiously motivated foes who live with and are supported by their civilian brethren, and who are perfectly willing to use a nuclear device against the U.S., victory is only possible through the use of massive, largely indiscriminate military force.
The knee-jerk reaction to calls for applying massive military force is an anguished cry of "oh, but we will lose the battle for hearts and minds!" That is an utterly false claim because the United States has already lost the "hearts and minds" war -- up to 80% of Muslims worldwide share Osama bin Laden's belief that the goal of U.S. foreign policy is "to weaken and divide the Islamic world," according to a poll by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes. More military force could only drive that number up marginally.
The bottom line is that the United States must be defended. Clandestine and special forces must be an important part of this defense, but only in the ways they are meant to operate. They have four basic roles: gathering intelligence, destroying infrastructure targets such as terrorist training camps and arms caches, training foreign surrogates and killing or capturing the foe.
U.S. forces excel at each. The temporary removal of the Taliban regime, the capture or killing of Al Qaeda's first generation of leaders and the killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi prove this beyond question. Moreover, the skill of the men and women in our covert forces at pinpointing radical Islamist leaders and bases is the main factor that allows the effective use of the otherwise useless-against-insurgents inventory of U.S. precision weapons.
But as long as we continue to avoid the broader, Europe-angering death and destruction that are the necessary byproduct of war-winning conventional military campaigns, we will not be able to win. Although the covert services can successfully eliminate the enemy's leaders, its foot soldiers and civilian supporters are not being wiped out. Thus, fallen Islamist chiefs are quickly replaced, and their troops and civilian support networks remain intact. Bluntly put, using covert forces as our main war-making tool ensures an endless struggle against a well-led, resilient and manpower-rich enemy.
It also ensures that our covert services will be weary and weakened when reality hits and U.S. leaders begin applying greater conventional force, and so they will be less capable of performing their role in complementing conventional operations. Our covert forces also are being weakened by the startling growth of paramilitary contractors, which are luring increasing numbers of America's covert operators to the private sector, where pay is higher and assignments are often less dangerous. For a small service like the CIA, it is devastating now and for the future to steadily lose young, talented officers -- who take two or more years to recruit, train and deploy -- to the private sector.
Perhaps most damaging for the United States is that invaluable U.S. covert operations now appear to many Americans (and to much of the world) as illegitimate or even "dirty" warfare. I helped run the CIA's rendition program, for example, and because of the officers who executed it, Americans are a bit safer than they were on 9/11 -- and a dozen senior Al Qaeda leaders are imprisoned.
Overall, the program has scored the most telling U.S. blows against Al Qaeda and was authorized by presidents Clinton and Bush, approved by Congress' intelligence committees and endorsed by the legal advisors of each. But today, many Americans have identified it as illegal, even shameful.
Americans must know that both parties' leaders prefer to fight using covert rather than conventional forces -- -- but that this preference fails to deliver enough lethality to achieve victory. And, sadly, the future effectiveness of our covert forces is being eroded by the twin evils of overuse and bipartisan witch-hunting by U.S. politicians such as McCain, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass).
More 9/11-like disasters assuredly are on the way, and when they arrive, Americans will find their covert services worn to a nub and discredited by U.S. politicians more interested in winning office and avoiding international criticism than in ensuring America's survival.
Michael Scheuer worked at the CIA for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and he helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. His newest book is "Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam after Iraq."