On the weekend, The New York Times ran an interesting story about how U.S. Army Major General Michael Nagata, the commander of our Special Operations Forces (SOF) in the Middle East, has been reaching out to experts far beyond the Pentagon, the Intelligence Community (IC), and the U.S. Government altogether, to better understand what drives the Islamic State. Since that war is clearly not going very well, and MG Nagata’s elite forces form the point of the spear there, listening to alternative voices is always commendable. As NYT noted:
Business professors, for example, are examining the Islamic State’s marketing and branding strategies. “We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it,” [Nagata] said, according to the confidential minutes of a conference call he held with the experts. “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”
Who is we, General? This is not to pick on Nagata, whom I’ve never met but who possesses a fine reputation in the snake-eater community, but in the more than thirteen years since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC, the Pentagon and the IC have spent shocking sums of money trying to understand the enemy, what is properly termed Salafi jihadism. They have consulted experts, inside and outside the Beltway, constantly, for years, hiring them for every imaginable sort of briefing, roundtable, seminar, and professorial BS-session.
I know, because I’ve had a front-row seat. Before I left the IC in 2005, I was an inside expert on what used to be termed “Al-Qa’ida and Associated Movements,” and since then I’ve been an outside expert, and I’ve been called upon to offer counsel on numerous aspects of the Salafi jihad. Many and diverse are the voices that have proffered their advice to the U.S. Government since 9/11. Over the years, I’ve offered my views to various IC agencies and the Pentagon, plus Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which is charged with waging whatever we’re calling the Global War on Terrorism this week. Expert advice is one thing SOCOM cannot claim there has been any shortage of.
Frankly, if MG Nagata thinks “we” don’t understand Salafi jihadism, he’s the one who’s not been paying attention. To be fair, he’s spent the last dozen years kicking in doors rather than reading books and listening to lectures on Salafi jihadism, but this begs the question why he’s been given such an important task, heading up SOF in Central Command, when the defeat of the Islamic State is urgently required, if he’s not clear who the enemy is and what makes him tick.
Salafi jihadism is not an especially complex ideology — see my book on Al-Qa’ida’s strategic and operational thinking, and throw in my book on its development in the 1990’s for a chaser — and the Islamic State variant, which is simply a particularly virulent strain of the Salafi jihadist bacillus, is so dumbed-down for the Internet age that its barbaric essentials can be clearly enunciated in a half-hour. There are dozens of fine books, covering every aspect of the enemy’s worldview, that I can recommend to anybody who would like to read them.
You don’t get to be general in today’s U.S. Army by being a scholar or bookworm, not even in the SOF world, which is a bit more tolerant of oddballs than the regular combat arms. Acting like a scholar-warrior is sometimes beneficial — see David Petraeus, who knew how to act like one,
despite because of his shake-n-bake Ph.D. and lack of scholarly output; Dan Bolger, who recently retired as a three-star, did less well as an actual scholar-warrior who wrote books and had real ideas.
The Army — the same is true, to varying degrees, of all our armed services — promotes officers on their ability to command, not their ability to know things. Whether this is wise, in the 21st century, is an open question. It seems to have gotten us nothing but strategic defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, as LTG (ret) Bolger has recently explained, painfully and accurately.
Why the U.S. military cannot process and “weaponize” the often excellent outside advice it pays large sums of money for is also an important question. Gigantism is a serious problem: DoD and the IC are so huge and sprawling that getting the right message out in a coherent fashion seems impossible. Neither do personnel policies help. The military’s professional development and assignments process makes developing serious expertise in anything challenging in the extreme, unless an officer is willing to commit career suicide. Short tours “in country” likewise prevent the development of necessary knowledge on the ground. Simply put, the Pentagon and the spooks have assembled a “kill chain” without precedent in military history, between drones, related technology, and SOF that are the envy of the world, but such tactical prowess does not strategic success make.
None of these problems can be said to be new. We have repeated many of the identical shortcomings that plagued the Pentagon in Vietnam, where knowledge of how to do counterinsurgency was never the problem: actually doing it successfully was. A key role was played by the CIA officer Robert Komer, known universally as “Blowtorch Bob” for his intellectual tactlessness; it says something that Komer relished the nickname. Komer was a very smart man whose unstated role in Saigon was that of professional gadfly/asshole.
A Harvard man with the vanity to match, after Army service in World War II Komer joined the newly established CIA and made a successful career untangling knotty problems. In Vietnam, he became the dog who caught the car, being appointed the counterinsurgency “czar” in 1967, charged with heading the multi-agency effort to defeat the insurgent Viet Cong. This he was unable to do, despite enormous energy and self-confidence, plus having the ear of President Lyndon Johnson. In the end, bureaucratic dysfunction, civilian and military, proved too great a challenge for Komer’s indefatigable energy. The Pentagon system was as much an adversary as the Viet Cong, despite — or perhaps because of — the huge sums spent on counterinsurgency in Vietnam.
As payback in the guise of analysis, he authored an epic study for RAND of what went wrong, memorably titled Bureaucracy Does Its Thing. It is required reading for anybody who wants to understand what befell American-led pacification in Vietnam, while for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan it will be an uncomfortably “living document.” To be fair to Komer, the bureaucratic mess he could not untangle in Vietnam may appear a paragon of efficiency compared to the literally incomprehensible disaster the Pentagon has made of reconstruction in Afghanistan.
American politics are often a hindrance to success too. Admiral Bill McRaven, who headed SOCOM from 2011 to 2014, representing the rare four-star man of action with a vision to match, proved unable to overcome Congress, despite having the huge cachet of being the SEAL who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden. McRaven’s vision was to develop SOCOM into a Combatant Command actually capable of waging the war on terrorism strategically, templating what worked in the Greater Middle East globally. That admirable vision, however, broke up on the rocks of Congress.
The problem is that, thanks to an accident of history, SOCOM is headquartered in Tampa, far from the Beltway and therefore is “out of the loop” on a lot of important discussions: nothing beats face-time, as any spook will tell you. To make matters worse, SOCOM has long been a dumping ground for DoD civilians who prefer the easy life of Florida’s Suncoast to Beltway games, with the result that most of its permanent staff, its institutional memory, can be charitably termed second-rate, with a more than minor element comprised of what the Pentagon terms ROJ: Retired on the Job. It does not help matters that no snake-eater worth his salt wants to be in Tampa, thousands of miles from the action that makes careers.
To remedy this, McRaven established a Washington, DC, beachhead for SOCOM, to work seamlessly with the alphabet soup of agencies that enables its top secret mission, plus Congress too. If the Command could not be moved from Tampa, a little bit of it could move inside the Beltway. This Congress would not allow. Despite the fact that no jobs would be transferred from Tampa — the DC office would be new positions, and only a few dozen of them — Congress balked and killed the idea over the usual petty concerns. Thus does SOCOM remain out of the game on many important issues, which may partially explain why General Nagata does not know things he really should.
The problem of not knowing things they need to extends far below the general officer ranks, however. Nobody knowing anything is a broader problem, as I’ve explained before, that plagues the entire U.S. Government. The military’s version, however, is caused in large part by personnel policies that rotate officers out before they can learn much about the job and its particular problems. The old wag that America did not fight a ten-year war in Vietnam, it fought ten one-year wars, has been more or less repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To provide a concrete example, a few years ago I paid a visit to a four-star “in theater” who was having problems getting a handle on the local Islamic radical network which, in customary fashion, was entangled with tribalism, organized crime, and opaque personal politics. This was a country and network I knew well so I became the small-scale Komeresque dog who caught the car, being tasked with untangling a bona fide mess.
Unlike many four-stars, this was one who, frustrated with a lack of answers to his questions from his own staff, was eager to listen to what a mere civilian/reservist had to say. He wanted to be an intelligence analyst, deep down — this is less uncommon in the top ranks than one might imagine — so we spread out a vast chart, bigger than the biggest table his command had, poring over the line-and-block diagrams elaborating various radical networks (this is the sort of thing the IC loves, an impressive-looking layout to compensate for lack of vital information). The command’s intel shop (the Two or Deuce in local parlance), a couple dozen people with reachback to all the IC agencies back home, with their vast databases, had pulled together an “order of battle” of the local radical network based on all the Top Secret SIGINT and HUMINT they could find.
While they knew who the top half-dozen radicals in-country were, there was simply nothing to link them; based on reams of most classified U.S. and Allied intelligence, obtained at vast sums of money, there was no connection: their sub-networks, of myriad thug-groups and fronts, did not touch. What was going on here, our four-star wanted to know. So I told him.
These half-dozen Islamist baddies had served together in military intelligence under the previous regime; half of them had served in the very same unit. They were old comrades.
The four-star’s face went ashen. Then a stream of expletives burst forth, beginning with “Why the f*** did you not tell me this?” aimed at his intelligence chief, and going downhill from there.
“Um, we didn’t know, sir,” was the unsatisfactory reply. The four-star pointed at me, asking: “How the hell did you know this?”
“Everybody knows this, sir,” I answered, truthfully. I explained that these connections were well known to locals, they were anything but secret. They had even been discussed in the local media. But nobody in the command bothered to read the local media in detail, or even could, so they missed what the average fruit vendor on the streets of the city was aware of.
As usual, we had a whole command full of generalists, people skilled at writing intelligence assessments but incapable of grasping how the country there were in actually functioned. In a few months, every single officer who got yelled at in that SCIF would move on, to be replaced by equally smart yet uninformed staffers who can send countless RFIs (Requests For Information) back to DIA, NSA, and CIA, but don’t actually know much about the country they’re standing in.
This is the American system. This is how we wage war. This is why we keep losing.
The U.S. military is superbly equipped and magnificently trained, at great expense. Its special operators represent a secret killing machine without equal. Our troops are intelligent and well educated. They are, however, not always informed.
Eschewing genuine expertise and knowledge is a choice. One the Pentagon keeps making. We will keep losing wars until we make different choices. In the meantime, there are platoons of outside experts willing to share their expertise, at princely sums, to generals and their staffs…over and over again. Bureaucracy will keep doing its thing.
P.S. I am aware that this piece will result in me being pronounced persona non grata at the Pentagon, but if this plea saves one American life, much less prevents a winnable war from being lost, I am happy.