Covert Ops & Assassinations: Why It's the Future, and What It Takes (v 0.7b)
by Joe Katzman at March 11, 2006 03:53 PM
(The following post was originally supposed to be a first draft, for revision and publication by Tuesday or so. Unfortunately, it was set on something besides "Draft" when I saved it and went to the local support Denmark rally. By the time I got back, too many comments to take it offline. Sooo... now it's a "work in progress." Comments and serious thoughts welcome, and they can still shape the essay's final form.)
In "Democrats, Netroots, And Fantasy Policies," Marc said:
He backed up his argument that this is a Bad Idea in "Hit Squads and Pacifists," so definitely go read that. He's correct in noting that this is NOT a risk-free policy, on a number of levels. Having said that, I disagree with Marc that we cannot or should not do exactly this.
I'll explain why in a moment - but first I'll note the problem I have with Democratic Party proposals (not infrequently from its Dean wing) to adopt this "hit squad" approach. It's different from Marc's.
My problem is that they're lying through their teeth.
It's hard to tell if the core problem is that they're dishonest with themselves, or if they're just lying blatantly to us. But in the end, they're dishonest either way. That's because actually executing the policy they recommend so blithely demands a number of things the Democratic Party will never in a million years support.
Still, I think they're on to something. So let's discuss...
Frameworks: From The Westphalian Delusion to The Islamic War
Technology Curves, Netwars and Leadership
The Covert Model: What It Takes
Frameworks: From The Westphalian Delusion to The Islamic War
I'll begin by addressing Marc's argument. Yes, sending military forces into another country to kill terrorists is indeed an act of war. So is harboring terrorists who are levying war against the USA, and refusing to address the problem and live up to one's sovereign responsibilities by going after them. Acts of war in response are fair game.
Still, speaking of "War" in the abstract misses some critical distinctions, not to mention a few tectonic shifts. So let's look at "war" as we understand it today.
The defining feature of the Westphalian model vis-a-vis warfare is often taken to be the industrialization of war, and the development of total war doctrines. Actually, that was a side-effect. The defining feature of the Westphalian model was actually something different, but related: it made things very neat and easy. The Treaty of Westphalia was itself the culmination of a long evolution from the tangled mess of often-competing feudal obligations, and technological shifts that steadily favoured central power over the peripheries. It this new model, the players were always visible (though their strategies may not be), they had defined addresses, and they encompassed those within their defined borders.
Total War doctrine was a nearly inevitable consequence of marrying that visibility with technology at or above an Industrial Age level.
As we've seen with increasing clarity since 9/11, however, the sovereign state's relevance is diminishing. Modern technology, globalization, and the decision to place vast oil resources in the hands of the Arab/Islamic world's quasi-civilization have put increasingly powerful destructive ability in the hands of smaller and smaller actors. Like it or not, destructive power is a form of power that vaults its wielders onto a stage whose size is commensurate with the size of their destructive capabilities.
Lately, the big stage has been getting more crowded.
The combination of Islam's inability to live peacefully with other faiths on an equal basis, and an Arab/Persian political model in which secret societies have played a major role for centuries and centuries, practically guaranteed what came next.
Worse, the rulers of the nominal Westphalian states created within the Islamic sphere are often useless, and frequently part of the problem. Nobody who has been reading Winds for any length of time can dispute the deep duplicity among many if not most rulers in the Islamic world, and the broad (and carefully nurtured) support within the ummah for the subjugation and/or murder of those who profess other faiths. With few exceptions, their rulers will cooperate in broad counter-terrorism efforts only if forced to do so, and not otherwise. The entire 1990s was one long lesson in that.
Which means that without a steady stream of unintentional favours from the enemy, or repeated demonstrations that outsiders will break regimes and even societies in retaliation, cooperation will ebb.
Short of full-scale invasions, therefore, there really isn't much alternative if you want to get al-Qaeda's leaders, recruiters, et. al. in many of the rat-holes they choose to hide in. The "law enforcement" model is utterly incoherent when there is no law to speak of, or when its local representatives are in cahoots with the bad guys.
Ultimately, the Westphalian model is a relic, unsustainable in an age of declining WMD curves and terrorists who seek mega-death. Lee Harris laid it all out in his 2003 essay on the transition toward "neo-sovereignty". I have yet to see his underlying logic refuted convincingly, and notes from folks like our own Tim Oren re: the bioterrorism technology curve only strengthen Harris' points. One can also read articles like Professor Stephen D. Krasner's Jan/Feb 2005 Foreign Policy Magazine article "The Day After" and Thomas Nichols' Fall 2005 World Policy Journal article "Anarchy and Order in the New Age of Prevention":
As I noted in The SPECTRE of Terror, Inc., the Arab/ Islamic world isn't the only potential locus for this problem - just the most visible, dangerous, and pressing one at present and for the foreseeable future.
The question isn't IF the Westphalian model of territorial sovereignty will fall from its place as the first rule of international relations. The question is WHEN this century it will happen, after what price in lives, and what form its replacement will take.
Marc seems to want to preserve the model as long as possible. I can't see why. If you can see the train coming, get the hell off the tracks.
Is all of this quoted from blogs or is some of it your own words?
Technology Curves, Netwars and Leadership
Once we accept that we're transitioning toward a fundamentally different world, where the old rules are breaking down and new ones must eventually emerge, we can start noticing some themes within the changes. One is a change in the provocations that trigger warfare, which in turn brings other changes in its train. A full-court preventative doctrine press can take several basic forms, and many of them include medium to large-scale semi-covert warfare. Especially as access to large-scale violence falls from the exclusive possession of the Westphalian nation-state.
Robert Kaplan, who wrote "Warrior Politics" as well as "Imperial Grunts," writes about this phenomenon, and notes the pivotal role key leaders play in mobilizing anarchy within uncompetitive cultures. In "Warrior Politics," he adds:
Waiting around for semi-failed states like Pakistan to stop them is a poor option indeed - one that will be forestalled only by the judgment that other options are poorer. The fact that most of the judgments which now keep al-Qaeda safe in Pakistan, and give it the prospect of gaining control of a nuclear state, revolve around past failures in allowing an unstable Islamic regime access to nuclear weapons in the first place... is something that should be lost on no-one. Kaplan adds:
This is logical as a Westphalian model develops. Wars are between states. Having leaders who are in control of their powerful new centralized states is necessary for surrender to be as efficient as possible. Once the acknowledged leader has surrendered, we can discuss changes to boundaries, penalties to the losing state, et. al.
Eventually, the logic of industrialization pushed states toward total war doctrines that aimed to destroy the total warmaking capacity of the enemy. Even then, however, enemy leaders (unlike enemy commanders), were not targeted directly for death. After all, who would then possess the legitimacy to compel surrender at the earliest possible date? Which, given the immense destructiveness of total war, is a highly desirable thing.
Keeping the leader alive to the end in Western Westphalian systems was never about morality - it was about efficiency.
So, what happens when the Westphalian model breaks down? Well, for starters, the efficiency of keeping the enemy leader alive declines as well. Indeed, if the enemy leader is essentially a gang leader/ fanatic (eg. al-Qaeda, also the Rwandan Hutu regime - and recall how dangerous gangs and fanatics can now be) or a singular warrior-strongman (eg. Hugo Chavez, Idi Amin) where "L'etat, c'est moi" is more or less true, the calculus doesn't just decline. It reverses.
In the case of warrior gang leaders and fanatics, the destruction of our assumptions means that keeping leaders alive now has negative value. Fodder is abundant in the failed states and backwaters of the world. The ability to mobilize them is less abundant. The ability to mobilize them effectively is less abundant still.
On a different level, we have singular warrior-strongmen. We know the type well. Idi Amin's Uganda. Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Milosevic's (and as we've discovered, perhaps as much so his Marxist sociology professor wife's) Serbia. Killing them won't end the conditions and attitudes that produce threats - but it will change the malevolence and internal strength of those who arise from it, and raises the possibility of imposed peace. Can anyone doubt that without Idi Amin, a large percentage of the Ugandans he killed would be alive today (by some estimates, up to 10% of the population)?
The ancient wrote about such people, and understood them. Most of all, they understood that some people are not "just like us." Achilles, in the Iliad:
Anyone who has made even a cursory study of the modern world can see the portrait, and the type. And to study even the Second World War, and contrast masterful, expansionist tyrants at the level of Hitler or Stalin with the pale imitation also-rans that ran allied regimes or rose within their own ranks is to know that leadership and breadth of ambition matter. A lot.
For Hitler and Stalin, however, it also mattered that they seized control of large and powerful countries. A Hitler who had risen to rule Hungary wouldn't be someone we'd be talking about much today.
The modern catch is this: as access to extremely destructive technologies gets easier, that last requirement ceases to apply. Malevolent and unstable warrior-leaders in places that would once have been out of the way backwaters cease to be a mere inconvenience, and become instead a serious potential threat if their ambitions extend to the wider global stage or are connected to movements that do. Indeed, the transformation goes beyond this: in weak and/or failed states, the talented and ambitious tyrant, and not the Westphalian state, becomes the primary locus of the threat.
To allow such people endless opportunities to mobilize cannon fodder, plot potentially massive destruction, and further destroy the building blocks of civil society under their rule (thus fostering future anarchy), while sparing them retribution, is not just ineffective - it's negatively effective. Bordering on "suicidal" if their intent is deeply hostile.
Therefore, they must die. Fortunately, advances in Western capabilities are giving us more and more tools to make that happen if we wish.
You say that anarchy will follow if we kill them? They are mortal anyway, and leave ashes behind them in their societies. They are hostile, and growing more capable, and seek ashes as their reward. Rest assured, what you fear will happen anyway if you're fool enough to leave them alone.
Arafat is especially instructive, in that he's a crystal clear example of the warrior leader who will always choose war over civilization, domesticity, or building; and destroy utterly such civil socieites as exist around them. What followed his passing was the only thing that ever really could have. Ariel Sharon, a warrior in a more ancient mold, saw this clearly. And planned for it.
Israel knew why it had to wait - because of the logic of being a small state not fully free to make its destiny, and hemmed in by hostile "allies" it could neither repudiate nor cross over Arafat. Hence the wall's construction without the corollary of hastening the the enemy leader's death. As it happens, nature obliged Israel in its timing anyway.
The bottom line technology and trends are conspiring to make people the center of gravity again in future wars - and Israel's entrapped state will not always hold elsewhere. Hence Kaplan:
To which I say: absolutely, it would.
I'm just not quite as optimistic. It will be possible some of the time, but intelligence is imperfect at the best of times, decoys and ruses can trump even high tech, and options won't always be so clean. Sometimes it will all come together, and our options really will be that clean.
When they are, we should seize them. With special forces, or JDAMS, of shells fired from rail-guns. Whatever. Technology's advance creates tools and hence new options for us as well.
Yet the logic of the age drives us further still. Given decentralizing command-and-control technologies, this level of strategic threat is not confined to rulers of countries. To focus on the rulers of states alone is to destroy one of the Westphalian model's key boundaries, while retaining the key habits of mind whose failure in the modern world made it necessary to step beyond the model in the first place. Which is why this inuunction can also apply to residents, if they are sufficiently talented and connected to networks of destruction.
Many people have grasped this on a gut level since 9/11. Some states have, in fact, grasped this for a long time - and acted on it.
This approach is especially effective against terrorists and other Netwar practictioners. As fissures are widened and key people die, the competence, trust, and other key assets required in order to wage Netwar effectively will be in ever-shorter supply. Continued pressure means the death of long-term planning, and a sharp decline in effectiveness. Thus putting off the threat of large-scale attacks by forcing Netwar organizations to operate on a different time/technology curve. If, indeed, they don't dissolve and fragment into fratricide.
Even warrior-tyrants are susceptible to this pressure. Living on the run all the time has its own stresses and inefficiencies, and reduces their ability to supervise subordinates securely while multiplying opportunities for betrayal. If a straightforward kill policy is backed by determined intelligence efforts aimed at subversion and overthrow, it can be quite effective in situations where either approach alone would produce nothing. and of course, if the kill policy is successful all kinds of opportunities for subversion, power plays, or even simple fomenting of internal chaos open up.
This concept of combined action is critical. As the example of Israel's wall illustrates, even removal of enemy leaders must be part of a broader policy that aims at a larger strategic logic. Covert action is an adjunct to policy and to other means, not a substitute for them. Sometimes, however, there is no real substitute for IT in the constellation of options.
That has always been true. Modern trends will make it more true. As I said in my article "The SPECTRE of Terror, Inc.," we're headed for a James Bond world... without James Bond.
OK, I see you edited a link into that second post.
The Covert Model: What It Takes
So, covert action is necessary, and sovereignty as the keystone of international relations is entering its twilight period. The Westphalian model itself was not a theoretical grande vision, and Prince Metternich himself was the most practical of men. Rather, it was an accumulation of practices and necessities in response to changing situations, whose final form was made possible by advancing technologies that changed political power balances. These changes mandated the death of the old political model, as competing visions, often dimly seen or understood, played themselves out.
Welcome to our world.
We face the same disjunctions today, and awareness of how far changes in the world must eventually take us remain hazy at best. The nation state is not about to vanish entire, and full-scle war may attimes be a necessary response. Yet it is likely that many new practices necessary for survival in the modern age will have a distinctly ancient flavour. One of them must be that the exemptions from violence once granted to leaders are headed not just for repeal, but for reversal.
To stand up as a warrior and threaten violence in wider venues must again become an increasingly dangerous sport as the technology curve rises. Civilizations which cannot adapt to that will find themselves eroded and eventually destroyed by predatory raiders from less civilized cultures. It's an old human story - and we in the modern age are no longer exempt from its cycles. If, indeed, we ever were.
Yet actually carrying off covert action is very difficult for democratic societies because of the constraints under which they operate. As such, they are forced to default to "semi-covert warfare," which looks rather different and has very high hurdles. Winds has talked about Israeli advice in this area, which suggests several requirements in addition to the standard prescriptions explained by folks like Angelo Codevilla et. al. These include:
Openness. This stuff always gets found out eventually in a democracy. There are times one may want tactical surprise, but the #1 requirement is that one plans for the things one does to come to light. That means preparing the groundwork for the broader policy, and also standing behind actions taken without fail when they come to light. If caught, the President will NOT deny your existence. The mission will be acknowledged AND defended - and no apologies will be made to the "states" who could not control their territories and would not go after al Qaeda et. al. themselves.
Requiring openness helps to ensure that these actions are set into a larger strategy, because over the long term that's the only way to keep the groundwork and foundations solid. As a corollary, however, openness requires:
Transparency within the political system. A set procedure for determining which missions and people to execute, including civilian oversight. That means political oversight, not judicial. Judges are neither qualified to weigh such foreign policy decisions, nor publicly accountable, and the deciders must be both. The main reason for this is twofold. One is assurance of backing and responsibility for missions, vid. openness requirements. The other is deconfliction. There are alternative tracks that will be operating, a la the stuff in Kaplan's "Imperial Grunts," building links with and training foreign militaries, etc. Sometimes, that approach will be the way to go in a region or country. The hit squads are useful and important, but they aren't the whole war and the hand sinister must know what the hand dexter is doing.
Having laid the groundwork for the general approach, as Israel has done with its policy of killing terrorists, and of specifically reviewing particular missions, it's time to look at the people one will send into harm's way. They have to be excellent. Which means they must be self-motivated volunteers. In a free society, you'll only get those if you practice, without fail:
Keeping faith with those who execute the missions. This is dangerous stuff. The worst, most evil thing is to take these guys, send them on dangerous missions deep in enemy territory, then abandon them if anything goes wrong. Because stuff will go wrong. That means:
The ability to escalate as part of keeping faith. This may include backup forces and airpower on call. It may also involve post-facto escalation, EG a carrier group will be moved near the country in question if US troops are captured, or several if needed, and polite back-channel requests will be made for their return. If that is not forthcoming, there must be serious military consequences. Like kissing the nation's power grid goodbye, for instance. This is where the openness and political transparency really pay dividends. Of course, you'll also need:
Very strict prosecution for leaks around these kinds of plans, missions, etc., with jail time that begins at 15 years without parole. In war, penalties must extend to treason trials and firing squads. If one is at war, and this is the centerpiece of that war, one must treat it accordingly. This is the element that allows political oversight to be trusted.
Finally, mistakes will always be made. War is a human endeavor, and mistakes will happen. Which means such missions will need:
Tolerance for collateral damage and failures. This is war. Our enemies have no honour, and use human shields. Allow that to stop missions, and you teach them to use human shields all the time. Which they'll happily do. Those who foment terrorism and genocide must reap the consequences - and those around such people must be in a very dangerous place. Again, the falling capabilities curve makes this conclusion inevitable. As a secondary benefit, when human shields start dying, the calculus on the ground re: the risks of being near terrorists vs. the risks of ratting them out changes significantly in our favour.
Intelligence is always inexact. Stuff rarely goes the way it's supposed to in war. There WILL be non-terrorist casualties, as well as mistakes and failed missions. Make sure the mission justifies these risks (vid. political transparency), then shrug off the bad missions withthe resolve to learn some lessons and try harder next time.
With respect to the current war, a couple of additional requirements to make this work with the general principles.
A formal declaration of war against al-Qaeda and those who ally themselves with the organization or provide it aid and comfort. If America is going to commit acts of war by going after people on other territories, this framework lays the groundwork solidly, provides openness and established procedures for political transparency, and adds serious sanctions against disclosure. It was the approach taken with the Barbary Pirates (another band of good Muslims, doing their religious duty without a Westphalian state). It should have been done on 9/12.
The willingness to kill, in numbers, Islamic imams who preach hate. Not all warrior gang leaders carry guns, and hate is still the most lethal weapon. Killing Rwanda's Hutu leaders would have helped. Relentlessly assassinating those who preached hate and genocide would have done far more.
In the case of the Global War on Terror, this is the enemy's true center of gravity, and the lesson of the Hashishyn says this approach works. This approach would indeed be aggressive. Amusingly, it would also fit the cultural framework of those it is aimed against. It would be significantly less expensive than the approach undertaken in Iraq, and any wars triggered by its execution would be short, sharp, and very decisive because they would be about straightforward trading of punishment and if continued, about "civilization denial" rather than occupation. The message: putting state support behind these people in any way results in ruin. THAT is how ideologies really get discredited.
Democrats, Republicans, and Covert Strategies
At the moment, neither the GOP nor the Democrats is backing this approach, except via the rhetoric of a number of people in the Democratic Party who advocate the idea (but not its prerequisites). As this article is intended to demonstrate, the prerequisites are key.
Now, can anyone imagine the party who cut and run from Mogadishu when the effort to capture an enemy leader went awry, the party that will happily leak intelligence committee deliberations and write memos discussing how to use its contents as political footballs, the party who puts Michael Moore on stage at its national convention, the party that demands approval from a corrupt and despotic UN for US military action as part of a "Global Test," the party whose prominent elected representatives go to Iraq to express support for Saddam Hussein, the party who favours a "law enforcement" approach to terrorism (unless the government wants to listen in on calls from al-Qaeda to people in the USA), etc. etc.... to be able to deal with even ONE of these prerequisites?
Especially when the folks loudly trumpeting a "we'll assassinate 'em" policy happen to reliably come from the party's most extreme wing. While you're at it, look up the use of Special Forces for counter-terrorism under the Clinton administration. Or lack thereof. Then ask yourself why.
In short, the possibility of the present US Democratic Party actually executing the approach its members claim to be proposing is so low that one would require several doses of brown acid just to imagine it. It's not a serious proposal - just a dishonest and empty boast to be used against whatever else is being done or proposed at the moment. all in the service of their war against a war they themselves refuse to acknowledge as a war, or even as an imperative.
It is, in other words, a lie to be abandoned and forgotten once it has served its purpose. Or (worse) abandoned mid-mission once its pre-requisites become obvious, leaving US soliders, allies, et. al hung out to dry. Again.
That which was proposed dishonestly may still be useful, however, when examines to its roots in a different spirit. This is one such case.
In the course of routine dishonesty, they have stumbled over an important truth. They will pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and go on their way.
But we shouldn't.
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wtf is a netroot?
Clicking on anything that glows blue might answer your question...
its apparently Democratic party slang for "Internet-based, grassroots" recruiting and financing, a leftover from the Howard Dean campaign which blames corporate/PAC financing as the root of all evil
The posts my namesake (Hi, ArmdLbrl!) put up are from our blog www.windsofchange.net.
I'm glad he did, because it brought me over here, and I need to brush up on my carbine shooting - plus I'm interested in what this community thinks about this issue.
So it will be ok when other nation target our leaders for assanination?
Trust me, you don't want to open that box up.
ETA: this assumes foreign heads of state, such as Saddam, not terrorist leaders like OBL.
Taking the Israeli approach to CT only works when your enemy is stupid enough to present himself as a target...
Take the Palis -> they have public demonstrations, they brag about their attacks, they are pretty SLOPPY covert operatives when they try to be covert... I'm sorry, but if they had any common sense they would have realized that public grandstanding and conspicuous movement are basically walking around with 'IM A TERRORIST SHOOT ME PLEASE' on their back... The IDF responds accordingly, and that's why they keep eating Hellfires
AQ is not that stupid. They hide fairly well, and adapt to such tactics with near professional skill... Notice that very few mainstream AQ personell (eg excluding the footsoldiers) have been served a last meal a-la-USAF lately... When they are caught or killed, it's usually a 'gold strike' moment, where a suspected safe house or rally point is hit, and as they're going thru actions on the objective, someone says 'Oh shit, I think we got a big one'...
Further, $25 mil has not been enough to motivate all the mercinaries, bounty hunters, and slightly-to-totally corrupt foriegn military & intellegence personell to put a round thru Osama or any of the other 'Top 5'...
Sorry, but this thing has to be fought & won on the strategic level, by the alteration of governments & re-making of the world order -> by more of what we are doing in Iraq...
'Territorial Sovreignty' only exists when you have the guns, bombs, and WMD to back it up...
Outside of Europe & the USA, only India, China & Russia (aka 'Major Powers, or 1st-tier minors') really have any... Every other country in the world could be steamrolled by anyone else who has the power to do so, and nothing would happen unless the 'victim' has friends with bigger guns than the invader...
That's how it's ALLWAYS BEEN, back past the Germans calling Britain's alliance with Belgium a 'Scrap of Paper' (and thus bringing the UK into WWI), all the way past Persia trying to steam-roll Athens and finding every city-state in Greece standing up to meet them...
'Territorial Soveriegnty' as an inviolate principle is bullshit -> you only get it in 2 ways - have the military might to hold it, or make friends with those who can provide it to you...
The USA must ensure above all else that we are allways in the first category...
Woah, you guys run windsofchange? Cool.
Quite frankly, I think AQ boys and other terrorists are targets wherever they are, and should be treated as such. If we want to kill them, arrest them, whatever whereever and whenever, no problem.
I see some of Europe's laws, and I think it's the only way. The Belgian anti-terror laws are a joke. If there's a major GICM, AQ, etc. tango in London, put 'em down. Karachi? Put 'em down. Quite frankly I don't see the difference between wacking an AQ member outside of Paris and sending a flight of B-17s to hit German targets in the same place 60 years ago.
They should fear us where ever they are. The words should go out to the rest of the world "clean up your trash or we'll do it for you."
Ok, this is going to get confusing with two of us floating around...
Nothing is new. John Locke raised the notion that a criminal or a group of criminals exists in a state of nature, and should be dealt with even if it meant killing them as if they were a "wolf or other wild beast", and even if they were physically present in the midst of a civil society. Even then, in the late 1600's he made the distinction between citizens of a state and those who lived in the state but were at war with it. Now it seems like we must give Constitutional protection to every terrorist, no matter where in the world they are captured. The fact that all people in the world should have the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution does not mean that everyone may automatically exercise them to make war on us. I agree that the "law enforcement model" will result in us losing this war.
Yeah, that's a point. You were here first. Can I edit my handle?
Crazy mofo neocon that is for sure.
It would be a perfect idea if we could harvest the organs of those killed for use by the Neocon class and serve the leftovers, "soylent green style" to our subservient class.
If you actually read it, I think you need to read it again.