Illuminating the Structure: Intelligence in the Development of CT Strategy

John Arquilla’s excellent piece in Foreign Policy called “Three Wars on Terror” recounts the strategic debate that took place during the Reagan Presidency about how best to counter terrorism, whether through a “guerilla war against guerillas” or through the application of overwhelming conventional military force.  The article is well worth a read, not least because it demonstrates that there were (and are) serious strategic alternatives to the path generally adopted by the U.S. since 9/11.  More than this, however, the article inspired an excellent response piece by Adam Elkus for the Abu Muqawama Blog at the Center for a New American Security.  The response piece examines Clausewitz’s concept of identifying a target’s Center of Gravity (COG), i.e. that part of the target which causes it to topple when struck.  Elkus writes accurately that the difficulty in determining a strategic course in counterterrorism operations is really a result of the difficulty of clearly identifying a terrorist COG.  How do terrorist organizations hang together?  How do they make their plans and formulate their intentions?  And how can knowing this help us to strike them most effectively?  Elkus puts it thus:

Today, there is still a rigorous debate over the structure and dynamics of al-Qaeda. That debate is complicated by the fact that al-Qaeda, like most violent non-state actors seeking to survive, exists in a murky realm. Intelligence--closed or open source--shines a light into the cave but cannot illuminate the entire structure. The main problem with the targeted killing program is precisely uncertainty over who the targets really are and how their deaths lead to strategic effect. Much of the structure was more visible after the September 11 attacks, and it became clear that the COG was al-Qaeda's base system in Afghanistan. Destroying this system in a military assault and aggressively targeting its financial links complicated our understanding of the COG. Moreover, al-Qaeda and its affiliates worldwide today may not have a single COG, just as the Axis lacked a common connectivity that gave them order and purpose.

Of course, what the above passage brings to mind is that identifying Al Qaeda’s COG is precisely what the U.S. has a strategic intelligence apparatus for.  It is not merely the case that intelligence can “shine a light into the cave”.  Rather, it can, and should be, aimed at “illuminating the entire structure”.  That Elkus is right, and a decade later, much that is fundamental about Al Qaeda and similar organizations remains unknown, suggests that such understanding was never the primary objective for the CIA.  In other words, the CIA never really sought to find Al Qaeda’s COG.  Instead, from the very beginning of the post 9/11 world, they were following a predetermined strategy relying primarily on the exercise of conventional military forms of force.  This fact is worth exploring. 

The two Garys--Schroen and Berntsen—writing about the CIA’s Alpha and Jawbreaker teams, or pseudonym Dalton Fury’s work “Kill Bin Laden” on the battle of Tora Bora, really highlight this reality.  The underlying strategy for a response to 9/11 was a military strategy, and the CIA approached its role in CT assuming that premise and with the objective of supporting military operations.  Berntsen, in “Jawbreaker,” writes that virtually all the men in the Jawbreaker team had extensive prior military experience and that for most of them this was their first Agency assignment.  Being fresh out of combat infantry units, is easy to imagine that they would not approach their mission from a strategic intelligence optic, but would instead rely on their frame of reference as soldiers and marines.   Indeed, what did the CIA do in Afghanistan?  It bought support from various tribal groups to allow the safe deployment of U.S. forces.  It embedded with certain factions to conduct Terminal Guidance Operations-ie calling in airstrikes.  And once more Special Operations Forces came into the theatre, the CIA largely fed units from JSOC and Special Forces locational intelligence to fix and finish AQ fighters. 

In other words, from the outset, the U.S. took the approach of treating Al Qaeda as a group of individuals to be killed or captured through surrender--a military objective-- instead of an organization to be thoroughly understood and penetrated for the purposes of systematically dismantling it permanently.  As Paul Pillar has noted in several places, the Intelligence Community more often than not follows policy rather than informs it.  This was certainly the case here, where case the CIA’s role was to support the actions which flowed from the U.S. strategic supposition, and little about the CIA’s actions in Afghanistan called into question the legitimacy of this working assumption, or offered a viable strategic alternative.

Arquilla says as much in his original article, characterizing the Bush administration’s approach as a decision “to attack other nations in [an] attempt to create a less permissive international environment for terrorist networks” and succumbing to the “impulse to send large numbers of troops” into Iraq, incurring a stalemate there at great cost.  Both of these quotes imply the primacy of a large forces response. 

Of course, confirmation bias comes into play when gauging the effects of a campaign, and Afghanistan, at least after its initial actions, was viewed as a categorical success.  Elkus submits that Al Qaeda’s Center of Gravity was its base system in Afghanistan during the invasion of 2001, which the military actions there effectively swept away.  This is a tempting assertion, and certainly this view seems to have been shared by large parts of the U.S. government.  But ultimately this is an erroneous assertion.  It is true that U.S. forces’ biggest success, measured against its military strategy, was in removing Al Qaeda’s bases in Afghanistan, but it does not follow that those bases constituted Al Qaeda’s Center of Gravity.   In fact, Al Qaeda’s build up of the Afghan bases in the years prior to 9/11 actually represented a divergence both from its original structure, and from the structure it has adopted in the years since. 

Al Qaeda was founded as an organization that coordinated, trained, inspired and funded other disparate groups of Islamic terrorist groups operating throughout the world.  This is what it did from its founding until the late 1990’s and this is what it has done since late 2001.  It was only in the late 1990’s that Al Qaeda began planning and executing its own terrorist operations from a central command structure. In other words, far from being Al Qaeda’s COG, the bases in Afghanistan that supported this central command system really stands as something as an aberration in Al Qaeda’s history.

If the working assumption underlying a strategy fails to take in that larger context, it is bound to leave us with a less effective strategy.  In the case of the war on terror, this failure to properly identify Al Qaeda’s COG served to reinforce a strategy that lead with conventional military force augmented by a targeted kill/capture program lacking in clearly demonstrable strategic effects.

It is unclear, however, that this was an inevitable outcome.  As Arquilla notes in his article, a covert action campaign of deception and subversion achieved considerable success against difficult enemies in the eighties such as Abu Nidal.  The fact that the Secretary of Defense at the time felt such a strategy smacked too much “of the dark side” should not have suddenly disqualified it from future consideration.  The senior official in charge of the military is bound to suggest, and even prefer, strategies that reflect military capabilities and military power.  It does not follow, however, that the Intelligence Community cannot offer a second strategy of attacking a target based on its unique capabilities.  These include illuminating the structure and dynamics of an organization, identifying a target’s center of gravity, and then subverting it with the goal of inducing self destruction and a permanent dismantling.  Doing both simultaneously is certainly possible, and both can strengthen and focus each other.  After all, knowing Al Qaeda’s true Center of Gravity might have saved the U.S. a great deal of the several years, billions of dollars and thousands of lives it has spent fighting to eliminate the enemy. 

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