Covert war is interested in you
In his fascinating article in Parameters, P. Michael Phillips pointed out that the novelty of non-state actors and the threat they posed was neither so novel or so threatening as we moderns would suppose. In examining nonhostile non-state actors, he explained:
In employing nonhostile NSAs, states do not cede power. Instead, they deputize NSAs, conferring upon them certain responsibilities as a measure of economy to enlarge the span of state control… these NSAs become symbiotes or agents of the state, and their nonstate label becomes counterfactual.
Even for the hostile NSAs, many of their advantages owed in part of the support or compliance of states who were themselves “nonhostile” to NSAs targeting their enemies.
In many ways the decline of the state has been the decline of what we are willing to see our state do, whether that means providing security for diplomats, managing industrial policy and trade barriers, or controlling the flow of information. The decline of the state system has been predicated, to some extent, a decline of the ability to prevent the tensions between states from erupting into the supposed post-modern concerns of counter-terrorism, environmental policy, global trade and similar transnational issues.
Some look at the 21st century and declare the era of the unrivaled primacy of state politics is now over. I would submit it never existed in the way its doubters and detractors claim, as I have argued before. Yet even the periods of the greatest dominance of state powers have borne the mark of persistent non-state actors, one need not peer into the so-called pre-Westphalian world to see it is so. The First World War was triggered in part by the Black Hand, won in part by the action of amorphous armies in the Arabian deserts, and followed soon after by the eruption of a multifaceted and polycentric civil war across the carcass of the Russian Empire. Succeeded by the advance of insurgents and radical parties throughout Eurasia and, in some cases, their successful capture of state power, these ill-defined political factions – we know them now as the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, the Kodoha, and so on – existed in the state, and sought control of the state, but were not always of the state. There were entities which wanted to do nothing else than to destroy the state as their antecedents, and they had failed, as the anarchist wave attested.
States and non-state actors use each other for their own goals, and the competitive nature of politics would always have that be so, as it’s always been. The use of proxy forces of all kinds against the United States, in particular, is endemic to our history. From the British employment of indigenous tribes during and after the Revolution, along with mercenaries (though not all the Germans were mercenaries, some were more like the ISAF contributions of yesteryear) through the Soviet Union’s employment or co-option of proxy groups to check US influence in other continents, foreign support of proxies for violence against the US is a very old fact of political life.
In that light, the low-level proxy warfare which two mid-weight powers have waged against the US and its interests abroad since the century’s close should not be surprising. Proxies are natural tools for countries seeking to employ coercion against a target it cannot afford to otherwise.
When Richard Armitage called Pervez Musharraf and promised to bomb Pakistan into the stone age, reasonable people assumed this would be enough to radically shift the national interests and strategic preferences of a country and an elite establishment that had displayed remarkable continuity, through periods of civilian and military, secularist and Islamist rule. Among these central fallacies was that Pakistan would accept a strong Afghan state rejecting the influence of a cornucopia of pro-Pakistani entities. At the end of the war, whenever it arrives, Afghanistan will be Pakistan’s neighbor and not ours. The threat of a nationalist, perhaps even irredentist Afghanistan, or one aligned with India, demanded a recourse more solid than hope and less dangerous than war. Naturally, this meant a return to the sort of Afghan proxies the elder Bhutto employed and the younger Bhutto reaffirmed to keep Afghanistan, if not always friendly, in a state of manageable chaos.
The result of this policy, as 10 years of fits, starts, and strategic drift have demonstrated, has been a Pakistan returning to its national interest after the credibility of Armitage’s threat faded. This means, in practice, the reassertion of Pakistani ties with the Taliban and more pernicious actors such as the Haqqani Network, among many lesser known proxy forces. It has meant the harboring of al Qaeda elements and affiliates. The Pakistanis are correct to note they have lost thousands fighting the Taliban and in the terrorism radical groups have perpetrated against it. Yet it so often appears unwilling to take steps that would undermine its proxies and non-state symbiotes, even the ones vital enough to US conceptions of its interests that their destruction might expedite the country’s removal.
Drone strikes, ANSF cross-border raids, and domestic terror are all prices Pakistan’s ruling establishment chose to pay in order to ensure that when the US finally does leave, the instruments for Pakistani influence and power within the country and the region remain intact. These are choices, made like many in international politics, made under the Damoclean sword of politics beyond Pakistan’s control.
Spencer Ackerman wrote a post provocatively – but not unfairly – titled: “Treat Pakistan Like the Enemy It Is.“
I don’t enjoy coming to this conclusion. But it is very difficult to see how non-punitive measures have aided the U.S. in dealing with Pakistan. Massively generous economic assistance, military relief assistance during floods and earthquakes, literally bags full of cash to the military, nuclear-capable fighter jets – and this is what we get.
Pakistan has a disinterest in stopping terrorism because it knows the aid spigot will subsequently twist shut. So it helps kill Americans. And its sotto-voce argument for why the relationship must continue this way is essentially a threat: You never know what loose-nuke chaos would result…
Fuck that. No more. It’s time for the U.S. to stop issuing idle threats about how Pakistan must take on the Haqqanis OR ELSE. Cut off all aid until the Pakistanis stop helping any insurgent networks and shut the safe havens down. Pull the drones from Shamsi to Jalalabad and fucking bombs-away. Let the Chinese move into Khyber-Pakhtunkwa and announce a brand new relationship with the subcontinent’s real superpower, India. Watch that shit concentrate the Pakistani imagination.
Part of American leadership is not allowing client states to dick us around. If this is how Pakistan wants it, then it should get a commensurate response.
Across Balochistan, we have Iran, a country recognized as a US enemy for decades and a vigorous supporter of proxy warfare in pursuit of its own interests. The most recent allegations surrounding Quds Force and its affiliates planning a slapdash attack against the Saudi Ambassador to the United States is nothing to sneeze at. If true, it demands a response. As Daniel Byman has pointed out, and I have argued before, a stupid state-sponsored plot is by no means an oxymoron, and addressing it would demand more than hoping Iran’s intentions change faster than its competency for such an operation improve. Even before then, Iran’s involvement in Iraq has been a clear case of proxy warfare against the United States, for reasons that should have been as obvious as Pakistan’s were for intervening in Afghanistan.
Let me be clear: launching a conventional war against either Iran or Pakistan is not an option even the broadest conception of US national interests could presently entertain. A purely retaliatory war, bereft of any reasonable consideration of ends, ways, and means, is perhaps even more stupid than the plot which provokes it.
Diplomacy and economic measures have fared poor recourse to the covert and proxy warfare of these US adversaries. While a less confrontational stance could do much to mitigate the threats they pose, and a reduction of footprint could do similar good for reducing US vulnerability, the threats Iran and Pakistan pose to US interests would not automatically disappear. Iran would remain a power with revolutionary factions seeking to overturn the regional order, whose suppression in favor of more conservative defenders of the status quo would be beyond US control. Pakistan would continue to host and abet networks levying war against the United States and its interests abroad. Even if these issues disappeared, states recognizing the ability of these states to use proxy warfare and covert action to stymie a superpower in the most unrivaled levels of its power will employ them again, in a different time or place.
How do you fight a proxy war? With proxies. How do you fight a secret war? Secretly. How do you manage tension? With tension.
American foreign policy since the outbreak of World War II has involved in no small part the skillful employment and management of proxy forces and the use of unconventional warfare. From the actions of the OSS during World War II through the training of forces outside of the US state in the Cold War’s various proxy conflicts, the use of covert warfare and non-state actors in proxy conflicts is nothing new. The “strategy of tension” during Gladio evolved in ways probably unpredicted and often unwanted by the United States. The success of men such as Giuliotti, however, is obvious. By the time Gladio became public knowledge, the damage had been done and the victory won. They did so in an ugly way, but simply because we would not repeat their acts does not mean we cannot understand their lessons.
How will the United States maintain influence and leverage in Iraq and Afghanistan post-withdrawal? How will it counter the shadowy machinations of elements of the Iranian and Pakistani regimes which will continue to challenge US interests? America ought to examine what makes their strategies so effective, and its own history, and recognize the uncomfortable truth: that foreign policy in an age of relatively declining US power and resource austerity demands an examination of a full spectrum of options, rather than the dichotomous choice of unrealistic diplomatic gambits and unthinkable military adventures.
Doubtlessly, some will point out that the history of US covert warfare is not without its failures and blowback, particularly in the countries mentioned. The first obvious objection is that of Operation Ajax, whose success ultimately contributed in significant part to the downfall of the Shah’s regime and the rise of the revolutionary Iranian state we see today. Is not covert action doomed to fail against Iran as it has before?
Such a critique commits the same fundamental error that Bacevich did when he penned the “End of Military History,” which I discussed here. Rather than determining from the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan that military force is useless, it would be better to criticize the choice of war for a situation whose desired ends were fanciful and available means limited from the start. The same goes for today. To assume a coup solves all of our problems in a country is as foolish as assuming military-led regime change does the same. So too is assuming that covert action and proxy conflict, like conventional warfare, is limited to objectives of regime change.
Since the end of the Cold War, the US has ignored much of the opportunities for conducting effective proxy and covert operations because the US has been overwhelmingly engaged in a process of creating an open international system. This is an international system, which, by relying heavily on what we might call – literally – domesticated non-state actors, such as the amorphous civil society with its NGOs and popular associations, transnational corporations, and other so-called social actors, actually requires a state system favorable to their propagation – one where states can maintain a monopoly on legitimate force. The horror at what many US proxies had done during the Cold War, and the effect of the secret war on the basis of the US constitution – embodied most prominently in the Iran-Contra scandal – also played a strong role in reducing US favor for proxies and covert action.
Yet proxies and clients never really went away. The West was perhaps less deeply entangled in direct support for proxy forces in its actions in the Balkans throughout the 1990s, but it was not until the Anbar Awakening that notions of proxy forces truly came back in the vogue. The Awakening was a genuinely indigenous idea, not one foisted upon the sheikhs by a manipulative US. Its success and its contribution to the turnaround in the Iraqi civil war made proxy forces attractive again. Many of the ideas surrounding them, though, simply concerned using proxies – ill defined as “the tribes” most often – to fill the gaps in counterinsurgency. Such use of proxies is not what I am suggesting here.
Instead, as Adam Elkus noted in his excellent post on cumulative strategies and the need to counter them, we should recognize the huge gap in our understanding of the proper use of UW capabilities, proxies, and covert forces. As the means for overt application of coercive force diminish in Iraq and Afghanistan, the very models of our cross-border foes may reveal themselves as important guides for a post-withdrawal US foreign policy.
After WWII, American and British intelligence agencies, working off of their experience supporting partisan groups against the Germans, began the implementation for a similar concept in the event of a Soviet invasion overcoming the conventional forces in Western Europe. The “stay behind” forces, known by the Italian component, “Gladio,” which received the most public attention, were recruited from hard-core anti-communists (often from prior fascist troops) and trained to fight the Soviet invasion from behind the lines. When the Red Army arrived, they would dig up their weapons and fight. Ultimately, however, some of these groups, and their local governments, used these skills and arms for fighting a covert war against the radical left.
One option the United States ought explore in Iraq and Afghanistan as it draws down its forces is the idea of the “stay behind.” With hundreds of thousands of US troops in Iraq, the United States was unable to counter the influence of what was likely a few dozen or hundred IRGC members, who were in turn able to inflict severe casualties by supporting proxy groups against US and rival Iraqi entities. The ISI is similarly able to leverage proxy groups, including transnational entities such as the Haqqani network, to conduct sophisticated attacks and increase their political leverage over Afghanistan.
While these neighboring countries will always be at an advantage in influencing their politics, there is no reason the US should not retain the ability to both frustrate their aims and maintain assets for operations in those regions should some new contingency arise.
In the case of Iraq, a “stay behind” force, consisting of covert operatives and US-trained proxies would offer far more opportunities for disrupting Iranian political influence than would the Obama administration’s hoped for detachment of residual forces. Rather than chasing after the relative handful of IRGC operatives with multiple combat brigades, a quieter, subtler, but still coercive approach may be necessary. The presence of thousands of US troops in Iraq would in fact be a vulnerability, not an asset, in the event of an escalating crisis with Iran. Rather than exposing US troops to Iranian proxy assaults, the US could go after Iran’s own preferred militia groups covertly by improving the ability of rival factions, trusted entities within the nascent Iraqi “deep state” to target any resurgence in Iranian-backed proxy activity.
More broadly, the utility of building a more robust UW and covert warfare capability is apparent from Iran’s increased interest in the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia and Sudan, as well as the continuing presence of some of its proxy and partner forces in Latin America. Given that decades of sanctions and other legal and commercial prohibitions on elements of the Iranian intelligence network abroad seem to have had less effect on Iranian decisions to back terror than Iranian interests did themselves, there is no good reason the US should not be seeking to actively dismantle Iranian proxies and covert assets in Latin America and other regions. Since official Iranian statements would deny the existence of any such Iranian activity, they surely won’t be missed, at least publicly.
In an age where resources are increasingly austere and domestic political disputes will limit opportunities for sustained military intervention, and indeed where the results of most sustained military intervention have been profoundly politically disappointing, it is time – perhaps not publicly – for the US to reconsider the role of its covert capabilities in foreign policy.
There will naturally come the objection that the use of such covert and proxy activities could trigger a full scale war. While this may be true in some cases, in most of the specific cases under discussion the risk of a covert response seems far, far lower than the use of conventional military or even discrete direct action operations.
Take the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The notion that leaving residual forces, particularly ones centered around Special Operations Forces and associated groups, would be an effective check against al Qaeda and other radical groups operating across the border seems suspect. Direct action raids by uniformed personnel, such as the bin Laden raid or the helicopter-assisted “hot pursuit” of foreign fighters across the Durand line have come extremely close to sparking war. A reliance on Afghan regular military forces would be similarly problematic – these are all still extremely blunt instruments.
In the event of major armed resistance against a pro-US government in Kabul following US withdrawal, “stay behind” forces will need the capability to support a continuing US drone campaign out of Jalalabad and any capture/kill raids being conducted within Afghanistan by residual or local forces. Rather than focusing on using proxies against the Taliban, however, the covert support of proxies should be limited to disciplined groups with a focused mission on targeting and facilitating the disruption of transnational terrorist organizations which provide the conduits for rival foreign involvement in Afghanistan, as well as terrorist organizations operating across the border.
Much of the talk about an all-out war with Pakistan ignores the fact that Pakistan cannot just fight the United States any where it chooses. It would have to fight it in Afghanistan, which covertly it is already a party to – one of the many reasons why the US should be dumping its failed policies of isolation against states such as Uzbekistan to invigorate the Northern Distribution Network. However, the notion of an all-out conventional war with Pakistan would be a ridiculous error on the part of the Pakistanis. What exactly would they do, invade Afghanistan? Doing so, particularly in a context where US troops are drawing down or leaving, would be a total disaster for the Pakistanis, who the US (along with other interested parties) could bleed just as easily as Pakistani affiliates have bled them. Pakistan’s large arsenal of US-made equipment should also give it pause before starting a full-blown conflict.
Pakistan’s deep state and some elements of its military are already engaged in the targeting of US military and covert personnel. The US can fight back, but not if it remains wedded to the conventional-COIN and direct action-SOF models it has stuck to thus far. There are no shortages of groups currently engaged in hostilities with the Pakistani government. There are certainly local actors who could be recruited and trained to pursue US objectives across the border. This would not be the escalation to war so much as the mutual acknowledgement of a covert war that already exists.
This shouldn’t be taken as a concrete proposal, as I’m not going to claim knowledge about exactly what sorts of operational and tactical concepts would be required to implement a proxy strategy against organizations such as the ISI and IRGC. However, what should be clear is that from the perspective of proxy warriors, a direct military footprint can be as much of a liability as an asset. The presence of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan presented large targets for the Iranian and Pakistani deep states in the pursuance of their national interests. At the same time, they are instruments tar too cumbersome for an adequate response against these amorphous and indirect covert entities. Military forces – even, very often, SOF – are too visible, blunt, and risky to employ in a credible retaliation, which makes their ability to deter and defend against proxy groups and covert action limited and ephemeral. Unfortunately, the United States must recognize the nature of the conflicts it is fighting before it can come up with an accurate response, without falling into the utter fallacy of believing that just because a situation is not amenable to regime change through overt military action means that force itself is useless. The organizational, operational, and tactical innovations demonstrated by our foes since the end of the Cold War are of their design, waiting for us to modify and exploit in turn.