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Stay behinds and formless war

June 2, 2011

The attack on Mehran naval base has prompted no end of conspiracy theories from the usual suspects. The CIA did it! No, it was the Indian Research and Analysis Wing! Aha – it was the Mossad! Actually, wait for it, it was all three! It’s not exactly clear why the CIA would destroy aircraft sold by the US to Pakistan. Or why an Indian covert service that did essentially nothing in response to horrific attacks on Indian soil all of a sudden decided to attack Karachi. Or why Israel is wasting its time doing this sort of stuff in Pakistan and not, say, Iran. Unfortunately, despite the foolishness of these conspiracy theories, it is much safer than reporting the facts: witness the tragic kidnapping and murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad.

Obviously, the conspiracy theories are more symptoms, and at times catalysts, than causes of Pakistan’s deep woes. However, they’re interesting, and they do resonate with less spectral plots in other times and places. I’ll defer to the real experts on untangling the truth – let’s talk about conspiracies.

Reading Adam Sitze’s introduction to Carlo Galli’s Political Spaces and Global War (hat tip to LFC for pointing out its DC availability), I was struck by the description of the Italian “Years of Lead,” a lens through which Galli could appreciate the role of the crisis in Carl Schmitt’s political thought:

Years of lead, strategy of tension, armed struggle, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, civil war – this metonymy is a mark of the difficulty, even impossibility, of settling on the name for the mode of polemicity that emerged in the 1970s… Here we encounter not merely a conflict over the name of this or that war, but a conflict over the basic concepts according to which it is even possible to give shape and form to conflict itself.

Italy during the late 1960s and early 1970s, at least to this post-Cold War American observer, was a morass of intrigue, murder, conspiracy, terrorism, and ideological shades, the legacy of which appears unsettled, perhaps deliberately, to this day. The Piazza Fontana bombing of 1969 is emblematic: initially blamed on anarchists and the terrorist Red Brigades, later investigations turned to Italy’s neofascist underbelly, including characters such as Stefano Delle Chiae, whose exploits also appear in the theories, legends, and rumors of dictatorial security services in Latin America. Leftist outfits murdered and kidnapped law enforcement officers, judges, and politicians (even an American NATO general!). Terrorist groups struck rival terrorist groups, or civilians, sometimes attempting to pass their work off as those of their rivals, to bring about a crackdown on a rival or the collapse of authority to foment a coup.

Stepping back, it is worth noting that Italy is a country that harbored every stripe of violent partisan for decades – anarchists, communists, fascists, hardcore monarchists, organized criminals, secessionists – and it managed to survive its Years of Lead. It overcame centuries of division, a World War, and considerable poverty. Scenes of Silvio Berlusconi’s extravagant parties and the Italian Army clearing burning garbage from the streets of Naples inspire ridicule and some despair. That Mussolini’s granddaughter can get elected to Parliament on a nationalist platform, while the Italian government conducts terrible racist policies against the Roma, is disturbing. So are Italy’s finances. But in my optimistic moments, I think this is very good considering the cards history dealt Italy, and perhaps other countries – such as Pakistan – might achieve the same.

Returning to the Years of Lead, though, there is the subject of external, covert involvement: Gladio. During the Cold War, NATO intelligence services set up “stay behind” forces in allied and even ostensibly neutral countries. The notion was that when the Red Army rolled through Europe, these stay behinds would wage guerrilla war against the new occupiers. The existence of Gladio was officially revealed in 1990 by PM Giulio Andreotti, and subsequent inquiries were held in Belgium and Switzerland. Though many of the details remain murky, it was clear that Western intelligence services had provided training, arms, and support for paramilitaries as part of the stay behind program. Many of these individuals, to ensure their loyalty, were hardline anti-communist, and sometimes ex-fascists.

What became a problem is that some of these individuals, likely acting on their own, or local political initiative, decided not to wait for the feared Soviet invasion to fight communism. In the case of Italy, Parliamentary inquiries and testimonies by members of Italian counter-intelligence officials have alleged CIA involvement, or outright backing, for this “strategy of tension.” When foreign countries allege US trained paramilitaries are zipping around, conducting assassinations, plots, and terrorist attacks covertly today, I think about operations such as Gladio and wonder if the US has its heart in those sort of activities.

After all, it would be nice to be able to strike deep in the hearts of countries, foe or friend, without leaving a trace of evidence (like the wreckage of a secret stealth helicopter). It would also be nice to be able to reliably use local personnel for high-intensity, direct action, with no fears about American citizens being directly implicated? It would be nice to have that kind of capability, but we probably do not – at least not in the way the conspiracy theorists fear.

Might the US use such stay behind networks in the future? Because of our emphasis on state strength, legitimacy, and the moral backlash against the cloak-and-dagger activities of the Cold War, it’s certainly less likely. Hopefully, it would not be necessary at all. Stay behind networks, and the organizations they often become involved with, have long and ugly lives, with political ramifications that can create profound institutional and juridical crises in allied states. Italy is one example, and even now the ongoing Ergenekon trials in Turkey, however exaggerated and politically motivated they might be, show how clandestine efforts to leverage the “deep state” or hard-line stay behinds for covert operations can have a teratogenic effect on the development of well-functioning democratic states.

What about cases where a strong state is not likely to emerge, however? Or cases where building state strength would be potentially antithetical to the good use of US resources or US interests? There, some form of stay behind operations – the kind that would make conspiracy theorists really excited – might actually be useful. Consider that there is a reasonable potential that a strong, US-friendly Afghan government may not be able to sustain itself in the long-term. In that case, the US might conceivably want to have more capability to conduct CT operations independently of larger-footprint investments, since the end of occupation is extremely unlikely to bring the end of terrorist activity in Afghanistan or the immediate neighborhood. Stay-behind units might have some use even in a case where a relatively pro-US government does remain in Kabul. One could also conceivably see their use in Iraq to check the IRGC or anti-American terrorist outfights.

Of course, serious risks would still remain. More likely than the US abusing stay behind groups to conduct all manner of nefarious coups and plots would be members of these groups acting on their own initiative to pursue ulterior agendas. Perhaps, if the Years of Lead really are the precursor to the type of political conflict to come, the methods that state actors used to fight these formless wars will return as well. But given the legacy of Gladio, and the new focus on building the institutions and legitimacy of the state against the destabilizing influences of globalization and terror, it’s admittedly hard to see states such as the US revisiting such activities in a concentrated effort. Gladio and the Years of Lead, however, show that the real covert conspiracies are much more interesting – and ambiguous – than the ones concocted for propaganda.

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