“Guerrilla warfare isn’t about holding terrain,” as the late Colonel David Hackworth summed up Vietnam. “It’s about making us bleed until we give up and leave.” The latest casualty figures from Iraq put the insurgency on a trend to be averaging 100 US fatalities per month by the 2006 election. The insurgents have thrown off Secretary Rumsfeld’s dismissal as a few “dead enders” and appear to be edging perilously close to Colonel Hackworth’s goal. How could this be happening to the world’s only superpower?
For an explanation, one might look to December 14, 2004, when President Bush presented the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, to George Tenet, former director of the CIA. This struck many people as odd even back then because he had nearly cost George Bush reelection. Tenet had assured the president that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction and also pursued an active nuclear weapons development program, both of which turned out to be imaginary. The intelligence community, of which Tenet was the titular head, had previously failed to comprehend preparations for the 9/11 attacks, which turned out to be quite real. So instead of basking in the adulation of the party faithful, Karl Rove spent many sleepless nights down in the White House basement plotting strategy.
Fortunately for Rove, he had material he could spin. Despite intelligence failures comparable to any in the history of this republic, the blitzkrieg of Iraq succeeded with even fewer troops than the Army had requested, election season was underway in the Arab world for the first time anyone could remember, and Osama and the Taliban were banished from Afghanistan. So who needs the CIA; who needs intelligence?
Apparently the answer is us. The election safely over, reality now intrudes: an intractable insurgency in Iraq and failure to eliminate al-Qa’ida and its allies. We need to start using intelligence more effectively against this new generation of opponents who are perhaps more ruthless and certainly more capable than Saddam or the Taliban.
Here is some advice based on 18 years in the business. Leaders determined to learn the truth won’t get it waiting around for the CIA. For one thing, nobody can brief the president on who is cooking up what plots in all the dark corners of the world. When trying to understand clever human opponents, there just isn’t a neat set of dots waiting to be found and connected. Instead, there are streaks, splotches of gray, and sundry reports of dots, many of which will conflict, and intelligence analysts can connect them in any number of ways.
The process of understanding is also clouded by the natural tendency of subordinates to tell the boss whatever they think he or she wants to hear. Unless senior leaders signal by their actions that they are interested in what could go wrong, they will be assured that everything will be all right. “Signal by their actions” means fire sycophants, not award them medals. It is brutal, but goes with the job. All leaders like to think of themselves as heirs of Napoleon and Patton, but these commanders achieved greatness by ensuring that people told them the truth.
The late Air Force Colonel John Boyd, one of this country’s most influential strategists, insisted that great leaders start their campaigns by aggressively probing and testing. They keep at it until they force potential adversaries to reveal their intentions and capabilities. This turns splotches into something more closely resembling dots, at least for a while. The president and senior leaders have the power to focus national intelligence and keep it focused until they are satisfied with the results. Did we do this in Iraq? Well, did we believe Saddam when said he had weapons of mass destruction?
How much probing is enough? We’ve spent $300 billion trying to recover from our failure to use intelligence properly in Iraq and could spend as much as $450 billion more. Certainly some small fraction of this amount could have could have discovered the truth during the dozen years between Gulf Wars I and II.
There is, fortunately, a rule of thumb that has come down through the ages. The greatest of all strategists, the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu, wrote that to ensure victory, you must know the enemy as well as you know yourself. Applying this test to Iraq reveals the root of our problems. Perhaps never in history has an administration understood the domestic situation as well as the president’s political advisors. They took nothing for granted and probed and tested the electorate and the Kerry campaign at every turn. No illusion went unquestioned that might threaten the future of the administration. Pity we didn’t have Karl Rove running the CIA and George Tenet heading the reelection campaign.
CHET RICHARDS is a retired intelligence analyst and Air Force Colonel. He is the author of an upcoming analysis of fourth generation warfare, “Neither Shall the Sword: Conflict in the Years Ahead,” which will be released by the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information later this fall.