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The Return of Domestic CounterInsurgency?

David Petraeus’ appointment as CIA director speaks to the increasing dominance in counterinsurgency in policy and raises a series of troubling questions about general militarization of American society. Petraeus is the man who literally rewrote the book on counterinsurgency and is set to lead the most powerful covert agency in human history. His appointment means that the CIA is going to be even more involved in the shadowy, protracted, ambiguous conflicts that involve building up governments and social movements that support US policy and destroying those that do not.

What is Counterinsurgency?

In the terms of Petraeus’ celebrated manual, counterinsurgency is the “military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency.” Petraeus describes “insurgency” as “an organized protracted politico-military struggle to weaken the control of and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power or other political authority while increasing insurgent control.”

More critically and historically, counterinsurgency involves a powerful state intervening into a militarily weak (and formerly colonized) society. In contrast to the traditional military war aim, defeating the rival army, counterinsurgency has political goals: building a regime supportive to that more powerful state’s political project and, usually, destroying the revolutionary movement that challenges it. On lower level, counterinsurgency begins with an intelligence effort, gathering information on the politics and culture of the society begin targeted. The goal is to penetrate into the intimate corners of a society—to get agents inside civil society organizations, families, and social networks—and figure out who is “the wrong side.”

With this intelligence on hand, the task becomes neutralizing political rivals by turning, capturing, or killing them. In an 2003 article, Seymour Hersh quoted an American in Baghdad who explained it as: “We’re going to have to play their game. Guerrilla versus guerrilla. Terrorism versus terrorism. We’ve got to scare the[m]…into submission.” Despite the official denials, then, the infamous kill teams of Afghanistan are not bad apples but the logical and necessary outcome of this kind of warfare.

A more humanitarian, “civic action,” mission co-exists alongside this more coercive intelligence mission. A functioning government cannot be built with violence alone. Services need to be provided: schools, hospitals, roads, and all the rest of modern infrastructure. The new counterinsurgents, of which Petraeus is the most visible, are acutely aware of this need. Lauded by the press as “scholar-warriors,” counterinsurgents argue for a necessity of unity between civil-military roles, cultural sensitivity and a restrained use of force. Despite all these complexities, it’s still warfare: “Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man’s warfare; it’s the graduate level of war.”
The Ever-Expanding War on Terror

Today the War on Terror involves American military forces and intelligence operatives in at least 75 countries, not just Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan but the Philippines, Colombia, Yemen, Somalia and “elsewhere in Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.” The CIA is now on the ground in Libya and questions about the twenty years General Khalifa Hifter spent in suburban Virginia and a possible CIA ties are rising. Leon Panetta, the CIA director Petraeus is set to succeed, just held five days of secret talks in Turkey regarding the rebellion in Syria. As the United States continues to involve itself in conflicts like these, counterinsurgency becomes increasingly important. In places like Pakistan, Libya and Syria, where an overt military presence is political difficult, the CIA leads. Under Petraeus’ command, we can expect the CIA to become even more active in this regard.

As Philip Giraldi, a retired CIA counterterrorism expert, told me when I interviewed him in the summer of 2009: “The military’s got a huge tail whenever it goes it has an enormous footprint. The CIA operates in smaller units. They’re civilians. They can blend in. They can have predator [drone] bases in places that politically sensitive like inside Pakistan. For example, the other predators are operating out of Africa. They operate in Djibouti. There’s a French military base where the CIA people are stationed. The French would not let an American military presence but they would accept an intelligence group under civilian auspices.”

Political circumstances have not always favored counterinsurgency. In the Vietnam years, the CIA was the leading proponent of counterinsurgency and the military was quite resistant. It needed the backing of President Johnson to force its agenda on a recalcitrant generation of traditional military officers. After the Tet Offensive, the military embraced counterinsurgency but only for a time. After Vietnam, everyone—including the CIA—distanced themselves from counterinsurgency.

When I asked Giraldi who was the leading counterinsurgent today in the CIA, he told me: “Nobody comes to mind. When I was teaching at the CIA school back in the early eighties, the counterinsurgency people—the Special Operations Group is what it was called at the time—was down to about forty guys and, you know, no leaders, no renowned figures. It wasn’t that kind of thing. It was an adjunct of the Special Activities Division, which I was in, and was sent in do training in various places in Asia and Africa.”

When counterinsurgency returned as dominant policy during the War on Terror, the military was its most visible advocate. Today after the seeming success of the Iraq troop surge, the counterinsurgents are dominant in the military. Andrew Bacevich, perhaps the most prominent critic of counterinsurgency today, went so far as to argue that we are witnessing the emergence of the “Petraeus doctrine,” where “armed conflict will be protracted, ambiguous, and continuous… War [now] implies not only coercion but also social engineering.” The Petraeus doctrine displaces the more cautious Powell Doctrine “with its emphasis on overwhelming force, assumed that future American wars would be brief, decisive, and infrequent.”

In 2009, Giraldi told me that the CIA’s Special Operations Group was again growing: “Now they are much bigger they have a lot of contractors. They have a lot of ex-Special Forces people working for them but they are still kind of an adjunct. I’d be hard pressed to come up with a senior officer in SOG.” With David Petraeus, the man who made counterinsurgency dominant in the US military, at the helm of the CIA, we can expect SOG to continue to grow and become more central.

“How many more Vietnams can the American Republic Sustain?”

Petraeus’ command of the CIA and the increasing importance of counterinsurgency also raise troubling questions for US politics more broadly. Here, the best analysis of “counterinsurgency” comes from Eqbal Ahmad. He saw counterinsurgency from a wildly different perspective than committed counterinsurgents like Petraeus.

Ahmad was born in 1933 or 1934 in the village of Irki in Binhar, India. During the partition of the British Raj into the modern-nation states of India and Pakistan in 1947, Ahmad and his older brothers migrated to Pakistan. In the chaos, Ahmad lost his brothers and traveled north to Lahore alone. As a young man, he went on to fight against the French in the Algerian Revolution and get a PhD from Princeton. Ahmad understood the dilemmas of colonized. He knew what it was like to simultaneously resent, envy and admire his colonial conquer. He saw “counterinsurgency” from the other end of the counterinsurgent’s gun barrel.

In addition understanding what counterinsurgency meant for the targeted, Ahmad also saw its effects on the imperial power. Counterinsurgency threatens democratic politics at home because it necessarily entails a politicization of the military and the blurring of civilian and military roles:

“Training and participation in counterinsurgency necessarily involves emphasis on the unity and interrelatedness of civilian and military talks and authority. It is not realistic to expect military men who are trained to be ‘soldiers-political workers’ to remain apolitical at home…The determination to equip the natives with the ‘will to fight’ transfers eventually to the metropolitan country when the ‘will’ of the people ‘at home’ appears to be sagging. The crusade abroad may find expressions at home when the society is viewed as needing moral or political regeneration.”

Petraeus is already implicated in the treasonous game of undermining the democratic politics in the name of inflating the “will to fight.” In early February 2009, Gareth Porter, wrote two stories alleging that “A network of senior military officers is…reported to be preparing to support Petraeus and [the top-commander in Iraq, Gen.] Ray Odierno by mobilising public opinion against Obama’s decision,” to keep to his campaign promises on Iraq withdrawal. According to Porter, Petraeus’ leak reportedly attempted to force Obama’s hand, leaking information that implies “that Obama had requested the three plans,” on Iraq withdrawal. Prophetically, Porter concluded “The Petraeus leak also serves to promote the idea that Obama is moving away from his campaign pledge on a 16-month combat troop withdrawal.”

What will Petraeus’ tenure as CIA director mean for future political developments in the United States? “Counterrevolutionary chickens,” Ahmad presciently noted in 1971, also “have a tendency to come home to roast. Whether the ‘homecoming’ is complete or partial depends on the strains and stresses of involvements abroad a government’s ability to extricate itself from the war in good time. The [French] Fourth Republic survived the first Indochinese war but collapsed during the Algerian. It is impossible to tell how many more Vietnams the American republic can sustain. There is, however, considerable evidence that forces of law and order, including the army and several local police departments are applying the theories of pacification and counterguerilla warfare to problems at home.”

As Ahmad was writing, the FBI’s COunterINTELligence PROgrams, COINTELPRO, domestic programs that used methods similar to counterinsurgency, targeted the Communist Party USA, Socialist Workers Party, the Black Power Movements, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, and the American Indian Movement for “neutralization.” While “domestic counterinsurgency” has not yet returned to that scale, the militarization of US society has continued in the last forty years: surveillance and data-mining (NSA, DHS and private); the emerging nationwide intelligence network (DHS “Fusion Centers”); the increasing “paramilitarization” of police (intelligence-led policing); and the creation of the first domestic combatant command, US Northern Command or US NORTHCOM.

With all these measures put in place, domestic counterinsurgency along the lines of COINTELPRO could easily be resumed at a level hitherto unimaginable within the United States. While much would have to change politically for this to become possible, the appointment of Petraeus to head the CIA and the wider rise of the new counterinsurgents is not an encouraging development.

BRENDAN McQUADE is currently working on a PhD in sociology department at Binghamton University (SUNY)

More articles by:

Brendan McQuade is a visiting assistant professor of international studies at Depaul Univeristy.

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