In today’s Wall Street Journal, Jack Devine, former CIA operations head and one-time chief of the Afghan Task Force at the CIA in the mid-’80s, argues that the United States should end its military-led counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan and let the CIA take over. Instead of fighting a losing war, Devine argues, we ought to give the agency free reign to devise a covert plan to pay off and work with various elements of Afghanistan’s fractionalized society—ranging from the current government, warlords, and even the Taliban—“to keep Afghanistan from re-emerging as al Qaeda’s staging ground.” Putting on his agency-learned mask of pseudo realism, he says, “Afghanistan is a tribal society, not a nation state, and tribal interests are often easy to accommodate with cash and other assets that help tribal leaders maintain their power. Make no mistake: We’re not talking about supporting advocates for Jeffersonian democracy here. But these partnerships have proven dependable and highly advantageous to U.S. policy makers in promoting regional stability in the past.”
Oh really? What stability does Devine have in mind? Pakistan, Afghanistan? He has to be kidding. It was precisely the agency’s inability to play this insiders’ game well in the 1980s that kept Pakistani intelligence well-fed with American largesse while it worked with more extremist elements of the mujahedeen and eventually established the Taliban as the ruling force in Afghanistan in the mid-’90s. I don’t know what history book Devine has been reading from, but it’s not one that comes close to what really happened. And should we pull the plug on the Afghan mission as he suggests, count on history repeating itself.
With more and longer-standing assets in hand, religious and personal ties, and greater “street-level” knowledge of the factions themselves, there is no way the CIA can outperform and outmaneuver Pakistan’s intelligence when it comes to Afghanistan. In fact, it is precisely the fractionalized nature of Afghanistan that makes a would-be CIA effort virtually impossible, with the agency lacking anywhere near the number of personnel with the experience, cultural smarts, or even language skills to keep all the required balls in the air.
The fact is, Devine’s plan is too clever by half and his lack of strategic seriousness is exposed by his flippant remark that “Having run the CIA’s Afghan Task Force—which covertly channeled U.S. support to the Afghans fighting to drive the Soviets out of their country—I recognize the playbook our policy makers are using today. It didn’t work for the Soviets then, and it won’t work for us now.” Even the most junior-level military analyst today knows that “the playbook” we’re using is not one the Soviets used. America’s COIN (counterinsurgency) strategy is hardly the scorched-earth game plan adopted by the Soviets and its puppet Afghan government allies in the 1980s. Equating, for example, the Soviet practice of indiscriminately littering the countryside with antipersonnel mines and even mines camouflaged as toys, and driving a huge proportion of the population out of the country into refugee camps in neighboring countries, with the American and allied practice of designing campaigns to bring security to the population, reveals the shallowness of Devine’s understanding of what’s happening in Afghanistan.
Now, Devine is right to ask whether we can succeed in Afghanistan. Personally, I have my doubts that we have properly resourced the COIN strategy we have for the country, and I also wonder whether the timeline set by the Obama administration to begin a military drawdown hasn’t undermined our efforts there to create some lasting stability. But Devine is just plain wrong when he offers up an alternative plan that, despite its patina of hard-headed realism, is just plain fanciful—living off a history of CIA success that is more fiction than fact.