Hard Lessons from America’s Longest War

Command Center at the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC)

Breaking Defense

By James Kitfield, December 2017

American troops have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for so long that the public doesn’t even celebrate their victories or mourn their defeats any more. When U.S.-backed forces this year recaptured the twin capitals of the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — Mosul and Raqqa — hardly anyone in America noticed. When reports noted earlier this year that a resurgent Taliban had regained control of roughly 40 percent of Afghanistan that warranted only passing mention in the American media.

There’s an old axiom that democracies, with their fickle political winds and short attention spans, are just not well suited for long wars. With the post-9/11 fight against violent Islamist extremists already well into its second decade, with no end in sight, it’s little wonder that many Americans believe the longest wars in U.S. history have been costly mistakes.

Despite their unpopularity in a war-weary America, the post-9/11 wars looks very different to the men and women who have been in the middle of the fight. Not necessarily better, but more complex and nuanced than the narrative of an endless and futile slog against an unfathomable foe. U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have learned and adapted constantly during a decade-and-a-half of fighting this “global war on terrorists,” as have our determined and adaptive enemies. After covering those wars, I spent recent years interviewing many of the top U.S. leaders in this long conflict in an effort to capture those lessons for my book, “Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies and Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing the American Way of War” (Basic Books, 2016). Among their many insights the following lessons stand out.

Know Thine Enemy

China’s legendary military strategist Sun Tzu cautioned: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.” Yet from the beginning of these long wars U.S. officials have been slow to grasp the ideology, motivations and strategies of our enemies. The resulting miscalculations have cost the nation dearly.

President George W. Bush infamously saw a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq which just didn’t exist. We invaded in 2003 and created a self-fulfilling prophecy. President Barack Obama wrongly believed the killing of Osama bin Laden and many of his top lieutenants spelled the end of Al Qaeda, leading him to prematurely withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and to underestimate ISIS as the Junior Varsity team of terror. For his part President Donald Trump routinely reacts to new terror attacks with calls to build a border wall and ban immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of jihadi attacks are conducted by Americans or legal immigrants.

Congress also seems dangerously disengaged from the nature of the war it authorized so long ago. Many lawmakers reacted with incredulous questions when four U.S. Special Forces soldiers died in Niger. What were U.S. troops even doing in that African nation, some of them wondered publicly? Of course, U.S. forces have been killing terrorists and helping to combat Islamist extremist groups and Al Qaeda affiliates in Africa for many years. It’s a familiar list: Al Shabab in Somalia; Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen; Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the Sahel region; and Boca Haram in Nigeria. Perhaps too few lawmakers read newspapers or watch TV news.

Then there have been the seemingly inexplicable decisions by senior American policymakers. A cursory understanding of Iraq’s sectarian dynamic should have stopped Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer from his disastrous early decisions to disband the regular Iraqi Army and launch an aggressive “de-Baathification” campaign. That single act is believed by many to have driven Sunni officers and troops into the hands of Al Qaeda in Iraq, where they swam in a swamp of Sunni grievance. The resulting terrorist insurgency took the better part of a decade to subdue.

“The single biggest lesson we should have learned is that before you invade a country, you need to really understand in a very granular and nuanced way what is going on inside that country,” retired Gen. David Petraeus, the former leader of the Iraqi and Afghan counterinsurgency campaigns and former director of the CIA, told me in an interview. As the former commander of the 101st Airborne Division during the Iraq invasion, Petraeus remembers being given “Iraqi experts” who couldn’t tell him if the towns he was entering were majority Sunni or Shiite, or where the ethnic border lines were on a map: “Which means they didn’t know anything.”

Retired General and former CIA Director David Petraeus

Then we did it again. We withdrew in 2011 and ISIS simply repeated the cycle, forming its own alliance with former Baathist military officers and stoking Sunni grievances against Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“By 2009-2010 we had essentially crushed Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and we had a competing narrative to what the extremists were offering ideologically, which was a more inclusive government in Baghdad and a region moving in a positive direction,” said retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who led Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in defeating AQI and killing its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and later commanded all U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan. “Then the ‘Arab Spring’ started and you had all this instability spread throughout the region, and [leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi and ISIS adapted to those conditions and filled that vacuum. As a consequence ISIS became something like Al Qaeda 3.0.”

Al Qaeda Is An Ideology First, Not A Group

Knowing your enemy means understanding his core motivations and goals. After U.S. counterterrorism forces killed Bin Laden and nearly all of his chief lieutenants in the 2010 – 2011 timeframe, President Obama plausibly argued that “core Al Qaeda” as it existed at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks had been decimated. But the bond that truly unites core Al Qaeda with its far-flung affiliates and other Sunni extremist groups is not like a regular army’s bonds of patriotism, discipline and training. They are bound by a transnational ideology, Salafi jihadism. Salafis are fundamentalists who interpret the Quran literally and believe the only true Islam is a mythic version they say was practiced in the days of the Prophet Mohammed and his acolytes in the 7th century. They believe it is their duty to impose this medieval version of Islam on “apostates” and “non-believers,” by extreme violence if necessary.

ISIS = Al Qaeda 3.0

In the Darwinian selection process of the terror strikes survivors get stronger as they learn and adapt. So it was with al-Baghdadi, the former chief of foreign fighter operations for Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the most lethal of the many affiliates that constitute “Al Qaeda 2.O.” After the 2011 Arab Spring protests and the Syrian regime’s iron-fisted response to a sectarian civil war, al-Baghdadi realized that the same ratlines that AQI had used to funnel foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq to fight the U.S. military could be reversed, sending AQI’s Sunni jihadists the other way to carve a sanctuary out of the rotting corpse of Syria.

Baghdadi had served prison time in a U.S. detention center, where he formed bonds and alliances with a network of former senior Baathist military officers in Saddam Hussein’s army. In 2013-2014, Baghdadi and his jihadists launched a series of daring prison breaks in Iraq to free them. Working together, they launched ISIS’ lightning offensive in the summer of 2014, stunning the world when they overran numerous Iraqi Army divisions and captured roughly a third of both Syria and Iraq, bringing ISIS’ terrorist army to the outskirts of Baghdad. What looked like a military offensive by a ragtag army of ISIS irregulars was actually the result of an unprecedented alliance between Salafi jihadists and former Sunni Baathist military officers whose networks reached deep into corrupted Iraqi Security Forces.

Under al-Baghdadi’s leadership ISIS is certainly an innovative organization. Understanding that it would resonate powerfully in Salafi ideology, Baghdadi proclaimed an Islamic caliphate, and declared himself its caliph, or ruler, attracting an unprecedented 40,000 foreign fighters from across the globe to ISIS’ black banner. Adopting Bin Laden’s strategy of attacking the West as a path towards greater legitimacy in the terror pantheon, he formed an “external affairs unit” that was behind terrorist “spectaculars” in Paris and Brussels. Many former Al Qaeda affiliates switched their allegiance to ISIS.

“The Paris attack was a nightmare, and of particular concern because of the direct connectivity between ISIS and the perpetrators. It had all the hallmarks of a centrally planned, organized and directed attack involving top ISIS leadership,” Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), told me in a recent interview. The Paris and Belgium attacks were proof that as long as ISIS enjoyed sanctuary from which to recruit and plan attacks on the West, it would remain a mortal threat.

“Safe haven is always high on the list of a terrorist organization’s sources of strength, and ISIS exercising state-like dominion over much of the territory of Iraq and Syria, with all its economic and energy resources, was in many ways the ultimate safe haven. That was incredibly dangerous from a counterterrorism perspective,” he said. “Combine that with ISIS’ unique ability to attract fighters from outside Iraq and Syria, which was far beyond anything Al Qaeda ever aspired to, and suddenly we were dealing with a mass terrorist movement.”

“Cubs of the Caliphate”: Young boys and ISIS executioners

It Takes a Network to Defeat a Network

At their pinnacles, Al Qaeda and ISIS acted not as discrete terrorist organizations but as central command for a globe-spanning terrorist insurgency, with both groups funneling fighters, resources and “lessons learned” among a far-flung network of affiliates that stretched across an arc of instability from Southwest Asia all the way to North Africa.

Under the pioneering leadership of Gen. McChrystal, JSOC (the secretive war-fighting subcomponent of U.S. Special Operations Command), adapted by incubating its own network-centric model of military operations. That model relied on an unprecedented synergy that developed in the war zones between Special Operations Forces, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and conventional military forces. The model of operations that McChrystal helped pioneer was most closely associated in the public mind with drone strikes and the relentless counterterrorism raids such as Operation Neptune Spear, which brought Osama bin Laden to justice. At its hot core, this new, network-centric style of warfare is predicated on hunting individual terrorists and other extremists who hid in the dark corners of the world, and in plain sight as well.

The intense battle rhythm behind that new style of warfare was unlike anything that had come before it. JSOC’s multiagency joint task forces and intelligence fusion centers combined the skills of disparate national and international players into a unified, mission-focused whole. The streamlined operations enabled by the network greatly condensed the traditional military-targeting cycle of “find, fix and finish” by constantly incorporating intelligence “exploitation and analysis,” creating what the counterterrorism community called an “F3EA” style of operations. Within that operational model the once bright lines between intelligence gathering and operational targeting disappeared.

The synergies required of that new style of operations explained major reorganizations of the Central Intelligence and Defense Intelligence agencies, the emergence of the National Counterterrorism Center as a major, multiagency coordinating node in the network, and the National Security Agency’s (NSA) storage of vast amounts of electronic metadata in search of “patterns of life” among terrorists and their networks. JSOC’s mantra “it takes a network to defeat a network” became the rallying cry of a man-hunting juggernaut that McChrystal described to me as “the Amazon.com of counterterrorism.”

“The epiphany for me came as we were studying Al Qaeda operations and realized that it didn’t act like a typical hierarchal terrorist organization, with ponderous, top-down execution. It moved so fast that we were constantly asking ourselves, ‘How did they do that?’” McChrystal recalled. After that it became all about building a globe-spanning U.S. counterterrorism network along with allies, he said, and connecting far-flung military, intelligence and law enforcement entities together focused on a common contextual understanding of the threat, and on winning this one fight.

“The biggest epiphany of all was that once we connected all these nodes and the network was working, I didn’t have to make a lot of big decisions,” he said. “The network learns and it knows what to do! Through the wisdom of the crowd, the network adapted organically and figured out the right strategy.”

Retired General and former JSOC Commander Stanley McChrystal

Counterterrorism vs. Counterinsurgency

Four times in this long war U.S. military commanders have confronted a dangerous tipping point where a campaign of terrorism transforms into a much larger and more widely-supported insurgency powerful enough to compete with government forces for control of territory: Iraq in 2006-7; Afghanistan in 2009-10; and Iraq and Afghanistan again in 2014-2017. At that point a strictly counterterrorism campaign of targeted strikes on terrorist leaders becomes ineffective in countering a determined and dug-in insurgency. A more manpower intensive counterinsurgency campaign is required to clear enemy-held ground, hold it to protect the local population, and build governance as a means to win the populace to the government’s side.

Disagreements about the efficacy of counterterrorism versus counterinsurgency strategies, both between military and civilian leaders and among the military fraternity itself, led to some of the costliest mistakes of the post-9/11 wars. U.S. commanders and their civilian masters in Iraq 2003-2005 were slow to even recognize the insurgency there until it was almost too late. Disagreements over a counterterrorism versus a counterinsurgency strategy between the White House and McChrystal’s team in Afghanistan in 2009 eroded critical trust between them, ultimately leading to McChrystal’s dismissal. If the Iraqi government does not rebuild and project governance into the recaptured Sunni majority city of Mosul, then its recent victory there against ISIS is also likely to prove temporary.

Petraeus, who replaced McChrystal in Afghanistan after leading the successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, understood the mission as keeping the country from once again becoming an Al Qaeda sanctuary, which required halting the momentum of the Taliban insurgency, and accelerating the training of Afghan security forces so they could defend their own country.

“And you can’t do that with a counterterrorism strategy of man-hunting alone! You can hunt men all day long, but if you don’t clear territory and hold it, then the enemy is just going to keep regenerating,” Petraeus told me in our interview for Twilight Warriors. “So anyone who believed we could win in Afghanistan with counterterrorism operations alone was mistaken. There is no foundation for that idea whatsoever.”

ISIS Foreign Fighters KIA

At the height of its powers several years ago, ISIS was attracting an estimated one thousand new foreign fighters each month. While U.S. officials always believed that the U.S.-led coalition would take back ISIS-held territory, they worried that as the caliphate collapsed, the tens of thousands of foreign fighters would spread across the world to wreak havoc on a mass scale.

“We assumed the foreign fighters that flowed out from the caliphate would roughly equal the numbers that joined ISIS, and we have rethought that analysis,” National Counterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Nicholas Rasmussen told me in an interview. “We now think most of them will stay and fight and die in the caliphate. That’s good news. The bad news is that some small number are likely to make their way out, and these individuals may have a unique skill set and networks back home that will enable them to carry out attacks in their homelands.”

While the ISIS army of foreign fighters has dwindled from 40,000 at the height of the fighting to 1,000 to 1,500 survivors, the group continues to prove effective at inspiring “lone wolf” attacks. ISIS produced the glossy online jihadist magazine “Dabiq,” for instance, following in the footsteps of the master propagandist and recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born extremist cleric and leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who published the online terror magazine “Inspire,” and who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011. ISIS even named its propaganda and recruitment arm the “Awlaki Brigade.” In recent years ISIS has successfully inspired “lone wolf” terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice, Barcelona, Berlin, London and, most recently, New York. Great Britain has been particularly hard hit, suffering a string of bloody jihadi attacks this year.

“We take the threat ISIS’ British fighters will return as the group’s territory is squeezed very seriously, and we have plans to make sure those who do return are arrested. The numbers are small, but very important,” Amber Rudd, the British Home Secretary, told me at a recent event sponsored by a Washington thinktank, New America. Though the Manchester bomber is thought to have received training by an ISIS affiliate in Libya, all the other ISIS-inspired attacks in Britain this year were committed by homegrown terrorists radicalized online or in local mosques. “For both Britain and the United States, we believe the future threat will mostly come from homegrown radicals,” said Rudd.

ISIS British Foreign Fighter and Executioner “Jihadi John” 

Torture Doesn’t Work

After President Trump campaigned on a promise that “torture works” and promised to bring back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse,” it was inevitable that a debate would ensue over whether to bring back the CIA’s discarded program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that most people consider torture. (Of course, Sen. John McCain insisted on language in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act requiring interrogations rely on methods approved by the Army Field Manual. It expressly forbids toture and cruel and inhuman treatment.) For their part, the U.S. military and most counterterrorism officials have never forgotten where that detour into darkness led – unreliable intelligence, demoralized interrogators, guilty terrorists who still cannot be tried in a court of law because they were tortured, and a stench that still clings to America’s counterterrorism reputation these many years later.

The most prominent test case where a single terrorist suspect was interrogated using both the FBI’s traditional approach and the CIA’s enhanced techniques was Abu Zubaydah, the first high-value Qaeda operative captured after Sept. 11. Held at a CIA secret “black site” prison, Zubaydah was initially interrogated by a two-man FBI team. By building a rapport with the suspect and painstakingly breaking down his cover story, the agents learned for the first time from Zubaydah that the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. They also extracted the potentially critical intelligence that an American Qaeda operative, Jose Padilla, was plotting to explode a radiological “dirty bomb” inside the United States.

Later the CIA took over the interrogation, and for the first time a prisoner was subjected to “enhanced techniques” that included sleep deprivation, hard slaps, stress positions, prolonged confinement in coffin-like containers and more than 80 rounds of mock drowning. At the end of the torment Zubaydah was a broken man, but he had surrendered no more actionable intelligence.

In a later brief to the president, senior CIA officials summarized the “key intelligence” gleaned from Zubaydah as information identifying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the mastermind of 9/11, and the terrorist suspect Jose Padilla, both of whom were later captured. No mention was made that the critical intelligence was gleaned by FBI agents without using torture.

“Some people have tried to claim that the way we found out that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was the 9/11 mastermind was through ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ and that is absolutely not true,” said Steve Gaudin, one of the two FBI agents to interrogate Zubaydah. “Now Zubaydah wasn’t sitting in custody in Brooklyn with his lawyer present the whole time, but the FBI did nothing in questioning him that would shock anyone’s conscience.”

Because he was tortured, 911 Mastermind KSM has till not been convicted. 

No Killing Your Way to Victory

Perhaps we can practice decapitation well enough to slow the terrorists down. Unlikely. If al-Baghdadi is ultimately captured or killed, history suggests that another true believer in the Salafi jihadist creed will step forward to take his place as ISIS’ leader. Similarly, the Somali Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabab survived the 2013 death of its mercurial leader Ahmed Abdi Godane Ahmed Abdi Godane; Al Qaeda survived the 2011 death of Bin Laden; Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) survived the 2011 death of Anwar al-Awlaki; and Al Qaeda in Iraq lived to terrorize another day after the 2006 elimination of the murderous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. What counterterrorism officials call “decapitation of leadership” is an important tactic for keeping these groups back on their heels and looking over their collective shoulders, but U.S. military and intelligence officials learned the hard way that it is a proven failure as a war-winning strategy.

Meanwhile, the man most responsible for crafting the greatest terrorist hunting network in history worries that a workable policy to address the conditions that give rise to Islamist extremism, and a broader strategy for breaking the chain of radicalization are more important than killing their leaders. Decapitations can give the illusion of progress, former Joint Special Operations Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal told me in our interview, where little actually exists. Because of their often antiseptic nature, often with no U.S. troops placed in harm’s way and the lethal blow landed by a drone, the threshold for approving such operations is often lower than for manned missions, making them all the more tempting from a policymaker’s standpoint.

“If it’s not meshed with a wider strategy and effective policy, targeted killing becomes like a narcotic,” said McChrystal, one that can lull decision makers into a false sense of accomplishment where showy gestures are confused with solving root problems. “Targeted killing is extraordinarily dangerous from that standpoint, because it can become like an ‘Easy Button.’ You have to constantly do the hard-headed analysis and keep asking yourself, ‘Will this actually solve the problem?’”



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