The CIA’s wrong: Arming rebels works

Christopher Dickey writes: The New York Times ran a story last week that suggested CIA covert operations failed again and again to achieve the policy objectives set for them.

Just about everyone I talked to afterward in the U.S. intelligence community saw this as a story put out by the administration. One retired high-ranking intelligence officer said the article “seems founded on the kind of leaks that are permissible when beneficial to folks in high places but prosecutable when done by others.”

Has the CIA failed repeatedly to meet its covert goals? Actually, the problem has been exactly the reverse. With the exception of the Bay of Pigs, the agency has succeeded repeatedly, sometimes spectacularly. In Afghanistan in the 1980s “the CIA arms for the mujahedin won the final and decisive battle of the Cold War, liberating Eastern Europe and destroying the USSR,” says CIA veteran Bruce Riedel, now at the Brookings Institute. “That’s victory by any measure. Of course the war had other long term consequences, but the CIA accomplished what the White House wanted, a Russian Vietnam.”

Long-term consequences indeed. What happened again and again after the agency eliminated or helped to neutralize the presumed bad guys was the spectacle of their replacements turning out to be as bad or worse. But for those tragic policy decisions one must blame every president dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower. American commanders-in-chief and the people around them come to think they can reengineer countries around the world, whether to make them more anti-Communist in the old days, or less terrorist, or more humanitarian in the present. And in many cases the action is out in the open.

“A CIA study says arming rebels rarely works?” a senior veteran of the agency asked wryly. “You could say the same thing about the U.S. military. How many wars have we won since World War II?” Granada? Kosovo? One hardly wants to mention the continuing tragedy of Iraq and Afghanistan: “mission accomplished” turns so quickly to “mission impossible.”

From 1983 to 2003 the United States waged what Rudyard Kipling called “savage wars of peace” to teach lessons and change regimes just about every year, sometimes secretly, more often openly, in Lebanon, Granada, Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan, Libya, against Iran in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and so on. Most Americans have forgotten these operations, of course, but the latter ones, especially the 1999 Kosovo war in which not a single allied soldier lost his or her life, started to make the whole business of war look just a little too easy—and laid the groundwork for the biggest disaster of all, the full scale invasion of Iraq.

By comparison with conventional military campaigns, the CIA ops were, in fact, pretty small beer, but most eventually left an acrid aftertaste. [Continue reading…]

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