A role for covert action against Islamic State

The introduction of covert action operations could buy time for the next administration.

A black flag belonging to the Islamic State is seen near the Syrian town of Kobani, as pictured from the Turkish-Syrian border (photo credit: REUTERS)
A black flag belonging to the Islamic State is seen near the Syrian town of Kobani, as pictured from the Turkish-Syrian border
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Three years after declaring victory and leaving Iraq, the Obama administration is back fighting an enemy which has morphed into an Islamic caliphate. The administration’s strategy is limited to air power and hope that regional actors will become more than rhetorical allies. As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) grabs more territory and knocks on the gates of Baghdad, President Barack Obama is faced with the task of untangling the policy strings of the regional players in order to make a unicolor coat.
I believe that the use of covert action, changing the settings of another country’s policies without revealing the US government’s role, could buy time while the White House tries to build sufficient trust to convince others to put their boots on the ground. Covert action, separate from counterintelligence and foreign intelligence, comes into play when diplomacy is ineffective and military action is impossible or inadvisable; a tailor-made instrument for dealing with IS. Our history provides relevant precedents.
Benjamin Franklin was able to degrade the effectiveness of the Hessian mercenaries by circulating a forged letter suggesting that dead Hessians were more profitable to their commander than those who were merely wounded since he was remunerated at a higher rate for KIAs. As a result, Hessians deserted in large numbers. Likewise, we might decrease the strength of the enemy through desertions.
The moderate Sunni tribes that made the “surge” a success in 2007 defected to the Islamists when the Maliki government chased them out.
They could be convinced to return their loyalties to an inclusive Baghdad government.
The desperate situation of the 2.5 million Syrian refugees has certainly turned them into a recruitment pool for both IS and for the intelligence agencies of surrounding Arab states, and numerous members of IS are sources of intelligence for Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. These “sources” could be used as “agents of influence” to turn the less ideological fighters to desert IS. The Jordanians are the best in the region and should be given that job.
It was French covert action that provided the funds necessary for George Washington’s penniless army for the first two years of the Revolution and gave our young nation a chance at independence.
The White House now proposes to sponsor 5,000 fighters of the Free Syrian Army and have them ready in a year. Washington’s army was a coherent fighting unit while the FSA consists of over 1,000 separate militias. This plan is a political gesture, not a strategy.
Preferring covert action to a Marine expeditionary force, president Eisenhower used the CIA to create a guerrilla force in the mountains of Northern Laos in the 1960s to oppose the North Vietnamese Army (my first CIA assignment). Later, the Afghan mujahidins chased the Soviet Army out of their country primarily with the help of CIA funding, training and guidance. And CIA officers on horseback led the assault of the Northern Alliance that took Mazari Sharif back from the Taliban in 2001.
The Laos and Afghanistan models could be used to fight this supremacist brand of Islam. Units of Kurdish peshmergas and of Iraqi special forces could form the core of this force. They could not, however, replace the regular armed forces of a yet-unidentified country.
Probably the most consequential covert action was to give clandestine support to the socialist parties, the least bad solution, during post-WWII elections that the Communists were about to win.
Likewise, moderate Muslims need help to recapture their religion from the extremists. For the moment, that is a mission impossible; the madrassas funded by our stalwart ally Saudi Arabia share many of the IS doctrines.
American withdrawal has created a vacuum quickly filled by conflicting ideologies and national interests. Obama is only the most recent player in a multi-dimensional chess game. Supported by the weakest foreign policy staff in recent memory, his chances of defeating IS before the end of his lameduck presidency are nonexistent. The introduction of covert action operations could buy time for the next administration.
The author was the national intelligence officer for CIA director William Webster and his successor Robert Gates. He served in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Far East. His three books, The Caliphate, Satan’s Spy, and The Red Cell are inspired by his time in the Middle East.