Understanding the problem

In this morning’s Washington Post former Secretary of the Navy and 9/11 commission member John Lehman has a status report on the struggle we’re in against Islamist terrorists and his evaluation is that the progress to date is not satisfactory to say the least. Since I basically agree with what Mr. Lehman has to say what follows is less a critique of his op-ed than an expansion on it.

Mr. Lehman identifies three fronts for the conflict:

We are fighting this war on three distinct fronts: the home front, the operational front and the strategic-political front. Let us look first at the home front. The Bush administration deserves much credit for the fact that, despite determined efforts to carry them out, there have been no successful Islamist attacks within the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. This is a significant achievement, but there are growing dangers and continuing vulnerabilities.

I would add another significant achievement on the home front by the Bush Administration: there has been no major violence against Muslims or against “Middle Eastern looking” people here. There have been isolated incidents and I have no doubt that many of the above feel uneasy but that’s as far as it has gone. I consider that a major unrecognized achievement and I think it’s a personal achievement of George Bush’s. For all of the hyperventilation about the administration’s exaggerating the actual threat for political reasons the reality is that, although hatred against Muslims would have been easy to foment, would have had the political effects the administration’s critics are railing against, and would have made the struggle we’re in significantly easier to explain, understand, and prosecute exactly the opposite was done.

Mr. Lehman notes the failures of both the FBI and U. S. intelligence forces to adapt to the changes since 9/11:

Following a recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission, Congress sought to remedy this problem by creating a national security service within the FBI to focus on preventive intelligence rather than forensic evidence. This has proved to be a complete failure. As late as June of this year, Mark Mershon of the FBI testified that the bureau will not monitor or surveil any Islamist unless there is a “criminal predicate.” Thus the large Islamist support infrastructure that the commission identified here in the United States is free to operate until its members actually commit a crime.

Our attempt to reform the FBI has failed. What is needed now is a separate domestic intelligence service without police powers, like the British MI-5.

Richard Posner has made a similar suggestion.

I have always found the idea that you can reform a bureaucracy farfetched. You can eliminate a bureacracy, navigate around it, or put another layer in; you can’t reform a bureaucracy.

I’d also like to point out what the “MI” in MI-5 stands for: military intelligence. I don’t believe that the CIA has the attitude, culture, or, frankly, the ability to execute its nominal mission. Consequently, I think that the CIA should be abolished and its functions placed completely under the Pentagon (as it used to be). However, I don’t much care for the idea of a military intelligence organization doing domestic intelligence with or without police powers (I like the idea of a national police force even less). I think the real solution to this problem is the painful necessity of changing our policies and practices to make domestic intelligence activities less necessary.

Mr. Lehman goes on to comment favorably on the early successes in Afghanistan and Iraq:

The post-Sept. 11 threat demanded preemptive attack against Islamist bases, and this was done without delay in the invasion of Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban government, its ally and supporter. It was a brilliantly executed operation in which all our armed forces and CIA operatives combined in a ruthlessly efficient victory. In the succeeding years, however, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been able to regroup, rebuild and re-attack because they enjoy a secure sanctuary largely free from attack within the border areas of Pakistan.

The next military operation of the war was, of course, the invasion of Iraq. Here again the combined military operations of the United States and Britain were brilliantly successful in defeating Iraqi forces and removing Saddam Hussein and his regime. But in the aftermath of that victory, grave blunders were made. There was a total misunderstanding of the requirements for successful occupation.

Something I’ve found puzzling is the lack of understanding that following 9/11 some form of military action was politically and strategically necessary. The questions were only those of target, extent, and mission.

I am not a neo-con. I don’t have a Wilsonian bone in my body. I believe that while laudable the objective of extending liberal democracy to the Middle East, especially by the means used, were and remain beyond our grasp, at least in the short term and given the political situation in the United States the short term is all there is.

What we’ve got on our hands now is an instance of what a colleague of mine used to refer to as “too many oars in the water”. I think we’re trying to achieve too many objectives in both Afghanistan and Iraq and that’s threatening achieving any objectives completely. As Mr. Lehman notes so long as Pakistan is unable or unwilling to deal with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda remnants in their midst all we can really achieve in Afghanistan is denying them a place to which to return.

While Mr. Lehman’s diagnosis of the problems is acute, his prescriptions for moving forward are meagre: he suggests treating Saudi financing of mosques more seriously and “changes of policy”. I’d include “changes of behavior” along with that and, unless Mr. Lehman means something enormously far-reaching by “changes of policy” I doubt that they will be nearly enough.

3 comments… add one
  • The “MI” is from its historical origins. The Security Service is the proper name for MI5. It is not part of the military. The Security Service is a sort of a Domestic Security and Intelligence Service (something the US should have instead of an FBI National Security branch that is oriented toward arrests and making cases). It works organizational under the Home Office and the Home Secretary (sort of a mashup of the US Justice Department and Homeland Security Department).

    The Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6) is the CIA-ish group. For it too, the “MI” is from its historical origins, it is not part of the military. It is overseen by the Joint Intelligence Committee. The JIC is not part of the military, but it does include as members the head of defense/military intelligence and the minister of defense (they might just send their reps or deputies). The Defense/Military intelligence group is the Defense Intelligence Staff (sort of like the US DIA).

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