Lessons from the front lines

Victory in unconventional war requires a fast, flexible approach, not rigid conventional military thinking

November 11, 2008|By Charles S. Faddis

Six years ago, I took the first CIA team into Iraq in advance of the invasion of that country. I have watched in horror since then as gross miscalculations and incompetence on the part of the Bush administration have cost thousands of American lives and God knows how many Iraqis' lives.

It seems clear now that we are leaving Iraq in the near future, but the larger war against Islamic extremism is far from over. On this Veterans Day, therefore, as we pause to honor all those who serve, I think it imperative that we consider how to take away from Iraq the right lessons and that we ensure the leadership of the future does not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Many observers appear to believe that we have turned a corner in Iraq and that this is attributable to a single factor: the surge. Based on that, their answer for Afghanistan is equally simplistic: more conventional troops, period. Many of these individuals are conventional military officers with a conventional military mindset. Not surprisingly, they are arguing that we need more conventional military solutions to the problems we face in the broader conflict against al-Qaida and its affiliates.

I come from a military family and have nothing but the utmost regard for the men and women who volunteer to serve. That said, with all due respect, the record of the last several years shows exactly the opposite of what proponents of a massive influx of troops into Afghanistan are advocating.

What we have learned, or should have learned, is that conventional military solutions and a rigid conventional military approach do not get us very far in a very unconventional war. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Department of Defense, with all of its gargantuan resources, was unable to craft a response. While deliberations and planning sessions in the Pentagon dragged on, the sum total of the initial force the United States of America could send into Afghanistan was eight CIA officers on an aged Russian chopper.

After this initial insertion, a handful of CIA personnel working with Army Special Forces and Afghan allies and supported by U.S. air power crushed the Taliban and al-Qaida. However, as soon as Osama bin Laden and his senior leadership were cornered at Tora Bora and conventional U.S. military support was required, the bureaucracy of the military establishment kicked in, no one proved capable of making a timely decision, and the opportunity to crush the core of al-Qaida's leadership was lost.

In summer 2002, the decision was made to put personnel inside Iraq in preparation for the coming invasion. Again, the Defense Department proved incapable of making a decision and taking action. I crossed the border with a total of eight CIA officers in two land cruisers leaving behind the 10th Special Forces Group personnel assigned to the mission with whom we had been training for months.

By the end of that summer, my team had identified the exact location of a significant pocket of al-Qaida and Ansar Al Islam fighters holed up in a lawless region of northeastern Iraq. We put together a plan to destroy the enclave and kill all of the terrorists located there. Again, the defense establishment proved incapable of making a decision, and all action was postponed for many months. By the time an attack was launched, all the targets of interest had taken refuge in Iran.

In late spring 2003, members of my team inside Iraq presented the U.S. military with the surrender of 50,000 Iraqi soldiers and all of Mosul province. The military again squandered the opportunity.

The problem in these cases was not the men and women in the line units. The problem was that we were - and are still - attempting to use a very large, very cumbersome, conventional structure to fight a very fluid, rapid, unconventional conflict.

In late summer 2002 in the mountains of Kurdistan, I did not need an airborne division, a carrier battle group or an air wing to destroy the enemy we had located. I needed a very small amount of force and a very rapid decision. I could get neither.

We may, in fact, need additional conventional forces in Afghanistan right now to help stabilize a critical situation. That said, we are not going to win this conflict or the broader war by following the approach we have taken so far. What will win this conflict for us will not be armor divisions or corps headquarters. It will be small numbers of intelligence officers and special operations personnel, freed of the bureaucracy and allowed to move with the necessary speed, agility and flexibility.

Charles S. Faddis, a Davidsonville resident, retired in May as head of the CIA's weapons of mass destruction terrorism unit. He is coauthor of the recently released book "Operation Hotel California." His e-mail is


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