Commentary Magazine


CIA Must Reshape the Middle East

Greg Miller and Julie Tate have a must-read article in the Washington Post today detailing the CIA’s  post-9/11 transformation from an agency focused on simply gathering intelligence to one that is playing a large role in actually killing and capturing terrorists.

The article contains numerous revelations about this top-secret world, including the fact the CIA operates about 30 Predator and Reaper drones which have “killed more than 2,000 militants and civilians since 2001″; that the Counter-Terrorism Center, which operates the drones, has ballooned from 300 to  2,000 employees or about 10 percent of the agency’s workforce (a number which is supposed to be classified!); that 20 percent of CIA analysts are working as “targeters”;  that last year there were 118 drone strikes, or roughly one every three days; and that Special Operations units working with the CIA had ventured into Pakistan least five times before the Osama bin Laden attack, while Counterterror Pursuit  Teams–comprised of Afghan militias recruited by the CIA–have made many more penetrations of Pakistani territory. Moreover, these activities are set to intensify: major drone campaigns are already expanding in Yemen and Somalia.

Although the inevitable civil liberties activists are quoted raising concerns about the agency’s activities, all of this sounds to me like a very welcome development–and a better use of agency resources than producing endless briefing papers that are often little more than a rehash of articles policymakers can read in the New York Times or the Economist. What concerns me is the agency may be overly focused on one piece of the counter-terrorism fight–killing or capturing terrorists–while ignoring the larger political framework that creates more terrorists. Indeed, in some instances, the CIA’s quest for  ”actionable” intelligence has led it to cooperate with the intelligence services of Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and other states of a decidedly illiberal bent. (At least that’s the way Egypt was before Mubarak’s overthrow.) This risks putting the CIA at odds with, or simply making itself irrelevant to, the most important change sweeping the Middle East–the Arab Spring.

With autocracies having been toppled in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, tottering in Syria and Yemen, and challenged everywhere else across the region, it is vitally important the U.S. engage in the political battle to shape the future of the Arab world. The Islamists are active with support from Iran and Saudi Arabia, among others. What, if anything, is the U.S. doing to fight back–to support embattled modernizers and liberals? Certainly the U.S. is providing some support via the National Endowment for Democracy and the State Department, but in the immediate post-World War II era a big part of the political response to the threat of Communism came from the CIA, which bankrolled and otherwise supported politicians and intellectuals across the world who would resist Communist designs.

Since the 1960s, however, the CIA has increasingly abandoned the field of political warfare. It still undertakes robust covert actions but these tend to be of the military variety–whether supporting the mujahideen in the 1980s or targeting terrorists today (some of them the very same muj we backed in the 1980s). What the CIA needs now is to develop a greater capacity for covert political action. That is a fitting challenge for its new director, David Petraeus, who made his name in Iraq by changing the military’s overly kinetic focus to undertake a broader set of counterinsurgency tasks which included prominent political, legal, and other non-kinetic “lines of operation.” He must now shape the CIA to fight a broader counterinsurgency–not just pursue the narrow counterterrorist mission at which it has become so proficient in the past decade. Rather than simply killing terrorists–a process akin to mowing the lawn–the CIA must work to reshape the Middle East to provide a better future where the use of armed drones won’t be necessary–at least not on the present scale.