Post Iraq, U.S. must rely on covert action

By Jack Devine
June 13, 2014

devine -- afghan-militia-1024x736

Covert actions are now crucial to U.S. foreign policy. After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington should rely more on CIA-driven covert operations and less on military force in the world’s hotspots.

Ukraine could be a case in point. For covert action means not just collecting information (espionage), but also political or paramilitary efforts that help support political organizations, local media and on occasion, insurgents. Under the CIA’s charter, the government maintains plausible deniability for all these actions.

I’ve long advocated for greater use of this tool of statecraft — and not only because I ran the CIA’s Afghanistan Task Force during the successful effort to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan in 1986-87, along with many other covert operations during my 32 years at the intelligence agency.

Ukraine's President-elect Petro Poroshenko walks past Russian President Vladimir Putin during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day in OuistrehamThe ability to conduct activities below the radar is key. There has been a spike in instability across regions where the United States and its allies have major national security interests. Yet Washington is less able to exert influence through force.

President Barack Obama noted this in his May 28 West Point speech, saying the United States is unlikely to engage in another ground war any time soon. Washington can rely on the CIA (working with Special Operations Forces) to provide clandestine intelligence, training and, where necessary, political funding and paramilitary support for foreign groups aligned to U.S. interests.

A successful covert operation requires certain conditions on the ground: broad-based political support for policy or regime change consistent with U.S. national security interest; excellent local intelligence; forces in-country able to engage the opposition, and substantial financial and political support from Congress and the White House.

With Ukraine and its environs, all these components are in place: the newly elected Kiev government and its pro-NATO orientation has significant popular support, Ukrainians have shown a history of standing up for their country’s independence and freedom, and Obama and Congress strongly support the Kiev government, presumably also intending to supply the necessary funding. To strengthen Kiev’s resistance against Russian interference, Washington should be providing robust financial and training support to the appropriate security, military and political organizations as well as beefing up their intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities.

Member of a newly-formed pro-Russian armed group called the Russian Orthodox Army stands guard at a barricade near Donetsk airportThe West also needs to “contain” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s massive investment in covert action in Ukraine — and not-so-covert pro-Russian engagement. Putin, an experienced ex-KGB operative, has been drawing straight from the covert action playbook in Ukraine. He is inserting Russian Special Forces into the fray, trying to pass them off as Ukrainian pro-Russian activists. Though these efforts at concealment may look laughable, when combined with his carefully crafted propaganda campaign, Putin’s plausible denial pronouncements have successfully muddied the water.

Despite Russian denials, however, the political dissidents in Eastern Ukraine are being funded and supported substantially by Moscow. Rest assured, Putin’s numerous in-place agents are collecting intelligence and pushing every possible lever to build a political force in Eastern Ukraine against the Kiev government. At the same time, he is likely/assuredly inserting/ the plumbing into Western Ukraine in order to develop sources of intelligence and agents of influence.

To deal with this newly aggressive Russia, it may be instructive to study how Washington dealt with an aggressive Soviet Union during the Cold War. For Putin’s heavy-handed behavior is beginning to feel like the Cold War is making a comeback — protestations to the contrary.

For me, this all feels like déjà vu — because I worked as a CIA chief of station in five major Cold War locations, and served as deputy director for worldwide operations during the heyday of the struggle between the Soviet Union and the West.

stalin-truman2The similarities are uncanny. The Cold War kicked off with Joseph Stalin’s postwar land grab of Eastern Europe and his aggressive efforts to promote Communism abroad. This round began with Putin’s assaults on Georgia, Armenia, Crimea and now possibly part or all of Ukraine.

In considering how to address this, Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Sinews of Peace” speech may still offer the best advice. “The only thing that Russians respect,” Churchill said, “is strength.”

Unfortunately, after Washington’s failure to respond to Syria crossing the red line of using chemical weapons, our adversaries and fair-weather friends are starting to test the limits of where the United States will keep its word.

Drawing red lines is hard – difficult even with a weaker country. So, it may be with Putin. He will likely trim his aggressive sails in Ukraine only when he sees the physical proof of the West’s “serious consequences.”

So Washington and the European Union should impose extremely strong economic sanctions and ramp up the NATO’s military and intelligence support for the Kiev government.

devine -- kennan-smallerWashington power brokers should also study the “containment” policy that the United States used to counter Soviet aggression throughout the Cold War. George Kennan, a State Department official and Russia expert, laid this out in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs. In his article, which became the basis of the Truman Doctrine, Kennan stated the Soviet Union was inherently expansionist and that its innate sense of insecurity necessitated a hostile world to maintain power at home. Sound familiar?

Kennan also postulated that the West needed to apply vigilant counterforce wherever the Soviets pressed their advantage.

That view certainly has merit today in the wake of Putin’s most recent actions. The recent Ukrainian elections were promising because the new president, Petro Poroshenko, is an experienced official and billionaire businessman with a long record of dealing with Russia. But the fact that very few were able to vote in the east of the country, and that Putin will continue to push to maintain influence, means Poroshenko’s new government will have to stay alert to protect against Russian encroachment.

How does the West ensure the new Kiev government’s survival if we are not going to commit ground troops to counter Russia aggression? Much like the cold warriors of the past, we should return to tightly focused covert action. This means a robust relationship with the Ukraine Security Service and military intelligence, supplemented with direct financial support to political activists and groups.

This must be done with great care and strict compartmentalization because of Russia’s vast network of agents in Ukraine. But this program is necessary to balance the scale against Russia’s massive covert activities there. In the tradition of Kennan, we should be able to “contain” Moscow’s subterfuge and its efforts to maximize influence in Kiev.


PHOTO (TOP): Taliban Islamic student militia ready with their anti-aircraft gun in Maidan Shahr in Afghanistan, September 21. 1995. REUTERS/Archive

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Ukraine’s President-elect Petro Poroshenko (R) walks past Russian President Vladimir Putin during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day in Ouistreham, western France, June 6, 2014.  REUTERS/Photo/Christophe Ena/Pool

PHOTO (INSERT 2): A member of a newly-formed pro-Russian armed group called the Russian Orthodox Army stands guard at a barricade near Donetsk airport May 29, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

PHOTO (INSERT 3): British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, President Harry S. Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the Berlin Conference, August 1, 1945. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

PHOTO (INSERT 4 ): George Kennan, 1947. WIKIMEDIA/Commons



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If the CIA was worth a hoot, Mosul wouldn’t have fallen – Maliki got caught by surprise.

Now, Iraq is fertile ground for “Private Military Corporations” – and the CIA loves it!

Posted by SKYDRIFTER | Report as abusive

As expected, we have the usual debates about action – military or covert. One thing is clear, however. We don’t have the intelligence (espionage) to support successful actions.

Huge build ups by the Russians in the Ukraine and by the new wave of bad guys in Iraq have caught us completely off guard. Most of our recent military efforts in recent years have failed because our troops cannot identify who is a target and who is an innocent. All of this requires better intelligence before action.

We have good technical capabilities, but are extremely weak in cultural and language skills. We can intercept “chatter” but cannot figure out what is being said. We need to start with the basics – more scholarships for Americans who study the difficult foreign languages and cultures that are of potential interest to the CIA. Then spend some serious money to employ the best of those in the CIA.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

Posted by upstater: Why does Reuters invite warmongers to supply this type of screed? In looking at the consequences of this so-called “success”, I think many reasonable people might conclude that it would have been better for the world as a whole had the Soviets won in Afghanistan and there was a secular government in place for the past 30 years.


Actually, ‘reasonable people’ aren’t delusional enough to think that the US are the bad guys. Afghanistan would be better under the Soviets? Yeah, because all the other countries they took over worked out so well. You obviously know nothing about the CIA. The CIA could have killed Osama numerous times, but was told not to by the Clinton administration, because they didn’t want to deal with the fallout. The CIA and Delta had him and his men pinned in Tora Bora, but the Bush administration made the mistake of trying to get indigenous forces to catch him… but they let him go instead. The CIA was highly opposed to this, but there was nothing they could do.

If you want to blame somebody for lack of success, look to your politicians.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

It looks like the author, being a seasoned CIA operative, uses this outlet for yet another covert operation. He says: “This round began with Putin’s assaults on Georgia, Armenia, Crimea and now possibly part or all of Ukraine”. Which is plain lie to cover the covert intentions and actions by the US, executed in no small way by the CIA.

Strategic longterm objective of the US is breakup of Russian as a multi-ethnic and regional federation. Visionaries of this strategy see its end goal as future Russia being a mid-size european country and the mosaic of independent republics instead of the federation. One look at a map is enough to notice that the are two critical areas for projecting of this goal: Georgia and Ukraine.

Georgia provides access to the Caucasus where ethnic ferment can easily be ignited. Ukraine projects into the southern underbelly of Russia. This is why US is relentlessly building-up ‘assets’ in these countries. Victoria Nuland provided the number, 5 billion dollars which the US spent (only officially) over 20 years in the Ukraine for “promoting democracy”. Knowing the state of the democracy in Ukraine it it easy to see that the promotion was oriented towards establishing wide network of agents of impact in the centers of power. That has been very successful to the point that Nuland was able to tell who should be leading the government in Kiev after the coup. Similar process was going on earlier in Georgia where young US-educated Saakashvili was elected as president.

These developments were obviously a colossal strategic danger for Russia. The danger was/is even greater as the US agents of impact in power turned out to be extremal fanatics brutally fighting with those who were not agreeing with their line. Thus, Saakashvili started blitzkrieg war in South Ossetia to ‘clean’ the territory of Georgia from dissent. Thus, the rulers in Kiev were not willing to talk with people in the Eastern Ukraine but are treating them as ‘terrorists’.

Russia had no other choice than preempting the covert US strategy. Russia had to intervene in Georgia to prevent genocide and build-up strategic position there. Russia had to regain Crimea to block strategic cut-off from Black Sea. Now Russia has to support the east of Ukraine which is evolving into another genocide with bombardments of cities and to protect its southern underbelly.

Putin thus reacted defensively to the covert long-term aggressive strategy of the US. Putin’s actions were brilliant but actually not much complicated due to the overhwelming support of local populations in Crimea, Ossetia and eastern Ukraine. But they clearly made the US angry. Especially Ukraine is so important to keep the longterm strategy alive that every effort will be made to keep it. Read: civilian population in the Ukraine east must subject to the rule or it will be driven out.

The author of this piece proposes another tool: covert operations by the CIA. One can be absolutely certain that Russia will not be passive then.

In the end, this will fail as much as the US strategies which arrogantly place global objectives over the will of people eventually failed in Vietnam, Afganistan and Iraq. Millions of victims in these conflicts count as ‘collateral damage’

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

Lots of “professional” opinions and most make excellent points but does little to assist a “regular guy” in forming an opinion of his own. I suppose it all comes down to what we “want” to believe rather than absolute truth.

Posted by Crusader325 | Report as abusive

“I ran the CIA’s Afghanistan Task Force during the successful effort to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan in 1986-87″

Epic fail. What you really did was create, fund and train…. Al Qaeda terrorists.

Far better to have let the Russians have Afghanistan. They’re going to end up with it anyway.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Ever since the CIA was set up in 1952, replacing the former organisation OAS, American foreign policy has been enacted in a covert way through this agency. Its first adventure, authorized by President Eisenhower, was to overthrow the democratically- elected president of Iran in 1953 by “renting a crowd”, and restoring the Shah to the throne and his secret police, which outdid anything that Stalin’s could do!

American foreign policy– if policy is the correct word since it implies deliberate thought, since that time has been to shun diplomacy and resort instead to war or covert means. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that America gets itself into situations from which it is difficult to extract itself with honor.

Posted by expat75 | Report as abusive

The result of sanctions will be increased worldwide oil prices which will totally offset any loss due to sanctions. Russia makes more on oil than natural gas. Russia will increase the price of natural gas for the next five years until the west can supply Europe. No cooperation in any worldwide efforts to settle disputes throughout the world and the loss of access to the ISS. All of this for what; a failed nation that will cost the west trillions of dollars to revive while the rest of the world rots away and the BRICS nations establish a new world order and currency. Just wait and see.

Posted by kencarver | Report as abusive

So Reuters allows advertisements in their opinion section now? More evidence of the decline of journalism. This warmonger should not have a public platform, his “solutions” have cost us much in the past decades.

“successful effort to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan in 1986-87″

Is that ever looking at the bright side! This moron wants us to forget that that “success” also happened to spawn Bin Laden and company. Covert actions have consequences. Arming and training radical foreign armies is a policy that should be rethought.Especially since “covert” refers only to the American public: the victims know what is going on, since you cannot keep it from, them! And this in a time of trying to prevent terrorists from forming? Laughable.

“For me, this all feels like déjà vu — because I worked as a CIA chief of station in five major Cold War locations, and served as deputy director for worldwide operations during the heyday of the struggle between the Soviet Union and the West.”

Classic case of if your only tool is a hammer, every job looks like a nail. In this case, the hammer is paranoia and rigid ideology that is resistant to facts.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

just another pro CIA gangster

Posted by nvgg | Report as abusive

This article reads like a scene from the movie Team America: World Police.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

I think it is true that in the absence of traditional military war fighting, covert action becomes an even more significant component of US foreign policy. But it is and should be a crucial foreign policy tool at all times, regardless of our war posture. And I would hope that it has been properly utilized during the Obama administration, because political scientists and intelligence analysts have been raising the alarm about Putin’s Russia for years now.

In general, I have always believed that covert operations tend to be more politically acceptable and cheaper than full military mobilization. And there are certain jobs that need doing that just can’t be done without secrecy. We should always be working to chart and track and disable the members and activities of terror networks and criminal organizations. We should always be working to challenge the power and resources of governments that wish to gain an advantage over us. And we should always support and promote opposition to bad actors abroad. Failure to do any of these things would be a grave mistake.

Although the Cold War ended, it only ended in the sense that the bi-polar, US-Soviet framework ended. But all of the other aspects of the Cold War still exist today. The difference is that now the framework is more complex. We are still faced with all of the same threats, but in different forms and greater numbers. As just one example, today’s Russia, despite its economy, is a much more acute threat and source of threats than when Gorbachev presided over the final years of the Soviet Union.

Posted by K-Wulf | Report as abusive