The Daily Demarche asked me to help out with some guest blogging – which motivated me to do a total rewrite on this original post.
I’m much happier with the do-over, as I took the time to type in enough of America’s Secret War for the reader to get a sense of how Friedman approaches the issues. So for the latest, and much better version of this post, please go to Getting By With A Little Help From Our Friends.
America’s Secret War could be one of the most important books on "the long war" against the Islamists. The author, George Friedman, is the founder of Strategic Forecasting Inc (the ‘shadow CIA’ as Barron’s calls it, usually referred to as Stratfor). Friedman’s biography is here at Johns Hopkins’ Principles of War Seminars where he is a speaker.
Why an important book? A fairly small portion of the book is material you may have seen elsewhere. Much of it is may be old news to CIA hands who work the Middle East.
But they cannot write about it, while Stratfor can. The US administration may not be able to say "X", but Stratfor can. And recall that one of the most effective military methods is deception. I think there is a corollary principle in diplomacy.
The book is compact at 341 pages, because Friedman doesn’t spend a lot of words justifying his assertions. The prose gets short when you can say regarding Osama bin Laden that "His goal was to minimize the center of gravity – to try to deny the enemy an accessible point that, if reached, could destroy the entire organization". In this book that assertion is not padded with two pages of justification.
But is it true? I think it represents Stratfor’s best assessment as of summer 2004, reasoning as follows:
- This is a Stratfor book, authored by the founder and chairman.
- Stratfor makes a living selling geopolitical assessments.
- Within, say, 5 years the truth of many of the assertions will be known.
- Some will be known sooner, at least to a few people, some of which may write op-eds.
- Note also, the CIA has proven very capable of getting any message it wishes published.
- If material portions of the book turn out to be rubbish, the financial impact on Stratfor is not good.
- So, there may be bad calls, but I’ll wager that Stratfor gave it their best shot.
Here are a few representative Friedman points – not in the order presented:
- The US is running a far deeper, more Machiavellian strategy than it appears. A correct strategy by Friedman’s lights, though there are execution problems. E.g., in 2002 sensible people (like Ken Pollack) asked "why Iraq right now?" An important part of the answer according to Friedman was to light a blowtorch under the Saudis. Within weeks after 9/11 it was clear to the NSC task force that the cooperation of the Saudis was essential: on intelligence and on cutting the Islamist flow of funds. But the Saudis were not cooperating. Like Bin Laden, they believed the US would bluster but would not use force to back up their words. US strategists reasoned that deposing Saddam would both demonstrate US determination, and position US power right next to the Saudi kingdom. The coercion would effect not only Saudi, but Iran, Syria and Pakistan.
- Al Qaeda’s primary risk is discovery by intelligence. Al Qaeda is intimately familiar with US/allied intelligence – they were taught by the CIA in the Afghan war. They had, and likely continue to have, good access to Saudi Intelligence – with whom the CIA has been working closely since early in the Cold War. Its simple – if the Saudis know it, Al Qaeda knows it.
- Al Qaeda’s primary skill is "evading the CIA and allied intelligence agencies."
- Al Qaeda is designed to survive a massive counterattack by the US, and is "prepared to lose a good portion of its leadership".
- At the same time, because the number of Al Qaeda’s key operatives is small, AQ is quite risk averse regarding mission compromise. Allied intelligence has used this against AQ to stop operations. E.g., by leaking that the CIA is interrogating "X", since AQ doesn’t know whether "X" has compromised an operation, they are likely to cancel it to avoid the risk. See Lee Smith article below for more…
confirmed some of the conclusions I had reached regrading Iraq and regime change:
- The US national security team post 9/11 quickly came to the conclusion that "homeland defense" was impossible. Attenuate threats yes, stop them no. Thus the only viable policy option was offense – to destroy the Islamist support structure across the globe – a multigenerational strategy.
- WMD was not central in US Iraq strategy. WMD was chosen as the best public argument to build the needed political support, because it was rested on the history of UN resolutions and Saddam’s lack of compliance. This was critical for shoring up the legal case – very essential for Tony Blair, while also offering at least a non-zero chance of Security Council support.
- The US did, of course, believe that Saddam had WMD, with most confidence being on chemical [that the military was seriously worried is obvious by requiring troops to outfit in that truly awful hazmat gear]. The worry about nuclear was future – after the collapsing sanctions were lifted. Bio weapons were a maybe.
Friedman did not discuss one of my key conclusions re: "why Iraq soon?", that containment via the sanctions regime was essentially finished – while diplomacy dictated that US leadership not state this central fact. France, Russia and China had been tunneling around the sanctions since 1992. All three were committed to ending the sanctions regime, thus allowing Saddam to resume his dream of leading the Arab world, and controlling the oil reserves of the Persian Gulf. Whether a nuclear Iraq was 2 or 10 years away after the fall of sanctions one can debate – but the end result was very clear – a nuclear Iraq at the hinge of the Middle East.
For an insiders history of Saddam’s nuclear ambitions, see: "Saddam’s Bombmaker– The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda" by Khidhir Hamza, Saddam’s chief scientist, now a free man.
Further background and comment: Any book review or commentary links left in the comments would be most appreciated.
I should note that I’ve seen a couple of comments since about Oct., 2004 stating to the effect of "the Saudis started to play ball for the first time when it became clear we were going into Iraq".
Barron’s Feb. 21, 2005 interview with Friedman "World of Worry" has a number of useful tidbits. Among these are comments on the US coercion strategy:
As a political scientist and admirer of realpolitik, Friedman feels that the U.S.’s aggressive action and military presence in Iraq has inestimably helped the war on terror by, among other things, motivating reluctant allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan and erstwhile enemies like Syria and Iran to help the U.S. by cutting off their support of al Qaeda and serving up better intelligence to Western governments.
"I call it the coalition of the coerced, but the tempo of timely arrests of al Qaeda operatives around the world, and the fact that the U.S. suffered no terrorist attacks running up to last year’s election, can in good part be attributed to better intelligence from the Islamic world," Friedman avers. "Our victory in Afghanistan was insufficient. We had to show the Islamic world that we meant business by putting large numbers of troops into the Mideast, into harm’s way, rather than cutting and running such as the U.S. had done previously in its rapid pull-out from Beirut in the 1980s and Somalia in the ‘1990s.
An informed 10/06/2004 book review by David Warren, who himself has pretty good sources on the region:
In America’s Secret War, Dr. Friedman argues that the enemy grew out of the Cold War, an artefact of Jimmy Carter’s decision to use Saudi Arabian money and Pakistani expertise to create a guerrilla army that could harass the Soviets then occupying Afghanistan. "Al Qaeda", the product, mastered the art of covert operation, and as the Soviets collapsed, began turning it against the West, biting the hand that fed them. Their large ambition is the creation of a new, pan-Muslim caliphate, however, and they attack Western targets as a means of advancing an Islamist revolution at home.
There are some thoughtful related comments by Lee Smith at Slate on Aug. 13, 2004: "Does the U.S. press know we’re at war?" Lee Smith did good research for this article. He dug up a few tidbits not published elsewhere. Example, regarding the threat of a 2004 pre-election "Madrid attack":
George Friedman, chairman of Stratfor, a private global intelligence company, learned that it was the latter. "There was a decision in the U.S. intelligence community to roll up the al-Qaida networks we know about now and push them out of a pre-election attack," he told me.
That is to say, the most important information that came from Khan was not about the five potential financial-sector targets in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., that al-Qaida had chosen as far back as four years ago to attack. What U.S. intelligence learned is that there was an extremely serious, imminent operation in the advanced-planning stages. The information placed in the Times, Friedman explains, "was part of a systematic series of leaks, designed to confuse al-Qaida. They don’t know what we know and what we don’t know. Since their operational principle is never attack into a highly secure environment, the assumption is that they’d abort this operation."
I asked Friedman… why other intelligence professionals were skeptical of the government’s actions. For instance, CIA officer Robert Baer argued, "You get no benefit from announcing an arrest like this."
Friedman explains that there are two sides to any debate in the intelligence community: intelligence and security. "The gut of an intel guy like Baer is that you never shut down an operation by going public," says Friedman. "The security people have a narrower point of view: The best way to make al-Qaida go on tilt is to reveal that they have been penetrated. In this particular case, I see the need to let al-Qaida know that we know something. Otherwise, they will continue their operation, thinking they are secure. Maybe we sweep the board before the operation is executed, and maybe we get hit hard. Better to force them to abort their operation even if we lose intelligence opportunities. I see Baer’s point of view, but in this case, I’m with the security guys."
This Friedman interview plugging the book, is on the book website.
A bit dated now, CNN did an online interview-chat with Friedman on Nov 21, 2001. An interesting Q&A, including still-unanswered issues like this:
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How much do you think intelligence played a part in the rapid retreat of the Taliban from most of Afghanistan?
FRIEDMAN: That has to be stated two ways. To what extent did the Taliban retreat as part of its own strategy of reverting to guerilla warfare, and to what extent did they retreat under U.S. military pressure. Remember that they pulled out of cities that were not under particularly heavy attack. So, the real question is whether or not this is an attempt by the Taliban to execute its own war plan, and whether or not that attempt will be successful. That really is the intelligence question now. Have the Taliban collapsed, or have they repositioned themselves for an extended guerilla war?
There is the Epilogue/final chapter, published online Oct 4 to update readers on events since the book was written. You can obtain the Epilogue online here by signing up for a free trial Stratfor subscription [30 second signup]:
Excerpt from the Epilogue:
The most important mystery about the war concerns the Bush administration. In some ways, we find the other players much easier to understand than Bush. The administration has been portrayed as strategically simplistic and politically adroit and opportunistic. In fact, the exact opposite seems to be the case, from our point of view.
Strategically, the United States appears to have a well thought-out approach that makes the most of a very weak hand. The trend lines are satisfactory, particularly considering where they started. We suspect that very few people on September 12, 2001, would have thought that the situation would be as well contained today as it is. Apart from a low but tolerable level of violence in Iraq, the broader war has evolved very much in favor of the United States. This is partly due to the nature of the war and partly due to the strategic and operational choices made by the administration.
Politically, the administration has acted with massive incompetence. Its failure to give a plausible defense to a policy that can certainly be defended is amazing. Instead, the administration has stumbled through a series of untenable and incoherent justifications for its actions until the political foundations of its war plans have been undermined. From WMD to democratizing Iraq, the administration has constantly undermined its own credibility.