First in — Stretched Thin

On 11 September 2001, Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airliners and used them as weapons against New York and Washington, D. C.  The attacks were planned and orchestrated by the mentally deficient Osama Bin-Laden.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the Bush administration announced its war on terrorism.  The Present’s stated goal was bringing Osama Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda to justice and preventing the emergence of other terrorist networks.  President Bush intended to achieve the goals through economic and military sanctions against states perceived as harboring terrorists and increasing global surveillance on terrorists’ movements.

In the aftermath of the attack, the Inspector-General of the CIA conducted an internal review of the agency’s performance before 9/11.  This report was highly critical of senior CIA officials.  Through the autumn of 2001, the Taliban continued to pressure the Northern Alliance, often with the aid of Osama Bin Laden and his Arab forces.  On 9 September 2001, an assassination attempt by two Arabs posing as journalists mortally wounded Northern Alliance Leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.  This attack was the work of Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda.  The Northern Alliance responded to Massoud’s killing with an aerial attack on Kabul on 11 September.

We now know that Al-Qaeda coordinated Massoud’s murder with the terror attacks on the United States on 11 September.  Since Massoud was an American ally, the US planned to punish Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden as part of its first phase of what became known as the Global War on Terror.

The War in Afghanistan began on 7 October 2001 with allied airstrikes on Taliban and al Qaida targets.  On the ground, American, British, and other Allied special forces troops worked with the Northern Alliance to begin a military offensive to overthrow the Taliban.  This alliance between the Northern Alliance and the Allies led to coordination between Allied air attacks and ground attacks by the Northern Alliance.  These attacks led to the fall of Kabul on 13 November 2001, as the Taliban retreated from most of northern Afghanistan.

But the first troops in Afghanistan after 9/11 weren’t military.  They were CIA officers carrying boxes of cash to recruit Afghan warlords.  It was after that when special operations forces showed up, and after that, an allied bombing campaign.  In 2001, the coalition victory came quickly.  CIA officers took the lead in locating Osama Bin-Laden in the Tora Bora complex but worked with special operators and local Afghan militias.  Bin-Laden’s escape and disappearance into the woodwork meant that the Al-Qaeda organization could not wage further attacks against the United States.

During these early days, CIA (forward) was exceptional and well-suited for the challenge.  Afghanistan in 2001 wasn’t the CIA’s first turn at bat.  Covert operations in Afghanistan began in 1979.  Some contend (and I am one of them) that the CIA’s operation Cyclone set into motion what later transpired: the creation of Al-Qaeda and the attack upon the United States in 2001.

In one of history’s tragic ironies, the covert operation succeeded, turning Afghanistan into a quagmire for the Soviets and eventually leading to their defeat and withdrawal — but elements of the mujahideen and their supporters eventually morphed into Al-Qaeda, a carefully conceived organization with two purposes: to rid the Saudis of potentially harmful radical components they created through Wahhabism, and the pursuit of global jihad without drawing attention to themselves as its creator and primary source of funding.  Despite the thousands of disaffected morons seeking paradise through jihad, neither Al-Qaeda nor the Taliban (both adherents of Wahhabism) could stand up to the might of the US and Coalition military forces.  So, they withdrew (at first into small enclaves, and later en mass) to Pakistan, a Saudi partner in global jihad movements).

In the twenty years since 9/11, the CIA’s involvement in counterterrorism has expanded to the point where it is nearly impossible to differentiate between the work of intelligence gathering and suppression.  One example is that both the CIA and military engage in drone operations, often independently but occasionally as a cooperative effort.  A second example is that while the CIA supervised the operation to locate and kill Osama Bin-Laden, Navy Seals carried out the mission.  Today, both US special operations forces and CIA para-military groups engage in covert activities.

What is the point?

All government agencies suffer the slings and arrows of their civilian/political masters.  The pendulum swings, and with each amplitude comes the waste of billions of dollars in revenues.  The executive’s decision to bring thousands of unvetted Moslems to America’s communities, for example, may score points among the least intelligent of us all.  Still, it results in new demands to expand domestic counter-terror capabilities.  Previously, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has demonstrated incapable — handicapped by federal restrictions on monitoring mosques and its fascination with Bible-carrying Christians.  By law, neither the CIA nor the military can operate inside the United States.

So, while the fusing of intelligence gathering capabilities with military operations does have its benefits, there are also significant risks.  CIA paramilitary operations mean that it is spending less time on data collection and analysis.  We are, in 2021, returning to a period before 2001, which, as before, is a stupidity that could lead us once more to dire consequences.  As recently stated by Dr. Zegart at the Hoover Institution, the CIA’s mission is to prevent strategic surprise, not playing cowboys and Indians on the Afghan plain.

We live in an increasingly dangerous world.  Artificial intelligence is good and well worth the money we’re spending on it, but it isn’t good enough.  We need human intelligence to give us due and timely notice of approaching danger.  This is what we need the CIA to do.  America’s defense requires a coordinated effort, not a disjointed one, and not one that has overlapping responsibilities to the point where no one is quite sure who’s in charge of what.  The tremendous expense of an effective intelligence effort must cause us to realize that there is a difference between battlefield intelligence and strategic intelligence, and we must endeavor not to make it more complicated than it already is.  We do have our national defense interests at stake, don’t we?

Ah yes  — Our national interests. 

To drive home the previous point(s), according to the Afghanistan Study Group (Final Report) in February 2021, it is the United States’ foremost interest to contain the activities of terrorist groups that remain active in Afghanistan that could threaten the US homeland — principally, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).  According to this report, “Our ongoing military presence in Afghanistan, working alongside Afghan security forces, has disrupted these groups and prevented them from attacking our homeland.  A complete withdrawal of our troops would allow the threat to reemerge.  In the long term, the United States must either maintain a counterterrorism force in Afghanistan or have assurances that other verifiable mechanisms are in place to ensure that these groups cannot reconstitute.” Except that seven months later, there is no US military presence in Afghanistan; there are no Afghan security forces and no way to prevent their reemergence.  All that is left for us now is to know, in advance, what we can expect from these radical morons who seek to kills us.  This is what the CIA must now concentrate on; if they are not focused on that, then we should anticipate a very troubling future.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

6 thoughts on “First in — Stretched Thin”

  1. One quibble, Mustang, I doubt those thousands of Afghans now coming into the US need much vetting. Most, perhaps all had to run the Taliban gauntlet to get out of that country. They risked much to leave that country. It seems doubtful there will be many terrorist sympathizers among the group. Heck, I recall when folks said the same about Viet Nam refugees back in the 1970’s, how there could be some Commie sympathizers among the thousands. Now,we know there were few, perhaps no communist supporters among the Viet Nam refugees.
    Tom Crane

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    1. I concede your point, Tom. People looking to flee radical Islam probably do not pose a danger to American society, as you said, any more than a Vietnamese refugee did 46 years ago. For me, though, the issue is trust … and in this, I’m at least consistent. The fact is, I don’t know any Afghans, and if you asked, I wouldn’t be able to tell you where to find any (outside of Afghanistan). Even though I probably won’t shop at a Mom & Pop Afghan Store, any more than I would dine at a Vietnamese Pho restaurant, I’m happy to welcome anyone to America if they intend to assimilate our values. My problem is that the Somalis we rescued haven’t done that, nor the Shia population that’s taken over Dearborn, MI … so I have a tendency to keep a wary eye on those with a very low “trust” factor. Time will tell, though … and I’m running out of that. No matter what happens, it’ll be someone else’s problem more than mine.

      Thanks for commenting. I appreciate your point of view.


  2. Wow, that was depressing, Sir. 😉

    I noted the good comment above addressing the VN refugees. Perhaps it is true most are not Communists but many have voted Left/Socialist… so while not terrorists, they have leaned towards socialism. On top of that, many live within their communities and never learn Engish sufficiently. Perhaps I am out of bounds on that but it is a data point.

    I am very upset about how the senior citizen in the WH and Milley pulled out.


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