by Jason Cooley
Following the September 11th terrorist attacks, the United States government embarked on a campaign to weaken the Islamic extremist organizations that were present in the world. Some of the steps that this lone superpower took to accomplish this objective could be easily detected. However, there were others that went undetected until investigative reporters wrote about them in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other reputable newspapers. Once these covert initiatives were exposed, certain parties began to conduct inquiries to ascertain whether or not they were helping the United States prevent terrorist attacks by Islamist networks. Two initiatives, which received a considerable amount of attention in the post-9/11 era, were the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone and enhanced interrogation programs. In 2009, the members of the United States Senate Intelligence Committee revealed that they would be conducting a thorough review of the latter. Approximately five years after this announcement, the committee released a report to the public that said sleep deprivation, waterboarding and other forms of torture did not lead to actionable intelligence. In other words, they did not produce any information that enabled the CIA to foil terrorist attacks which were on the verge of being carried out against the United States (Klapper and Dilanian 2014). A lot of the analyses of the CIA’s drone program were conducted by prominent academics like Fawaz Gerges. At one point in The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda, this professor at the London School of Economics mentions how drone strikes often killed innocent civilians in Muslim countries. When civilians did perish, extremist organizations would see a rise in the number of recruits who were interested in executing terrorist operations (Gerges 2014, p.25).
Since the enhanced interrogation and drone programs have been focused on so much in the early portion of the twenty-first century, certain covert initiatives have yet to be examined by academics or figures affiliated with the U.S. government. A program, which really is in need of evaluation at this time, is America’s covert support for parties that are attempting to engineer upheavals in various Muslim nations. Without question, the most outspoken proponent of this initiative in Washington is John Brennan. During a television interview, the present Director of Central Intelligence said that “it is important to bolster” these actors abroad (Brennan 2015). It would be possible to agree with Brennan if interventions were generating outcomes that made the United States more secure, but they have failed to do so while the battle against Islamist networks has been in progress. If we are going to see how this claim is meritorious, we will first need to identify some desirable and undesirable outcomes and then analyze a particular intervention in a thorough manner.
Desirable and Undesirable Outcomes from Covert Regime Change Operations
Over the years, the United States government has introduced various benchmarks to see if its foreign policy measures have been productive. Toward the beginning of 2003, Washington sent soldiers into Iraq to remove an unwanted regime from power. After this government was overthrown, a minor conflict commenced between multiple factions in Iraq. When this conflict became more intense, some officials in Washington claimed that U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Iraq. While these figures were calling for an end to the operation, another contingent inside the government was insisting that American military personnel should remain in Iraq until it became a stable country. The group, which was in favor of continuing the mission in Iraq, eventually managed to win this fierce debate in Washington. In the aftermath of the triumph, a set of standards was created so that the relevant parties in the American government could see if Iraq was turning into a secure nation. It was possible for interested citizens to find out what these benchmarks were because they appeared in government publications, including Securing, Stabilizing, and Rebuilding Iraq.
When the U.S. government launched covert regime change operations in Muslim nations, it did not release reports to the public that contained the preferred outcomes for the missions. Consequently, an individual must find other ways to unearth what American officials probably wanted to see happen in the countries where these operations were transpiring. One possibility is to closely examine the sections of books that were written by officials after they left government and went to work in the private sector. Between 1980 and 2013, Mike Morell worked at the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. After he left the Agency, he wrote a book about the American campaign against extremist organizations. At one point in this 2015 release, he emphasizes how the United States will not succeed in this struggle unless it works closely with other nations. According to him, America must receive the most assistance from the countries in the Muslim world. Some of these nations have already demonstrated that they possess the traits which Morell thinks are essential in the fight against extremists. That is, they have shown that they have a considerable amount of determination as well as the ability to disrupt the activities of radical organizations (Morell 2015, p.317). One Muslim country, which has proven to be determined and capable in the post 9/11 world, is Indonesia. Between 2006 and 2014, there was a noticeable decline in the number of terrorist attacks inside this nation because the government took steps to weaken extremist groups, including arresting key operatives and launching various initiatives that were intended to keep citizens from being radicalized (Morell 2015, pp.320-321).
Since partners like Indonesia were considered to be a necessity in the campaign against extremism, it is safe to say that Morell and other influential figures in the American government wanted their covert regime change operations to produce new regimes that were willing and able to combat groups like al Qaeda. Now that the likely objective of U.S. officials has been identified, we can turn our attention to the results that these individuals probably wanted to eschew. Because Morell believes that it is important for the leaders of a Muslim country to exhibit a determination to battle radical organizations, we can presume that the figures inside the corridors of power in Washington did not want to see these clandestine initiatives produce new governments that were led by people who were unwilling to combat Islamist groups in an aggressive fashion. In other words, they did not want to see the rise of leaders like Hassan al-Turabi. Following a revolution in 1989, this figure assumed control of the Sudan. Throughout the 1990s, al-Turabi made decisions that can only be described as advantageous to the members of Islamic extremist networks. Out of all of these choices, the one that attracted the most attention was allowing Osama Bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders to stay in the Sudan from 1991 to 1996. While these figures were situated in this African nation, they trained individuals for multiple operations, including an attack against U.S. military personnel in Somalia on October 3, 1993 (Bowden 1999, p.3).
When a leader provides extremist organizations with areas to gird for terrorist attacks, it can be said that sanctioned sanctuaries are present in his country. Toward the end of the twentieth century, there were several sanctioned sanctuaries throughout the globe. However, as the twenty-first century was getting under way, it was becoming quite difficult to locate them on the world stage since extremist organizations were starting to prepare for acts of political violence in nations where they were not welcome. It was possible for unsanctioned sanctuaries to emerge in these nations because government officials did not have security personnel that were capable of defeating fighters from Islamist networks on the battlefield. One way to notice the validity of this point is by taking some developments inside Mali into consideration. In 2013, this African nation did not have a strong central government with competent security forces. As a result, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was able to seize a substantial amount of land in the north. After it took control of this territory, it established multiple camps that were designed to train operatives for attacks (Morell 2015, pp.317-318). If one thinks about these events in Mali and Morell’s emphasis on capacity simultaneously, one begins to realize that American officials probably did not want to have their covert regime change operations lead to the establishment of inept governments either.
Intervention in Afghanistan in 2001
It has been established that a covert regime change operation can be labeled as successful if a new government surfaces that is willing and able to participate in the campaign against Islamist extremist organizations. However, we still have not identified the types of operations that can be performed by the United States. Toward the end of the 1980s, Gregory Treverton released a book called Covert Action. During the early stages of this publication, he claims that American policymakers can conduct a covert mission in one of three ways. One option is to drop leaflets or broadcast radio messages inside a particular country where an unwanted leader is in control. If this propaganda is persuasive, the citizens in this nation will probably choose to organize a movement that is designed to produce a new ruler. Officials in Washington can also attempt to engineer a regime change in a targeted nation by conducting a political action operation. It entails allocating financial assistance to organizations that have the potential to carry out a non-violent campaign against an undesirable leader. The last way that the American government can try to remove a ruler from office is by performing a paramilitary operation. In other words, it can distribute military equipment to certain actors so they can work assiduously to overthrow the ruler in a violent manner (Treverton 1987, p.13).
Treverton presents the types of covert operations in Covert Action, but he fails to inform the readers when they are most likely to be conducted by American leaders. While one analyzes the conduct of U.S. policymakers during the Cold War, one becomes cognizant of the manner in which the conditions inside a targeted state determine what kind of operation is conducted. In 1946, the Italian Communist Party managed to increase the number of seats that it had in parliament by performing well in nationwide elections. Two years later, the members of the Truman administration were afraid that another election would enable the communists to seize control of the Italian government. In order to keep this development from transpiring, they decided to send financial assistance to the Christian Democrats, the most influential anti-communist party in Italy. It was possible to carry out a political action operation in this instance because Italy’s democratic system allowed an anti-communist actor to pursue a worthwhile objective in a peaceful fashion. However, there were multiple times when American allies were situated in nations where non-violence was not an option, so Washington was forced to provide these actors with machine guns and other military equipment. One of the most famous American paramilitary operations was launched at the beginning of the 1960s. As this decade was getting under way, Cuba was controlled by Fidel Castro, an authoritarian leader with close ties to the Soviet Union. Since no elections were scheduled in this Caribbean nation, the Central Intelligence Agency had to train and arm a contingent of exiles who were also interested in toppling Castro’s government.
The first covert regime change operation conducted by the United States during the battle against Islamic extremist networks was in a nation like Cuba, not Italy. As 2001 was coming to an end, Afghanistan was under the control of a small and enigmatic group of recluses that had come to be known as the Taliban. The primary objective of the Taliban was to have all Afghan citizens closely follow the strict interpretation of Islam that they endorsed. When an individual was caught behaving in a manner that was deemed to be unacceptable, he or she would be severely punished by personnel who were affiliated with the Taliban government. On certain occasions, the figures from the authoritarian regime went so far as to execute people in front of audiences at a stadium in the capital city of Kabul (Miglani 2008).
Unsurprisingly, there were certain rebel groups that were attempting to halt the Taliban’s brutality. During the month of October, George W. Bush, the forty-third President of the United States, elected to provide these resistance groups with a substantial amount of military supplies (Tenet 2007, p.210). Bush and his advisors were not interested in toppling the Taliban regime since it had been mistreating countless individuals within Afghanistan. Rather, they were eager to have a regime change take place because the members of the government were allowing many Islamic extremist groups to prepare for terrorist operations inside this Central Asian nation. Within the preceding section, we saw how Bin Laden and some other figures inside the al Qaeda hierarchy were situated in the Sudan during the early and middle stages of the 1990s. After they left this African country in 1996, the Taliban invited them to stay in Afghanistan. It did not take Bin Laden and his associates very long to construct training facilities in the parts of Afghanistan where they were located. Some of the operatives who were trained in these sanctioned sanctuaries went on to perform al Qaeda’s most damaging attacks in the first decade of the twenty-first century, including the 9/11 operation that killed over 3,000 individuals (Kean and Hamilton 2004, p.98).
The Taliban and al Qaeda were predominately situated in the central and southern portions of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, most of the American allies were located in the northern part of the country. Policymakers in Washington wanted these rebels to move south and seize territory that was being held by the Taliban and al Qaeda, but they knew that this turn of events would probably not transpire unless the allocation of military equipment was accompanied by the placement of U.S. personnel inside Afghanistan and a bombing campaign against enemy positions. A lot of the American operatives for this mission were provided by the Central Intelligence Agency. Upon arriving in northern Afghanistan, CIA paramilitary officers began to train fighters from the rebel organizations. In addition to this, they assisted with the execution of the bombing campaign by sending useful intelligence about Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds to the American military (Tenet 2007, p.209).
When the rebels conducted their initial offensives, they failed to capture Kunduz, Bamiyan, and other cities that were in enemy hands. This disappointing result made different parties in the American government think that the initiative in Afghanistan would not lead to the overthrow of the Taliban. It is safe to say that the most outspoken critics of the mission were in the Defense Intelligence Agency. At one point in October, individuals from this entity produced a paper that contained a number of gloomy predictions about what could be expected in the future. Among them was that the “Northern Alliance will not capture the capital of Kabul before winter arrives, nor does it possess sufficient forces to encircle and isolate the city.” (Defense Intelligence Agency 2001).
Prior to the writing of this paper in 2001, various members of the American intelligence community had presented other intriguing predictions. During 1967, there was a noticeable increase in the friction between Israel and the Arab states in the Middle East. This development made Lyndon Johnson, the thirty-sixth President of the United States, fear that another conflict could commence in this region at any time. He eventually asked the employees at the CIA to compose reports with predictions about whether or not the outbreak of a new war was imminent. Upon receiving this request, the CIA sent multiple papers to the White House that indicated another war was on the horizon and that the Israelis would be able to beat their Arab adversaries in a rapid manner. When fighting began between the Israelis and certain Arab countries on June 5th, Johnson and other influential figures in Washington complimented the CIA. This bureaucratic department received even more praise after the Arab nations were defeated in only six days. Thirty-two years after this brief conflict between the Arabs and Israelis, the United States military was participating in a bombing campaign that was intended to keep the Yugoslav government from killing innocent civilians in the province of Kosovo. At one point, CIA personnel provided the military with a location in Belgrade where they believed the Yugoslav government was storing missile parts for rogue nations (Tenet 2007, p.47). Toward the beginning of May, U.S. warplanes dropped multiple bombs on this target that had been proposed by the CIA. In the immediate aftermath of this turn of events, news agencies from around the world reported that the United States had actually hit the Chinese embassy in the Yugoslav capital.
Like the prediction from 1999, the forecast for the regime change operation in Afghanistan turned out to be incorrect. On November 10th, the rebel forces, which were being supported by the United States, took control of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Emboldened by this initial victory, they turned their attention to seizing the city that the Defense Intelligence Agency’s analysts said they would be unable to take before the commencement of winter. In other words, they began to focus on gaining control of the capital of Kabul. Rebel forces encountered some adversity during the November campaign to take Kabul, but they eventually managed to liberate the city later in the month. If one is interested in finding out why the resistance groups experienced these triumphs on the battlefield, one should take some material from At the Center of the Storm into consideration. Between 1997 and 2004, George Tenet served as the Director of Central Intelligence. During the fall of 2001, he closely monitored the initiative that was in progress inside Afghanistan. While he is discussing it in the aforementioned publication, he mentions how the rebel victories in November transpired because American warplanes started to drop more bombs on Taliban and al Qaeda targets at this juncture (Tenet 2007, p.215).
The contingents from the northern part of Afghanistan that were able to seize this territory in November shared a hatred for the Taliban, but there were multiple differences between them. The most important in relation to this discussion is the manner in which their members did not come from the same ethnic background. While one closely examines the ranks of these entities, one comes across fighters who wanted to be referred as Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras. This same diversity cannot be seen while looking at the rebel groups that the United States worked with in the southern portion of Afghanistan. Instead, these organizations just consisted of individuals who preferred to be labeled as Pashtuns. The resistance network in the south was not as heterogeneous as the one in the north, yet the experiences of the groups, which were affiliated with it, were quite similar to the ones of northern groups. That is, they eventually managed to defeat Taliban forces on the battlefield after encountering a considerable amount of setbacks during the early stages of their respective fighting campaigns.
It will not be possible for the claim from the end of the preceding paragraph to be convincing unless the experience of one of the southern organizations is discussed in a descriptive fashion. Toward the beginning of October, an influential Pashtun named Hamid Karzai was situated in the neighboring country of Pakistan. When word began to spread that the United States was working clandestinely with various militant groups inside his native country, he made an arduous journey to Tarin Kowt, a town in the southern province of Urozgan. Upon arriving in this location, Karzai and his followers became involved in a fierce battle with forces that were affiliated with the Taliban government. The CIA attempted to help Karzai and his fighters win this encounter by dropping additional supplies from the air, but the Taliban loyalists continued to advance towards their positions. In order to keep the members of the Karzai contingent from being killed or captured, the United States executed an airlift operation in Tarin Kowt on the night of November 4th (Tenet 2007, p.220).
Approximately ten days after Karzai and his men were rescued, they returned to southern Afghanistan with the assistance of a six –man CIA team, a twelve-man Special Forces Unit, and a three-man Joint Special Operations Command Unit. Before these American covert operators returned to their bases, they provided the members of the Karzai group with machine guns, recoilless rifles, mortars, and communication equipment. It can be said that these supplies were used more effectively than the ones that were dropped into the village of Tarin Kowt. After all, the fighters in the Karzai contingent went on to defeat Taliban supporters on more than one occasion. Out of all of these triumphs, the most significant was the one that transpired on November 17th. At this point in time, the insurgency in southern Afghanistan appeared to be on the verge of coming to an end. However, it was injected with new vigor when Karzai’s followers courageously pushed back a group of Taliban fighters (Tenet 2007, p.220).
While a covert regime change operation is in progress, CIA operatives spend a considerable amount of time helping subversive groups that are participating in grueling military campaigns, but they do engage in other activities. Among them is contemplating who might assume control of the country when the undesirable government is toppled. On certain occasions, operatives are unable to find a person who they think will be a productive successor. Toward the end of the 1950s, the President of Indonesia opted to accept weapon shipments from the Soviet Union and permit the communist party to enter his coalition government. These decisions angered Dwight Eisenhower, the thirty-fourth President of the United States, so he instructed Allen Dulles, the Director of Central Intelligence, to conduct a covert operation that would result in Sukarno’s removal from power. Dulles attempted to engineer a regime change by having Agency personnel work closely with moderate opposition groups such as the Revolutionary Council in Sumatra (Ambrose 1981, p.249). As these operatives provided this assistance, they never told Dulles or his associates about any rebels who had the potential to lead Indonesia once Sukarno was overthrown. Earlier in the 1950s, a member of the CIA was able to identify someone who appeared to be capable of running a government. At this point in time, Edward Lansdale feared that a communist takeover in the Philippines was on the horizon. He was under the impression that the only Filipino who could keep this turn of events from transpiring was Ramon Magsaysay. Consequently, he took steps that were designed to make it possible for this rebel leader from the Second World War to take control of the Filipino government (Duthel 2013, p.95). It is fair to say that these moves were effective since Magsaysay became the seventh President of the Philippines on December 30, 1953.
There were certain individuals in the CIA who started to think that Hamid Karzai would be an effective ruler while the covert mission in Afghanistan was in progress. Out of all of these figures, the most outspoken was a paramilitary officer who worked alongside Karzai and his fighters in southern Afghanistan. Inside At the Center of the Storm, George Tenet mentions how he had multiple conversations with this officer about Karzai. During one of them, the officer stated that “Karzai represented the only credible opposition leader” in the south (Tenet 2007, p.219). In addition to offering these compliments, the paramilitary officer went to great lengths to protect Karzai after his contingent started to win some battles against the Taliban. On December 5th, Karzai and his men were partaking in an assault on the final Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. At one point in this assault, a request was made for an air strike by an American B-52. When the bombs were dropped by this plane, some inadvertently fell near Karzai and his fighters. Had the CIA officer not thrown himself on Karzai, the rebel leader probably would have perished (Tenet 2007, p.225).
When Kandahar was captured, many Afghan citizens started to think that the brutal reign of the Taliban had passed. This was not the only development in the month of December that lifted the morale of the Afghan citizenry. During the first week of December, twenty-five influential figures from Afghanistan traveled to Bonn, Germany to attend a conference about the future of their country (United Nations 2001). While the meeting was in progress, the delegates decided to form a new government that would be run by the man who had earned the respect of so many of the CIA operatives inside Afghanistan. In other words, they opted to have Hamid Karzai become the first leader in the post-Taliban era. Before 2001 came to an end, Karzai was sworn into office by an official in Kabul.
Because Karzai came to power, several American officials looked at the operation in Afghanistan as a major success. A good way to show how this point is meritorious is by taking another statement from Tenet’s memoirs into consideration. At one point in At the Center of the Storm, he says that the mission in Afghanistan was the “CIA’s finest hour.” (Tenet 2007, p.187). It would have been appropriate for Tenet to make this remark if Karzai went on to become a useful partner in the American campaign against Islamic extremist organizations. However, he was never able to make any worthwhile contributions to this effort during his time as the leader of the Afghan government.
In the preceding section, it was mentioned that an American covert regime change operation should not lead to the rise of a government that is unwilling to partake in the struggle against Islamic extremist networks or a regime which is incapable of weakening these groups. One cannot assert that the government of Hamid Karzai failed to make a contribution to the U.S. campaign against Islamist entities because it lacked desire. After all, Karzai frequently instructed personnel from the Afghan government to conduct counterterrorism operations. More often than not, these operations entailed attacking areas where the members of Islamist groups were known to be congregating. The first major assault against an Islamist sanctuary transpired in the early portion of 2002. Around this time, a considerable amount of al Qaeda and Taliban members were located in part of Paktia, a province in Central Afghanistan. Consequently, Karzai had security personnel accompany American forces on a mission that was designed to eliminate the Islamists in this section of the country.
Karzai’s government clearly was determined to combat extremist groups in an aggressive fashion. Unfortunately, the individuals who were being sent out on counterterrorism operations were similar to the aforementioned security forces in the nation of Mali. In other words, they did not possess the talent to defeat Islamists in battles over contested territories. This ineffectiveness can be seen by the reader if the results of the operation in Paktia Province are taken into consideration. When Operation Anaconda was launched in March 2002, there were approximately 1,000 al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the Shahi-Kot Valley. By the time it was over with, only twenty-three of these radicals had been killed (Tanner 2009, p.317).
Since numerous fighters were not killed in operations like the one in Paktia Province, Islamist organizations continued to prepare for terrorist attacks in unsanctioned sanctuaries throughout Afghanistan. While the Taliban was in power, al Qaeda could only eliminate Americans by conducting attacks outside of Afghanistan. Now that numerous Americans were assisting with the construction of the new government, it became possible for this transnational revolutionary organization to kill them on Afghan soil. One of the most memorable attacks against the United States took place as 2009 was coming to an end. On December 30th, some CIA agents were scheduled to meet an individual, who claimed to know the whereabouts of the al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, at a base in Khost Province. Soon after this presumed informant entered the base, he detonated an explosive, which killed seven members of the department that had played such an important role in Karzai’s rise to power (Panetta 2014, p.1).
During the preceding section, some covert regime change operations from the Eisenhower years were taken into consideration. Because the thirty-fourth president of the United States was quite fond of clandestine missions, he sometimes faced criticism from various figures. However, there were also individuals who were of the opinion that these initiatives were a useful tool in the fight against communism. It could be argued that the most ardent supporter of Eisenhower’s conduct was James Doolittle, a veteran of the Second World War. At one point in the 1950s, Doolittle led a committee that reviewed the CIA’s surreptitious activities overseas. Within a report that was released to the public, the members of the panel said: “If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of fair play must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counter-espionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us.” (Doolittle Committee 1954).
In the early part of the twenty-first century, the U.S. has been involved in a new struggle against Islamic extremist organizations that are determined to establish theocratic regimes in several states. While this conflict has been in progress, certain figures have claimed that the United States should rely heavily on covert regime change operations once again. It would be prudent for the world’s lone hegemon to conduct a lot of these missions if they produce regimes which are willing and able to participate in the campaign against Islamist networks. But as the Afghan case demonstrates, initiatives tend to lead to the emergence of governments that are unable to provide meaningful assistance to the United States.
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American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.
Jason Cooley holds a Master’s Degree in Political Science from the University of Connecticut. He teaches courses about American politics at the University of Hartfordand Tunxis Community College in Farmington, Connecticut. His research interests include transnational revolutionary organizations, American foreign policy, and covert action.