Nonstop covert operations against America’s enemies occur simultaneously in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. But as the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan give way to a worldwide shadow conflict, popular discussion of covert operations erroneously assume that these discrete capabilities are largely without precedent. Perhaps more perniciously, covert operations are often equated with direct action—the capture and killing of terrorists and insurgents. But covert operations are more than simply direct action writ large, and they have a distinguished historical pedigree. While daring exploits make the news, they also obscure the utility and limitations of covert action as a tool of policy.
What’s Covert About Covert Operations?
Covert action can broadly be defined as operations that seek to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad without exposing or highlighting the role of the state conducting them.[i] The tools of covert action range from direct action to sophisticated propaganda and other forms of political manipulation. Given the term “covert” and the legal emphasis on concealing the hand of the state, it is easy to assume plausible deniability is the essence of covert actions. However, a focus on secrecy alone is misleading.
The American drone campaign in Pakistan is overt, and neither the Iranian support of Iraqi insurgents nor the Pakistani Interservices Intelligence (ISI) backing of the Taliban can be described as particularly stealthy. Many covert operations are simply too large to conceal. This is not a failure of tradecraft so much as a reflection that the shape and tactics of the covert operation is dictated by policy. Policy dictates the shape of the covert plan and the particular set of tactics that constitute it. Some policies will dictate a set of ends, ways, and means that can be effectively concealed, other policies will demand operations that end up on CNN.
Because of the multiplicity of forms that covert operations can take, it is difficult to generally describe them. They occur in both peace and war, and are used to influence and coerce friend, enemy, and neutral alike. Rather than come up with a general explanation that is as vague as the legal definition, it is more useful to describe some of the general features of covert operations and their interaction with policy. It is impossible to do this, though, without an understanding of what policy is. Although policy and strategy are routinely conflated in strategic discourse, strategy is a purpose-built bridge between policy and violence. It is a time-limited and disposable instrument that flows out of the policy.[ii] In turn, policy is not an action but a condition or behavior. It generates political purpose which in turn creates a strategy for action.[iii]
Covert operations give policymakers an option to achieve objectives when disarmament of the enemy through direct military operations (or the threat of those operations) is undesirable. Covert operations often fall short of provoking a direct military response, or present enough ambiguity to constrain a target state from climbing to a higher “rung” of escalation dominance.[iv] As long as certain red lines were not crossed, the Soviet Union’s range of retaliatory options against the American and Pakistani support of Afghan insurgents was severely circumscribed.
There are many situations when states cannot, for political, material, or strategic reasons, use their most prominent strengths to achieve policy goals. The operation to kill Osama bin Laden is a prominent contemporary example. The leaders of al-Qaeda live unmolested in Pakistan. The United States cannot positively induce the Pakistanis to capture or kill al-Qaeda or the Taliban leadership. Threatening Pakistan with direct military action would be useless, as Pakistan controls a prominent North Atlantic Treaty Organization logistics route and possesses nuclear weapons. Any military strategy to destroy al-Qaeda and Taliban elements cannot be reconciled with other elements of the “Af-Pak” policy, such as nuclear stability or creation of a desirable Afghan state. However, unilateral covert action generated a strategy (the covert bypassing of the Pakistani state) and a set of tactics (surveillance, reconnaissance, and the kill operation itself) to achieve the policy goal of propelling bin Laden into the afterlife.
Covert operations are similar to war in that they can decide major political issues.[v] The Tehran and Guatemala coups literally decided the political composition of several governments. More modest covert operations can influence a state’s decision-making calculus. The American-Pakistani effort to generate proxy war in Afghanistan did not, on its own, directly force the Soviets to leave Afghanistan. However, the costs incurred as a result of the covert operation were ultimately too much for the Soviet Union to bear over such a limited objective, relative to their other foreign policy and domestic commitments.
A Tool of National Power
Covert operations are a dimension of policy that is often ignored when considering different instruments of national power. Policymakers, when faced with a choice between empty threats of force that can never be used and accepting an unfavorable political outcome, do not have to throw up their hands and curse fate. A state that does not wish, for whatever reason, to turn over a particular terrorist is not likely to be convinced by a smarter political message or more aid assistance. But they can be undermined through covert means or bypassed altogether. Moreover, dealing with terrorists and insurgents does not necessarily require manpower-intensive counterinsurgency or anything more than a transactional political relationship with the host nation that enables the use of standoff force to capture or kill enemies of the state.
Covert operations are not a standalone tool and are often employed to enhance or complement the effectiveness of other approaches. Covert operations to influence political and economic conditions in Europe were only one facet of an overall American policy of political-military defense against Soviet expansion. Covert operations, as seen in the Vietnam War and today in Pakistan, can also occur when a state is unable to project decisive force into an important theater of war. During irregular warfare bordering states that support enemy operations or cannot eject insurgents from their territories often become battlegrounds themselves. But due to diplomatic sensitivities, the force employed must be subtle, indigenous in origin, or in the case of drones, robotic.
The Stuxnet virus, often touted as an example of so-called operational cyberwarfare, is in fact a fully automated covert operation. With a military air campaign ruled out (for now), the virus retarded the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. Best yet, there is still much dispute over which state(s) created and employed it. In short, Stuxnet was a model covert operation. In some ways, cyberspace will enable many more covert operations because they can be carried out from vast distances, do not involve human agents, and can often (though not always) be effectively disguised.[vi]
Some states can also use covert operations to build hegemony in a region conducive to subversion. Iran’s influence in the Middle East, for example, is far out of proportion to its actual (and underwhelming) military capabilities. The revolutionary state’s robust covert operations networks allowed it to flex its muscles in regional battlegrounds ranging from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip. In effect, Iran aims to use its spies to create a shadow empire in the Middle East and win a geopolitical game against Israel.[vii] It speaks volumes that Saddam Hussein, a man who twice defied the will of the world’s greatest military power, deeply feared Iranian subversion. However, Iran’s game is not purely subversion. There is force behind its covert operations. Tehran can threaten the use of force through its proxies, posture with its own irregular capabilities, and is in the process of developing a nuclear umbrella that could facilitate an escalation of such activities.
Risks, Rewards, and Limitations
Movies are chock-full of nations stung by “blowback” from covert operations, but this risk is severely exaggerated. The wailing and gnashing of teeth associated with Cold War coups reflects not so much on the operations itself as the fact that politics – which inform policy and thus operations – have significantly changed since the bare-knuckled height of the US-Soviet great game.[viii] Operations that occurred in a Cold War context are now reviled, but this does not constitute proof that the policy or operations themselves were ill-advised or didn’t achieve their aims.
We must look at the logic of strategy to discover the weakness of covert action. Covert operations are indirect actions – but this is both strength and an important weakness. While some, most prominently the strategist Basil Liddell-Hart, have argued that indirect approaches are always superior to direct ones, evidence suggests otherwise. Most successful military strategies are a combination of both, and strategic history recommends that we view promises of victory without a blood price with great skepticism.
The indirect approach’s weakness also extends to international politics. If a given state has a firm conception of its interests, it is difficult to see how anything except a convincing promise of sufficient coercion will force it to change its behavior. No amount of development or clever diplomacy will change, as the Soviets put it, the “correlation of forces.” Compare, for example, the United States’ difficulty in coercing Pakistan today with successful post-9/11 demands for Karachi to assist in the destruction of the Taliban regime.
Today’s threats are simply toothless as long as the Pakistanis dictate NATO logistics and possess nuclear firepower. However, the immediate post-9/11 demands levied on Karachi were completely persuasive. Threats, as Thomas Schelling suggests, are often effective when they do not appear to be entirely rational.[ix] One doesn’t have to believe that Pakistanis were literally told that America would bomb them “back to the Stone Age” to see the credibility of American coercion in a time when a desire for retaliation was politically paramount.[x] Washington was able, in those chaotic months after 9/11, to convey to the Pakistanis that the rules had changed and a price of blood would be exacted.
Looking at this scenario, it is difficult to see how any sort of post-9/11 covert operation in Pakistan could have been more effective at achieving the policy goal than a simple, blunt, and above all else credible threat. Moreover, if Kermit Roosevelt Jr., architect of the Tehran coup, was tasked with generating a sufficiently coercive or transformative covert operation against Pakistan today, he would be stymied by the military’s strong hold on the state and Pakistan’s ability to easily retaliate by threatening the integrity of the Afghan mission. Hence the United States bypasses the Pakistanis through the drone campaign, which has clearly had tactical and operational successes but does not solve the policy problem of sanctuary. If the policy is “bin Laden must no longer breathe,” bypassing the Pakistanis is inconsequential. Solving the larger problem of sanctuary, however, is a different issue.
At the end of the day, states determined on a course of action and in possession of certain strategic trump cards simply will not be coerced or politically transformed by indirect economy of force operations. The root of the Bay of Pigs disaster was an attempt to use indirect means (Cuban exiles) to change the political composition of the Cuban government. Those planning the revolutionary coup de main fatally underestimated the strength of the regime. Even if the operational components of the invasion had been correctly planned it is difficult to see how the exiles could have overturned the Cuban state, absent massive external support.
Most dangerously, covert operations can seem like deceptively cheap solutions, but have the capacity to draw states into undesired commitments. President John F. Kennedy and Central Intelligence Agency director Allen Dulles both understood that once they had put a sizable exile brigade in training camps in Central America, they risked a “disposal problem” if the operation was cancelled. Without a concrete use, the exiles would compromise the operation, and forcibly disarming them created problems of an entirely different sort. Because the exiles could only go to Cuba, the strategy and tactics of the operation in effect dictated the policy.[xi]
The simplistic notion of blowback aside, covert operations that are not properly aligned with policy will exact costs. Policy, in turn, must be sound and domestically supportable. The continued existence of the state of Israel is an obviously sound and popular policy among its citizens, and this requires the continued targeting of enemies of the state. The likely Mossad culpability in a 2010 operation to kill Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhou is of little consequence. Such an operation’s success or failure will not exact domestic or international costs that will compromise the policy. There will always be those who will reflexively criticize covert and overt uses of force in both domestic and international forums, but this need not be an obstacle to effective covert action. The real questions a policymaker should be asking, however, are: whether the policy itself is sound, can be maintained domestically, and whether the covert instruments to achieve it are capable of realizing state goals. If any part of this crucial relationship is unbalanced, covert operations and the policies that guide them are unlikely to fulfill their promises.
Conclusion: A Wilderness of Mirrors
Despite their risks and limitations, covert operations are a useful tool of policy. Covert operations are not simply direct action, and today’s discourse ignores their wider utility. While strategic and political history can suggest situational principles of employment and tradecraft, politics ultimately dictates their shape and content. In a time when budgetary woes and the growing nuclear and conventional capabilities of other powers increasingly restricts freedom of action abroad, a robust covert operations regime will be key to American national security and diplomacy.
Covert operations, by definition, will upset those who deny the realities of international power politics, the consistency of human conflict, and states’ need to defend themselves and shape the international system to their advantage. These audiences will seek, as they have done many times in the past, to limit or ban covert operations altogether. Just as worrisome, however, is the increasing equation of tactical intelligence support and direct action with the sum of intelligence activity.[xii]
Excellence in covert action on all levels of engagement, whether the training and operation of proxy forces or the covert influencing of foreign political systems, should not be neglected in any discussion of American security and strategy.
[i] This definition borrows from US law--50 U.S.C. 413b(e).
[ii] See Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
[iii] Gray, 15-54.
[iv] See Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960, for a description of escalation dominance.
[v] Colin S. Gray, Defining and Achieving Decisive Victory, Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute, 2002, 7.
[vi] See Lukas Milevski, “Stuxnet and Strategy: A Special Operation in Cyberspace?” Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 63, 4th Quarter 2011, 64-69 for an example of the tactics of Stuxnet as a special operation and its role in strategy.
[vii] Robert D. Kaplan, “Iran’s Postmodern Beast in Gaza,” The Atlantic, 5 January 2009, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/01/iran-apos-s-postmodern-beast-in-gaza/7237/
[viii] See, for example, Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, Hoboken: Wiley, 2008, which fails to prove the causal relationship suggested by its title.
[ix] Thomas C. Shelling, Arms and Influence, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967, 35-92.
[x] “US ‘Threatened To Bomb’ Pakistan,” BBC, 22 September 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/5369198.stm
[xi] Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, Cambridge: Kennedy School of Government Case Program, C14-80-279, 6.
[xii] John G. Heidenrich, “The State of Strategic Intelligence: The Intelligence Community’s Neglect of Strategic Intelligence,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 51, No. 2. June 2007, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol51no2/the-state-of-strategic-intelligence.html.