The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) gave us the term blowback, and then spent their career encouraging it with foreign interventions. Now, the CIA has found that another one of their habits doesn’t lead to good effects in the real world.
As reported by The New York Times, in 2012 and 2013 the CIA looked back at their 67-year history and concluded that funding rebel groups in foreign countries doesn’t work very well. Or rather, "any past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict." Especially useless is when groups do not have Americans on the ground to assist them.
Bizarrely, the still-classified internal report gives exception to the funding of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, since that helped doom the Soviets there. The Times reporter wisely, if slightly timidly, mentions that the whole Al-Qaeda and 9/11 business that came after said funding stopped may contradict that "win." It seems that even the self-critical, intellectual CIA is forever looking in the short-term, as opposed to the unpredictable, yet mysteriously constant longer-term effects of an intervention. These being, namely violence, instability, and powerful groups with a strong hatred for the United States.
An optimistic reading of the CIA’s relative sense here (even if it comes after decades of practicing their schemes on the world) is that President Barack Obama has listened, to a point. Former Pentagon Head Leon Panetta and former Secretary of Defense Hillary Clinton were both chomping at the bit about funding Syrian Rebels in 2012. Obama, the could-be-worse president, waffled in part because of the CIA’s "dour" report.
Now, Obama and the CIA have been sending equipment to rebels for a time. But in 2013, the intention was to assist those attempting to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad. Now, the goal is to destroy the Islamic State (ISIS) and to, well, frostily ignore Assad. The rapidly changing goal of a Syrian intervention doesn’t change much for those who think it was always a good idea to sink the United States’ oar in. (And that oar is attached to Hellfire missiles.) Or that the US has any kind of ability predict the end goals of warring groups.
The current US plan with Syria is to train fresh, "vetted" rebels, not the ones who have been fighting in the hellish civil war since it began. That mess is now officially too messy, and the "moderate" forces too hard to untangle. The process is now slowed to a crawl, which is good. However, ill-advised interventions always have someone to carefully plan them out, to write the necessary facts and figures to prove their necessity, and to prove that thousands or millions of people will all do just as the War College Alumni predicted.
Fundamentally, there are myriad reasons not to train or fund other groups. Let’s call the CIA’s method a "third way" of getting into other country’s business. Total war is the worst option for all parties involved in a conflict. Staying out of another country’s business is rarely on the table. Why not try a covert operation, or funding guerilla fighters? That way you can pretend that the people of that nation really share your goals, whether they do or not. It is a spontaneous coup, nothing more!
The joint British-US coup in 1953 Iran is one of the worst examples of long-term, lingering bad effects. The 1979 Iran revolution that deposed the US-backed Shah is supposed to be a terrifying sign that the Middle East is fit only for theocracies, and that Iran is our true enemy. Perhaps. Certainly Iran’s government since 1979 has been no victory for enlightenment ideals. But then, are CIA coups much of one either? The people of Iran choose one leader, and were vetoed by outside powers. The hopeful end result was a magical, oil-dispensing friend/lackey of the US. The real result was, well, Iran today.
And as to the question of passing off US war toys to foreign groups – do we need to know anything besides the ease with which ISIS has picked up what fleeing Iraqi forces have left behind? But oh, no, this time we will do it carefully, and the troops we train will be so good, and so brave that all our international dreams will come true.
The CIA are the scary intellectuals when it comes to adventures abroad, and still the US will not listen to this report like they should. Obama listened, and reconsidered, and interventions are still happening. Because this time we will do it more carefully. This time we will study hard, and foreign cultures and conflicts will bend to our will.
The only thing the US can control is how much it will intervene, and when exactly. It can steer the runaway car of imperialism, but it cannot or will not put on the brakes. If resentment towards the West has been brewing in the Middle East since before the generals and senators scheming for war were born, what can they be expected to do about it? Same with Latin America, including Cuba, which has been the CIA’s playground for decades.
There is no need to endorse villains from Fidel Castro, to Saddam Hussein, to Osama Bin Laden, but it would help the world to fully understand the sources of their anger. They are myriad, and some are wilder than others – Bin Laden’s concern that drug use was tolerated by the US is amusing on multiple levels – but they tend to come back to, hey, you guys are messing with our shit. More specifically, you are bombing, you are staging coups, you are hurting people, and then patting yourselves on the back over your concern for human rights. We don’t listen to them. But then, we don’t listen to our own damn experts either, except to assure them that the next war plan will work. Our generals and troops tell us war has blown up in their faces; the CIA tells us that the CIA keeps messing up, and we still tinker and tinker, swearing we can make it work next time.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.