Update on Strategic Manhunting/Studying Special Operations

Benjamin Runkle, author of the forthcoming Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden, about which I wrote the other day, has a brief but thought-provoking article about the topic here at Foreign Policy.  In it he asks why we are attracted to the notion of strategic manhunting.  (HOTEL TANGO to Elizabeth Nathan.)

He finds that “killing or capturing an individual seldom correlates to strategic success” but assesses nevertheless that the idea of manhunting is likely to remain attractive to us.  Two of the several  reasons for this, he suggests, are that the idea of inducing strategic paralysis is attractive and that we manhunt because today’s technology means that we can.

These reasons, which I think are quite right, remind me of those other technologically-enabled theorists who have proposed other ways of achieving strategic paralysis: Fuller, and Boyd, and Warden, for instance.  One might also add Harlan Ullman in there.  For a book that is well worth reading and that casts a lot of cold water on such ideas (thought it doesn’t address Ullman), see James Kiras’ Special Operations and Strategy:  From World War II to the War on Terrorism.  Kiras basically argues that we have given too much attention to one-off “special operations and great raids” and their alleged ability to induce strategic paralysis and other dramatic effects.  In part this has happened because there is a great deal of literature about such operations.  He maintains that we should instead understand the strategic importance of special operations forces as lying primarily in their ability to induce “moral and material attrition in conjunction with conventional forces.”  He seeks to align himself against those who are attracted to ideas of “strategic annihilation” and alongside those who purportedly really understood the strategic dimensions of attrition.  In this latter category he puts Clausewitz, Delbrück, Mao, and T. E. Lawrence.

I’m still undecided on whether I really agree with Kiras, but it does seem to me that the idea has some obvious congruence with counterinsurgency efforts like the one in Iraq where special operations were ubiquitous and apparently indispensable but seldom dramatic stop-the-presses kinds of affairs.  Rather, they were a key part of the effort to hold the enemy in check while the broader Coalition force made blandishments to the population as a whole.

SHAFR: Findings from Iraqi Records

If any of you are at the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) conference going on right now in Madison, I strongly encourage you to stop by the following panel.  Unfortunately, it’s scheduled for Sunday AM, but it should be well worth it.

Panel 58:  New Perspectives on U.S.-Iraq Relations under Saddam (Room 213)

Chair:  Jessica Huckabey, Conflict Records Research Center

“This Stab in the Back”: Saddam Hussein, Irangate and the United States

Hal Brands, Institute for Defense Analyses

Understanding Saddam’s Non-Use of WMD in the Gulf War

David Palkki, University of California at Los Angeles and Institute for Defense Analyses

Saddam’s Perceptions and Misperceptions: The Case of Desert Storm

Kevin Woods, Institute for Defense Analyses

Comment:  Thomas Mahnken, U.S. Naval War College and Johns Hopkins University

All three of these papers draw heavily on captured Iraqi records copies of which are or will be in the Conflict Records Research Center.  (Official site here.)  Hal’s paper will discuss how Saddam reacted to news of the Iran-Contra scandal, in particular the fact that the United States had been shipping weapons to Iran, a country with whom Iraq was at war at the time.  Though the Iran-Contra affair came to light pretty late in the Iran-Iraq War, I think is paper should encourage historians to reconsider the question of the extent to which Saddam really was our man, in our pocket, during the 1980s.

David’s paper should prove equally interesting and deals with the effects or lack thereof of the famous Baker-Aziz meeting of 9 January 1991 at which Baker issued a veiled threat–often thought to refer to the possible use of nuclear weapons–of the consequences if Iraq were to use CBW against American forces.  Dave gave a version of this paper a couple of months ago at a conference at the CSIS.  Here is the abstract from that talk:

Ever since the Gulf War, scholars have debated why Iraq did not use chemical or biological weapons
against Coalition forces or US allies. Many analysts have suggested that Saddam didn’t use WMD
because the ferocity of the Coalition onslaught, adverse weather, difficulties mating toxic materials with
warheads, or other factors rendered Iraq physically unable to deliver them. Others argue that US Secretary
of State James Baker’s ambiguous warning that the United States would retaliate with nuclear weapon
strikes, and/or by replacing Saddam’s regime, deterred Iraqi use. I find that Iraq was physically able to
attack Coalition forces and US allies with chemical and biological weapons, yet refrained from doing so
for fear of US nuclear retaliation. Deterrence, however, was largely existential, as Saddam considered US
nuclear strikes plausible long before US officials issued even the most veiled of threats. My argument is
based on captured recordings of private conversations between Saddam and his inner circle, declassified
US interrogation reports, defector accounts, and recently released memoirs. My findings have important
implications for the ongoing debate over the role of the US nuclear arsenal and the question of a US no first
use declaratory policy.

Kevin will talk about work that he and I did on the lessons Saddam learned from DESERT STORM, how he was able to calculate that he won that war and how these lessons may have served him poorly in the run-up to 2003.  For more on that, see my previous posting here.

Captured Iraqi and Terrorist Records Now Available

I am delighted to draw your attention to the fact that the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) is now open to scholars at the National Defense University.  It presently contains a collection of some 22,000 pages of records captured from Saddam’s regime and from Al Qaida and its allies.  However, that total is simply a drop in the bucket compared to where it is going to be.  The collection grows on a daily basis and there is reason to believe that that growth will accelerate over time.

The CRRC’s website describes the two collections this way:

The Saddam records consist of a wide range of government files—audio recordings of high-level meetings, speeches by Saddam and senior officials, correspondence between ministries, records of the Presidential Diwan, and others—that bear mainly on issues related to national security, defense policy, and diplomacy. These records are categorized by their originating agency or office (for instance, Iraqi Intelligence Service or General Military Intelligence Directorate), and will eventually constitute the vast majority of CRRC holdings.

The [Al Qaida] records also consist of a wide range of files, including everything from al Qaeda “pocket litter” to financial records, theological and ideological documents, strategic plans, operational guidebooks, and histories of individual operations from the Afghan war in the 1980s through the early 2000s. These documents are grouped thematically. There are also a small number of documents generated by the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

The website is a little sparse at the moment, but expect it to grow richer over time.  I imagine that Jessica Huckabey, the acting director (and a friend and occasional co-author of mine) can give you more information on the collection, its future prospects, and how to use it.

I do know that at the moment only documents with full English translations are being entered into the database, so don’t allow lack of Arabic skills to deter you.  The originals were “seized” as provided for under international law and are held by the US Government. The US and the Iraqi Governments have agreed that Iraq will receive the originals back.  Don’t count on Al Qaida ever getting their documents back.  The records open to scholars at the CRRC consist of digital copies of the originals, plus translations and file information sheets. In other words, this is the modern day equivalent of the microfilming of the German, Japanese, and Italian records that were captured in World War II.  It is also worth noting that the records at the CRRC are not the Ba’ath Party records that are held at the Hoover Institution nor the so-called “Jewish Archives” which are at the U.S. National Archives.  (

In a past life I worked with the materials that Jessica and her colleagues are migrating into the CRRC and I can tell you that for those scholars interested in modern Iraq, terrorism, or modern military history, there is a goldmine here.  Reputations to be made.  Dissertations to be written….

Still, according to an e-mail to The Daily from Kanan Makiya, the founder of IMF, there is a “deep rift” within the Iraqi Ministry of Culture about whether or not any of the records should be returned now.

Makiya said that in an Iraqi radio program that aired last Thursday, which he heard in Erbil, Iraq, “a deputy minister of culture, senior to Eskander and his team who visited Hoover, tore into his colleagues’ allegations, supporting enthusiastically the IMF and Hoover’s role.”

INFOWARCON (2): Deception

Continuing to discuss INFOWARCON….

Yesterday I heard some brief remarks by Brigadier General Thomas Draude on the subject of deception.  General Draude had been in charge of the Marines’ deception operations during DESERT STORM.  You will recall that the Marines and the Navy had made a big show out of preparing an amphibious landing in Kuwait that never came, apparently pinning down several Iraqi divisions in defending the beaches.  As an aside, Kevin Woods’ work on DESERT STORM from the Iraqi side doesn’t have a clear optic on this, but it does suggest that the Director of Iraq’s General Military Intelligence Division suspected a deception but that Saddam appears probably to have bought the story that General Draude was trying to sell.

Deception, General Draude said, must be believable.  This may sound like a banal observation, but he said that once words gets around that a commander is planning a deception that the strangest, weirdest people in the entire command will “come out of the woodwork” with all sorts of bizarre and unbelievable ideas.  The wise commander will ignore these people.  After all, he said, the point of a deception is to “confuse” the enemy not to “amuse” him.

Ideally, a deception will give the enemy a logical, sound course of action (COA) that just happens to be false.  General Draude suggested using a COA that the command really had considered executing but had ultimately rejected.  Then the trick is to let the enemy see what we want him to see and deny him vital indicators that might point unambiguously to the truth.

Deception should be built into a plan from the very beginning, the General advises.  And the key intelligence considerations are:

  • Who makes the key decisions on the enemy’s side?  How does he think?
  • What do we want him to do? (The issue is not what do we want him merely to think.)
  • Finally, is the target buying the deception?  If not, we may have to actually execute the deception plan as a real operation!

Finally, General Draude noted that his favorite book on deception was Ewen Montagu’s The Man Who Never Was, the classic about “Major Martin of the Royal Marines” who washed ashore in Spain in 1943 carrying documents hinting that the Allies would invade Sardinia instead of Sicily which was the real plan.  On a purely personal note, I have a special place in my heart for that book.  It is the first book on deception that I read and one of the very first that I read in military history.  I got it in probably fourth or fifth grade (Ms. Linden or Mrs. Strehle).  It came from the Scholastic Book Service and I imagine that I paid about 35 cents for it.  It was worth every penny.  Here it is:

My grade school copy of The Man Who Never Was

I will now take it carefully back to my bookshelf.

Human Terrain System/Anthropologists in War

Go check out Thomas Rid’s very insightful post over at Kings of War about the continuing controversy over the military’s use of social scientists (a tiny percentage of whom are anthropologists) in conducting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It’s the best thing I’ve seen on the topic and the comments are also well worth reading.  Rid compares anthropology to medicine–both professions share the ethical imperative to “do no harm”–and concludes that anthropologists’ rhetorical use of that imperative doesn’t necessarily have the implications in a war zone that they expect.

If I may be allowed to riff on the topic for a minute, a number of things continue to disturb me about the concern that so many anthropologists have expressed over the Human Terrain System (HTS).

  • Rid cites the network of “Concerned Anthropologists” as arguing that involvement in the Human Terrain System is unethical not only for anthropologists but for other social scientists, as well.  This claim strikes me as overreaching to the point of academic imperialism.  Surely each social science should be entitled to determine its own ethics.
  • The anthropologists want to impose their narrow understanding of their ethical imperative to “do no harm” on the U.S. military.  However, in active operations the military does not have “do no harm” as an option.  Every action–including inaction–leads to some group of people dying.  Make no mistake, if the military ceases using social scientists there will be people who will die as a result, a few of them Americans, the  others not.  They will have real names, real faces, they’ll just be faces that no anthropologist will ever see.
  • I’m concerned that anthropologists have been so good at public relations that lazy journalists writing about the HTS go straight to anthropologists for comment.  This leaves the impression that anthropologists speak for all social scientists.  Judging by the lack of protests by political scientists, economists, geographers, psychologists, and others, they don’t speak for all social scientists.
  • I can’t escape the feeling that the anthropologists’ concern is heavily informed by the unpopularity of the Iraq and Afghan wars.  Would they be similarly reticent to give advice to, say, a small Amazonian ethnic group suffering attacks by the Brazilian Army?  Would they be similarly reticent to give advice to Allied armies fighting the Nazis and liberating concentration camps?  War is a political act, the Prussian tells us.  Do anthropologists require their members to recuse themselves from other political issues?  If not why not?  Other forms of politics can lead to death, suffering, and oppression every bit as real, albeit usually less visually dramatic, as can war.

Anyway, go read Thomas’ piece.