Back in 2007, those of us assigned as "expert advisers" to the Baker-Hamilton Commission were given a straightforward assignment: Come up with a plan to salvage the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Few of us thought that was possible. Only a small minority — I was perhaps the most vocal — enthusiastically supported the "surge": the counterinsurgency strategy conceived and implemented by Gen. David A. Petraeus.
It will be years before we know for sure whether the surge permanently transformed Iraq. But it clearly averted what would have been an American defeat in the heart of the Muslim Middle East at the hands of al-Qaeda and Iran's proxy militias. Such a defeat would have been consequential in ways most people — including most Baker-Hamilton advisers — have never taken the trouble to imagine.
Whether it was wise for Pres. George W. Bush to invade Iraq in the first place is a separate question. Also a separate question: whether it was wise for Pres. Barack Obama to declare Afghanistan the "good war," the war that must be won.
Actually, I'd argue they are the same war — just different theaters, much as Europe, Asia, and North Africa were different theaters of World War II. But I guess that, too, is a separate question. The pertinent fact is Obama did commit to Afghanistan, and he doubled down on that commitment by ordering a surge of his own and assigning, once again, General Petraeus to command the mission.
On the left, support for Obama's Afghanistan policy — never solid — now seems to be eroding. Support from the right also has been weakening. Some conservatives aren't convinced Obama has the determination to see the mission through. Others believe the mission has become too focused on "nation-building" and not enough on disabling America's enemies.
That brings us to a rare instance of Left/Right consensus: Hardly anyone believes that the U.S. should replicate the Iraq/Afghanistan model in Somalia or Yemen or other corners of the globe. So whether or not Plan A works in Afghanistan, we will still need a Plan B to fight the long war being waged by what Obama calls "violent extremists" — sworn enemies of the West who see themselves as jihadis, commanded by the Koran to fight non-Muslims everywhere until all submit to Islamic law and Islamic rule.
News bulletin: There is a Plan B — and it's already being implemented. As the New York Times reports, the Obama administration is now fighting a "shadow war against Al Qaeda and its allies."
The Times continues:
In roughly a dozen countries — from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife — the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.
However: "Virtually none of the newly aggressive steps undertaken by the United States government have been publicly acknowledged." Well, that's what makes it a shadow war, isn't it?
This approach is more counterterrorism than counterinsurgency. It actually began during the Bush administration, almost immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but it has expanded since Obama has been in office.
According to the Times, what is taking place is nothing less than a "transformation of the C.I.A. into a paramilitary organization as much as a spying agency," one that has "broadened its drone campaign beyond selective strikes against Qaeda leaders and now regularly obliterates suspected enemy compounds and logistics convoys, just as the military would grind down an enemy force."
At the same time, "the Pentagon is becoming more like the C.I.A.," with Special Operations conducting "spying missions that were once the preserve of civilian intelligence agencies."
Most Republicans are not criticizing Obama for these policies because they believe — as they did during the Bush years — that it is imperative to take the war to the enemy rather than wait for him to come to us. Most Democrats also are holding their tongues. Partisanship, no doubt, is one reason. But the Times may be correct to surmise that many Democrats have become eager for an alternative to the Iraq/Afghanistan model of ground wars requiring years of American military occupation.
In sum, it appears, we have broad, if tacit, bipartisan agreement for Plan B: a stealth war, fought with drones and assassination teams and contractors with special skills, a conflict in which we enlist the cooperation of local rulers but do not necessarily pressure them to champion freedom and democracy and pursue policies leading to economic development. The goal is more modest: Find the bad guys and kill them.
Among the concerns one might have about this policy: It focuses on non-state actors; and it does not address the long-term threat from state actors, notably Iran, which is seeking nuclear weapons and using its oil wealth to sponsor terrorist organizations from the Middle East to South America. In the final analysis, Iran is a much greater threat to the U.S than its rival — and occasional collaborator — al-Qaeda.
Also: It is not clear that the CIA is up to this task. Decades of misdirection and bureaucratization clearly have taken their toll on the agency. To become adept at covert warfare — not just the use of drones — will be an enormous challenge.
As for the Pentagon, my impression is that America's elite military units are the best of the best. But even for them, fighting a shadow war of indefinite duration will be extraordinarily difficult. No matter how carefully they follow the rules they are given, they will be accused of violating international laws and conventions by organizations indifferent — if not hostile — to American interests. Will Obama stand up to them?
And can this approach work without recourse to coercive interrogations — techniques useful for gathering intelligence but prohibited by Obama? Can there be congressional oversight without attempts to derive partisan advantage? Will the intelligence community and the Pentagon feel confident entrusting their secrets to members of Congress? Such questions have yet to be answered.
In the meantime, Plan B is underway. We should hope it succeeds. And we should begin working on Plan C — just in case it does not.