America’s Army of Mavericks

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In November 2001, as the militiamen of the Northern Alliance were preparing to assault an Afghan city that remained under Taliban control, the militia’s commander, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, phoned an urgent request to the U.S. general in charge of the air campaign. Gen. Dostum explained to his American counterpart, Maj. Gen. David Deptula, that a Taliban leader in the city had just called him to boast that he had put his headquarters in Gen. Dostum’s own house. “You should bomb my house immediately,” Gen. Dostum said. “It’s the only house within miles with a swimming pool and tennis court.”

In a few minutes’ time, Gen. Deptula obtained overhead imagery of the house and ordered a B-1 bomber to drop two precision-guided bombs on it. But then the staff at U.S. Central Command intervened, putting the strike on hold until it could verify the target. Geospatial intelligence personnel faxed a satellite photo of the house to Uzbekistan, from which the photo was flown by helicopter into Afghanistan, where a Special Forces soldier carried it on horseback to Gen. Dostum. By then, of course, the Taliban leader had left. “If you want to bomb my house, go ahead,” Gen. Dostum informed Gen. Deptula. “But there is no one there anymore.”

This episode is one of many in James Kitfield’s “Twilight Warriors” that will be new to observers of America’s wars against Islamic extremism. Mr. Kitfield, a veteran national-security reporter whose earlier book, “Prodigal Soldiers” (1997), deftly narrated the U.S. military’s revitalization after Vietnam, here provides an enlightening tour of 21st-century counterterrorism—its successes and failures, its evolving technologies, and its ever-festering rivalries among national-security agencies. Along with voyaging through the Greater Middle East, he covers parts of Africa and Latin America, where U.S. agencies have combated terrorists and drug traffickers.

Unlike many such accounts, “Twilight Warriors” does not dwell on Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama or their cabinet officials. Rather it focuses on the leaders at the next level down—those who prosecuted the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other distant lands. Some of these individuals, like Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, are nearly household names, owing to their battlefield accomplishments. Two who are less familiar—Gen. Martin Dempsey and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn—are presented more fully than before through Mr. Kitfield’s expansive interviews. Both are shown to be leaders who routinely overcame bureaucratic parochialism and hidebound thinking.

The figure who is least known to the public is Brian McCauley, whose agency—the FBI, where he rose to become deputy assistant director—has played the least-heralded role in overseas counterterrorism operations. Few Americans, indeed, had ever heard of Mr. McCauley until two weeks ago, when news organizations publicized his assertion that he had rebuffed a State Department request to reclassify a Benghazi email so that it was “never to be seen again.”

Mr. Kitfield traces FBI counterterrorism from the late 1990s, a period when the FBI and CIA strenuously resisted cooperation. “Whenever the two agencies were forced to work together . . . ,” Mr. Kitfield says, “CIA and FBI agents clashed openly and often, with the former playing to type as tweedy Georgetown intellectuals, and the FBI agents coming across as blue-collar beat cops.” Even after 9/11 the tensions remained. The FBI sent its expert interrogators to question terrorist suspects who had been detained abroad, but they were elbowed aside by the CIA, which insisted on “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the FBI judged to be ineffective.

Mr. Kitfield explains how Mr. McCauley cultivated personal contacts at his foreign postings to break down barriers between agencies. He expanded the FBI presence in Afghanistan from a handful of agents to more than 100 to track down insurgent suicide-bomb cells. By demonstrating the value of the FBI’s technologies and techniques, he persuaded skeptical Special Forces soldiers to lend a hand with security.

While “Twilight Warriors” is filled with success stories, it also illuminates shortcomings and setbacks. In one instance, Mr. McCauley looked into a senior Afghan official after noticing that he was reaching the site of every terrorist bombing before anyone else. Mr. McCauley learned that the man controlled the ramp at Kabul airport, where opium was exported and that he was meeting with Pakistani intelligence figures. But the FBI never gathered enough information to bring charges against him.

Other failures were self-inflicted. The Obama administration chose to rely on surgical strikes against enemy leaders as its principal counterterrorism tool despite opposition from top experts. “In the wrong circumstances targeted killings were like a narcotic,” Mr. Kitfield writes, summarizing Gen. McChrystal’s views, “lulling decision makers into a false sense of accomplishment where showy gestures were confused with solving root problems.”

According to Mr. Kitfield, veteran counterterrorist officials concluded in 2012 that the Obama administration was seeking to suppress intelligence on Islamic extremist threats in order to justify walking away from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries that had fallen apart on his watch. Several senior intelligence officials, he reveals, objected vociferously when the National Intelligence Council drafted an estimate asserting that al Qaeda no longer posed a threat to the United States. The uproar compelled the council to withdraw the assertion.

Many of these officials have since moved out of government. From the sidelines, they have watched the Obama administration’s retrenchment from international affairs with sorrow and dismay. “The brotherhood of soldiers, spies, and special agents,” writes Mr. Kitfield, has come to realize that “the administration had confused walking away from a fight with ending one.”

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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