A War the Pentagon Can’t Win

As the National Intelligence Estimate issued last week confirms, a terrorist haven has emerged in Pakistan’s tribal belt. And as recent revelations about an aborted 2005 operation in the region demonstrate, our Defense Department is chronically unable to conduct the sort of missions that would disrupt terrorist activity there and in similarly ungoverned places.

These are perhaps the most important kind of counterterrorism missions. Because the Pentagon has shown that it cannot carry them out, the Central Intelligence Agency should be given the chance to perform them.

The story of the scrubbed 2005 operation illustrates why the Pentagon is incapable of doing what needs to be done. The preparations for the mission to capture or kill Al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, appear to have unfolded like others before it. Intelligence was received about a high-level Qaeda meeting. A small snatch or kill operation was to be carried out by Special Operations. But military brass added large numbers of troops to conduct additional intelligence, force protection, communications and extraction work.

At that point, as one senior intelligence official told this newspaper, “The whole thing turned into the invasion of Pakistan,” and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug.

To those of us who worked in counterterrorism in the 1990s, this sequence of events feels like the movie “Groundhog Day.” Similar decision-making led to the failure to mount critical operations on at least three occasions during the Clinton administration. The most notable was the effort to get the Pentagon to conduct a ground operation against the Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan beginning in late 1998.

The Clinton White House repeatedly requested options involving ground forces that could hunt and destroy terrorists in Afghanistan. Repeatedly, senior military officials declared such a mission “would be Desert One,” referring to the disastrous 1980 effort to free American hostages in Iran. When the Pentagon finally delivered a plan, the deployment envisioned would have been sufficient to take and hold Kabul but not to surprise and pin down a handful of terrorists.

But the Zawahri stand-down is even more telling. It occurred four years into the global war on terrorism, when the basic questions about the nature of the Qaeda threat had been settled and the nation, in the oft-intoned phrase of the Bush administration, was said to be always “on the offensive.” Moreover, it happened on the watch of Donald Rumsfeld, the most dominating secretary of defense in memory, who overruled military planners routinely as he micromanaged the deployment to Iraq. Perhaps his attention was focused on the growing mess in that country, but even Mr. Rumsfeld, who viewed special forces as the keystone of a transformed 21st-century American military, could not keep on track a mission that would have stunned Al Qaeda.

Highly mobile, highly lethal counterterrorism operations are clearly possible. Israel scored victories with raids in Entebbe, Uganda; Tunis; and Beirut, Lebanon, in the 1970s and 1980s. Other countries, like Germany, have carried out similar operations, like the Mogadishu raid of 1977 that freed passengers on a Lufthansa plane hijacked to Somalia by the Baader-Meinhof gang. An operation in Pakistan’s tribal areas — setting aside the issue of whether this could politically upend President Pervez Musharraf — would be extremely difficult. But it is hard to believe it is impossible.

Since the Desert One debacle, the United States has poured vast resources into its special forces. The Special Operations Command budget has nearly doubled since 2001, and it is expected to grow 150 percent over five years. The command includes more than 50,000 troops, the equivalent of three or four infantry divisions. The best of them — Delta Force and the Navy Seals — have developed into highly skilled unconventional forces.

Yet fear of failure and casualties has meant they are seldom, if ever, deployed for such counterterrorism operations. In theory, the best place in the government for small-scale missions to be planned and executed is the Pentagon, because snatch or kill teams should be plugged into a larger military support team. The reality, unfortunately, is that they can’t be plugged in without being bogged down.

Senior officers, trained to understand the American way of war to mean overwhelming force and superior firepower, view special ops outside a war zone as something to be avoided at all cost. This has been true even in lower-risk efforts to capture war criminals in the Balkans. The record demonstrates that our military is simply incapable of adapting its culture to embrace such operations. The Pentagon should just stop planning for missions it won’t launch.

While the C.I.A. doesn’t have an unblemished record, its counterterrorism operations have shown more promise than the Pentagon’s. The agency has already had some successes operating in ungoverned spaces. In the first reported attack in such a region, a C.I.A.-operated Predator drone launched a missile that killed a Qaeda lieutenant in Yemen in 2002. Since then the Predator has been used to strike Al Qaeda at least eight times, although with limited success. At least initially, the trigger in these attacks was pulled by C.I.A. operatives, not soldiers.

The record of a small, vulnerable C.I.A. paramilitary force in Afghanistan in 2001 was more impressive. The group’s audacious reconnaissance work and direction of local warlords in action against the Taliban provided the most significant battlefield success of the post-9/11 period. Without this risky, cold-start intervention, the American troops that followed the agency into Afghanistan would have gone in blind and worried more about their flanks than about Al Qaeda.

The agency’s history of ill-conceived covert political operations from the 1950s through the 1970s may cause some to worry. That agency, however, no longer exists. Congressional hearings and legislation, as well as fear of casualties, have given the clandestine service its own case of risk aversion, though it seems less severe than the Pentagon’s.

We have failed in Pakistan, and are failing in Iraq, to achieve a primary aim of our counterterrorism policy: preventing Al Qaeda from acquiring safe havens. Our military has shown itself to be a poor instrument for fighting terrorism, and there are now thousands of jihadists who weren’t in Iraq at the time of the 2003 invasion. When the inevitable American drawdown occurs, we will need a way to keep the terrorists off balance in Iraq and to disrupt the conveyor belt that is already moving fighters to places like Lebanon, North Africa and Europe.

With new leadership at both the C.I.A. and the Defense Department, the Bush administration has a chance to fix this problem. The missing ingredient for success with the most important kind of counterterrorism missions is not courage or technical capacity — our uniformed personnel are unsurpassed — but organizational culture. With a small fraction of the resources that Pentagon has for special operations, the C.I.A. could develop the paramilitary capacity we profoundly need.

Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Both were members of the National Security Council staff from 1994 to 1999.