April 28, 2011

Blurring the Lines Between Soldiers and Spies?

President Obama’s decision to appoint Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense and David Petraeus as Director of the Central Intelligence shows the continuing transformation of the national security establishment to meet the growing challenge of asymmetric threats to our nation and our allies.

The September 11 attacks represented both a failure of intelligence and a failure of imagination. America’s military and intelligence services, formed during the early days of the Cold War to confront mirror-image agencies in the Soviet Union, did not adapt rapidly to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the more diffuse security challenges that emerged in its wake.

After September 11, and after initial failures in confronting insurgents and terrorists in Iraq, the military and the intelligence community began to devote more resources to understanding and defeating powerful non-state actors. The challenge was less in capturing or killing these enemies than in identifying and locating them; once we knew where they were, it was relatively easy to remove them from the battlefield.

General Petraeus was one of the first to understand how to defeat this threat by skillfully employing human and technological intelligence means, retraining military units, and using diplomacy and development to reshape the war in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. He now brings this understanding of modern war to a Central Intelligence Agency that has been ably led by Leon Panetta, a veteran politician who successfully integrated military resources like drones into the agency’s tool kit.

Panetta will take over a Defense Department that, under the leadership of Secretary Robert Gates, has made significant progress in identifying and defeating insurgents and terrorists, our most pressing national security threat. Panetta will need to go even further with that approach to ensure that America’s armed forces are as capable against irregular threats as they are in confronting the regular armed forces of other states.

The two will make a formidable team as they conduct counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen — and conceivably other fronts in the long war against irregular enemies.