Spymaster: The War on Al Qaeda

Henry "Hank" Crumpton has spent most of his career as a spy or spymaster for the Central Intelligence Agency. An expert on running covert operations in difficult regions of the world, he began tracking and battling Al Qaeda in 1998 and oversaw the CIA's Afghan campaign to topple the Taliban after 9/11. Crumpton later served as the senior counterterrorism official in the U.S. State Department, a job he held until early 2007. He now runs the Crumpton Group, a private consulting firm in Washington and Warsaw that brokers information, access, and business deals in emerging markets. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jeffrey Bartholet about the current war against Al Qaeda and the successes and failures of American policy since 9/11.

NEWSWEEK: How plugged in are you now on Afghanistan and Pakistan?
Hank Crumpton:

The last time we spoke, you were telling me about what you would do if you were going after Al Qaeda. You said the U.S. had to make deals with the tribes in Waziristan and the areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and turn them against the Arab foreigners in their midst.

Do you see any of that happening? Did anyone listen to you?
No. [Laughs] But it takes time for ideas to percolate. Policymakers, not only in America but abroad, should reflect not only on what we did in Afghanistan but also on what [Gen.] David Petraeus has been able to do in Iraq. And Pakistan now is saying the right things. They're talking about a more enduring counterinsurgency effort that reaches into the tribal areas.

What do you hear about that?
I'm hopeful, just because we have so many common interests. There's going to be a period of coalition government in Pakistan, figuring out who's who and how to work together with the Pakistani military and security services. That's going to take a little while, which is unfortunate, because time is our enemy. But they may figure out an even better relationship with us.

Does Pakistan's new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, have more leeway to cooperate with the Americans, and perhaps to give the Americans more leeway to operate in the tribal areas, than Musharraf did?
That's a good question, and though I don't know, I wouldn't rule it out. What's perhaps more important than the military [aspect] are some of the comments made about economic investment, working with locals, and negotiating with some of the militants. I've spent my adult life talking to people I don't agree with, and I encourage that because maybe half of them will come around.

In the past, that hasn't worked in the tribal areas. Musharraf and his people have made deals with the militants and the militants didn't follow through on their end of the bargain.
It was a disaster.

So why do you hope now that they may be more trustworthy or—
I think it's less a question of trust and more a question of benefits. Coercive force is a variable in their thinking, but more important is positive reinforcement or positive incentives. An example is energy. The [tribes along the border] are desperate for energy. And with energy you could improve the quarries there.

What kind of energy do they need, what kind of quarries can they exploit?
They've got some wonderful stone, marble and granite …

This is in Waziristan?
Yeah, and all the way down to Baluchistan, in all the tribal areas. The way they mine it is by using explosives to blow it up. By some estimates they lose as much as 80 or 90 percent. And they pick up what's usable and truck it out. You could go in there with some big wind turbines or solar panels, you name it, and generate some energy. Then we could bring in some first-class mining equipment. Their wages and productivity [would jump] overnight, creating more jobs, more wealth. That's the way you have to wage war. You go in there and clean the enemy out of that district, then come in the next day with wind turbines and say this is what we're going to do. They want it; they own it.

Are you involved in anything particular like this?
No. I've been talking about it for years, and people say, "That's a great idea." [But nothing happens.] The reason I focus on energy is because once you have that, people can set up their satphones and have good communications to the world. Then you're talking about education, microfinance, and a connection to the global community of nations, which is the last thing Osama bin Laden wants.

Unfortunately, I think the majority of the militants trying to blow us up are very educated people who have lots of access to education, the Internet and so on. They're not the poverty-stricken folks.
The educated ones are the leaders who are taking advantage of the poverty-stricken folks.

Did you see this report recently that the French had an informant who had been in Waziristan and who helped break up a Spanish terror plot?
Yeah, I read that in the press.

What do you make of that: having an informant among the jihadists in Waziristan?
That's always been happening, with varying degrees of access and reliability.

That's the first time I've heard of a tip from someone close to Al Qaeda central that led to [breaking up a plot in the West].
Yeah, well, I obviously can't go into any kind of detail. But it happens often. It's not a rare occurrence for global intelligence services working together to stop plots and save lives.

No, but having someone in Waziristan, presumably in close geographic proximity to bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri …
It's not a rare event.

On the Abu Laith al-Libbi hit: [the senior Al Qaeda operative] apparently was killed by a predator missile … There was clearly good intelligence there. We're led to believe that a lot of that [valuable intelligence] is electronic.
I can't comment on recent history. What really works is all-source intelligence, the combination of human intelligence with technical intelligence. And grinding through that hour after hour, working that continuously. That's how you have tactical success.

Do you get the sense that the tide is turning either way in the war against Al Qaeda?
If you see how U.S. intelligence, Special Operations, and law enforcement are working together on the battlefield, it's breathtaking. It's better than you see in movies. That part of the story is the good news. Where it really falls short is the strategic policy piece. You have one tactical success after another, but at the same time strategic weakness or a sense of strategic failure. What's frustrating for a lot of the intelligence operators is that there's an expectation of perfection on their part. You have to stop every attack, every infiltrator from coming to the U.S. And when you don't have an effective overarching policy [including economic development and building civil society] to match …

In Afghanistan right now—where you mostly had success—has it become a strategic failure?
No, but it could become that. I don't think it will. I think we will learn and adjust, although it's certainly painful and taking a long time. But I hope some of the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan in '02 will be applied. I'll give an example: the poppy crop. Why don't we subsidize wheat and barley at 10 times the price and wean them away from poppies?

I think the reason is that if you heavily subsidize wheat and barley, people start bringing in wheat and barley from elsewhere—Pakistan, Iran—and you really undermine the local farmers.
Well, it would need to be tied to local production somehow. My point is that we don't think of conflict in those terms. Whether it's subsidies or irrigation systems … The Taliban intentionally encourages poppy production, in part because it draws the farmer away from central authority. We need to do the opposite.

What we hear is that the system in Afghanistan is thoroughly corrupt, from ministers and warlords down to police chiefs and judges. The Taliban has been able to essentially buy their way out of prison. How do you change that?
Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister and a smart guy, estimates that for every dollar in international aid spent, about 10 cents gets to the Afghans. It goes to overhead, salaries, and some gets siphoned off. It's a stunning figure. We talk about a narco-economy and criticize the Afghans, but we're not doing too good a job ourselves, or setting a good example. We're not approaching this with the endgame in mind.

Why is that?
We have an archaic way of thinking about war.

Which is?
Which is armies fighting armies and diplomats doing diplomacy. You don't have an expeditionary foreign service or AID [Agency for International Development] department or department of transportation. Take the example of Justice. One of the best programs we have is to take U.S. attorneys and send them overseas to serve as an ambassador's legal adviser and work with local governments. We only have a handful of these fellows around. We should have a thousand. Think of how smart they [would be] if they came back from two years in Jakarta and went to Phoenix. It's a terrific education for our U.S. attorneys. That should be a robust program.

It sounds a little bit like a colonial service.
But it's more about independence than a colonial mandate. It's about building the partnerships and learning from others. It makes us a lot smarter in Arizona about Jamaa al-Islamiya. That's the benefit for us.

We've heard reports that Al Qaeda is putting more emphasis on Afghanistan these days—more money from the Gulf, more Arab fighters.
I don't have any empirical evidence or intelligence I could share, but I wouldn't doubt it. They're getting their butts kicked in Iraq. In Afghanistan they've got a lot of money they're siphoning off from the opium trade.

Do you think Iraq is going well?
In a tactical sense, an operational sense, I'm really proud of what our people have done: the intelligence service, the military, what the Iraqis have done. But we need to do that [with the] other 80 percent … We need to reform our entire national security structure. The U.S. attorneys program is a part of that, but there are lots of other parts.

One of the points you've made before is the need to give more power to people in the field. You've argued that the government is too bureaucratic, and Washington has too much control.
Yep. You can't get "inside the enemy's turning radius" from Washington. You've got small, flexible enemy cells making decisions at a very rapid pace compared to this process back here. But that means you need to select the right ambassadors and representatives, you've got to train them, hold them accountable. You have to rethink war. It's that big a deal.

What is your view on Iran?
I'm very concerned about Iran. But I also have said repeatedly that there is a whole host of options between going to war, in a conventional sense, and not talking to them. We need to engage diplomatically, and also need to engage in other ways.

What are the other ways?
Everything [should be considered], from economic sanctions to covert actions to more forceful diplomacy. Mostly it's about understanding and listening to the Iranian people and responding to them. You know opinion polls in Iran are very favorable to Americans. The last thing you want to do is push the Iranian people toward this terrible, corrupt regime. They have to import their gasoline because they can't build refineries. They're exceedingly corrupt, and the Iranian people know that, so there are huge opportunities if you look at the internal dynamics of Iran.

What do you make of the U.S. election campaign? Is anybody courting you?
Courting is probably too strong a word. Both Republicans and Democrats know that I won't be drawn into that. I'm willing to talk to anybody. But I have no interest in going back into government.

One of the arguments going on now is that Barack Obama doesn't have sufficient foreign policy credentials. And it's true that he's not surrounded by people who are considered the top tier of the foreign policy establishment, or from the military. He doesn't have senior Army or Marine—
Let me ask you this: how wise have they been? I know your point, but most of these guys are still thinking in archaic terms.

Do you have a sense that he's more prone to the kind of holistic approach to foreign policy that you're talking about?
I don't know for sure, but I'm hopeful. I've testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in public hearings, and I've been dinged a couple of times by Democrats. His questions were not only precise and deep, but the courtesy and respect he afforded me in that forum I was grateful for. He didn't have to do that. It wasn't necessary, but he listened; he asked good questions. I don't want to read too much into that encounter, but it made a positive impression on me. [Crumpton considers himself an independent.]

When you say deep questions, what—
The nature of the enemy, what is their motivation? The kind of questions he ought to be asking. What's driving the enemy, and what's the enemy strategy? We didn't get into this in the testimony, but this goes back to Sun Tzu: you've got to know what the enemy's strategy is and attack the strategy. You don't just attack the enemy. You don't just attack IEDs. He was trending in that direction. And I didn't get a lot of questions from [other] guys going that way. It was, "How come you haven't got bin Laden?"

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts