Superempowered Bogeyman: Why you should not listen to Hank Crumpton about war

Image courtesy of Foreign Policy; Tengku Bahar/AFP/Getty Images. Image courtesy of Foreign Policy; Tengku Bahar/AFP/Getty Images.

Friday’s Last Word – Pull Pin, Throw Grenade, Run Away: A provocative thought to kick off the weekend…


I think Ambassador Hank Crumpton, formerly of the CIA, deserves great admiration for his service to the country.  But having just listened to a speech he gave (titled “A New Era of Conflict”) at the World Affairs Council of Dallas in 2008 (iTunes link here, date: April 8, 2008), I doubt I’ll ever listen closely to his opinions on warfare again.  There are two substantial reasons from the talk that led me to such a conclusion:

  1. He massively overstates the importance of individual actors.  Crumpton leads his argument by stating that we have “crossed the threshold into a new era of conflict,” a not-so-contentious statement. If you think about it, aren’t we always ushering in a new era of conflict in some rhetorically defensible way?  This statement isn’t the issue, so much as his description of this era: “micro actors with macro impact…the degree of asymmetry is unprecedented and the degree or asymmetry is accelerating.  Never before have [we] seen this in the history of human warfare.”  That statement, ranging from about the 5 to 7 minute mark, strikes me as going far too far – I’m sure the historians would consider this “presentist” in the extreme (and I would agree).  His argument describes the core national security threat as a large bunch of superempowered bogeymen – which I find inaccurate.
  2. He honestly does not seem to know that the Afghan war continued past 2001. This started with the person speaking to introduce Crumpton: “Hank literally went in and led [the war in Afghanistan]. If you remember that war, it was very unconventional. It really was the model of what future warfare will be like in this nation…they created a lot of things on the fly to win that war in Afghanistan.”  Ok, sure, I shouldn’t hold a speaker responsible for that. But as you listen to the talk, you hear Crumpton affirm these points. At about 21 minutes, he alludes to December 7, 2001, “when Kandahar fell.”  Crumpton points out that there were only 410 Americans there, approximately 110 CIA and 300 Special Operations Forces. Crumpton says of the Afghans at Kandahar: “It was their victory…[the Afghans] won the war.”  Moreover, towards the end of the talk (at 27 minutes), he lists a number of ongoing conflicts (as of 2008) – “Iraq,” “the Philippines,” “Somalia,” and “Columbia.”  But no mention of Afghanistan – as if it had already been won, over with, complete.  Frankly, only time keeps me from listing other examples.

It doesn’t give me any sort of satisfaction to write so critically about someone that deserves great respect for his service.  And, to be sure, there are many things I agreed with in his talk: that we are dealing with more non state actors today, as well as his comments on politics in Washington and the bureaucracy.  But, on the most important strategic issues – the nature of the threat and the nature of the ongoing war in Afghanistan – I found Crumpton’s opinions to be wildly off the mark.  This may be a great intelligence operative, but certainly should not be consulted on matters pertaining to future warfare.

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  1. Haven’t had a chance to listen to the entire speech – but based upon what you have said above, am not sure that I agree with your criticisms.1) From Twin Towers to Boston Marathon bombers, we have seen the ability of extremely small numbers of enemies to stymie modern day civilization. Think of it: two people shut down the city of Boston for three days. And, on the ground in combat zones, handfuls of suicide bombers and IED’s have wrecked havoc on the world’s foremost military powers. Wasn’t one of the lessons of the Vietnam War that we won every battle, but lost the war? The persistence of very small pockets of resistance can prevent stabilization of life in contested territories. 2) I actually think that Crumpton’s take on the Afghan war may be correct. The war was indeed won in a period of several weeks. Just like in Iraq, it was the PEACE that was lost. Once Taliban were defeated, we should have moved out letting the Tribal leadership take back power — while making it clear that if Al Qaeda set up camps again, we would be back.Would have saved us much blood and treasure – and doubt that the situation would be much worse from a strategic standpoint than it is now.


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