On March 25, 2015, the government of Saudi Arabia made good on its promise to strike at Houthi positions “in defense of the legitimate government of Yemen,” launching airstrikes to limit and turn back the advance of the militia. At the same time, Iran has continued to provide logistical and lethal aid to those very same Houthis, which has pushed Saudi Arabia to turn to Pakistan for aid, asking them to provide ground troops for any ground invasion.
Some reports are saying that Pakistan is being pulled in two directions, with the government of Iran also appealing to them, suggesting the two nations work together to resolve the conflict. Pakistan has resisted the overtures of both, choosing to bide their time for now. All the while, the United States is left largely blind or reliant on our ‘allies’ to provide the majority of the ground truth in the region. Historically, this has not worked out well for us. Given our recent decision to evacuate and withdraw our official presence in places like Libya and Yemen, are we setting ourselves up for a disastrous cycle of “stuck on repeat?”
When I was in Marine Corps recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, one of the myriad bits of knowledge that were force fed to us through a fire hose pertained to general orders, of the which the Corps has 11 (each branch has a variation of the same thing). Number five of the Corp’s version states that a Marine on duty will, “Quit my post only when properly relieved.” Pretty simple concept, right? You might have to piss like a racehorse, but you had better maintain that discipline and hold the line until your relief gets to you and you have properly handed off the duty to him or her. Sounds trivial, but read up on how skilled the Apache and Vietcong were at finding that spot in the line where a sentry was asleep or not at his post—and the havoc they wreaked once they got through—and you might appreciate why this portion of the orders is so important.
The same applies on a strategic level. Most nations (North Korea comes to mind as an exception) desire to have at the very least a diplomatic relationship with other nations, and the enduring symbol of that relationship is the embassy, consulate, or in the case of Taiwan, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (an unofficial but effective presence). These structures represent, and are in fact little ‘islands’ of, that nation, with all of the laws, privileges, restrictions, and rights that govern it back home. Most foreigners know that if they run into a problem while abroad, and if their country has representation in that area, they can go to their embassy, consulate, etc., and ask for aid. Some countries maintain more than just a diplomatic presence in a country, keeping a military presence as well. Think of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, which reopened in 2008—five years after the invasion and at the height of the occupation.
Allegedly, many nations use this same diplomatic infrastructure to conduct intelligence operations out of (yep, I said it). One only has to read “Moscow Station” by Ronald Kessler or “The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archives” to learn the stories of spies using an embassy as cover and as a base from which to carry out espionage. The Soviets were alleged masters of this technique during the Cold War, (and some reports suggest today) with ‘cultural attaches’ regularly venturing out to service dead drops and meet with agents.
The information collected would have provided the Soviet government with a wealth of insider information on their enemy’s plans and intentions, as well as their intelligence gaps (what they don’t know and would like to/need to know). At times, because of hostile and aggressive host nation intelligence and law enforcement, they were forced to rely on proxy or friendly intel services in that country to provide the needed information.
Fast forward to today and the situation in the Middle East. The Obama administration has elected to evacuate and close the embassies in both Tripoli, Libya and Sanaa, Yemen. During the beginning of the Arab Spring, the embassy in Cairo, Egypt was closed as unrest swept across the country. So how did we know what was going on in these places? How will we know what is going on in Yemen and other places where we have reduced our presence? Well, there are the obvious methods, such as agents who stay behind and communicate intelligence out to us through various means. Expatriates can help to observe and report, and non-official-cover intel officers, if they are on the ground already or can easily enter the country, are a vital tool to gather intel and report.
But there is another, and depending on the circumstances, less desirable option. We have those diplomatic relationships with other nations. Within those relationships, we have a standing agreement with a few, namely Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. This intelligence alliance is known as the Five Eyes, abbreviated as FVEY. It was formed during World War II, and has been largely effective, first against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and today against terror organizations.
Intelligence gleaned from any of these partners is helpful, and it is almost certain that Saudi Arabia and other allies in the Middle East have been and will continue to feed us intelligence, as it would serve their national interests to do so. But the key term is national interest. If it doesn’t come up in their parliamentary, congressional, or dictatorial Monday morning meetings, most nations don’t care about it and therefore won’t report it to us. Unless we have independent sources on the ground to corroborate and verify the information, we are stuck taking them at their word, and we all know just how good that word is at times.
So now we face the music. I am not in the power halls of Washington D.C., and I was never a general or flag officer whose decisions affected the very lives of thousands of men and women on a daily basis. But I was (am) a Marine, and I know my general orders. Some feel that we have violated order number five, and that we have let the sins of our past, i.e. Saigon, dictate the path of our future. They feel that we are pulling the retreat trigger too quickly, and that we have highly trained, highly capable regular and Special Operations personnel who are on standby to react to any situation involving our embassies, because without that presence, we are blind.
Others feel that it is not our fight, and that we if things get too hot, we should pull all Americans and our allies out and let the issue be taken care of internally. I say that whatever path we choose, if we do so haphazardly, without a contingency in place, and force ourselves to rely on others to get the information that we need, we are destined to forever be stuck on this hamster wheel of a foreign policy rewind.
(Featured image courtesy of newsweek.com)