Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

War, dirty tricks, and false analogies

Published on 22 November 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

Deception and disinformation, but also provocation, have always been part of a war. During WWII, the Allies hoodwinked the Germans with great strategic success:[1] Hitler’s forces were taken by surprise when Allies landed first in Sicily and then in France.

Covert operations – infiltration of men and arms behind enemy lines to create resistance – were also attempted. The results were more checkered: resistance movements tended to follow their own agenda rather than that of Washington, London, or Moscow. In the event in Europe, military occupation supporting docile governments mostly settled matters.

The militarization of “containment,” leading to the Cold War, placed Western leaders in an uncomfortable position. Relentless military containment demanded huge defense expenses (and projection of power overseas) threatening the peace dividend. Furthermore, in many West-associated countries, an ideological split rent the polity apart, leading to a “latent civil war.” Also, newly independent countries refused to be locked into the dualistic paradigm, earning suspicion from both sides. Ideological containment was a more difficult goal to secure than the military.

Following the traumatic war in Korea, the Eisenhower administration made “covert operations” a mainstay of its containment policies. John Foster Dulles secured the overt containment while his brother Allen took care of the “dark side” of international relations. The goal was punctuated “regime change” around the world. President Eisenhower, who had seen the benefits of deception at first hand, swallowed the analogy. He easily overlooked the fact that covert operations – aimed at regime change – had little in common with time-limited and one-off deception of an enemy.

The record of US covert operations has been far from encouraging. In some instances, the attempt failed miserably due to lack of realism (Bay of Pigs, Tibet). In other cases, long-term unintended consequences ensued. The list is long – and far from complete:

  • Taken collectively, the many covert US interventions in Latin America have created an anti-American mindset that is still bedeviling the two sub-continents;
  • The lasting enmity between Iran and the US has part of its roots in the US-led coup that overthrew Iran’s PM Mossadeq;[2]
  • US covert involvement in Tibet was partly at the origin of the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and the tortuous ensuing relationship between Pakistan, China, and India;[3]
  • American and British covert involvement in Cyprus led to the partition of Cyprus, an anomaly that still exists today.

The most consequential covert operation in my mind was the secret sponsoring of Islamic fundamentalist groups prior to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan at the end of 1979. It is worth quoting the architect of this effort – Brzezinski:[4]

Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?

Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap, and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war…

Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic mujahideen, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Q: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated: Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.

Brzezinski: Nonsense! …

Well, that was 1998. Empowering Sunni resistance was like triggering the mother of all avalanches.[5] The West is still reeling from the impact.

The US has veered back and forth between covert and overt interventions in other countries – but it intervened nevertheless. After Truman (Korea) we have Eisenhower; after JFK and Johnson (Vietnam) we have Carter and Reagan. After the two Bush (Iraq I and II, Afghanistan); Obama seems to have a preference for the covert. Enter Putin with his ingenious idea that with a “grand coalition”[6] he can undo the verdict of Afghanistan: his view is that the end of a civil war can be imposed from the outside by force, provided force is applied collectively.


At the outset, we have a spurious analogy. True, both deception and empowering resistance are “cloak and dagger” activities. Deception is short-term and involves few people for a clearly defined objective. Covert operations toward resistance lead to social empowerment that is long term and over which the originator has little control.

Compounding the problem is the fact that an agreement to change a failing policy is hard to achieve. Any state has difficulty in cutting its losses simply because a consensus for change is difficult to achieve from within and takes much time. The desire to have policy continuity also plays a role: admission of previous error is perceived as damaging to national prestige. The cry: “These Lives Will Not Be Lost in Vain” can either lead both to persistence in error or to learning from experience. In other words, it is an empty slogan suitable for swaying emotions rather than reflection and deliberation.[7]

[1] I am not aware that deception played an equally decisive role in the Pacific. Maybe the Nazis were more gullible – Hitler was as quick as he was unmoving in his intuitions.

[2] https://bit.ly/1NGCXA2

[3] Bruce REIDEL (2015): JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and Sino-Indian War. Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.

[4] https://bit.ly/1OixzWr

[5] Whether Islamic fundamentalist forces are a vertical structure or a loose network that cannot be fought effectively with conventional means for me is a moot point.

[6] Putin’s strategy is predicated on the major principals in the coalition being able to exert control over the lesser ones and their own structures. This is a tall order. All major structures may have “deviated” segments who will work against the will of the principal. It is unclear e.g. that Saudi Arabia or Qatar can prevent sophisticated field weapons against planes and tanks in their arsenal from reaching ISIS.

[7] I could recommend: Mark EPERNAY (1963): The McLandress dimension. Houghton, Mifflin Corp. Boston for disenchanted insights in the workings of states and structures.

Link of original post

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog