Revisiting David Petraeus’ Crack Plan to Ally with Al Qaeda

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on potential airstrikes against Assad, September 3, 2013

SEN. CORKER: What I’m unaware of is why it is so slow in actually helping them with lethal support — why has that been so slow?

SEC. KERRY: I think — I think, Senator, we need to have that discussion tomorrow in classified session. We can talk about some components of that. Suffice it to say, I want to General Dempsey to speak to this, maybe Secretary Hagel. That is increasing significantly. It has increased in its competency. I think it’s made leaps and bounds over the course of the last few months.

Secretary Hagel, do you — or General, do you want to —

SEN. HAGEL: I would only add that it was June of this year that the president made a decision to support lethal assistance to the opposition, as you all know. We have been very supportive with hundreds of millions of dollars of nonlethal assistance. The vetting process, as Secretary Kerry noted, has been significant. But — I’ll ask General Dempsey if he wants to add anything — but we, Department of Defense, have not been directly involved in this. This is, as you know, a covert action, and as Secretary Kerry noted, probably to go into much more detail would require a closed or classified hearing.

Tom Udall, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on ISIS, September 17, 2014

Everybody’s well aware there’s been a covert operation, operating in the region to train forces, moderate forces, to go into Syria and to be out there, that we’ve been doing this the last two years. And probably the most true measure of the effectiveness of moderate forces would be, what has been the effectiveness over that last two years of this covert operation, of training 2,000 to 3,000 of these moderates? Are they a growing force? Have they gained ground? How effective are they? What can you tell us about this effort that’s gone on, and has it been a part of the success that you see that you’re presenting this new plan on?

A number of us were discussing how odd it was that this big NYT article — describing President Obama blame those who championed arming Syrian rebels — made no mention of the covert CIA operation dating back to 2012 (and confirmed in a public hearing to have started by June 2013). How could a NYT writer pretend the CIA training effort didn’t proceed the DOD one, especially given the fairly lengthy reporting done by other NYT reporters on it? Especially given the Peter Baker’s refutation of Obama’s position pertains to whether Obama should have armed rebels earlier, which of course he did.

In effect, Mr. Obama is arguing that he reluctantly went along with those who said it was the way to combat the Islamic State, but that he never wanted to do it and has now has been vindicated in his original judgment. The I-told-you-so argument, of course, assumes that the idea of training rebels itself was flawed and not that it was started too late and executed ineffectively, as critics maintain.

Which is why I was interested in the blame-setting.

Hillary comes in for a large part of the blame, almost certainly justifiably (though she’s also likely a stand-in for those on Obama’s own staff who espouse intervention with little consideration of consequences). David Petraeus — CIA Director when arms first started flowing to Syria, though not when that April 2013 finding was signed — gets remarkably little blame, especially given the prominence Petraeus Godfather Jack Keane got in the piece.

The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.


The idea of bolstering Syrian rebels was debated from the early days of the civil war, which started in 2011. Mrs. Clinton, along with David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, and Leon E. Panetta, then the defense secretary, supported arming opposition forces, but the president worried about deep entanglement in someone else’s war after the bloody experience in Iraq.

Perhaps most remarkably, our allies — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — get no blame here, even in spite of the fact that they’d be funding more radical anti-Assad forces with our involvement or not (on that note, see this great tick tock of how we got here). Much of the reason our options remain so dismal in Syria is because our so-called allies are going to pursue their objectives whether or not we’re playing along. Which leaves only the question of whether anything we could do would improve the outcome — not to mention whether our interest coincides with that of our allies.

So with all that in mind, let’s reconsider David Petraeus crack plan to start allying with al Qaeda to fight (he says) ISIS. As I noted at the time, he engaged in a lot of making shite up, including not only “the Surge” (which he will spin until his dying day), but also what he was doing at CIA.


I’m most interested in this claim:

Petraeus was the CIA director in early 2011 when the Syrian civil war erupted. At the time, he along with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly urged the Obama administration to work with moderate opposition forces. The U.S. didn’t, and many of those groups have since steered toward jihadist groups like the Nusra Front, which are better equipped and have had more success on the battlefield.

While it is true that Obama did not systematically arm rebels in Syria in 2011, it is also a public fact that the CIA was watching (and at least once doing more than that) Qatar and Saudi Arabia move arms from Libya before Petraeus’ departure in 2012, and Obama approved a covert finding to arm “moderate” rebels in April 2013, with CIA implementing that plan in June.

That’s all public and confirmed.

So how is it that we once again are pretending that the CIA — the agency Petraeus led as it oversaw a disastrous intervention in Libya that contributed to radicalization both there and in Syria — didn’t arm purported moderates who turned out not to be?

That is, Petraeus’ plan to ally with al Qaeda accompanies a false narrative about whether we had supported rebels, including al Qaeda affiliates, from the start.

The plan from those who got CIA to support rebels in 2013 (and arm them even earlier) and who kept pushing to train rebels after that is — now that blame is being assigned for the second attempt to arm them — to join with al Qaeda. Which we effectively did years ago.

On top of everything else, its a nice way to inoculate against what has happened, which is and always was going to be about strengthening Islamic fighters.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

22 replies
  1. galljdaj says:

    Colorful! Lies here lies there lies everywhere! Too many lies even just bright toddlers can see the corruption of the so called govt! but reality exposes them are war criminals and all are failing their Oath of Our Office!

  2. Don Bacon says:

    Why was Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi on Sep 11, 2012, far away from Libya’s capital Tripoli just when a new government was forming?
    Stevens, just back from a trip to Europe, was in Benghazi to coordinate with the CIA cell (at “the annex”) over arms shipments to Turkey for use in Syria. Stevens’ last meeting before he died was with the Turkey ambassador. (There was no “consulate” in Benghazi at the time, as many “news” reports alleged.)

  3. Don Bacon says:

    So on Benghazi, Hillary’s taking the fall for a botched CIA operation, with Stevens playing secret agent for Petraeus, which Stevens had done before on a previous stay in Libya before Gaddafi fell. Congress-critters have touched on this in the past but they quickly shut up about it when they got the word, that this is a place we don’t go to. You never hear a congressman openly ask: What was Stevens doing in Benghazi? Why was he there? Obama, in a UN speech: Stevens was in Benghazi “to review plans to establish a new cultural center and modernize a hospital” –hah
    The larger problem is the increasingly blurred line between State and CIA. (The Pentagon is close too.)

    • Les says:

      “The larger problem is the increasingly blurred line between State and CIA. (The Pentagon is close too.)”

      There’s a recent book, “Visas for Al Qaeda”, which discusses how the CIA used the embassy in Jeddah to provide travel documents for terrorists to travel to the United States to meet their handlers and to Afghanistan, Bosnia, and other to join the rebel forces.

      “The US has been arming Islamic radicals in many countries, for a long time, and they have suited US policy admirably, a policy of instability, arms sales and increased US political power.”

      There was an article this week on a senior ISIS commander from the Republic of Georgia who was trained by US special forces.

      • wayoutwest says:

        Free Syrian Army senior commanders were trained by Russians before they defected from the Syrian Army to the rebel side of the conflict, Should the FSA commanders be viewed as Russian proxies?

        • Tom in AZ says:

          Well no, they shouldn’t wayoutwest. Are you implying that the Russians purposely trained the Syrian military to defect? And how long had they been trained my the Russian before they left? And isn’t that a little different than training others to overthrow the existing government? Maybe the Russians are there now to help us to ‘regime change’ Syria? By violence instead of the electoral, inclusive process they have been advocating?

          • wayoutwest says:

            I was replying to Les’ allusion that because Abu Omar the leader of the IS military in Syria received some training from the US when he was a young Georgian soldier, just as many others did, he was being trained by the US for some future grand scheme.

            The US trains friendly countries military personnel to use the weapons they supply and in military tactics just as the Russians do for their allies. What those soldiers do years later, if they use the training at all, is another story and any supposed connection is pure speculation verging on tinfoil hat paranoia.

            The US didn’t train any combatants in Afghanistan, the Pakistanis and the Chinese did. The US did train some already active rebels in Jordan who returned to Syria and the Turkmen Syrians who were routed by al-Nusra. None of this recent training has produced results.

            • Don Bacon says:

              WOW: I was replying to Les’ allusion that because Abu Omar [al-Shishani] the leader of the IS military in Syria received some training from the US when he was a young Georgian soldier, just as many others did, he was being trained by the US for some future grand scheme. . .What those soldiers do years later, if they use the training at all, is another story and any supposed connection is pure speculation verging on tinfoil hat paranoia.

              Take a gander at this, tinfoil guy:
              ISIS Leader Omar al-Shishani Fought Under US Umbrella as Late as 2013
              …After the battle, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, the head of the United States-backed opposition’s Aleppo military council, appeared in a video alongside Abu Jandal, a leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
              In camouflage, Colonel Okaidi offered thanks to “our brothers al-Muhajireen wal Ansar and others,” adding: “We’re here to kiss every hand pressed on the trigger.” He then ceded the floor to Abu Jandal and a mix of jihadist and Free Syrian Army leaders, who stood together, each praising his men, like members of a victorious basketball team.
              The group singled out for praise in the video, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, was precisely Omar Shishani’s own brutal Chechen group (“Army of Emigrants and Helpers”) which turned the tide of the battle. Most significant about FSA Col. Okaidi himself, clearly the operational head of this jihadi “basketball team,” was that he had been paid a personal visit by his State Department patron, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, just months prior to the final victory at Menagh.
              A translated video montage of footage covering events at Menagh, authenticated by Middle East expert Joshua Landis, shows a clip of Robert Ford’s prior visit to Col. Okaidi inside Syria, with the two standing side by side in an image meant to seal official US support for Okaidi as its top brass on the ground…..

              • wayoutwest says:

                Covering your tin foil hat with cut and paste tin foil from AW just makes you look more gullible or agenda driven. Combining facts and evidence with speculation and outright BS may be convincing to some rubes but the AW story actually contradicts its own assertions.

                Amb Ford’s reaction to the information showing that Abu Omar had assisted Col Okaidi shows that he and the US didn’t know about this alliance until after the capture of Menagh so there was no operation under the, US umbrella, whatever the hell that means. If my recollection is accurate this is one of the incidences that caused the US to stop sending arms and supplys to the FSA for some time.

                The other ridiculous assertion that is repeated often is that once a person or group receives training, arms or money from the US they are bonded to the US by some occult parasite that destroys their individuality leaving them forever Automata of the Hegemon just waiting to carry out the Masters plans.

  4. wayoutwest says:

    I think EW and other people continue to misread or misinterpret what Petraeus was actually proposing in Syria. The people and groups he thinks can be separated from al-Nusra are not members of al-Nusra but affiliated groups or individuals. The plan is ridiculous unless money can be used to bribe these people to put targets on their backs saying US Stooge- Shoot Me. We have already seen what al-Nusra does to US proxies when they arrive in Syria.

    This nonsense is more about rehabilitating General Dave as a wise warrior not a real plan to find or buy ground forces to fight the IS. All the rebel forces in Syria are Muslim and Islamist instruction and beliefs are common in all the groups, some more than others.

    The US has never had any real useable proxies in Syria only groups who would take weapons and training for their own purposes. The Moderate brand was only for local consumption in the US because no one who picks up a gun and fights can be called moderate.

    • Don Bacon says:

      “The US has never had any real useable proxies in Syria ..”
      Is this a misprint or are you serious?
      The US has been arming Islamic radicals in many countries, for a long time, and they have suited US policy admirably, a policy of instability, arms sales and increased US political power.

      • wayoutwest says:

        Most of the small arms used in the ME by both sides are produced by Russia and China but the Iraqis did surrender loads of US arms to the Islamic State.

        ‘Increased US political power’ In Iraq or Afghanistan? The US seems to have diminishing power or influence in Syria if it ever had any real power there,

  5. Don Bacon says:

    Going back to the thrust of this piece, Marcy is right on (as usual) in calling out Petraeus as the principal military perp, in Syria and in Libya. Hillary was more into the Syria National Coalition and the convoluted political side of the Syria conflict.
    My favorite sample of Hill’s diligent work was the Texan she chose to be first prime minister of an interim Syrian government, Ghassan Hitto. He lasted about four months in 2013. Sad.
    But again, she is taking all the heat for Benghazi, rather than Petraeus, and the people doing it know better. They know the truth but are simply seeking political points, prattling about emails etc.

  6. orionATL says:

    “… On top of everything else, its a nice way to inoculate against what has happened, which is and always was going to be about strengthening Islamic fighters…”

    i’d say, rather, to innoculate against the domestic political danger of historical memory.

    if various efforts the bush/obama administration took from 2002 to 2015 to “adequatey train” foreign soldiers to fight somebody we wanted them to fight – in iraq, afghanistan, syria, or libya – were listed out, there would be contempt among our populace for the ineptness of those efforts.

    general petraeus has a reputation for being at the center of most, if not all, of the failed training/insertion efforts. if i’m right, that is quite a historical legacy for the man and the advisors to the presidents.

    time to double down on anti-historical political p.r.

    • orionATL says:

      i’d like to emphasize that from the 1950’s on, with the advent of the john birch society with which daddy koch was deeply involved, much of publicly debated foreign policy (as opposed to foreign policy that really makes a difference) has been the handmaiden of u.s. domestic politics.

      the current natsec/ foreign policy debate involving various arab societies and organizations is in the grand tradition of pushing aggressive american response to low-order national security threats decried as high-order in order to gain a leg-up in presidental politics.

          • orionATL says:

            “… with the shock of war, however, the state comes into its own again…”

            “…The State is the country acting as a political unit, it is the group acting as a repository of force, determiner of law, arbiter of justice. International politics is a “power politics” because it is a relation of States and that is what States infallibly and calamitously are, huge aggregations of human and industrial force that may be hurled against each other in war. When a country acts as a whole in relation to another country, or in imposing laws on its own inhabitants, or in coercing or punishing individuals or minorities, it is acting as a State. The history of America as a country is quite different from that of America as a State…”


            • orionATL says:

              “… with the shock of war, however, the state comes into its own again…”

              i just can’t get this phrase out of my mind.

              it warns (1918) of much of our congressional and executive idiocy and of the pervasive destruction of a citizen’s constitutional protection from the state’s (read: the government) abuse of its power that has occurred since 2001.

              • Don Bacon says:

                and to go on with Bourne:
                The moment war is declared, however, the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed themselves. They then, with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men. Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.

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