CIA Study Finds Arming Rebel Forces Rarely Works

News & Insights
Dec 5, 2014

A CIA study commissioned by the White House concluded that the Agency’s past efforts to arm rebel forces in foreign countries had rarely produced desired outcomes, according to the New York Times. Government officials familiar with the classified report explained that President Obama had asked for the CIA self-study as part of the government’s internal debate over how to support anti-regime fighters in Syria’s civil war.

“In April 2013, President Obama authorized the C.I.A. to begin a program to arm the rebels at a base in Jordan, and more recently the administration decided to expand the training mission with a larger parallel Pentagon program in Saudi Arabia to train “vetted” rebels to battle fighters of the Islamic State, with the aim of training approximately 5,000 rebel troops per year.

So far the efforts have been limited, and American officials said that the fact that the C.I.A. took a dim view of its own past efforts to arm rebel forces fed Mr. Obama’s reluctance to begin the covert operation.

“One of the things that Obama wanted to know was: Did this ever work?” said one former senior administration official who participated in the debate and spoke anonymously because he was discussing a classified report. The C.I.A. report, he said, “was pretty dour in its conclusions.”

According to the Times account of the CIA report, such missions were most successful when US or allied operatives worked with rebels on the battlefield. Hence the success of the anti-communist “mujahedeen” rebels in Afghanistan; trained and armed with CIA funds, the rebels had direct support from Pakistani intelligence operatives on the ground. But this successful example of CIA intervention “was also seen as a cautionary tale” by the administration, since the jihad against Soviet forces in the 1980s laid the groundwork for the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the rise of al-Qaeda.

The CIA’s apparent self-doubt has fed President Obama’s cautious approach to Syria, and inspired his recent decision to involve the Pentagon in the effort to train and arm local forces fighting ISIS and the Assad regime.