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A Strategy for the Long War

Posted By Grim • [January 03, 2007]

It has become common to say that there is no overarching strategy for the Long War.  In the post below, I'd like to propose one.  It joins together what I think are the best ideas out there, for creating a kind of world where:

*  Terrorist groups are smaller and less dangerous

*  Rogue states have more rather than less to fear

*  Genocide and ethnic cleansing are rarer

*  The enforcement of human rights is more certain.

All of this is possible without vastly increasing the size of the military, or invoking a draft.  This is a long post, so get some coffee.

I want to begin with an article that Chap mentioned at MilBlogs.  I said at the time it was the best thing I've read on the kinds of changes we need to bring to the war.  It is that, but let me say why I think so, and elaborate on some of the good concepts at work in the article.

There are three concepts to understand.  The first is "information warfare."  The second is David Kilcullen's concept of "Disaggregation," which the article asserts may be the grand strategy we need for the Long War, the equivalent of Containment in the Cold War.  The third is consequences:  the need for sticks as well as carrots.

I.  Information Warfare

The article is largely about David Kilcullen, whom most of you will know from his "Twenty-eight Articles."  He's also written a more elaborate examination of some of these ideas in the USMC's Small Wars Journal.  Kilcullen has some key insights into what Al Qaeda and allied groups are trying to do, and what we need to do to combat it. 

Kilcullen writes that al Qaeda and its allies do not attempt the conventional goals of a guerrilla movement.  Rather, what they are doing is attempting to use "information warfare" as their chief weapon.  The actions they take are not taken to achieve a goal, for example, the destruction of the World Trade Center or the killing of some civilians in Baghdad.  They are taken to send a convincing message:  America can be hurt, and what can be hurt can be destroyed; our enemies will be destroyed, woman and child as well as soldier and policeman.

The article offers several good examples of how this works.  I want to borrow one, and add another.  The one I want to borrow is of the Taliban manipulating villagers in rural Afghanistan.  The one I want to add is from Fallujah.

Kilcullen says that the Taliban is freely switching between terrorism and guerrilla tactics, because they were really just fighting an information war.  "It's all about an information operation that generates the perception of an unstoppable, growing insurgency."  From Afghanistan, he wrote:

One good example of Taliban information strategy is their use of “night letters.” They have been pushing local farmers in several provinces (Helmand, Uruzgan, Kandahar) to grow poppy instead of regular crops, and using night-time threats and intimidation to punish those who don’t and convince others to convert to poppy. This is not because they need more opium—God knows they already have enough—but because they’re trying to detach the local people from the legal economy and the legally approved governance system of the provinces and districts, to weaken the hold of central and provincial government. Get the people doing something illegal, and they’re less likely to feel able to support the government, and more willing to do other illegal things (e.g. join the insurgency)—this is a classic old Bolshevik tactic from the early cold war, by the way. They are specifically trying to send the message: “The government can neither help you nor hurt us. We can hurt you, or protect you—the choice is yours.” They also use object lessons, making an example of people who don’t cooperate—for example, dozens of provincial-level officials have been assassinated this year, again as an “armed propaganda” tool—not because they want one official less but because they want to send the message “We can reach out and touch you if you cross us.” Classic armed information operation.

The Myth of the Guerrilla is not new.  The use of global media to convince the world of the truth of the myth is not new -- the Tet Offensive is the model here.  What is new is the global scale of the conflict.  Al Qaeda and its allies can create momentum in rural Afghanistan, and thereby humiliate the Coalition.  It appears to be more powerful than America, more powerful than NATO, because it can defy their will and exert control where we cannot.  That control is based on the careful application of a small amount of strength; the worldwide appearance of power is based on the global media carrying today's one small success to every household with a television.  Even if every household in Afghanistan but one sleeps safely tonight, that one is all that is needed to portray the insurgency as unstoppable, and capable of exerting its will when and where it pleases. 

It is not, of course:  it would rather strike the White House than a farmhouse in Afghanistan.  But we cannot stop the one attack in Afghanistan, and therefore the insurgency is winning.  Its goal is to attack, ours to defend, and since it has attacked somewhere, that is enough.  Readers of newspapers see an example of their strength, that small but carefully applied strength, each and every day.  It becomes an article of faith.

Now consider the example of Fallujah, where this played out in a larger arena.  In Fallujah, the enemy convinced a hostile population that it could lead them to victory.  As a consequence, the people of Fallujah gave themselves over to the leadership of Islamists, trained with them, and believed them when they said that the Marine Corps would be buried there

This, too, was an illusion.  When the Marines and US Cavalry came, the terrorist leadership fled.  The people of Fallujah who had chosen to believe the myth were left to fight alone, and fight they did -- hard, and according to the Fallujah veterans I've talked to, with a deep determination.  In the end, however, they did not survive.  Between the second battle of Fallujah and Iraq's elections, terrorist attacks fell forty percent.  The elections came off almost without a hitch even there, in what had been the heart of enemy country.

This was an occasion when our actions unmade the enemy's information strategy.  There still remained Sunni insurgents -- their local problems remained in need of a solution -- but al Qaeda in Iraq's fall from popularity began there.  Sunni tribes have increasingly turned against al Qaeda and Islamism, as Bill Roggio has journaled.

Defeating the enemy requires breaking its myths.  But its myths can be made anywhere, in any village, in any house.  We can break their hold on Fallujah, and when they become rooted in a place, we must break their hold on it.  But is there a way to keep them from rooting in the first place?

II.  Disaggregation

This brings us to Disaggregation.  This is not a new military concept, in spite of having a new name:  we used to call it "Divide and Conqueor."  The main difference is that, now, we have no interest in conquest.  We do, however, need to concentrate on dividing the terrorists from local insurgents.

In other words, we need to prevent them from winning over a people like the people of Fallujah.  We need to keep the Sunni insurgent separate from the al Qaeda terrorist, so that we have a Sunni problem here and a Taliban problem there, rather than a global insurgency all working together and sharing expertise.

The original article discusses this:

A war on terror suggests an undifferentiated enemy. Kilcullen speaks of the need to “disaggregate” insurgencies: finding ways to address local grievances in Pakistan’s tribal areas or along the Thai-Malay border so that they aren’t mapped onto the ambitions of the global jihad. Kilcullen writes, “Just as the Containment strategy was central to the Cold War, likewise a Disaggregation strategy would provide a unifying strategic conception for the war—something that has been lacking to date.” As an example of disaggregation, Kilcullen cited the Indonesian province of Aceh, where, after the 2004 tsunami, a radical Islamist organization tried to set up an office and convert a local separatist movement to its ideological agenda. Resentment toward the outsiders, combined with the swift humanitarian action of American and Australian warships, helped to prevent the Acehnese rebellion from becoming part of the global jihad.

Aceh is an interesting case.  It is located in Indonesia, where jihadist radicalism has been on the upswing.  There are groups that support UBL directly -- Jemmah Islamiyah, for example, which the article mentions.  There are radical groups that propagandize for terrorists, but claim not to be terrorists themselves -- for example, Hizb-ut Tahrir's Indonesian branch.  There are militant groups that are Islamist but not part of the global Jihadist movement -- for example, the Front Pembla Islam, which goes around Jakarta busting up cafes that serve alcohol during Ramadan. 

Aceh is the only part of Indonesia that has instituted shariah law -- usually a jihadist cause.  It has an armed liberation movement that is established and successful, the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka ("Free Aceh Movement," or GAM).  Neither al Qaeda nor its agents, nor even Hizb-ut Tahrir, have been very successful in Aceh, however.  The locals aren't interested in what they are selling.

This is because they are selling a bad product.  The Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Islamist 'government' in Fallujah, and the jihadists in Indonesia, all have essentially the same joyless program on offer.  In the case of Aceh, the jihadist hard-line prohibition against representative art clashes with a deep and beloved local tradition of theater and other arts.  Aceh wanted shariah, but not the shariah of the Taliban -- their own interpretation, whatever you  may think of shariah in general, is different enough from what the jihadist advocates that the Achenese are hostile to the idea of a Taliban-style government.

Why is this important?  Aceh is not a problem for the United States, or the West.  In spite of what some 'anticolonial' writers have suggested, we do not care if people agree with us, or want what we want.  All we ask is that they not try to kill us or break things that matter to us.

Recently people have noticed the insurgency in Thailand, which is again a Muslim insurgency.  There appears to have been some jihadist involvement in it -- teaching tactics, for example.  Yet it is principally about the Malay Muslim minority in the provinces on the border with Malaysia.    It's not Islamist, though it is intent on cleansing the area of non-Muslims.  It's not really about Islam, as much as it is about a particular identity -- people who feel a kinship to the ancient Muslim kingdoms that occupied the area before the Thais conquered them.  The government of Thailand has failed to resolve the insurgency, but by the same token, the jihadist movement has failed to integrate it.  It is not a threat to the West in its present form.      

Al Qaeda and its ilk want to create a worldwide jihad that links together all these various movements under a common banner.  Its information strategy is designed to show themselves to be the natural leaders of the Muslim world -- because they can stand up to the West, which the Muslim world has been incapable of doing for so long. 

Disaggregation attacks that strategy at the root, by focusing people's attention on the local issues that they really care about.  Kilcullen points out that it is social networks that draw young men into jihad.  We can defuse those networks by giving them something else to fight for -- something local.

This is where we meet Montgomery McFate in the article, the a DOD contractor engaged in a "massive act of rebellion against my hippie parents."  She lived with the IRA and then with Protestants in Ireland, and has developed an understanding of the things that drive radicals.  She is one of the ones the US military turned to when it found itself trying to understand the Sunni triangle.

Cultural expertise is the key to unlocking these insurgent movements from the terrorists who would unify them.  Local insurgencies can often be ignored by us (as in Aceh and Thailand), or put down if they need to be (as we were able to put down the Shi'ite insurgency of 2004 in Najaf and elsewhere).  If they don't aggregate, they are easy to control, and can't threaten the fundamentals of our civilization.  By the same token, we don't have to radically change the size of our military to deal with them.

There are two things we need to make this work.  First, we need an understanding among military men (who are quickly developing it) and the rest of American/Western society (who have not begun to do so) about how to engage earlier, tribal forms of society.  For the leaders of the military in a region, that understanding should be specific.  I will suggest later that the US military move the Special Forces out of SOCOM and into the combatant command units exclusively.  These men who are specially talented in languages and unconventional war should have the time in a specific region to learn all they can about that region; and we should give them the lead on all military missions in conflict areas designated "insurgency."  They should be elevated in such cases to directing all US military involvement in such areas.

For the rest of us, we need a general understanding of tribalism.  I wrote about this years ago in a piece called The Black Mail.  The tribe does everything we expect a society to do:  bestows legitimacy on leaders, takes care of orphans and other needy children, cares for the old and the widowed.  Changing a tribal society to a modern one is the work of generations. 

That's all right -- merely engaging a tribal society in modern economic life will do the work for us.  We just have to be willing to wait.  In the meantime, we play by their rules, and wait for the virus of freedom to work.

We must also show them the value of our society in terms that will mean something to an honor-based tribal society. 

The best thing that we can do for America is to return to teaching heroic epics.  We need to teach Americans how to be heroes -- how to think about and value honor, shame, and wisdom amid violence.

American soldiers are our first and often our best ambassadors.  When they behave as heroes, and believe in heroism, a tribal society responds.  When they know how to speak of those concepts in a Western context, the tribal society learns that the West is not decadent -- it too has honor. 

Do you doubt it?  Perhaps you should read again of the "Lions of Tall Afar."

III.  Consequences

There is a third, necessary part of the strategic concept.

The Afghans hated living under the Taliban regime.  We know this because of the way 'the streets of Kabul ran with beards' on the day the Taliban fell.  Yet the Taliban persists.

The Sunni tribes of Iraq have largely disaggregated from al Qaeda in Iraq, but the insurgency there persists.  The Shi'ites in Iraq have responded to the continuing violence with an early sort of ethnic cleansing, which seems likely to spread until Anbar province is cleansed.  They celebrated in the streets when they could vote for a constitution and a government, but they tolerate the religious militias.

Why?

Kilcullen doesn’t believe that an entirely “soft” counterinsurgency approach can work against such tactics. In his view, winning hearts and minds is not a matter of making local people like you—as some American initiates to counterinsurgency whom I met in Iraq seemed to believe—but of getting them to accept that supporting your side is in their interest, which requires an element of coercion. Kilcullen met senior European officers with the NATO force in Afghanistan who seemed to be applying “a development model to counterinsurgency,” hoping that gratitude for good work would bring the Afghans over to their side. He told me, “In a counterinsurgency, the gratitude effect will last until the sun goes down and the insurgents show up and say, ‘You’re on our side, aren’t you? Otherwise, we’re going to kill you.’ If one side is willing to apply lethal force to bring the population to its side and the other side isn’t, ultimately you’re going to find yourself losing.”

That is it precisely.  Any successful Coalition policy must couple a strategy of Disaggregation with a strategy of destroying the enemy, and especially -- because it depends upon them -- its myths.  When we can, we must avoid letting them take root in a Fallujah, or uproot them by turning the population against them. 

When we can't, their every stronghold must fall.  While we are trying to disaggregate by focusing local attention on local concerns, we must also attack the internationalists.  The terrorists and the sponsor regimes do have to be put on the defensive.  Bush was entirely right about that part. 

The second part of the "consequences" doctrine is that we must begin speaking honestly and directly about what we will and will not do.

Iran and Syria are emboldened in Iraq in part because they believe we will leave.  Our inroads with the Sunnis are troubled, as Bill Roggio noted in his article on Anbar's response to the Iraq Study Group, by the same perception. 

That perception lies on a hard fact:  America's democratic form of government makes it unreliable.  We really might leave; every two years we have an election that insurgent information strategy can affect.  We are not going to change those things.

That said, the best option -- a clear and unshakable commitment -- is off the table.  It is best if our politicians assert that they will commit, but that assertion comes with an expiration date, and everyone knows it.

The second-best option is what remains for us.  Enough people have said that we should negotiate with Iran and Syria that we probably will do so.  We must remember Theodore Roosevelt.  Speaking softly -- that is, diplomacy -- requires a very big stick.   

I call this the "Bull in a China Shop Rule," to contrast with Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn Rule."  The "Pottery Barn Rule" held that were responsible for fixing Iraq, having "broken" it.  While I think that is correct morally, Iran and Syria have done quite a bit to make sure it stays broken.  They are operating on the theory that they will be able to manage the chaos that results when we leave, and carve out client states for themselves where Iraq is now. 

This makes them, and now us, responsible for what follows.  We must make clear that they will not enjoy our departure.  If we go, we will not allow them to dominate the area.  Syria has fielded assassins against Lebanon; I would say their own leadership has thereby opened themselves to the same tool.  Iran has deployed bombs and funded and trained opposition figures in Iraq -- we can do that also.  Indeed, if we decide, we have better ways of deploying bombs than cars.

If we negotiate with them, it must be from strength.  We must make clear that the options are (a) help us, or (b) suffer.  Indeed, they have more to fear than we do from an American withdrawal, if we couple it with disruptive efforts against their governments.  If they are not allowed to manage the chaos in Iraq following any American departure, it could easily overwhelm them.  If we want their help, or at least no more difficulty from them, this is the way to gain it. 

One might object that this rule makes it harder to convince potential Sunni allies of our intent to stay.  Well, and we cannot convince them -- our politics make it impossible.  We should, as a result, be honest in our warnings to them. 

This brings me to a topic that is almost an aside, but needs its own section.

IV. Genocide

It is usual for people to say, on the subject of genocide, "Never Again."  We are pleased to believe that we are totally opposed to genocide, and its lesser brother 'ethnic cleansing'; and that we are moral people because of the depth of our devotion to that principle.

The truth, after Rwanda and now Darfur, is that we are not opposed to genocide.  We do indeed disapprove of it.  We are not, however, willing to do what is necessary to actually stop it.  We -- I mean the West, the whole international community -- do not intend to spend the lives and resources to save an alien people.  Bosnia got special treatment because it was on the border of Europe, and the West feared immediate and direct contamination from the war.  Whenever genocide is practiced further afield, it is practiced freely. 

Indeed, the UN's response to the genocide in Darfur is so dishonorable as to completely discredit the organization.  It has entirely failed its purpose, if this is the best it can do or intends to do.

Nevertheless, as with the truth arising from American politics, this is the truth.  This is what the international community really intends to do.  It will be no better than this, not tomorrow or next year.

I mention this because the likeliest result of an American withdrawal from Iraq is the ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis by the Shi'ites.  It is already underway in Baghdad, though not yet in Anbar according to Gen. Mattis

America would like to say, "We would never stand by and permit a genocide against the Sunnis; we would never permit ethnic cleansing on our watch."  But we all know that the truth is different.  The truth is that we shall say, "We do not need to be caught between parties in a civil war," and go.

The Sunnis should be told that directly.  They know the truth already, but there is great power in speaking the truth.  It is time for them to choose to be our allies in all things, or to be left to their own strength.  They must decide now.  Saying this directly and honestly means admitting to ourselves that we are about to stand by and watch a genocide.  Yet it may be the only chance to avoid that genocide.

V.  A Human Right

What will we do for the Sunnis if they do join us?  Even if they do, they know we may yet leave.  They need reasons for confidence, reasons to believe that joining us in the short term will help them whether we stay or go in the long term.  How can they be protected against Shi'ite militias, and the army we helped to raise and train?  The easiest answer to the second question is to join that army.  But the first question is an interesting one.

It's interesting for two reasons.  The first is that it's a restatement of an earlier problem.  Just like with the Taliban-linked militants in the wilds of Afghanistan, the Shi'ite militiaman does not need to succeed in his every desire to appear powerful.  He needs only to strike at the one house that is not protected, whenever he is able.  If each militia does that, you have a heavy death toll every day.  But preventing it requires protecting every house, all the time.

It's also a restatement of the challenge we face against terrorists in general.  Terrorists bypass the hardened parts of society -- police, soldiers, forts -- and attack the soft parts.  How do you protect society against a foe like that?

The answer is that you harden the whole society.  You distribute warfighting capability across the citizenry.  That link is to a discussion at Winds of Change.  The entire discussion is worth reading, but that comment illustrates what I am after here.

What is needed is to recognize the right to keep and bear arms as an indispensable human right, and to couple it with the duty to uphold the common order and lawful peace.  Professor Glenn Reynolds has been talking about this for several years, as have others of us in other contexts.

In order to respond to a militia, a Taliban, a terrorist, two things are needed.  The first is to raise the cost of such actions by making them more dangerous.  The second is to arrange a form of communication, so that we need not be alone for long.  If the Taliban comes at night, you bolt the door, use the rifle to hold them at bay, and summon help.  If the militia comes for your neighbor, you and he and your other neighbors hold them off.  If the terrorist attacks your office building or your child's school, coworkers or teachers are ready to frustrate their plans until the police respond.

This is also an answer to the problem of genocide and ethnic cleansing, which is what Prof. Reynolds intended.  We must first admit that we -- again, the West, international society -- have no intention of actually, militarily stopping genocide.  Yet we disapprove of it, strongly.  So, knowing we will not use the means at our hand because of a lack of our will, we give the means to stop it to those who will not lack the will -- the people who would otherwise be slaughtered.

This is a traditional part of Special Forces' work in unconventional war.  You find local allies, train them, equip them.  The modern terrorist -- the global insurgent -- seeks the soft areas of worldwide civilization.  Therefore, we need worldwide allies.  It is important that they be distributed down to the level of villages and neighborhoods, because that is the nature of the war. 

Every man a warfighter.  By coincidence, this view of our potential allies will play very well in tribal society.  They will read from this view of them that we honor them.

We must also improve friendly but poor governments.  Our enemy can score a victory by striking any such neighborhood or village; and our traditional allies, like Ethiopia, are limited in their ability to project power over time.  I note that the Bush administration is ahead of the game here.

VI.  Strategic Changes

We do not need to make many major changes to our infrastructure to accomplish this.  There are a few.

In the military, I say again that we need to dissolve the wall between Public Affairs and Information Operations.  We need to combine these areas, so that we can get the experts on putting out messages in the same group with the people who are expert on interpreting messages.  We need the people who are good at predicting enemy mis/disinformation and who are good at breaking enemy myths to be in the same groups with the people who are charged with deciding what today's message will be.  We discussed these issues at length at and after the last MilBlogs Conference, and in the PAO Conversation.

SOCOM should reassign its Special Forces to combatant commands in the field.  The DOD should designate countries and regions as "insurgency" or "conventional" in terms of the type of difficulties expected there.  In regions designated "insurgency," the Special Forces should have the lead.  Their particular skillset is best suited to an overarching strategy of Disaggregation.

Navy SEALs and other SOCOM assets should remain separate, for strategic use.

The CIA has done some good work, but remains troubled by the culture of oathbreaking -- that culture by which people who have sworn to keep the nation's secrets instead leak them to the press.  This culture must be broken at all costs.  The nation's covert and clandestine operations, as well as the government's internal deliberations, require the confidence that comes from working with people who keep their oaths.  Oathbreakers should be searched out and prosecuted ferociously.

VI.  Final Words

We were told by the Iraq Study Group that the realist school believes it is necessary to combine all the problems of the region into one problem.  Israel/Palestine, which surely must be the most difficult problem of the age, had to be combined with Iran and Syria, and both of those with Iraq. 

Disaggregation holds the opposite.  Separate problems should be kept separate as much as possible.  Lest anyone protest that this is mere fancy compared with the tried and true realists, I should note that this strategy has been tried with some success in Iraq.

In 2004, Sadr and his militias managed uprisings in several cities including Najaf, the location of the Shrine of Ali Mosque.  Towards the end of that uprising, a similar but separate uprising occurred in the Sunni areas, leading eventually to the battles at Fallujah discussed above.

The Coalition may not deserve credit for preventing the two insurgencies from joining, but considering the additional difficulties that would have arisen had they joined shows something of the usefulness of Disaggregation.  Furthermore, by making clear that the uprising in the Shi'ite areas was about Sadr, the US Army successfully kept the situation from becoming a general cause for Shi'ites.  The twin uprisings of 2004 were the most dangerous moment for the Iraq mission, and passed in large part because the Coalition was successful in keeping separate factions from linking up.

As discussed above, the Coalition was successful in breaking the enemy's myths at Fallujah, which was the beginning of the reversal for al Qaeda in Iraq.  Now, even in Ramadi, the case is that al Qaeda has lost favor -- but the fear of Shi'ite retribution and American withdrawal makes it hard for us to find firm allies.  (By the way, the answer to TIME's question -- "Is there a problem if your ally is a bandit ringleader?" is in The Black Mail.  The answer is, not really.)

It's easy to lose track of the progress made in Iraq, as new problems continue to arise to replace old ones.  The proto-civil war has continued a trend of escalation in violence, which many people have wrongly considered evidence of mission failure.

Nevertheless, in Iraq we have replaced an evil regime; seen a constitution written and a new government elected; defeated the Ba'athist insurgency; defeated Sadr's insurgency of 2004; defeated al Qaeda in Iraq's efforts to establish a state for itself; disaggregated the Sunnis from al Qaeda; and now we have the current set of problems.  Serious as they are, I remain confident that our mission will succeed, if the American people do not abandon it.

In the broader Long War, I see reason for hope.  As the original article shows, and as I hope this piece confirms, there is a great deal of good and careful work going into the war.  From Francis Marion's efforts in the Philippines to our allies' commitment in Afghanistan, there is good to report along with the bad we often hear.

We have to remember how much of our enemy's efforts are pointed at making myths.  Our first duty has to be to break them, here and everywhere.  We must do what we can to prevent Muslims from believing that war against the West is the answer, or that al Qaeda can show them the way.  We also need an information strategy, one that explains our every action as follows:  we are the enemy of none, except those who would harm us or aid our foes. 

We still need an overarching strategy to unify our efforts, and ensure we are working towards the ends we desire.  We need to find in it the strength to do the good things we desire, but cannot do ourselves, from fighting genocide to increasing the use of an honest word in the speeches of diplomats.  We need it to harden our societies, so that wicked men will not find our children defenseless. 

I think this strategy is the the right one, and commend it to you.  I trust, at least, it has given you some things to consider.


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Tracked on Jan 13, 2007 2:34:20 PM

» The Coalition of the Willing from Watcher of Weasels
As you may or may not already be aware, members of the Watcher's Council hold a vote every week on what we consider to be the most link-worthy pieces of writing around... though I don't actually vote unless there happens... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 14, 2007 9:50:50 PM

» Council speak 01/12/07 from Soccer Dad
The Council has spoken and with the tie breaking vote of the Watcher himself, has declared Done with Mirrors extensive historical examination of Why is there still a CIA? this week's Watcher's Council winner. That left Colossus of Rhodey's American Fas... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 15, 2007 7:55:24 AM