Memo to the president: America needs a counterinsurgency strategy


Memo to the president: America needs a counterinsurgency strategy
Robert Grenier served as a career intelligence officer and former head of counterterrorism at the CIA. He was the agency’s station chief in Pakistan at the time of the 9-11 attacks and later led counterinsurgency strategy efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today he believes the gravest threats to the U.S. lie within its borders – and that what is needed, effectively, is a counterinsurgency for the nation. He shares his views with Grid in the form of a memo to the president.

An unsolicited memo to the president


From: Director, National Counterterrorism Center

To: The President of the United States


Mr. President:

I begin by stating the obvious: This memo is way out of line. While the issues I raise here are directly relevant to my domestic counterterrorism responsibilities, the advice I propose is largely political and thus well outside my purview: Indeed, it lies uniquely within yours, as both a government and a political figure.

In the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, 2021, I was struck with stunning clarity that the social and political conditions that underlay past insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan were now at work here at home. While relatively few of our fellow citizens have been or would ever be moved to actual political violence, we have seen that a number sufficient to generate long-term endemic violence were, and are, very much at work.

I don’t need to remind you that your senior intelligence and law enforcement officials share the consensus that by far the greatest terrorism threat in the United States today is domestic and not foreign-generated. The latent threat of Islamic extremism pales in comparison with that posed by white-supremacist and other right-wing extremists.

That alone is a startling fact. But it is not what most concerns me, and not why I write to you now.


The nature of the threat

The threat of domestic terrorism is eminently manageable with the laws and law-enforcement capabilities at our disposal at the federal, state, local and tribal levels. I and my colleagues have the means to thwart those who actively plot and perpetrate criminal acts.

What worries me more is our ability to deal with the political environment in which violent extremism can grow and spread. In short, Mr. President, what should concern you is not domestic terrorism, but insurgency.

Those who pose the greatest threat in our country present themselves, plausibly, as the defenders and champions of a great many of their fellow citizens whose political and cultural grievances they share and loudly amplify. The most serious of these grievances in fact serves to legitimize the violence of the few in purported defense of the many. They also help generate broad tacit political support for their aims, if not their means, in the process encouraging others to join their ranks.

We see this already in the efforts of many otherwise mainstream Republicans to politically exploit the same social grievances seized upon by the extremists, either out of fear or opportunism, and even to excuse or defend those responsible for the Jan. 6 insurrection in service of the same political ends. Many Republican leaders have, in effect, joined the insurgency, potentially fanning the flames that could consume us all.

The classic counterinsurgency methods we employ abroad are unavailing here. Were we talking about a foreign land in which U.S. troops were deployed and critical national security interests engaged, I would be advocating for a presidential finding to authorize pervasive surveillance of private communications, designed to drive military raids against both insurgent cells and malign social influencers, even if peaceful; I would seek to employ the methods of social media manipulation and disinformation employed so effectively by the Russians, while suppressing alternative voices; I would advocate clandestine assistance to supportive politicians and social movements.

Here at home, any such methods would be anathema — not to mention illegal and unconstitutional — and would serve to realize the worst fears of the paranoiacs who believe there is in fact a “deep state” at work against them.

And yet Mr. President, a counterinsurgency mindset is exactly what is demanded. There is a great and compelling need to delegitimize the violent extremists in the eyes of those whom they purport to champion, in part by addressing the grievances on which the extremists feed. This critical work will fall to you and others in the political class.

You will need to reach out to people who hold conservative beliefs but who do not wish to subvert democracy or overthrow the government. You must be willing to elevate their social and cultural stature. You must acknowledge and address the underlying concerns fueling the insurgency, even if that means abandoning hope for a total victory in the so-called culture wars. You will need to convince fellow Democrats of the wisdom and merit of these approaches: put simply, that it’s worth the trade to fully marginalize Tucker Carlson and other charlatans, and preserve a stable democracy.

Iraq as a model

So what can be done? The best analogy I can offer is the work we did nearly two decades ago in Iraq’s Anbar Province.

In Iraq, we had no chance against the insurgency until traditional tribal leaders in the Sunni-dominated areas of the country decided they needed to break with the Islamic extremists destroying their country purportedly in its defense, to retake control of their destiny and to martial the populations over which they wielded influence. When they did so, it was in their own time and for their own reasons. Only then did they solicit our help.


It’s important to be clear about whom we mean in this very different context. The metaphorical “Sunnis,” with whom I and my colleagues so closely identified in Iraq, can be described in the U.S. as a large, religiously conservative segment of the population, disproportionately (though not entirely) rural, economically bypassed and culturally marginalized, which believes with some reason that it is being eclipsed by a largely urban coalition of immigrants, minorities, educated knowledge-economy workers and “politically correct” secular elites. These latter, they believe, try to abridge their religious freedoms; disparage and “cancel” their most cherished moral, cultural, social and historical beliefs; are bent on imposing “socialism”; and are ultimately prepared to seize their guns.

But Donald Trump and Trumpism’s populist takeover of the Republican Party and the conservative movement was not foreordained and need not be permanent. Yes, some in the conservative political class — the Paul Gosars, the Matt Gaetzs, and in the associated popular and social media worlds the Tucker Carlsons and Alex Joneses — may be irredeemable, but just as with traditional tribal leaders temporarily eclipsed by religious extremists, there are many in the various factions of the traditional conservative movement who are not happy with the current state of affairs and who abhor the long-term corrosion of our civic norms and democratic institutions.

You must reach out to these conservatives, broadly and quietly, using credible emissaries from within and outside the Democratic Party, to offer encouragement and support. Some, such as Bill Kristol, provide an organizational infrastructure for doing so. Some politicians, including Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, along with many thought leaders such as Kristol, Bret Stephens, Jennifer Rubin, David Frum, Ross Douthat and David Brooks have shown the character and courage to stand up publicly against the Trumpists, their lies and their manipulations.

Far more numerous among Republican politicians, however, are what we might term the “Vichyite collaborators.” Whether they are currently motivated by fear, opportunism or some combination of the two, they hold the key to effective opposition to Trumpism and thus must be the prime target of the “counter-insurgency” effort.

As attested by conservatives such as Max Boot, with whom many are willing to speak honestly in private, they understand the dangers posed by Trump and his acolytes but dare not oppose them out of fear of political rejection on the one hand and the lure of partisan advantage on the other. Indeed, the political motivation to swallow both pride and self-respect in the service of craven ambition will grow only stronger, as the prospect of Republican political advancement in 2022 and 2024 grows ever larger.


Most important, you and your surrogates must understand that this is not a matter of them joining you, but of you joining them — for patriotic reasons and with full assurances that you are not seeking political advantage.

Address the “Big Lie”

It would be hard to overstate the importance of the stolen-election myth in contributing to our nation’s current pathologies. A year ago, I naively thought of this as a great misunderstanding that could be addressed by naming a commission comprised of figures unassailably trusted by different elements of the political spectrum, tasked with rendering findings that would be accepted by all. Such is the state of distrust in the country, however, and such is the extent to which figures on the right are playing to popular Republican fears of election fraud, that any easy, definitive resolution of the problem is impossible.

But it cannot be ignored. Lost in the denunciations of the Jan. 6 rioters is the fact that given what they fervently believed, the revolutionary traditions of our nation tell us they were justified in what they did. This is tacitly understood and often openly asserted on the right; it is blindly unacknowledged on the left. You must change that.

Your messaging should acknowledge how horrific the prospect of election fraud would be — if it were true. That gives you and others the space to address whether it is indeed true rather than merely asserting the opposite. All the evidence is on the side of you and your de facto Republican allies.

More broadly, when faith in the integrity of elections is lost, any means of peaceful, legitimate redress of grievances is lost with it, and violence becomes justified. That is what makes the political opportunism of many on the right so self-destructively dangerous and why traditional conservatives, with your support, must address the issue — as many are, and in increasingly compelling terms.


But as you do so, it must be with humility, however hard that may be. Earnest magnanimity will help generate the credibility necessary to strongly oppose the pernicious efforts of Republican lawmakers in some states to wrest control of elections from nonpartisan local officials and place ultimate adjudication in the hands of highly partisan state lawmakers.

Such efforts are underway in at least six states, most of them swing electoral states. These efforts would go further than anything else to debase our democratic institutions and must be resisted at all cost. Kristol is making precisely these distinctions, advocating for reform of the Electoral Count Act and in favor of the Freedom to Vote Act. He and those with him deserve your loud and constant support.

Local election officials and workers are just that — local. The faceless bureaucrats supposedly stealing elections are in fact our neighbors, upholding a long and consistent record of independent election integrity. That history — almost universally accepted until recently — places the burden of proof on those who wish to claim rampant fraud and is the natural counter to those who sophomorically press their fraud claims by stating that “you can’t prove there wasn’t.”

The experience of Maricopa County in Arizona is instructive. At Republican behest, a thorough study of the 2020 election results was conducted by a company called Cyber Ninjas, wholly unqualified for the job and populated largely by Republican partisans ignorant of election law and procedure. The result nonetheless was to widen your margin of victory. Of course, that didn’t stop them from also engaging in all manner of speculation about what might have gone wrong, all of which was thoroughly unsubstantiated and thus easily rebutted by election officials, many of whom were themselves Republican. But again, in a spirit of patient humility, such reviews should be touted by your fellow counterinsurgents as a means of allowing people to satisfy themselves on the matter. However messy, the results provide a recurring platform for election officials and secretaries of state to rebut conspiracies and misconceptions.

Meanwhile, to give those who are genuinely concerned about the potential for election fraud their due, and to underscore what should be the commitment of all to election integrity, the counter-insurgents should engage selectively on those aspects of recently introduced state voting bills that are transparently intended to reduce the turnout of the “wrong sort” of voters, while tolerating those which could indeed make it harder to engage in fraud — however unlikely or ahistorical those concerns may be. As one of your staff members is alleged to have said, in the end you have to out-organize your opponents, regardless of the election rules.


Root causes

Much is made of the urban-rural political divide in this country, which would be hard to overstate and which cuts across most aspects of life, from economics to religion to social values. It has been true for many years that “Trump’s America” has largely been left out of the benefits of globalism and the knowledge economy.

In fact, you have done much of what’s possible in addressing this: There is a reason why the infrastructure bill, critically including rural broadband, was (somewhat) bipartisan, and conversely there is a reason why Trump attacks it, preferring to see its adherents’ continued suffering than to see you get the credit.

You and the counterinsurgents need to further reinforce the explicit link between retraining and green jobs, and the larger effort to address inequality and economic resentment — even if, for you, it means deflecting some political credit away from your Democratic allies.

Nonetheless, you and those you’re assisting in the effort to heal the civic and democratic soul of America must not view this as primarily an economic challenge. At its core, the motivation behind our incipient insurgency is cultural.

The culture wars

Right-wing concerns over uncomfortable social changes (e.g., trans rights) and rapidly changing demographics (exacerbated by immigration) have become almost inextricably tied to perceived liberal denigration of passionate conservative moral beliefs (e.g., concerning abortion), the evolution of our national narrative to take greater account of historical shortcomings (Confederate monuments and place names, the claimed teaching of “critical race theory”) and concern over government suppression of individual rights (vaccine and mask mandates, restrictive gun laws).


It has come to the point where all these issues are seen by many self-identified conservatives not on their individual merits, but as part of a concerted liberal conspiracy against their way of life. Concern with one immediately raises concerns with all the others. The effect of this conflation has been to make the country practically ungovernable, and to further stoke the sort of seething social discontent which frequently justifies and gives rise to violence.

The fact that someone of the profile of Mr. Trump has made himself the champion of social conservatives is one of the abiding ironies of our time. And while you may have a greater affinity for conservative sentiments than those in the left wing of your own party, there is little you personally can do to address the cultural chasm. The task of saving conservatism from the lies, conspiracies and democratic norm-busting depredations of the Trumpists can be undertaken only within the conservative movement itself, by those who are your natural allies in this regard and to whom you should be reaching out quietly now.

You can help them, however, by pushing back on the more extreme and unpopular aspects of the social agenda being pressed by the left wing of your own party.

Rein in social media

Finally, it is critical that you and those with you in the counter-insurgency effort get behind common-sense regulation of social media. As recent revelations by industry insiders have made clear, these are not neutral forums for the exchange of ideas but instead places to aggregate, reinforce and promote extremist views for very clear commercial reasons. They are doing great social harm. The means to combat their most pernicious effects are at hand and indeed have been demonstrated, for example, in the U.K.

A final plea

Mr. President, the advice I am providing sets for you an uneasy task. What I advocate may well run counter to your short-term political interests and those of many in your party, whose support you need to realize your agenda. But I do believe that what is at stake is nothing less than the future cohesion and security of the nation, and the preservation of our democratic system. Ironically, the very democratic norms that we are trying to preserve preclude my help in safeguarding them. I cannot counsel you to act here as I would have counseled in Anbar Province. But that doesn’t mean we should not act at all. Given the stakes, you must try.

  • Robert Grenier
    Robert Grenier

    Special Contributor

    Robert Grenier served as a career intelligence officer and former head of counterterrorism at the CIA.