Posts Tagged ‘Iran elections’

Intelligence Matters: U.S. Dependence on Intelligence From Wali Karzai Shapes Kandahar Strategy

Thursday, May 27th, 2010


“La guerre, c’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires.”

“War is too serious a matter to just be handed over to some military men.”

–Georges Clemenceau


U.S. and ISAF forces appear to be almost totally dependant on Afghan intelligence in Kandahar, and in particular on intelligence form Wali Karzai who reportedly controls the flow of intelligence information in the region to allied troops. This dependence, together with President Obama’s short and externally-imposed deadlines, has reportedly reshaped military strategy in the province. This represents a shift from the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy developed by David Petraeus and others.

See Gareth Porter, “McChrystal Strategy Shifts to Raids – and Wali Karzai” , IPS (Inter Press Service News Agency), May 24, 2010.

See also earlier articles by The Observer, including:

Intelligence Matters: CIA Capabilities in Afghanistan
March 21, 2010

Intelligence Matters: Khost, The Flynn Report, and a Few Hypotheses
March 17, 2010

Understanding Obama’s Dilemma: Key Articles on Taliban Advances, CIA Role, Karzai’s Brother, Magnitude of U.S. and U.N. Failures
November 13th, 2009

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited.

Intelligence Matters: CIA Capabilities in Afghanistan

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Robert Baer’s GQ article on the attack on the CIA base in Khost province and what it suggests about the capabilities of the CIA has drawn wide attention. At the same time, revelations about the CIA’s use of outside civilian contractors to collect information on individuals to be targeted for killing by predator attacks and other methods, has raised very serious questions.

Given common news management practices in Washington, it would not be surprising if CIA Director Leon Panetta’s granting of an interview on March 17, 2010, in which he praised the successes of the CIA in attacking Al Quaeda and the Taliban, was a response by individuals and/or an organization who felt under attack, and very much wanted to distract attention from consideration of the very serious criticisms contained in the articles cited, and others.

Be that as it may, it is essential that the substantive criticisms that are contained in or flow from Baer’s article and others remain clearly in view, and receive sustained and critical attention from the press, policymakers including civilian and mlitary leaders responsible for our actions in Afghanistan, and citizens of the U.S. and other countries contributing to the effort in Aghanistan.

To recapitulate but a few of the criticims, it has been reported that

1. The CIA has been stretched too thin and lacks the trained and experienced operatives it needs to operate effectively in Afghanistan;

2. The Agency’s intelligence on Afghanistan has become subordinated to that of military intelligence as a result of several factors, including:

a) the fact that the number of military intelligence officials vastly exceeds the number of CIA officials in Afghanistan;

b) the frequent and short rotations of CIA officials (of e.g., three months in the field at a time) do not permit the development of the local knowledge and expertise that is required to provide valuable human intelligence on the situation throughout the country;

c) General McChrystal’s having secured the appointment of a friend as CIA station chief in Kabul, after the Agency’s own choice (an individual who had worked with Richard Holbrooke in the Balkans) was blocked by Holbrooke;

Regarding the appointment of the CIA Kabul Station chief and the nature and quality of CIA intelligence in Afghanistan, Matthew Cole of ABC News reports:

The current and former intelligence officials say that putting a paramilitary officer in charge on the Afghan base highlights the CIA’s evolving role. The CIA’s historic wartime role was collecting information in order to shape overall strategy. Now the agency has been relegated to a supporting role, supplying tactical intelligence to help the military. The military determines the strategy.

“The CIA is supposed to be a check on the military and their intelligence, not their hand maiden,” said Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer. “This is a sign of things to come, where the military dominates intelligence.”

The problem with this shift, the officials say, is that both the military and the CIA are focusing on short-term, tactical intelligence, and ignoring the long view. The shortfall in intelligence collection was highlighted last month in a public report by the military’s top intelligence officer that was prepared for a thinktank. In the report, Major General Michael T. Flynn concluded that intelligence collection in Afghanistan was “only marginally relevant to the overall strategy.”

Flynn’s report was as critical of the CIA as of military intelligence. But it is the military that is now shaping intelligence collection in Afghanistan, in part through sheer numeric dominance. Military forces far outnumber the CIA, and the disproportion is growing. According to a current intelligence official, the CIA has roughly 800 personnel in Afghanistan scattered among 14 bases. By next summer, the military expects that it will have nearly 100,000 troops, roughly double its strength in early 2009.

Flynn concluded that the “vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which the US and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade.”
–Matthew Cole, “CIA’S Influence Wanes in Afghanistan War, Say Intelligence Officials,” ABC News/ The Blotter from Brian Ross, March 19, 2010

3) The CIA is extremely dependent on Afghan intelligence services in order to navigate the physical and social spaces within Afghanistan. Such dependance represents a particularly difficult obstacle to be overcome if the U.S. objective of securing Kandahar is to succeed.

TIME magazine reports, for example,

International observers and diplomats in Kabul say Wali Karzai retains close ties with units of the U.S. special forces and the CIA in Kandahar. Last October, the New York Times alleged that Wali Karzai had been on the CIA payroll for the past eight years, a charge he denied when speaking to TIME. “I see these people, I talk to them in security meetings, but I have no control,” he said. But TIME’s sources insist that Wali Karzai in the past has threatened to call down NATO air strikes or arrange night raids by U.S. special forces on tribal elders who defied him. Says a former NATO official: “Most of our intelligence comes directly or indirectly from him. We really didn’t see this dynamic because we were so focused on the enemy.”

Perhps the deeper question is whether the CIA, blinded by its brilliant successes in 2001, has pursued the wrong mission in Afghanistan, becoming an integral part of the killing machine that joins real-time tactical intelligence with the capabilities of predator drones and special operations forces, while neglecting its core mission of providing independent strategic intelligence to the nation’s top decision-makers on what is going on in the country as a whole.

These and other questions about the CIA’s capabilities and management are the critical ones to keep in mind.

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited, in any language. If in a language other than English, please provide an English translation. A Google translation will be sufficient.

Intelligence Matters: Khost, The Flynn Report, and a Few Hypotheses

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Our intelligence in Afghanistan doesn’t seem to be very good.

Publication of the Flynn report in January, 2010 revealed very serious shortcomings in U.S. military intelligence in the country.

The CIA intelligence on what is going on in Afghanistan–as opposed to real-time intelligence about the whereabouts of individuals to be targeted for predator drone attacks–may in fact be just as weak. 

It is hard to know for sure. 

But certain events provide suggestive clues as to the capabilities of the CIA in the country. The suicide bombing of a CIA forward operating station in Khost province on December 30, 2010 has highlighted serious weaknesses in the field, including a CIA chief who lacked critical experience on the operations side, and the fact that there was no one at the base who spoke the local language, Pashto.

The CIA’s earlier successes in 2001 in coordinating the successful campaign to topple the Taliban regime has left the agency deeply involved in the conduct of military operations, including the selection of targets and coordination of attacks by predator drone aircraft in Afghanistan and apparently Pakistan.

In the meantime, the agency seems to have neglected its core function of collecting intelligence on what is going on in Afghanistan, leaving U.S. decisionmakers highly reliant on Afghan and Pakistani intelligence agencies.

A strong hypothesis is that the lack of independent intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan has left the United States extremely dependent on the Afghan intelligence agency to navigate through a physical and social space characterized by murky power relationships and changing personalities, in a country whose languages and cultures are poorly understood by U.S. intelligence operatives and analysts.

The extremely close cooperation between the top CIA and Afghan intelligence officials in 2001, which appears to have continued, tends to support this hypothesis. See Henry Crompton interview and Amrullah Saleh interview with Laura Logan on 60 minutes, December 27, 2009.

If this hypothesis is true, it would help to explain why the Obama administration could not bring itself to support free presidential elections in a second round of voting following the August 20 first-round elections in 2009.

At the same time, the concentration of both CIA and military intelligence capabilities in and on areas of the country where fighting with the Taliban is intense may have skewed overall U.S. intelligence on what is going on in the country as a whole.  This may be particularly true in the major cities and towns where, over the medium and longer term, the allegiances of the citizens could have a decisive impact.

Khost: An Instructive Case

On December 30, 2009, a Jordanian double agent entered a CIA field station in Khost province, and detonated his suicide vest killing 7 CIA employees and his handler, a Jordanian intelligence official. Robert Baer, a former CIA agent and operative in the field, has described what occurred.  The following excerpts are indicative of the Agency’s weakened capabilities, as described more fully in the complete article:

The base chief is a covert employee of the CIA; her identity is protected by law. I’ll call her Kathy. She was 45 years old and a divorced mother of three. She’d spent the vast majority of her career at a desk in Northern Virginia, where she studied Al Qaeda for more than a decade…(An) officer who knew her told me that despite her training at the Farm, she was always slotted to be a reports officer, someone who edits reports coming in from the field. She was never intended to meet and debrief informants.

Kathy knew that there was a time when only seasoned field operatives were put in charge of places like Khost. Not only would an operative need to have distinguished himself at the Farm; he would’ve run informants in the field for five years or more before earning such a post. He probably would have done at least one previous tour in a war zone, too. And he would have known the local language, in this case Pashto. Kathy skipped all of this. Imagine a Marine going straight from Parris Island to taking command of a combat battalion in the middle of a war.

On January 10, 2010, CIA director Leon Panetta wrote a Washington Post op-ed in which he disputed that poor tradecraft was a factor in the Khost tragedy. Panetta is wrong.

As the wars dragged on, the CIA’s problems cascaded, leaving an agency with almost no officers with real field experience. Personnel were shifted in and out of assignments for three-month stints, too brief a period to really know a place or do any meaningful work. Over time, these patterns completely undid the old standard that you needed experience to lead. After a year’s tour in a post like Baghdad, an officer could pretty much count on landing a managerial position. Never mind that he’d spent his time locked down in the Green Zone, never getting out or meeting an informant….

Robert Baer, “A Dagger to the CIA,” GQ (Magazine), April 2010

See also Neal Conan’s interview with Baer on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, March 16, 2010.

An Explanation of Failures?

The analysis offered above is preliminary, but offers some explanation of why our policies in Afghanistan–particularly with respect to governance, legitimacy, and the allegiance of the people–have failed so disastrously to date.

General McChrystal’s application of General Petraeus’ and the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan is severely handicapped by a lack of sufficient troops for a country the size of Texas with a population of 28 million people, and a short time-line for the withdrawal of American forces to begin.

Moreover, hopes that a solution might consist in the reintegration of the Taliban into Afghan society under a government led by Karzai seem premature. It is still too early to predict success for the apparent wager that predator attacks against Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, and pressure from the Pakistani military, will bend the insurgents’ will to the point of wanting to negotiate a settlement on terms favorable to Kabul, Islamabad and Washington.

One should hope for the best, but have a clear-eyed view of the other possibilities.

The rapid development and deployment of independent U.S. intelligence capabilities focused on what is going on throughout Afghanistan, and not merely in the South and remote areas of the country where fighting is concentrated, will be critical to whatever success can be achieved in the country.

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited, in any language. If in a language other than English, please provide an English translation. A Google translation will be sufficient.

MEDIA WATCH—Frontline episode on “A Death in Tehran”

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

On November 17, 2009, “Frontline” (U.S. Public Television, PBS) presented a documentary on the demonstrations in Iran following the elections on June 12, 2009. The documentary approaches its subject by focusing on the circumstances surrounding the death of Neda, a young woman who has become a symbol for the aspirations of the “green” opposition movement in Iran.

The program may be viewed at

WORDS FOR REFLECTION: White House Response to Karzai Being Named President; Iranian Demonstrators

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

–From the White House and Presdent Obama following Abdullah’s withdrawal and declaration of Karzai as President of Afghanistan

–From demonstrators in Tehran on November 4, 2009

Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, November 2, 2009

Q Thanks, Robert. A few questions about Afghanistan. Can you tell us, first generally speaking, what’s the President’s reaction to the end of this election? And is he in any way relieved that this sort of messy process is over?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think by all accounts, this has been a difficult process. This is the first election run by the Afghans. But I think the President, the embassy there, and everyone can take heart in the notion that the laws of Afghanistan and the institutions of Afghanistan prevailed in both instances.

Statement by President Barack Obama to reporters, November 2, 2009

In Washington, President Barack Obama told reporters in the White House that he had congratulated Karzai in a telephone conversation. “Although the process was messy, I’m pleased to say that the final outcome was determined in accordance with Afghan law,” Obama said.

— CNN Nov. 2, 2009

Newsweek, on anti-government demonstrators in Iran on Nov. 4:

They chanted, “Death to dictator,” as usual, to protest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s contested election in June. But, for the first time anyone can remember, they also yelled, Obama, Obama! Either with them or with us!” The “them” in the chant means Ahmadinejad and the regime writ large.

–Newsweek, November 5, 2009


Throughout the world, many have the highest hopes for the success of President Barack Obama in all areas, and particularly in the area of foreign policy.

However, it should be recalled that in Germany the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, establishing harsh discriminatory policies against German Jews, were adopted in accordance with German national law.

Since that time, standards have changed. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), to which Afghanistan is a Party, provides:

Article 25

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:

(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;

What is the standard, Afghan law as interpreted by the Independent Electoral Commission (as preparations proceeded for a corrupt second round election), or the standard established in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights?

As for Iran, can we really assume that the way the U.S., NATO and the U.N. handle matters in Afghanistan has no impact on the Iranian government’s stance in negotiations on nuclear issues?

What will be the response of the U.S. and other countries to the question put by opposition demonstrators in Iran to President Obama: “Are you with them, or with us?”

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Did the degree of transparency and fairness of the elections in Afghanistan have any impact in Iran?

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

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The Observer


Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

The situation in Afghanistan is desperate.

As President Obama and his advisors debate how many additional troops to send to Afghanistan–at this time–it seems, once again, that the most important questions are not being asked or receiving the attention they deserve. The debate, framed in the media at a high level of abstraction as a question of whether or not to send more troops, does not address the diplomatic and political failures which have led to our current predicament. These failures bear directly on the choice of any future strategy we might pursue. If their critical nature and root causes are not grasped and addressed, the dispatch of additional troops to Afghanistan will not reverse a deteriorating situation, just as the dispatch of additional troops in 2008 and earlier this year failed to halt the advances of the Taliban.

Diplomatic and Political Failures

We have eight years of experience with President Karzai, and it is absolutely clear that he cannot or will not establish a government that elicits the support of the people, as the August elections confirm. Our real policy now appears to be to allow the massive fraud in the August elections to stand, as the Administration’s response to Amb. Peter Galbraith’s battles with United Nations Special Representative Kai Eide and Galbraith’s dismissal reveal.

Note, however, that accepting this fraud is equivalent to accepting Ahmadinijad’s fraud in Iran. Are our diplomats connecting the dots? Do they understand the impact such a policy is likely to have on the opposition in Iran?

How did we get here?

To an unusual degree, key players in the decision making process on Afghanistan have been military men. National Security Council Advisor Gen. James Jones worked on Afghanistan previously as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2003-2006, while the present U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Gen. Karl Eikenberry, was the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2005-2007. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, after outstanding successes in Iraq, is now in charge of our forces in Afghanistan. Gen. David Petreus, following a brilliant tour and reversal of strategy in Iraq, is now McChrystal’s superior as head of CENTCOM. These are four extraordinarily talented generals, but their professional experience has been largely confined to the military. We should not be surprised if, as military men, they tend to see the military elements and dimensions of the situation in Afghanistan in sharper relief and as more important than would, let us say, professional diplomats with 20 or 30 years of experience negotiating with different political factions and government officials in the region.

At the same time, the appointment of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Amb. Richard Holbrooke, another superstar, seems to have distorted the normal flow of information, coordination and decisions in the State Department, as well as the accountability of officials before Congress. With this outstanding cast, one is left with the impression that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has been far removed from day-to-day decision making on Afghanistan.

While Gen. Eikenberry is a distinguished military leader, his lack of previous diplomatic experience is a serious handicap in Kabul, where the ambassador both leads reporting to Washington and must persuade and lead the Afghans, NATO and the UN, and all of the various U.S. agencies with their conflicting perspectives and agendas. Moreover, experience may be a two-edged sword in Kabul, where everyone seems to have become quite accustomed to doing business with the incumbents. Indeed, many U.S. and international officials and contractors may come to be dependent or co-dependent on their Afghan counterparts, with even the “metrics” they report tending to support both their own and their counterparts’ programs.

In addition, the UN and a number of our NATO allies tend to view their tasks as peacekeeping and development work, as if they were in Kosovo or Bosnia, whereas the U.S. military is engaged in a very “hot” war. These competing perspectives generate bureaucratic and organizational behavior that results in dysfunctional decisions and outcomes. Such behavior is not surprising, but should be recognized as contributing mightily to the situation we now face.

Catastrophic Failure

One overriding fact remains. Our diplomacy in Afghanistan has not been successful. It has failed. It has failed in a catastrophic way.

The bad decisions are becoming evident, with no sign they will not be followed by even more bad decisions. They include:

1) Failure to understand that the NATO and UN templates from Bosnia and Kosovo were utterly unsuited to the realities of Afghanistan, where fresh analysis and program development was required.

2) Failure to change an electoral law that makes the development of national political parties almost impossible.

3) Agreeing to Afghan elections conducted by a Karzai-appointed commission, instead of sticking with the UN-conducted elections that worked so well in 2004 and 2005.

4) Not insisting, as Galbraith wanted, that the fraud being prepared by the Karzai government be stopped.

5) Acquiescing in the election fraud, and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) looking the other way while the fraud occurred.

6) Failing to insist on a correct vote tally and a second round of voting, as required by Afghan law, thus showing Afghans what we, NATO and the UN really believe about democracy in their country.

7) More broadly, throwing out the whole democratic rationale for being in Afghanistan by going along with the election fraud.

Legitimacy–First Things First

The failure in Afghanistan has been a diplomatic and political failure, not just a military failure. Military strategy will falter if diplomatic and political strategy does not keep pace. We cannot succeed in Afghanistan by proceeding on the naive belief that we can “stand up” a legitimate government born of fraud, or that we can “stand up” an Afghan army both capable of defeating the Taliban and loyal to a government lacking in legitimacy and losing public support. Legitimacy is the key to developing both a more effective government and a more capable army and police. Without legitimacy, both possibilities appear to be but chimeras in the desert sand.

As we commit additional troops, we need to investigate and understand the specific causes of our diplomatic and political failures, first, to develop a viable government in Kabul and the provinces, and, second, to organize and hold elections recognized as fair, thus conferring legitimacy on the government.

Following catastrophic diplomatic and political failures, we may need a new diplomatic team in Kabul, better decision-making structures and personnel at State, more vigorous Congressional oversight, and a whole rethink of whether the “aid and development” element of our strategy in Afghanistan, as currently implemented, makes any sense given our experience on the ground. Certainly we need to bear in mind that our counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq, to the extent it has been successful, has depended in critical part on free elections and the development of a legitimate government that could gain the support of the population. Finally, we should never lose sight of the fact that what we do about the election fraud in Afghanistan will have profound repercussions in Iran, and beyond.

The Trenchant Observer
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