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

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

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