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
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