Tag: national intelligence estimate

Occupy Afghanistan

In an essay for Armed Forces Journal, Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis writes that after traveling across Afghanistan and speaking with more than 250 soldiers in the field,  “What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground.” Further down he continues, “I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level.”

It’s hard to disagree.

Davis’s essay comes weeks after the top-secret 2011 National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan finds that security gains in the Afghan war are unsustainable, and that pervasive corruption, government incompetence, and militant safe havens in Pakistan have undercut progress.

I’m reminded of a comment made recently by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee:

There have been gains in security … but the Taliban is still a force to be reckoned with. They still occupy considerable land in the country.

“Occupy” is the operative word in that sentence. That gains in Afghanistan are “fragile and reversible” is the oft-repeated mantra of defiant optimists who invoke our inability to achieve key objectives—improve local governance, eradicate corruption, convince Pakistan to shut down safe havens, etc.—as reason to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. Mind you, the opposite is also true: if such objectives are somehow reached, then we can never leave, since leaving would risk jeopardizing the gains we’ve won.

The intractable cross-border insurgency, of course, will outlive the presence of international troops. After all, a local district mullah who moonlights as a Taliban operative has nowhere else to go. Indeed, as the last 10 years have shown, insurgents can outlast coalition troops by merely re-emerging after we’ve left—that’s an endurable occupation.

In separate dissents appended to the report mentioned above—a report that reaches similar conclusions about the war made in the 2010 N.I.E.—the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, and the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, agreed in the judgment that the Taliban have shown no readiness to abandon their political goals. And, according to Col. Brian Mennes, who commands 3,300 troopers of the 4th Brigade: “The Taliban are going to have a role in post-war Afghanistan…They are Afghans. They are there—it’s just physics!’”

Coalition night raids and drones strikes have managed to eliminate the Taliban’s numerous shadow governors, mid-level commanders, and weapons facilitators; however, a classified NATO report was quoted as saying, the Taliban’s “strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact.” And, “Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban.”

From war fighters and trigger pullers to desk-bound spooks and armchair analysts, the conclusion reached is that after a decade of war we still haven’t won. The reason? All politics is local.

Remember that a key component of the Obama administration’s strategy for Afghanistan was winning over local people and luring them away from the Taliban. But the always perceptive Captain Cat, who has worked on Afghan peace building, offers insight into what went wrong:

As we talk and sip tea, the younger man’s brother arrives, wrapped in a patu. He keeps his hair long, jihadi style, and it pokes out of his pakool. He was a more senior commander than his younger brother, and only reconciled a few months ago.

I ask the commander what he does with his days. “The government doesn’t trust anyone who is reconciled, so no one will hire us. My other brother does small jobs, he owns a cart in town and he sometimes does delivery work. He gets calls from Miram Shah from the Taliban and they tell him “look at your life now, pushing carts. What kind of a man are you?”

“I really regret reintegrating with the government, I wish I hadn’t – but if I go back now, the Taliban will kill me”.

We shake hands and I leave them. Miserable, bored and ashamed, they will while away their days wondering how to feed their families, when the Taliban will come for them and why they put their trust in the government. It’s hard not to wonder the same thing.

Tragically, the vast majority of Afghans were initially happy with the foreign troop presence. They took a “wait-and-see” approach. But that spirit has largely deteriorated. Conversely, the Taliban are reviled but the general view among many Afghans toward the movement is either ambivalence or that the Afghan government is worse. Perhaps more importantly, as the Afghan government’s head of Rural Rehabilitation and Development insisted to me at his office in Kabul awhile back: “Taliban is part of our culture.”

The coalition’s deus ex machina is reconciliation with the Taliban. While such an outcome to the war is hardly a victory worth celebrating, it’s difficult to imagine a lasting solution that does not involve the war’s other occupying force, the Taliban.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Divided Government on Afghanistan

The Obama administration apparently plans to issue a positive Pentagon review of the war in Afghanistan.  Alas, this assessment evidently is not shared by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Reports the New York Times:

As President Obama prepares to release a review of American strategy in Afghanistan that will claim progress in the nine-year-old war there, two new classified intelligence reports offer a more negative assessment and say there is a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border.

The reports, one on Afghanistan and one on Pakistan, say that although there have been gains for the United States and NATO in the war, the unwillingness of Pakistan to shut down militant sanctuaries in its lawless tribal region remains a serious obstacle. American military commanders say insurgents freely cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan to plant bombs and fight American troops and then return to Pakistan for rest and resupply.

The findings in the reports, called National Intelligence Estimates, represent the consensus view of the United States’ 16 intelligence agencies, as opposed to the military, and were provided last week to some members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. The findings were described by a number of American officials who read the reports’ executive summaries.

Obviously, any predictions about the future course of the Afghan war should be taken with a couple shakers of salt.  However, the fact that the U.S. remains at war nine years after intervening suggests that pessimism is the most realistic perspective. 

That certainly was the reaction of Malou Innocent and me after visiting Afghanistan earlier this year.  Even if the military has figured out the best strategy for fighting the Taliban, there is no competent and honest Afghan partner to replace the Taliban.  The Karzai government is as likely to impede as aid Washington’s efforts.  The U.S. cannot afford to sacrifice more lives and money in what has devolved into yet another attempt at nation-building that fails to advance Amerca’s security.

The Hopelessly Stupid Politics of the Iran NIE

The Washington policy establishment is now pulsing with excitement over news that the intelligence community (IC) is revising its 2007 statement that “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons” and that this halt “lasted at least several years.”

Funny story: The day the NIE came out, Ted Carpenter and I were arriving in Los Angeles to give at talk at the LA World Affairs Council on Iran.  Immediately on our deplaning, the questions started coming: “What do you think about the NIE?  How does this change things?”  “What NIE?” I asked.

So amid our last minute preparations for the talk, I was scrambling to get hold of a copy, but being the Luddite I am, I couldn’t manage to get my computer to work, or to get the .pdf to open right on my Blackberry.  But I was ultimately able to pull up the first sentence, quoted above, and to look at the first footnote.

That was all anybody needed to do.  The footnote read:

For the purposes of this Estimate, by “nuclear weapons program” we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.

Well, this is like saying Iraq had weapons of mass destruction because we found a few degraded mustard gas shells out in the middle of the desert.  That wasn’t what anybody was referring to when “Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction” were a topic of conversation, so it proves only that if you redefine things you can change conclusions.  Much of the nuclear infrastructure that is in dispute in Iran is contained in “civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment,” so the new definition does not include much of what people speaking in the vernacular are including when they say “Iran’s nuclear program.”  So at the talk that night in LA, I said this:

the headline splashed all over the newspapers with respect to the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is that Iran in 2003 suspended, and kept in suspense, its nuclear weapons program; however, it continues to operate facilities like that at Natanz which could at some point in the future be used as part of a nuclear weapons program. So it really becomes a definitional problem in the context of what components of Iran’s industrial infrastructure are included in this nuclear weapons program and which of them are kept outside of it. From my reading of the news reporting I think that it has been at least mildly misleading.

Predictably, American neoconservatives began rending their garments and gnashing their teeth, whipping each other into a frenzy, decrying the “politicized intelligence” at the CIA (do they ever tire of that?).  But really, is it too much to ask of journalists who write about national security (and, to be fair, their headline writers) to read one footnote in a document that contains about three pages of text?  I’m not the smartest guy in the world, and I managed to figure out what the deal was while in a big time crunch, without access to the full document, and without a sizeable rolodex of insiders I could call to help me figure out what was going on.  Still, the American journalistic community splashed headlines like “NIE: Iran halted nuclear weapons program in 2003” and such.  So in a sense, the neocons were right: the inferences people drew from reading the reporting on the NIE were inaccurate.

But this is, more than anything, a critique of the American journalistic establishment than it is the IC.  Writing in the first sentence of a three-page document a provocative claim and then footnoting a definition that dramatically alters the implications of the claim is not really all that tricky.  The people who assemble news stories, who did not exactly cover themselves in glory in scrutinizing government claims before the war in Iraq, were either lazy or stupid in this case as well.  Given the benefits the neocons reaped from the media’s laziness or stupidity in the Iraq case, the spluttering outrage in this case was always a bit much to take.