In the comments to my post last Friday about President Biden’s remarks on Afghanistan, Y_Y Sima Qian asked if I’d write a post addressing the question of whether there was or was not an intelligence failure in regard to Afghanistan. The short answer is both from what I’ve seen reported and the professional work I was involved with that dealt with Afghanistan there was not. Or at least not in the sense that the term is generally used.
My professional opinion as someone who has provided assessments to senior leaders serving in Afghanistan or working on issues pertaining to it, pre-deployment preparation and training for units deploying to Afghanistan at brigade and echelons above brigade, reach back research support for personnel deployed to Afghanistan, and as a technical subject matter expert assigned to a working group about how to better handle cultural information for elements deployed to Afghanistan is that the intelligence and information work, especially at the tactical and operational levels, was not and has not been a failure. One of the problems, as was very well described in this interesting and excellent article, is that quite often we had the information, but we didn’t have the context to make sense of it. Another part of the problem is that just because the information was accurate, does not mean that the senior leaders and decision makers understood it, accepted it, wanted to hear it, or acted on it an appropriate manner. This itself follows from a related problem, the collection, analysis, and preparation of the intelligence may have been done correctly, but it may not have been briefed to the senior leaders and decision makers the way the product was prepared by the actual subject matter experts. This is a major problem with what we call the intelligence cycle. Because everyone knows the policy preferences of the senior leaders and decision makers, this can skew any and all parts of the cycle from collection to presentation. Another major problem, as a former boss refers to it, is the Legion of Frightened Men (LOFM). These are themselves senior personnel who refuse to speak up to contradict more senior leaders or at all because of their professional conditioning over 20 plus years of service.
I think another major problem is that everyone wants to grade their own homework. So the Intelligence Community has a set of metrics for progress or success and the military has a separate one. And as long as you’re meeting those metrics or exceeding them, then you’re successful. I had this discussion as part of a panel in 2009 on counterinsurgency hosted by NYU’s Center for Law and Security that included John Nagl as one of the other three panel members with me. I was on the panel to talk about the gap between our theory of counterinsurgency as delineated in US Army/military doctrine and the actual application in Operations in Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. I also discussed the implications of the failure of the Bush 43 administration to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqis, as well as the debacle that were the provisional elections and what would be the forthcoming national elections based on the work I’d done in Iraq on how Iraq’s electoral system was then structured and functioning. After I went through all the disconnects and complications, Nagl then made his presentation where he explained that because we’d just spent X amount in Y locations in Iraq and Afghanistan building all sorts of infrastructure, that we were succeeding in the hold and build phase of operations (Phase IV of conventional operations), and that, as a result, the US would maintain at least 100,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely and a smaller, but still significant number in Afghanistan indefinitely as well until we completed remaking both states and societies, as well as the region. Leaving aside that this was completely delusional in terms of what the US would do in the long term, especially given that at that point the US was on a ticking clock to withdraw from Iraq in 2010, it also is a very good example of the dynamic I’m trying to describe. Nagl, and some of the other top names within in the public perception in regard to counterinsurgency, had a set of outcomes for success and metrics that they had delineated for Iraq and Afghanistan, and as long as positive progress was being made on those, then were making progress and success was achievable. This doesn’t make them bad people, it just made them wrong. Then and now.
Another major contributing problem is related to and a result of the Legion of Frightened Men problem. One of the things that senior leaders and decision makers need is someone who not only can tell them what they need to know, not what they want to hear, but whose job is to do just that, who is not afraid to do so, and who is empowered to so. This was what my job was for the commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team/1st Armored Division, for the 48th, 49th, and 50th Commandants of the US Army War College, for the Commanding General of III Corps, and for the Commanding General of US Army Europe (same general officer). Not every commander, senior leader, and/or decision maker has someone who can or will do this. I’m sure there are some that don’t want it. Often we see, both in terms of senior military personnel and senior elected and appointed officials, that senior leaders and decision makers have a team of trusted personnel that they take from assignment to assignment, elected office to elected office, appointed position to appointed position. While this is often a good thing as it provides the senior leader with a cohesive and coherent team that he or she can trust. However, it also can cut in the opposite direction leaving the senior leader without someone who can bring them information and give them and their staffs advice they don’t want to hear.
The last point I want to make on this issue is that we also do a good job of lying to ourselves. Everything we’ve been trying to do in Afghanistan once operations shifted to counterinsurgency and what is popularly being called nation building, has been based on Army Field Manual (FM) 3-24: Counterinsurgency. FM 3-24 is a mess. It has numerous, significant historical and factual errors. One striking example is the completely inaccurate narrative around the Tupamaros and their campaign in Uruguay. The basic historical events recounted are correct. The placement of them within Uruguayan history, including what the Tupamaros actually did or did not accomplish and why, is historically/factually incorrect.
Another significant problem is the complete lack of historical context as to the concept of the spreading ink spot. The spreading ink spot concept – a description of taking, clearing, and holding a location to force the insurgents to reconcile with the government through a negotiated settlement – is something that comes to us from the French campaign in Algeria. The spreading ink spot worked in Algeria because it refers to the French seizing the oases and forcing all the Algerians that needed the water to reconcile in order to access and continue to access them for water. It worked in Algeria because there were, and still are, oases. It failed when the French tried to adapt it into the strategic hamlet during their war in Indochina. And it failed us in Iraq when it became the strategic lily pad. It also failed when we adapted it to Afghanistan. And the reason is that Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan DO NOT have oases! What the French or the US substituted for oases in the concept in each of those places was a poor substitute and failed for reasons of different human geographies. Unfortunately, this concept has itself spread, if I may use that term, from FM 3-24 to other related Army doctrine, such as Mass Atrocity Response Operations and Stability Operations, where it is still historically contextless and makes no conceptual/doctrinal sense.
Another example is that FM 3-24 describes either establishing or reestablishing a legitimate government. Unfortunately it doesn’t define legitimate. Is it the government that existed before whatever crisis precipitated our intervention? Is it the government recognized by the UN and/or the international community? Is it the government that the people of that state and society accept? Some combination? I cannot tell you how many war games, planning sessions, and meetings where I’ve asked this question. No one has a good answer. The final example I’m going to give is that FM 3-24 describes three different operational footprints – heavy, medium, and light – that could be employed to conduct counterinsurgency. Unfortunately, at least for a 3rd party counterinsurgent force like the US has been in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no empirical evidence that anything other than the heavy footprint actually works and now almost twenty years of evidence that light and medium do not! To be perfectly honest, I still can’t count more than three – and that’s being generous – 3rd party counterinsurgencies that were ever successful. And each of those used heavy footprints. And the only one that is considered an outright success – the British counterinsurgency in Malaya – cannot be replicated because that counterinsurgency was basically the classic example of destroying the village to save it. This is something we’re not going to do.
Right now the Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) is going very well. There was two or three days at the outset that were bumpy, but I don’t think that’s surprising. The first few days of almost every operation are. That’s not an excuse, it’s just reality. Since then we’ve evacuated almost 40,000 people from Afghanistan. I expect that by the time those of us in the US, Canada, and Mexico are awake tomorrow that we’ll be around, if not over, 50,000 evacuated.
It is also important to keep pointing out that despite everyone in the news media, the punditariat, and the various national security experts that have spent the past week to ten days screaming the Biden administration is failing, President Biden has lost the plot, why wasn’t Biden and his team prepared, and why didn’t they do something earlier, THE DEPARTMENT OF STATE ISSUED AN EVACUATION ORDER FOR AMERICAN CITIZENS IN AFGHANISTAN BACK IN MAY!!!!!!
Security Alert – U.S. Embassy Kabul, Afghanistan (May 15, 2021)
Location: Throughout Afghanistan
Event: Historically violence has increased in Afghanistan following the Eid holiday. Therefore, U.S. citizens are reminded to exercise caution in places where people are known to congregate, including public celebrations, markets, places of worship, and banks. The U.S. government remains concerned that insurgents are intent on targeting foreigners via kidnapping schemes and attacks at locations such as hotels, residential compounds, security checkpoints, government facilities, and airports.
The Embassy reminds U.S. citizens that on April 27, 2021, the Department of State ordered the departure from U.S. Embassy Kabul of U.S. government employees whose functions can be performed elsewhere due to increasing violence and threat reports in Kabul. The Travel Advisory for Afghanistan remains Level 4-Do Not Travel due to crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, armed conflict, and COVID-19. Commercial flight options from Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) remain available and the U.S. Embassy strongly suggests that U.S. citizens make plans to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible. Given the security conditions and reduced staffing, the Embassy’s ability to assist U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is extremely limited.
Actions to Take:
- Make plans to depart Afghanistan by commercial airlines
- Have evacuation plans that do not rely on U.S. government assistance
- Stay alert in places frequented by foreigners
- Be aware of your surroundings
- Keep a low profile
- Notify a trusted person of your travel and movement plans
- Be aware of your surroundings and local security developments
- Monitor local media
- Review your personal security plans
- American Citizen Services Unit, U.S. Embassy Kabul, Afghanistan, Located at Great Massoud Road between Radio Afghanistan and the Ministry of Public Health in Kabul.
+93-700-114-000 or +93 -700-108-000 (after hours)
- State Department – Consular Affairs
888-407-4747 or 202-501-4444
- Afghanistan Country Information
- Afghanistan Travel Advisory
- Enroll in the Safe Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive security updates
- Follow us on Facebook and Twitter
If Americans in Afghanistan ignored these instructions, even for the best of reasons so they could continue their work with Afghans on a variety of projects from education to governance, this is not the fault of the Biden administration. We can’t send a SEAL Team to round up every American who decides not to evacuate when told to evacuate. Not least of which because we don’t have that many SEALs.
Clearly Secretary Blinken and his people were not ignoring the intelligence, or confused by it, when they issued this order. Nor, as I wrote about on Friday, did Secretary Blinken and the Biden administration ignore the dissent cable sent by Foreign Service officers in Afghanistan on 13 July warning that the Taliban could take over the country much more quickly than expected. While that dissent cable estimated 31 August, within 36 hours of the cable’s receipt, by 15 July, the Biden administration announced Operation Allies Refuge, which is currently being carried out quite effectively. So here too there was neither an intelligence failure in term of collection and analysis nor of receiving it by senior leaders and decision makers and acting upon it.
The real outstanding concerns right now need to be the ability of spoilers, such as Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K), which is a serious enemy of the Taliban, attacking Kabul airport to derail the NEO and cause problems for the Taliban as a result of the US responding to such an attack. Another is the Taliban’s recently announced 31 August deadline for the US to complete the NEO. I think this is likely going to be less of a concern than some are making given that right now Afghanistan’s funds are frozen and being held by the Federal Bank of New York. This provides significant leverage over the Taliban, which both needs to access those funds and wants to do so. The Taliban still might not budge, but leverage, if it is used correctly, can be very effective.
I think the largest problem is one that Josh Marshall highlighted in Ryan Noble’s reporting from earlier this evening:
understandably people are reluctant to talk about this. but pretty soon there’s going to have to be a discussion of how we’re defining these terms. But I wld imagine that by some definitions this cld be a significant percentage of the population of the country. pic.twitter.com/z5GW399Fyg
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) August 24, 2021
I don’t think it is a problem in terms of America’s, as well as our closest allies like Canada’s, ability to absorb this number of refugees from Afghanistan. I’m not even sure the politics is a problem given that the one thing the hysterically overreacting news media and punditocracy wants is all of these people relocated. I think the problem is where do we draw the line on who – as in which Afghans – we will bring out and who does not qualify for relocation. I think it will be a problem in and of itself because at some point a decision delineating this will have to be made and some Afghans are going to be on the wrong side of it. But I also think it will be a problem for Afghanistan’s long term viability to eventually move past the Taliban. This is going to be a huge societal drain that will have long term consequences for Afghanistan as a state and a society and for the region. The Afghans we are going to get out, no matter how many, are going to enrich the states and societies they are relocated too. And they’re going to have far better lives even as they become exiles beginning new lives in very different places than those they’re used to. But Afghanistan, as a state and a society, is going to be significantly impoverished as a result. And that, in and of itself, is going to create new risks and future problems.