October 23, 2011: The CIA has a new boss, David Petraeus, who formerly commanded American military forces in Afghanistan. With the arrival of Petraeus, the CIA is changing how it goes about determining the situation in Afghanistan. From now on, CIA analysts will discuss the situation with military commanders before they submit their monthly reports, rather than argue with the military leaders after the fact when people note that the military and CIA analysis comes to different conclusions. The CIA may still disagree with the military, but now they have to answer military assertions that contradict what the CIA believes.
Although this new policy was announced after Petraeus took over at the CIA recently, it was actually in the works for months. It was held up when it became clear that Petraeus was going to be the new CIA chief. Petraeus approved the new policy, which he had long been asking for.
All this came about because CIA analysts eventually noted that the military commanders were using different criteria for "success" and that often had uncovered aspects of the situation that the CIA analysts were missing. So, even before Petraeus showed up at CIA headquarters, the intelligence analysts had decided to work more cooperatively with their military counterparts, if only to ensure that all the bases were covered.
The CIA analysts always were at a disadvantage in Afghanistan, and Iraq, because the military was getting their information first hand, while the CIA often was getting it second or third hand. Moreover, the military was more aware of the fact that "success" in Afghanistan depended a lot on what you believed was possible, and what you knew was actually going on. In some cases, the CIA analysts did not appreciate what impact American field operations were having. Afghanistan, to outsiders has always been a murky place, and difficult to read.
For example, recent efforts to "talk to the Taliban leadership" were complicated by the fact that no one knows who is actually in charge of the Afghan Taliban. This is the result of the CIA UAV campaign against terrorist leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These attacks have been very successful, and have killed most of the senior leadership of the Pakistani Taliban. For the moment, Pakistan will not allow the CIA UAVs to operate in Baluchistan (southwest Pakistan) where the most senior Afghan Taliban leaders live and work (around the provincial capital, Quetta, which is just across the border from the two most pro-Taliban provinces of Kandahar and Helmand). This could change in an instant, so the Taliban have managed to keep secret who the key senior leaders are. Some of the older leaders, who fled Afghanistan in late 2001, are known. But these guys are no longer running the show. American intelligence believes they know who most of the middle-management commanders are, and these have been killed or captured regularly in Afghanistan. Some of these fellows, who were successful in Afghanistan, survived, and went back to Quetta, where they are believed to be the senior Taliban officials now. But these guys keep very quiet and out of the limelight, lest the CIA UAVs comes looking.
The May 2nd raid into Pakistan, to kill Osama bin Laden, also made the Taliban leaders in Quetta nervous. Now there is real fear that the American commandos will head south to Quetta, and take down the Taliban leadership. All the more reason to keep the Americans confused about exactly who those leaders are. U.S. intelligence does have a pretty good idea of who the key people are, but keep that information secret, lest sources or methods be compromised.
All this makes negotiations with the “Taliban leaders” difficult. Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban are content to continue their campaign of attacking NATO troops with ambushes (usually with roadside bombs) and assassinating Afghan officials and tribal leaders who refuse to follow orders from the Taliban. There’s no question about what the Taliban want, which is to run Afghanistan as a religious dictatorship once more. The problem is that most Afghans oppose the Taliban, and their conservative Pushtun social and religious ideas. The Taliban represent a minority of the Pushtun, and the Pushtun are already (although a big one, with 40 percent of the population) a minority.
This is where being there makes a big difference. The CIA analysts have different (more "Western") concepts of "control" in Afghanistan. The American troops there see Afghanistan for what it is; a rough, chaotic tribal culture where politics is mixed up with blood feuds, family disputes and a lot more criminal activity (by any standard) than you will find in the West. The American commanders in Afghanistan have long tried to get the CIA analysts to comprehend this. But the CIA has to present their analysis to American politicians who have a hard time accepting Afghanistan for what it is.
Meanwhile, NATO forces in Afghanistan are helping to weaken the Taliban, in anticipation of a civil war after foreign troops leave, by concentrating on Taliban leaders. These guys are usually talented, usually belong to influential families, and are in short supply. Several years of sending Special Forces and commandos after Taliban middle management have had an impact. Many of the current ones are decidedly inferior. The bottom of the barrel is in sight. General Petraeus also believed in going after assets, especially the drug operations. Petraeus knew, from his experience in Iraq, how important it was to get the enemy leadership. But he also understood the importance of going after the enemy infrastructure (in this case, money, weapons, and base areas). This is something senior military commanders have understood for thousands of years. It's difficult explaining it to journalists and civilians in general. The CIA analysts also, at times, forget these fundamental military tenets.
The Taliban have taken a beating from NATO forces in the last few years, especially since the foreign troops began concentrating on drug operations (the source of most Taliban funding.) But the Taliban also note that NATO and American forces have set themselves a withdrawal deadline of 2014-15. So the Taliban believe that all they have to do is hang on until the foreign troops are gone, and then resume their march to reconquest. NATO hopes to leave the Afghan government, and its 300,000 strong security forces, capable of keeping the Taliban from taking over.
The problem here is that the Afghan government, like most Afghan leaders, is corrupt. Too many people are for sale and cannot be trusted to use foreign aid for its intended purpose. The Afghan leaders consider this anti-corruption talk a form of cultural insensitivity. Afghan leaders see no benefit, to themselves, their families or tribes, in curbing corruption. While many Afghans would like to see the corruption go, that attitude usually disappears when someone offers them a bribe or a share of some plundered foreign aid. For Afghans, this love of larceny is seen as a necessary survival trait, even though many understand that it also prevents the formation of an effective national government. Ah, but that spotlights a huge difference in Afghanistan. Most Afghans do not see Afghanistan as a country in the same way as people do in the West. Afghanistan is a collection of tribes, and tribe comes first. Tribe is more dependable than any government. Tribe you can trust, government you can exploit. Soldiers are more immersed in this than intelligence analysts back home. Foreigners, be they diplomats, politicians or intelligence analysts, have a hard time processing this situation. Soldiers in the field live with it every day.
An increasing number of foreign donors are withholding, or threatening to withhold their aid unless something is done about the corruption. The Afghans believe that the foreigners will not withhold all aid, as this will risk a collapse of the national government and chaos in many parts of the country. The Afghans believe that the West will continue propping up the national government with cash, if not troops, to prevent al Qaeda or other Islamic terror groups from establishing large bases in the country.
Meanwhile, there are other realities to consider. It’s not that difficult to keep the Taliban out of most of Afghanistan, because in non-Pushtun areas, the local tribes are willing to take on the largely Pushtun Taliban and their drug gang allies. The opium and heroin is probably more hated than the Taliban, and most provinces forbid growing poppies, and actually make that rule stick.
There are a lot of cultural clashes going on. Take, for example, enlistment contracts. In the West, when someone joins the military, they enter into an employment contract. Leaving before that contract with the military is up is called desertion, and in wartime can be punished by death. Even in peacetime, desertion can result in a jail sentence. While this arrangement has been used in the West for centuries, it is alien to Afghanistan, where tribesmen join a militia or warlord force, and serve as long as they like, leaving anytime they want. The Afghan government insisted on using these rules for Afghan army and police recruits. As a result, there is no penalty for just leaving, and there is a high desertion rate (over ten percent a year.) Western commanders have been unable to convince Afghan leaders that the Western model is more effective, and necessary for the maintenance of Afghan security forces. Since Western nations are paying for training and maintaining these security forces, there is no incentive for the Afghans to change current policies. Western intelligence analysts often do not appreciate that high desertion rates are normal in this part of the world, not a sign of failure. Moreover, corrupt police and military commanders prefer the current rules, as this makes it easier to steal money. That’s because the deserters can be kept on the books for a while, with their commanders taking the pay of the missing men. This is not necessarily a disaster, because corrupt officials are often very effective. In other words, you have to be very close to the situation, on a regular basis, to get a sense of what is really real.