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While the briefings provided me with a helpful update on what was happening on the ground, I knew that I would have to cross-check their assessment by talking to other military officials, diplomatic officials, outside experts and troops in the field, and I always raise skeptical questions when discussing this topic.
Any time you receive a briefing from a senior military officer or civilian official, you should walk in assuming they are trying to present their activities and accomplishments in the best positive light. As a defense policy analyst, you will sometimes develop close relationships with officers and officials and can walk in expecting a higher degree of candor. And if you yourself happen to be a former officer, you will often find yourself interacting with commissioned and noncommissioned officers with whom you had previously served. In his new book, Bing West quotes Robert Barrow as saying he never saw a crowded battlefield: you always run into the same guys again and again. If, like me, you first deployed for OEF in 2001 (back when it was Operation Infinite Justice!) and for OIF in 2003, trips to Afghanistan are all too often opportunities to catch up with guys you've known for a decade.
But what Sen. Franken says here is really good advice for any defense policy analyst or researcher examining the war in Afghanistan. You need to check everyone's homework. You need to ask critical questions about the information you are being briefed on -- especially the statistics people trot out to support their arguments.
I do not have the years of experience as an analyst like Tony Cordesman -- who seemingly always asks the toughest questions -- or the brain power of a guy like Steve Biddle. But one of the things I try to do whenever I am participating in a sponsored research trip is to schedule lots of meetings and interviews on the side and after whatever scheduled agenda I have been given. In December, for example, I went to Afghanistan and traveled around Afghanistan for 10 days at the request of Gen. Petraeus. Now, I like and am predisposed to trust the guys he has on his staff. Some of his staff are among the more intellectually honest men I know. And in the course of traveling around eastern and southern Afghanistan, I ran into a lot of commanders I knew from either the Rangers or from previous trips to Afghanistan. I like those guys, too, and want to trust what they are telling me. But after I had completed my 10 days traveling around under the auspices of ISAF, I nonetheless spent an additional three days in Kabul talking with civilian analysts from organizations like Crisis Group and the Afghan Analysts Network in addition to journalists who have been based in Afghanistan for a long time. What I heard from those analysts was often very different from what I heard from NATO military officers and diplomats. That doesn't mean the latter are lying or are setting up Potemkin Villages for me to inspect. But it does mean that the reality presented from within the "bubble" often looks different from the outside. So my recommendation to any young analysts, researchers or aides out there would be to always seek out dissenting opinions and analysis. You might end up agreeing with what you were first presented with anyway, but your own analysis will end up sharper.
*I have actually heard from people I trust that Sen. Franken, the former comedian, takes his job admirably seriously, so I should not tease.