I have written about the difference between capability and intent before, but in my World Politics Review column this week, I tackle the intelligence problems related to intent, which are normally much more difficult than those related to capability. Specifically, I tackle the (understandable) failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to determine whether or not Israel will attack Iran -- a failure that matches my own inability to do so.
My column was inspired by both a book I read and a conversation I had last week. On the way to and from my incredible, kick-ass hometown for a short trip, I read Bob Jervis's Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War. Jervis provided me with much of the framework through which I examined the problem. I then followed that book up with a lengthy lunch conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, who has written extensively about what might be going through the heads of Israel's leaders regarding Iran's nuclear weapons program. I first fleshed out the thesis of my column over lunch and was grateful for the pointed questions he asked.
(Goldberg noted, though, that it is problematic to call Israel, as I do, "by far the largest recipient of U.S. aid since the end of World War II." I referenced and hyperlinked a report by the Congressional Research Service (.pdf) that itself noted Israel is "the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II." But Goldberg noted that South Korea or Germany have received a lot more overall aid when you count U.S. military posture, and he has a good point. My sense is that most U.S. Congressmen and Americans do not count this as aid. But maybe they should. Also, we have never actually gone to war for Israel -- no matter what some loons say -- but we have gone to war for South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others. That surely counts for something too, yes?)
Reading through the Washington Post on the bus this morning, these paragraphs jumped out at me:
“This is not classic combat, where you see people advancing and you shoot them,” [Amos] Gilad said. “Because you achieve the opposite results, and it’s not fitting for a country like ours.”
The Israeli military has experience in confronting unarmed protests. The first Palestinian uprising, which erupted in the late 1980s, pitted youthful stone-throwers against Israeli combat troops, who had to adjust their tactics and weapons, shifting from the battlefield to riot control.
Yet despite years of experience and acquisition of riot gear, the army remains fundamentally unaccustomed to confronting civilian demonstrators, and the prospect that such protests might increase has become a subject of Israeli concern.
Now this is ironic, since only five years ago people were saying the IDF lost in southern Lebanon because they had spent too much time preparing for stabilization-type operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and not enough time training for conventional combat. Now we're saying, apparently, that the IDF is too focused on conventional combat and cannot respond non-lethally to unarmed protests. Here's Yossi Peled, speaking to the Associated Press:
Ex-general Yossi Peled, who commanded Israeli troops on the Lebanese and Syrian borders, said border breaches will likely be attempted again and must be stopped at any cost — regardless of the political fallout — because they pose a direct challenge to Israel's sovereignty.
"Yesterday's promo leaves us little time to draw the conclusions and come up with a new method of warfare where Israel will confront unarmed civilians, children and women," he said.
We can argue with Gen. Peled about whether or not "war" is the appropriate lens through which to view these kinds of unarmed demonstrations. (Was rock-throwing what Clausewitz had in mind when he defined war?) But I think Gilad and the rest of the IDF understand two things: (1) that shooting unarmed protesters, even when they are throwing rocks at you, has a negative strategic effect and (2) that the IDF will continue to be expected to deal with these kinds of demonstrations.
The IDF, in other words, will continue to be expected to be able to respond to every contingency in the book from police operations to high-intensity combat until there is a viable political settlement that allows the IDF to primarily focus on the kinds of high-intensity contingencies for which militaries normally prepare. How the IDF copes in the meantime, with a conscript army and limited time and money for training, will be fascinating to observe for anyone out there trying to identify future spending and training priorities for their own military.
[Note: There is a vocal segment of this blog's readership that gets all bent out of shape when I dispassionately write about the IDF in the same way I would any other military organization. (Because, you know, "Don't Forget Palestine!" etc.) There is another segment of this readership that gets bent out of shape when I dispassionately write about Hizballah or Hamas in the same way I would any other military organization. (Because, you know, Islam! 9/11! Terror! etc.) All of you need to chill. Trying to analyze and write about the performance of military organizations in as value-neutral a way as possible is part of my job.]
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) got a pretty nice love letter in the mail from Walter Pincus today. All I will say is that getting this kind of public approval from such an experienced and wise observer of intelligence affairs says a lot. Rep. Rogers seems like exactly the kind of person you would want in his job.
Sticking up for your friends, especially when those friends are reviled by everyone else, is admirable. Implying that your friend deserves different treatment in the eyes of the law because he is powerful, though, is repugnant. So too is a lack of empathy for victims of alleged sexual assaults. So too is single-handedly convincing your country to start an open-ended war in Libya that shows no sign of -- oh wait, that's another issue that should be dealt with separately. Let me conclude with a reminder to Bernard-Henri Lévy: aux États-Unis, Dominique Strauss-Kahn est un justiciable comme un autre. Deal with it.
I was on a plane to the Middle East on Sunday evening when I spotted these lines from Leon Panetta's op-ed in the Washington Post:
The main lesson from this attack is that, like our military, CIA officers are on the front lines against al-Qaeda and its violent allies. They take risks to confront the enemy, gathering information to destroy its networks and disrupt its operations. This is a vicious foe, one that has struck our country before and is determined to do so again.
As an agency, we have found consolation in the strength and heroism of our fallen colleagues and their families.
We have found no consolation, however, in public commentary suggesting that those who gave their lives somehow brought it upon themselves because of "poor tradecraft." That's like saying Marines who die in a firefight brought it upon themselves because they have poor war-fighting skills.
The op-ed was, written, I believe, in response to commentary like this op-ed by Reuel Marc Gerecht arguing that poor tradcraft was, in fact, at least in part to blame for the deaths of seven U.S. operatives and one Jordian agent. I myself do not know much of anything about the tradecraft of an intelligence officer at the CIA, so I am not going to pass judgment on what happened in eastern Afghanistan. What Panetta wrote above, though, sure does trouble me.
Panetta assumes that is beyond the pale to say that Marines or U.S. soldiers died in a firefight due to poor war-fighting skills, but that in fact has happened quite regularly over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every single firefight U.S. soldiers and Marines engage in is subject to an admirably honest after action review (AAR). Readers of this blog no doubt count themselves as veterans of many an AAR held everywhere from Fort Polk, Louisiana to Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan. In some military mini-disasters -- like the hapless convoy that was ambushed during the Battle of Nasiriyah and resulted in the capture of Jessica Lynch -- an extensive AAR process reveals that soldiers died because they did, in fact, possess poor war-fighting skills. (After Nasiriyah, that particular finding led many within the U.S. Army to stress the importance of basic rifle marksmanship and maintenance for even so-called "support" soldiers.)
The military is, by now, used to engaging in a pretty frightful AAR process that, when successful, lays bare the weaknesses of fighting organizations tested by realistic training or combat. When aggressive national security journalists don't think the U.S. Army or Marine Corps is being honest enough, they do not hesistate to say so. (Exhibit A.) So in conclusion, it is not, in fact, taboo to say that Marines died because they have poor war-fighting skills. Marines do sometimes die because they have poor war-fighting skills. And when that happens, the U.S. Marine Corps relies, like the U.S. Army, on a vigorous AAR process to identify faults in training, leadership and equipment.
One can only hope that the CIA is engaged in a similar process today. But when the director pre-emptively says that the "main lesson" of this loss is that "CIA officers are on the front lines against al-Qaeda and its violent allies", it makes me think the director, at least, is on the defensive. Because that's a pretty anodyne main lesson to draw from this. A visit to any tactical U.S. military unit in Iraq or Afghanistan -- where successes and failings are analyzed and provoke reforms on a daily basis -- tells you it doesn't have to be that way.
The CIA is, of course, conducting an investigation. But an investigation can be a lot different in tone and scope than an AAR. An investigation has a prosecutorial air about it and can focus on factors outside an organization. An AAR, by contrast, should focus on dynamics inside an organization. It should also be conductd in such a way as to encourage honesty from subordinate leaders and participants -- no one should fear for their career. A how-to guide can be found here. Tips and techniques from readers on how to conduct an effective AAR are encouraged in the comments section.
In related news, the report on the failings of U.S. military intelligence in Afghanistan -- and the accompanying recommendations for a way forward -- has been downloaded 9,864 times as of yesterday. That's a new record for a CNAS report. I heard the director of one of the civilian intelligence agencies thought the Flynn report was in part directed toward his agency. It wasn't, but his alleged knee-jerk response -- angry and defensive -- was revealing.
My friends Laura Rozen and Michael Cohen are way off base if they think the report written by Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn on the failure of military intelligence in Afghanistan constitutes a crisis in civil-military relations. Some folks in the public affairs shop at the Pentagon were predictably upset that they were not in the loop regarding the report's release, but this is Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell speaking today on behalf of his civilian boss, the Secretary of Defense:
[The report] is exactly the type of candid, critical self-assessment that the secretary believes is a sign of a strong and healthy organization. This kind of honest appraisal enriches what has been a very real and hearty and vigorous debate that, frankly, has been taking place within this building, within this department and within this government for years now.
So, uh... where, exactly, is this civ-mil crisis that Michael and Laura are worried about? I am writing as a guy who both served as a volunteer advising the Obama Campaign on defense policy issues and as a guy who served a volunteer advising Gen. McChrystal on operations in Afghanistan.* I fail to see, yet again, how the latter is supposedly undermining the former. The report that Maj. Gen. Flynn published through CNAS was above all an indictment of his own branch of the U.S. Army. (General officers have no branch, I know, but Maj. Gen. Flynn rose up through the ranks as a military intelligence officer and currently serves as Gen. McChrystal's intelligence chief.) This report should cause some shockwaves, but those waves should be felt primarily within the defense intelligence community. After all, this report was in part prompted by the inability of military intelligence officers to get their civilian bosses the kind of answers they requested this fall. How an attempt to better serve civilian decision-makers gets spun into a revolt on the part of uniformed officers is, as my dad says, more twisted than color TV.
*I had to settle down Evan Hill, one of the editors of the awesome website The Majlis, regarding my "work" for the Obama Campaign. I never advised the Obama Campaign on Afghanistan issues, and I ceased all work for the campaign in November 2008 before starting my work at CNAS in March 2009. My "work" for the campaign was decidedly unsexy, too. I was just one of what I suspect were hundreds of graduate students who volunteered for a few hours a week. Longtime readers of this blog will remember that I did not allow any discussion of the 2008 presidential campaign on the blog in order to keep our discussion of COIN operations and strategy as nonpartisan as possible. The only reason I mentioned the fact that I had volunteered on the campaign was to note that I quite admire the president and Gen. McChrystal and can't understand those who think the latter is out to get the former.
This summer, as Gen. McChrystal took command in Afghanistan, it became clear to both him and his intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Mike Flynn, that the way we gather and process intelligence in Afghanistan was broken. Yesterday, Maj. Gen. Flynn issued a new directive to all intelligence officers and their commanders in Afghanistan outlining a new way forward. He asked the gang at the Center for a New American Security to simultaneously publish a copy for public consumption, and after running the paper through an internal and external review process, we did so today. You can and should read it here. Matt Pottinger, once a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in China and now considered one of the best young intelligence officers in the Marine Corps, was one of the co-authors of this text, and it makes for entertaining if somewhat depressing reading. After eight years in Afghanistan, we really are starting near zero in our efforts to understand the environment.
Seriously, if you have any interest in the war in Afghanistan, read this tonight.
Reader "Devil Dawg" writes in from Iraq to illustrate the problem I addressed in an earlier post. Not being able to share information with our alleged "partners" due to classification issues is no joke. Neither is the difficulty Gen. McChrystal is going to have getting U.S. military units to truly partner with the ANSF as he intends.
Here's a wonderful anecdote that illustrates the problems with the culture of classified information in the US military and how it affects the mission in Iraq.
Last week, an American unit was traveling -- unescorted, but that's another story -- along a major route in our AO, along which construction workers are installing a new pipeline. During the course of construction, the workers turned up large quantities of munitions, most likely left over from the war with Iran. Hundreds of artillery rounds, mortars, and mines were stacked in large piles on the side of the road. The unit, not having an escort and with only a couple vehicles, did not stop; however, they took some pictures as they passed by and promptly sent out a SPOTREP upon their return to the FOB.That SPOTREP was classified SECRET//NOFORN. So, I've got hundreds of 20+ year old munitions stacked on the side of the road, unguarded, lying in wait for the bad guys -- at this point, it's hard to justify calling anyone an insurgent over here anymore -- to pick them up for a year's worth of IED material or some poor kid to start kicking around the anti-tank mine and lose a leg.Time is, you know, somewhat important here. Alas, I received the original SPOTREP at 1615. The scrubbed version, releasable to the Iraqis, wasn't ready until 2055.Now, you might be asking yourself what's the big deal? Who cares if the IA knows? We'll just send an EOD team out there to pick that stuff up, right?Wrong.We don't have the resources for this stuff anymore. There is exactly one EOD team in the entire province. Furthermore, and this is the important part, Iraq is not our AO anymore. It belongs to the Iraqis; it's their AO. It's their battlespace.Getting the US army in our AO -- I'm on a MiTT and live with the IA; therefore, I am allowed to call it "our" AO -- to understand that has been like telling a four year old he can't have a candy bar.Army Major: Why?Marine Lieutenant: Because of the security agreement.Army Major: Why?Marine Lieutenant: Because of the security agreement.Army Major: Wait, I don't understand.Honestly, I don't think anyone on the brigade staff that RIP'd in last month read the security agreement. I'm not kidding. Their OPORD used all the right key words and phrases, my favorite of which is "by, with, and through the IA", but no one on the brigade staff is putting those words into action. They send out convoys without escorts. They are dragging ass coordinating joint security patrols; they're doing them unilaterally right now. One time, they didn't want to let an IA EOD team into their cordon around a suspected IED. Are you kidding me?When the brigade commander flies down to the Iraqi base where I live and work, the army unit who provides our life support and force protection secures the LZ as if the birds were coming in under fire. They're landing at a division headquarters mind you. Then, his PSD follows him around at the alert, scanning the area for threats as if on patrol.I am literally embarrassed every time they come for a visit.The IA are the main effort. In order to facilitate that effort, we have to share information. As a school trained intelligence officer, I realize the importance of scrubbing information for sources and methods. But, as the above anecdote illustrates, some common sense is in order.Wait, I'm in the US military. Nevermind. Common sense is an uncommon virtue around here.
Josh Foust has a good op-ed in the New York Times on interpreters and their importance. The whole thing is good, but one bit is especially worth highlighting:
Earlier this year, I traveled through central Afghanistan as a civilian member of an American Provincial Reconstruction Team. We had a translator — we called her Brooklyn — who had been born and raised in California. During the initial briefing before our convoy set out, however, the team’s commander, an Air Force colonel, demanded that Brooklyn leave the briefing area, referring to her as “that local woman.”
The briefing slides were market “SECRET,” which caused the colonel understandable alarm. Brooklyn, however, had a security clearance allowing her to be present. Perhaps the real problem was that she wore a headscarf, as one would expect a pious Muslim woman to do.
(On the one hand, I am no scholar of Islam and this is really nit-picking, but Josh might get some flack for his expectation that pious Muslim women wear headscarves. It's a matter of some theological debate, as many of this blog's readers know, as to whether Muslim women must wear a headscarf (or more) or whether they are merely expected to dress conservatively. I myself, though, want to focus on the bit about intelligence sharing.)
The intelligence community classifies intelligence products and other documents for some very good reasons. But an enduring frustration of U.S. allies -- both Afghan and ISAF -- is the degree to which we cannot share mission-critical intelligence with allies on account of classification. This is a serious problem, and there has to be both a cultural change as well as common-sense guidance issued by the U.S. military and the intelligence community regarding declassification and overclassification. It remains to be seen whether or not Maj. Gen. Mike Flynn will be able to effect a change in the culture in Afghanistan quick enough.
I guess you could say the same thing about Gen. McChrystal and the operational side of the house...
Eli Lake was right to profile Derek Harvey, the widely respected intelligence officer now starting a center in U.S. Central Command for the study of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Harvey has this right:
"We have tended to rely too much on intelligence sources and not integrating fully what is coming from provincial reconstruction teams, civil-affairs officers, commanders and operators on the ground that are interacting with the population and who understand the population and can actually communicate what is going on in the street," he said. "If you only rely on the intelligence reporting, you can get a skewed picture of the situation."
The only problem with this, you all will have noticed, is that this kind of cultural change often takes years to develop, and we have, what, 18 months to get things right in Afghanistan?
My buddy wrote in to say that he particularly enjoyed the part "where the Americans refused to tell a Dutch F-16 where its bombs had landed."
Based on scores of interviews with British, US, Canadian and Dutch military, intelligence and diplomatic officials - and marked for "official use only" - the book-length report is damning of a US military often unwilling to share intelligence among its military allies. It depicts commanders in the field being overwhelmed by information on hundreds of contradictory databases, and sometimes resistant to intelligence generated by its own agents in the CIA.
Counterinsurgency efforts are also shown as being at the mercy of local contacts peddling identical "junk" tips around various intelligence officials, with the effectiveness of the intelligence effort being quantified by some senior officers solely in terms of the amount of "tip money" disbursed to sources.
The report describes a rigid reliance on economic, military and political progress indicators regarded by the authors and interviewees as too often lacking in real meaning.
Its sources complain of commanders who have slipped into relying on "the fallacy of body counts", discredited after the war in Vietnam as a measure of success.
This time, Israeli military commanders are leading from the front, not trying to direct the infantry from television screens. This time, the military has clear plans, in stages, drawn up with a year’s preparation. This time, there is no illusion about winning a war only from the air. This time, the military chief of staff has kept his silence in public, all cellphones have been confiscated from Israeli soldiers, and the international press has been kept out of the battlefield. ...
And Mr. Olmert has been far more careful this time to state ambiguous and modest goals for the war, unlike his extravagant pledge two years ago to destroy Hezbollah.
But the ambiguity is also a function of political disagreement and confusion among Israeli leaders, many argue, which promotes poor coordination of military action and diplomatic aims. And it remains far from clear how to decide when to end the war, and what would constitute victory.
Israel has so far failed to decide what its ultimate goals are for this conflict, said Giora Eiland, a former army general and a former head of Israel’s weak National Security Council. “Either we want to achieve a sustainable arrangement, with a lasting cease-fire and a stop to arms smuggling from Egypt, or we want to bring about a collapse of the Hamas government,” he said. “These lead to very different actions on all fronts, but the answer is not very clear. There is disagreement at the moment in the troika” — Mr. Olmert, Mr. Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.