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A damning view of US intelligence in Afghanistan

Mark Mardell | 06:25 UK time, Tuesday, 5 January 2010

us_afghan_getty170.jpgPresident Obama is holding a meeting with all his intelligence chiefs to hear why they think the Detroit bomb plot wasn't picked up earlier. It is not going to be a comfortable day for the hydra headed US intelligence community.

Much of the discomfort will not be down to Obama but Major General Michael T Flynn. He's the top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan and he's published an extraordinary report.

Extraordinary, for the level of scorn at the failure of his own service, American military intelligence, in Afghanistan over the last eight years: journalistic cliches like "damning" and "scathing" spring to mind.

But it is also extraordinary because this is not the leak of a high confidential memo meant for the eyes of four star generals and top politicians: it is published openly by a think tank, the centre for a New American Security. Remember this is not by an ex-CIA officer a policy wonk, but a serving officer, General McCrystal's senior intelligence officer. He says he's done it this way so as many people as possible read his words.

Many operatives in the field may choke on their rations when they see what Major General Flynn has to say. He says "the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which US and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade. Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and the levels of cooperation among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers".

His basic argument isn't that they are all rubbish at the job, but that they are doing the wrong sort of job. Too focused on the enemy, on detailed analysis of road side bombs and on giving power point presentations to the most senior officers. Not able to see and, more importantly, tell the big picture of the country they are in. He urges them to get out of headquarters, work with soldiers on the ground, talk to people and act more like journalists, as well as historian and librarians. Interestingly he says that 90% of intelligence work these days is what he calls "open source", and quotes a former head of intelligence saying that the job should be more Sherlock Holmes than James Bond.

He says a single-minded obsession with IEDs (roadside bombs to you and me) is understandable but inexcusable if local commanders can't outsmart insurgents as a result and concludes "the intelligence community - the brains behind the bullish might of military forces - seems much too mesmerized by the red of the Taliban's cape. If this does not change, success in Afghanistan will depend on the dubious premise that a bull will not tire as quickly as a Russian bear". This is part of the argument between "counter terrorism" and "counter insurgency" and it is slightly horrifying if American intelligence hasn't been routinely doing the sort of analysis he suggests (I am pretty certain British intelligence sees this as fundamental), but if I was out there I would still want operatives who knew about nasty devices lurking in the ditches.


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