May 5, 2022 | Hoover Institution

Can the Intelligence Community Tell What’s Brewing in Afghanistan?

May 5, 2022 | Hoover Institution

Can the Intelligence Community Tell What’s Brewing in Afghanistan?

Excerpt

Whenever the United States gets traumatized by the unexpected abroad, discussions inevitably start about the inadequacy of American intelligence collection and analysis. There is truth behind this reflex response: US intelligence organizations, particularly the two largest and most consequential, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA), the latter of which is responsible for the bulk of America’s intercept of foreign communications and other digital treasure troves, often don’t perform as envisioned. Criticisms of the NSA usually revolve around timeliness—seeing and analyzing the intercepts soon enough—and the unavoidable mathematical problems that give encryption an advantage over decryption. And Langley has a way of confidently repackaging establishment biases, in both analysis and operations, which makes it comfortable speaking “truth” to power except when conventional wisdom fails. Weapons of mass destruction—seeing them when they’re not there, not seeing them when they are—revolutionary movements, and religious terrorism have been challenging subjects for Langley to get ahead of. And the Directorate of Operations, the outfit that makes the CIA special among America’s intelligence services, has long-standing problems with agent recruitment—a chronic inability to put the right operatives on difficult targets long enough to develop creative approaches and a promotions system that rewards case officers who recruit by volume not quality—that may well have given us, among other things, nearly useless agents against the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida.

The debacle in Afghanistan has produced continuing recriminations among those in political circles, who are, if in power, always willing to blame foreign messes on poor intelligence and not on policies and the politicians who advance them. It is becoming clear that both the Pentagon and Langley knew enough and warned enough about the fragility of the Afghan army for the Biden administration to know that a pretty quick collapse was possible. The early assumption of many observers—that the US military and the CIA didn’t have a decent grasp of the Taliban’s capacity—appears now to have been mostly misplaced. Langley saw the shah surviving the tumult in 1978; military and intelligence officers thought the Afghan army and the Kabul government could go down in under six months. We should, perhaps, still hesitate in rendering final judgment since “cover-your-ass” recollections, which is what journalists often hear, are baptismal in public service. When we see the official paper trail—the classified cables and emails—we will know clearly who knew what when about the ugly end.

Predicting accurately what was going to happen, however, shouldn’t have taken much analytical prowess; it required a map and pins to mark all that had fallen to the Taliban over the preceding year. And knowing how fast the Afghan army was likely to crack isn’t the most interesting question. It helps little with the salient counterterrorist concerns still before us. Another 9/11 might still happen. The age of mass-casualty Islamic terrorism, though likely evanescing, may not be over. And Afghanistan and Pakistan—the two should probably be viewed as a tandem couple—are still the two most likely spots to serve as headquarters for an anti-American, mass-casualty attack.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @ReuelMGerecht. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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Issues:

Afghanistan Al Qaeda Jihadism Military and Political Power The Long War U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy