The COIN Myth, Part II

Part I noted that two key requirements of our counterinsurgency doctrine – a legitimate host-nation government and a competent, trustworthy host-nation security force – will never be accomplished in Iraq or Afghanistan. Part II will illustrate the lack of reliable intelligence in our woebegone wars.

The counterintelligence field manual that Gen. David Petraeus supposedly wrote but really didn’t says, "Counterinsurgency (COIN) is an intelligence-driven endeavor." That’s bad news for us, because our intelligence systems in both Iraq and Afghanistan can best be described as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. meets Inspector Clouseau.

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) recently published a report titled Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan. The authors, who include Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, tell us that the intelligence apparatus in Afghanistan "is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate in."

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, says, “Our senior leaders – the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of defense, Congress, the president of the United States – are not getting the right information to make decisions with."

As tragic as the incident was, one can’t help but view the suicide bombing in Afghanistan that killed seven CIA agents and wounded six others on Dec. 30 as a prime example of what Flynn and McChrystal are talking about. It’s been amusing listening to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough echo the latest spin from his "inside sources" at the CIA’s excuse division, inside sources who have been telling the open media the same fables they’ve been telling Joe.

It’s what they always feared, Joe says, a double agent gaining their trust and turning on them, but the narrative of the bombing changes as fast as the reasons we invaded Iraq changed during the Bush administration.

It’s not entirely clear who the bomber, a Jordanian named Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was actually working for, or if he was a double agent or a triple agent or a quadruple agent or just somebody who got mad at the Americans.

When the story broke, al-Balawi was an Afghan National Army soldier who walked into a gym facility and triggered his bomb, and the Taliban were the culprits behind the plot (the Taliban took credit for the bombing).

By Jan. 4, unnamed "Western intelligence officials" had told NBC that al-Balawi was a Jordanian doctor who had been a double agent for al-Qaeda. On Jan. 5, the Associated Press reported that unnamed "terrorism officials" said al-Balawi was a "suspected Jordanian double agent."

Al-Balawi was a known al-Qaeda sympathizer who had posted numerous posts on the Web that supported the terror group, the terrorism officials said. So the Jordanians slapped the cuffs on the good doctor and locked him up, then coerced him into helping them and their CIA buddies to capture or kill Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man. Jordan had gotten thick with the CIA by torturing prisoners the agency had rendered into their country illegally. Now Jordanian intelligence is trying to wash its hands of the whole affair, mainly, one imagines, because al-Balawi also managed to kill his Jordanian handler Ali bin Zaid, a member of Jordan’s royal family who Jordanian intelligence claimed was involved in "humanitarian work."

One of the CIA agents killed was said to be one of the agency’s most knowledgeable experts on al-Qaeda. You’d think an al-Qaeda expert would have known al-Balawi was an open al-Qaeda sympathizer and would have insisted that he be searched upon entering the compound regardless of what a super guy the Jordanians said he was. But no.

The Keystone Kops factor in the narrative continued to snowball. On Jan. 7, Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London reported that unnamed "U.S. intelligence officials" believed the bombing was planned by Osama bin Laden’s "inner circle."

Then, lo and behold, a posthumous video showed up on Jan. 9 in which al-Balawi said the bombing was revenge for the Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in August in a CIA drone attack. In the video, al-Balawi is sitting with Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, Mehsud’s successor.

CIA director Leon Panetta has rejected charges that the bombing deaths were the result of poor tradecraft, but CIA veterans disagree. One former field officer said of the incident, "Is it bad tradecraft? Of course.”

“The tradecraft that was developed over many years is passé,” says another veteran CIA field officer. “Now it’s a military tempo where you don’t have time for validating and vetting sources. … The espionage part has become almost quaint.”

We hear from various voices in the warmongery that the bombing proves how much the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda are in cahoots, but all it proves is that we don’t have a clue what’s going on in that region and that we probably never will find truly reliable human intelligence (HUMINT) sources in that part of the world. You can count the number of people who both speak the local languages and can pass a background security check on the fingers and toes of a rattlesnake.

Lack of good HUMINT isn’t the only thing that has our intelligence agencies stymied. Spy drones flying over Afghanistan are providing more raw video information than we can keep up with. According to the New York Times, a group of "young analysts" stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and elsewhere watch every second of the live footage, but only a small fraction of the archived video has been retrieved for further analysis. The Air Force plans to add 2,500 new analysts to help handle the volume of data. One has to wonder where the Air Force plans to find 2,500 trained imagery analysts and how young they will be.

I’m willing to concede that the CIA and the rest of our intelligence apparatus in Af-Pak seem like bumblers only because their task is an impossible one. But that only serves to point out that the overall mission – counterinsurgency – is being doctrinally driven by something that’s impossible to achieve, thereby making the counterinsurgency itself a mission impossible.

In Part III: Mission creeps and economy of farce.

Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.