Who To Believe on Afghan Intelligence: CIA, NSA, or Pentagon?

Digging below the bombshell headlines and MSM chyrons on the current Russian-bounty-on-US-soldiers-in-Afghanistan allegations, it seems three separate US government (USG) agencies — the CIA, the National Security Agency (NSA), and the Pentagon – have different assessments as to the veracity of this story. To ascertain which assessments are most reliable, one has to understand how each agency is staffed and how it operates in gathering information to formulate its intelligence assessments. Having worked in Afghanistan for six years (and before that in Iraq) as an USG civilian advisor with a Top Secret clearance, I can offer insights on how to evaluate the veracity of this story – including my opinion on the real rationale behind the illegal leaks of classified intelligence that occurred and the political agenda this story is attempting to advance.

Starting with the CIA, its history is replete with cases (think of the Iraq War and "Curveball") were the CIA’s reliance on human intelligence was faulty because its agents failed to factor in the motivation and biases of the local nationals who were seemingly cooperating with its field agents. A similarity I observed between Iraq and Afghanistan was the propensity of the servile locals to tell USG officials at all levels of interaction what they felt we wanted to hear when questioned about something or someone. In other cases, it was rogue interpreters employed by the USG who made up stories they wanted us to believe – often shielding their tribal members from harm or falsely implicating their enemies. Think about it: What Afghans don’t want the US military (and the $45 billion/year in USG spending) to leave their country? It is those being paid and/or amassing personal fortunes from the ongoing US presence. I can easily see this Russian-bounty story – to the extent the CIA’s intelligence is creditable — being concocted by corrupt local officials and/or USG employed Afghans to keep their gravy train going in an effort along with Deep State operative to derail Trump’s troop-withdrawal plans. Thus, I place very little credence in the CIA’s in-country human intelligent sources who supposedly are the source of the CIA’s Russian-bounty story.

Contrarily, the NSA – which strongly disagrees with the CIA’s assessment on the Russian-bounty story – relies on so-called signal intelligence for making its intelligence assessments. It should surprise no one that every phone call made within or to/from Afghanistan is monitored (triggered by key words or individuals) by linguists working at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland. In the case of Afghanistan, who are these linguists? I know four of them because they used to work for me in Kabul. I submitted background reports on each one so he could get special immigration visas to reside and work in the US for the NSA. They felt taking these jobs would help their home country. These 25-to-30 year-old native Afghans whom I knew from 2007-10 had lived and went to college in Pakistani where their families had moved their during the Taliban rule in the ‘90s. Thus, in addition to Dari and Pashto (Afghanistan’s native languages) and Farsi and Urdu (neighboring Iran’s and Pakistani’s languages), they learned fluent English. And like all devout Muslims, they also know Arabic which the learned read the Koran and recite prayers. Easy to see why the NSA hired these guys. Some even spoke Russian because their father was Russian – a consequence of Soviet army’s occupation of Afghanistan in the ’80s. (The red-head Afghan on our team took a lot of ribbing from his colleagues!) These guys – pictured in my book –were some of the brightest and most talented and astute people I have met in my life.

Most importantly, unlike the paid informants and freelance interpreters the CIA used in Afghanistan, these NSA linguists/analysts are worldly individuals who innately understand conversations they are surreptitiously surveilling. They are not concerned about getting paid or being accused of cooperating with the enemy. Thus, they can objectively assess the credibility of what is being said based on knowing the country, the motivations of particular individuals, and the tone and nuances of the conservations they are monitoring. Presumably, given the NSA’s dissent, there is no signal intelligence directly corroborating the CIA’s preliminary finding that were bounties being paid – even though cell phones are commonly used throughout the country. Moreover, finding stashes of cash in someone’s possession is not big deal in Afghanistan – it is a cash economy ruled outside of Kabul by drug-running War Lords with shady characters engaged in all sorts of illicit activities. In my mind, the NSA analysts’ objectivity, and the NSA’s inability to corroborate what captured Taliban fighters (hardly trustworthy actors) presumably told CIA operatives, makes the CIA’s allegations highly suspect.

It is also important to note the Pentagon’s statement on Tuesday: "… the Department of Defense [DoD] has no corroborating evidence at this time to validate recent allegations regarding malign activity by Russian personnel against US forces in Afghanistan …." Other reports say the uncorroborated allegation of US service members being targeted by Russian-paid bounties first surfaced in March 2019. Twenty-two US soldiers were killed in 2019 Afghanistan and nine so far in 2020. In my personal experience, every US and NATO soldier fatality in combat in Afghanistan was thoroughly investigated by the military unit in which the death occurred immediately following the incident. The facts and circumstances related to the fatality are documented in an after-action report. I was interviewed twice in such inquiries having been along on a convoy hit with an IED and once at an event that was bombed in which US military and civilian personnel were killed.

Given the (thankful) low number of US fatalities over the last two years, it is incomprehensible for me to believe that senior military officials in Afghanistan (who hold daily countrywide calls on which actionable intelligence is briefed to field commanders and "significant incident" reports are discussed) would not be aware if perpetrators behind any of the 31 deaths of US service personnel in Afghanistan over the last two years were linked in any way to foreign actors. Unlike other Deep State actors (like the leakers of the uncorroborated intel on the Russian bounty story), the Pentagon is morally bound to provide a factual explanation to the relatives of KIA service members on the circumstances of their loved one’s death. The DOD takes this responsibility very seriously knowing – as the unfortunate Pat Tillman incident revealed – all pertinent facts will eventually come out. Thus, it is safe to say the Pentagon is not hiding anything.

When I was Iraq, the DOD immediately reported when a US soldier’s death was alleged to be linked to Iranian intervention in that war. The often-cited figure is that 603 US soldier fatalities in Iraq are attributable to Iranian interference — starting in 2004 and continuing to today. Assuming this assertion (as widely repeated in the MSM) is credible, it is telling that the DOD is not making a similar claim of Russian interference in Afghanistan — if Russia was truly involved in one or more of the 31 recent US military fatalities occurring over the last two years of Trump’s presidency. Notably, the MSM did not even allege Russia involvement in the over 2,200 US military fatalities that occurred in Afghanistan during the Bush and Obama years. What changed and why? The proponents of the Russia-bounty theory need to explain this glaring discrepancy. Equally incongruent: If Trump and Putin are big buddies as the MSM and certain politicians repetitively claim, why would Putin do something so callous and inconsequential that makes Trump look bad, perhaps derails Trump’s troop withdrawals plans (which Russia and all Afghanistan neighbors eagerly desire), and hurt Trump’s reelection prospects?

Getting back to reality, the real rationale behind the MSM’s and the Washington War State’s latest Russia-gate story can be explained in two words: Bagram Airbase. As I cover in an article I wrote in September 2019 ("The Real Reason the US is Staying in Afghanistan"), the pushback Trump has gotten throughout his presidency on removing all US troops in Afghanistan as he campaigned he would do as president has nothing to do with keeping Americans safe from jihadi terrorism, installing a democratic government in Kabul, or advance human (particularly women’s) rights in Afghanistan. As I state in this article:

The real reason for the pushback by the Washington national security establishment against getting all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan is the guiding maxim of our post-World War II "War State" (the military-industrial complex and pro-war political establishment President Eisenhower warned about) that has grown into a $1-trillion/year enterprise with a worldwide empire of over 800 foreign military installations: never give up a military base in a strategic location. The U.S. military eventually will be pushed out of Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan (this base also a civilian airport near a large restive city in Taliban territory). But Bagram Airfield (a prior Soviet base north of Kabul) is a military-only installation in an easily defended remote area. Bagram is the missing piece in our War State’s chessboard of worldwide bases. Retaining it will enable our military to "project power" throughout Central Asia. It is a steal at $30 to $40 billion/year (assuming troops levels and graft payments are drawn down at some point) for our overfunded War State. Representative Max Thornberry, then chairman and now ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, visited Bagram in October 2018. He publicly acknowledged afterwards that the U.S. seeks "a sustainable presence" in Afghanistan. Presumably, this presence would entail basing a wing of the U.S. military’s new high-tech F-35 fighters (a $1.5 trillion boondoggle) at Bagram. This possibility has special interest for Rep. Thornberry: the F-35s are manufactured at a Lockheed plant near his district in north Texas.

The strategic importance of Bagram for perpetuating Washington’s quest for global hegemony is why Deep State actors — in cahoots with both neocon and neo-liberal media operatives — leaked the uncorroborated reports of the Russia-bounty story last week. Acting on behalf of their bipartisan supporters in Congress and War State profiteers, this rogue act was an attempt to make it political infeasible for Trump to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan prior to the November elections.

This ploy was undertaken knowing that Joe Biden — true to his past support for an interventionist foreign policy – is on the record in a CBS News interview pledging as president to keep "several thousand" US troop in Afghanistan on a long-term basis. This is the force level needed to keep Bagram as an operational US airbase in this part of the world. As I opine in my previously cited article, retaining Bagram also means the Afghan War will never end since the Taliban will keep fighting until all foreign troops are evicted from their ancient lands. It seem American politicians – ignorant of world history – have not learned from prior hegemons’ failed attempts to use their country for their geopolitical ambitions.

Mr. Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA and MIT graduate who served in the US Air Force and has lived, worked, and traveled extensively in the Middle East, including working as an USAID contactor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in the Iraq and Afghan wars from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico. He’s written a memoir critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?

Author: Ronald Enzweiler

Mr. Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA , MIT graduate, and US Air Force veteran who has lived, worked, and traveled extensively in the Greater Middle East, including working as an USAID contractor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico with his wife Elena. He’s written a book critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?, and has written other articles for Antiwar.com and the Libertarian Institute.