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Intelligence failures crippling fight against insurgents in Afghanistan, says report
March 6, 2009
By Peter Beaumont (The Guardian)
A highly critical analysis of the US-led coalition's counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan has raised serious questions about combat operations in both countries - and the intelligence underpinning them.
The confidential document presents a bleak picture of a counterinsurgency effort undermined by intelligence failures that at times border on the absurd.
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.
The report, prepared by the RAND national defence research institute for US Joint Forces Command in November and leaked to the Wikileaks website, reveals the case of Dutch F-16 pilots in Afghanistan who were ordered by the US to bomb targets, only to be refused access to American "battle damage assessments" showing what they had hit, on the grounds that the Dutch were not "security cleared" to view them.
Another interviewee describes how coalition forces at Camp Holland near Tarin Kowt in southern Afghanistan maintained 13 different intelligence sections, including US, Dutch, UAE, and Australian, all operating with minimal co-operation.
"It would have been helpful [for us to have] combined them; then we would have known everything," complained Lt Neils Verhoef, one of those interviewed for the report. "One section knew the location of an IED [improvised explosive device] factory, and we drove by it for three months."
The unflattering document will make grim reading for President Barack Obama as he grapples with the worsening crisis in Afghanistan, confronted by an increasingly emboldened Taliban and its allies. With counterinsurgency tactics now placed at the centre of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the RAND report suggests that many of the national armed forces involved lack skills to operate effectively.
It calls for a substantial overhaul of how military intelligence is gathered, organised and acted on. Quoting senior officers, it questions many everyday operations - from weapons searches to the killing or arrest of wanted individuals - suggesting that they "alienate" the local population for little measurable gain.
Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, former the senior British military representative in Iraq, said: "There were some operations taking place in Iraq where the success of the operation ... was judged solely against whether tactical success had been achieved; tactical success in terms of attrition of enemy forces, numbers killed or captured, numbers of weapons seized, amounts of explosives captured, extent of area controlled. By these criteria ... a given operation would be judged a success, regardless of the fact that it had seriously alienated the local population, and the fact that, within a few months, other insurgents had re-infiltrated and regained control."
An anonymous source quoted in the report stated that "operational commanders" continued to "indulge in the fallacy of body counts, and a month in which more Taliban are killed than in the previous month" was seen as progress. He added: "This is actually more likely to reflect the fact that there are more enemy on the battlefield than there were before."
Despite the huge emphasis on counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last two years, the report's authors, Russell Glenn and Jamie Gayton, find it necessary to remind military readers of the importance of the civilian population in their efforts, not least in protecting civilians "against attack by both the enemy and your own forces".
"Those interviewed in support of this research," they wrote, "noted with no little frustration that coalition forces themselves too frequently neglect to treat local community members properly."
Perhaps most damning of all, however, is the suggestion from several of those interviewed that often they felt that an overall strategy for what they were supposed to be doing was entirely lacking.
One of those interviewed was Brigadier General Theo Vleugels, who described his 2006 command experience in southern Afghanistan in terms worthy of a passage from Joseph Heller's Catch 22. "We didn't have a campaign plan when we started, but we later got one from my higher headquarters that was close to ours, which is not surprising as they told us to do what we told them we would do."
RAND declined a request for an an interview with the authors.
First appeared in The Guardian. Thanks to Peter Beaumont and The Guardian for covering these documents.