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Failure in Afghanistan

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COMMENT: A rel­a­tive­ly rare piece of qual­i­ty, inci­sive analy­sis from the Main­stream Media, Craig Whit­lock­’s “At War With The Truth” presents an hon­est, albeit atten­u­at­ed, analy­sis of the fail­ure of the war in Afghanistan.

This Wash­ing­ton Post piece, with sev­er­al com­pi­la­tions of sup­ple­men­tary doc­u­men­ta­tion, gives an in depth sum­ma­ry and cri­tique of the fail­ure of the mil­i­tary effort on the ground in Afghanistan.

Whit­lock­’s qual­i­ty work does not dis­cuss:

  1. The begin­ning of the Afghan war–a U.S. covert oper­a­tion that lured the Sovi­ets into Afghanistan to give them “their Viet­nam.”
  2. Pak­istan’s cre­ation of the Tal­iban and U.S. sup­port for them against the Sovi­ets.
  3. CIA involve­ment in mas­sive drug traf­fick­ing in Afghanistan.
  4. Mas­sive involve­ment of CIA and the Bush fam­i­ly with the Bin Laden inter­ests.

In addi­tion, this paper presents the back­ground to, and foun­da­tion of, the lat­est iter­a­tion of the Rus­sia-gate psy-op: “Boun­ty­gate.”

A thought­ful piece by Scott Rit­ter in Con­sor­tium News pars­es the deep pol­i­tics of “Boun­ty­gate” and the real­i­ty of Russ­ian pol­i­cy vis a vis the Tal­iban and Cen­tral Asia.

“At War With The Truth” by Craig Whit­lock; The Wash­ing­ton Post; 12/9/2019.

In the inter­views, more than 400 insid­ers offered unre­strained crit­i­cism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the Unit­ed States became mired in near­ly two decades of war­fare.

With a blunt­ness rarely expressed in pub­lic, the inter­views lay bare pent-up com­plaints, frus­tra­tions and con­fes­sions, along with sec­ond-guess­ing and back­bit­ing.

“We were devoid of a fun­da­men­tal under­stand­ing of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Dou­glas Lute, a three-star Army gen­er­al who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar dur­ing the Bush and Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tions, told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers in 2015. He added: “What are we try­ing to do here? We didn’t have the fog­gi­est notion of what we were under­tak­ing.”

“If the Amer­i­can peo­ple knew the mag­ni­tude of this dys­func­tion . . . 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blam­ing the deaths of U.S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel on bureau­crat­ic break­downs among Con­gress, the Pen­ta­gon and the State Depart­ment. “Who will say this was in vain?”

Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeat­ed­ly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wound­ed in action, accord­ing to Defense Depart­ment fig­ures.

The inter­views, through an exten­sive array of voic­es, bring into sharp relief the core fail­ings of the war that per­sist to this day. They under­score how three pres­i­dents — George W. Bush, Barack Oba­ma and Don­ald Trump — and their mil­i­tary com­man­ders have been unable to deliv­er on their promis­es to pre­vail in Afghanistan.

With most speak­ing on the assump­tion that their remarks would not become pub­lic, U.S. offi­cials acknowl­edged that their warfight­ing strate­gies were fatal­ly flawed and that Wash­ing­ton wast­ed enor­mous sums of mon­ey try­ing to remake Afghanistan into a mod­ern nation.

The inter­views also high­light the U.S. government’s botched attempts to cur­tail run­away cor­rup­tion, build a com­pe­tent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriv­ing opi­um trade.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment has not car­ried out a com­pre­hen­sive account­ing of how much it has spent on the war in Afghanistan, but the costs are stag­ger­ing.

Since 2001, the Defense Depart­ment, State Depart­ment and U.S. Agency for Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment have spent or appro­pri­at­ed between $934 bil­lion and $978 bil­lion, accord­ing to an infla­tion-adjust­ed esti­mate cal­cu­lat­ed by Neta Craw­ford, a polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor and co-direc­tor of the Costs of War Project at Brown Uni­ver­si­ty.

Those fig­ures do not include mon­ey spent by oth­er agen­cies such as the CIA and the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs, which is respon­si­ble for med­ical care for wound­ed vet­er­ans.

“What did we get for this $1 tril­lion effort? Was it worth $1 tril­lion?” Jef­frey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Oba­ma, told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers. He added, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was prob­a­bly laugh­ing in his watery grave con­sid­er­ing how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”

The doc­u­ments also con­tra­dict a long cho­rus of pub­lic state­ments from U.S. pres­i­dents, mil­i­tary com­man­ders and diplo­mats who assured Amer­i­cans year after year that they were mak­ing progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fight­ing.

Sev­er­al of those inter­viewed described explic­it and sus­tained efforts by the U.S. gov­ern­ment to delib­er­ate­ly mis­lead the pub­lic. They said it was com­mon at mil­i­tary head­quar­ters in Kab­ul — and at the White House — to dis­tort sta­tis­tics to make it appear the Unit­ed States was win­ning the war when that was not the case.

“Every data point was altered to present the best pic­ture pos­si­ble,” Bob Crow­ley, an Army colonel who served as a senior coun­terin­sur­gency advis­er to U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders in 2013 and 2014, told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers. “Sur­veys, for instance, were total­ly unre­li­able but rein­forced thatevery­thing we were doing was right and we became a self-lick­ing ice cream cone.”

John Sop­ko, the head of the fed­er­al agency that con­duct­ed the inter­views, acknowl­edged to The Post that the doc­u­ments show “the Amer­i­can peo­ple have con­stant­ly been lied to.”

The inter­views are the byprod­uct of a project led by Sopko’s agency, the Office of the Spe­cial Inspec­tor Gen­er­al for Afghanistan Recon­struc­tion. Known as SIGAR, the agency was cre­at­ed by Con­gress in 2008 to inves­ti­gate waste and fraud in the war zone.

In 2014, at Sopko’s direc­tion, SIGAR depart­ed from its usu­al mis­sion of per­form­ing audits and launched a side ven­ture. Titled “Lessons Learned,” the $11 mil­lion project was meant to diag­nose pol­i­cy fail­ures in Afghanistan so the Unit­ed States would not repeat the mis­takes the next time it invad­ed a coun­try or tried to rebuild a shat­tered one.

The Lessons Learned staff inter­viewed more than 600 peo­ple with first­hand expe­ri­ence in the war. Most were Amer­i­cans, but SIGAR ana­lysts also trav­eled to Lon­don, Brus­sels and Berlin to inter­view NATO allies. In addi­tion, they inter­viewed about 20 Afghan offi­cials, dis­cussing recon­struc­tion and devel­op­ment pro­grams.

Draw­ing part­ly on the inter­views, as well as oth­er gov­ern­ment records and sta­tis­tics, SIGAR has pub­lished sev­en Lessons Learned reports since 2016 that high­light prob­lems in Afghanistan and rec­om­mend changes to sta­bi­lize the coun­try.

But the reports, writ­ten in dense bureau­crat­ic prose and focused on an alpha­bet soup of gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tives, left out the harsh­est and most frank crit­i­cisms from the inter­views.

“We found the sta­bi­liza­tion strat­e­gy and the pro­grams used to achieve it were not prop­er­ly tai­lored to the Afghan con­text, and suc­cess­es in sta­bi­liz­ing Afghan dis­tricts rarely last­ed longer than the phys­i­cal pres­ence of coali­tion troops and civil­ians,” read the intro­duc­tion to one report released in May 2018.

The reports also omit­ted the names of more than 90 per­cent of the peo­ple who were inter­viewed for the project. While a few offi­cials agreed to speak on the record to SIGAR, the agency said it promised anonymi­ty to every­one else it inter­viewed to avoid con­tro­ver­sy over polit­i­cal­ly sen­si­tive mat­ters.

Under the Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act, The Post began seek­ing Lessons Learned inter­view records in August 2016. SIGAR refused, argu­ing that the doc­u­ments were priv­i­leged and that the pub­lic had no right to see them.

The Post had to sue SIGAR in fed­er­al court — twice — to com­pel it to release the doc­u­ments.

The agency even­tu­al­ly dis­closed more than 2,000 pages of unpub­lished notes and tran­scripts from 428 of the inter­views, as well as sev­er­al audio record­ings.

The doc­u­ments iden­ti­fy 62 of the peo­ple who were inter­viewed, but SIGAR blacked out the names of 366 oth­ers. In legal briefs, the agency con­tend­ed that those indi­vid­u­als should be seen as whistle­blow­ers and infor­mants who might face humil­i­a­tion, harass­ment, retal­i­a­tion or phys­i­cal harm if their names became pub­lic.

By cross-ref­er­enc­ing dates and oth­er details from the doc­u­ments, The Post inde­pen­dent­ly iden­ti­fied 33 oth­er peo­ple who were inter­viewed, includ­ing sev­er­al for­mer ambas­sadors, gen­er­als and White House offi­cials.

The Post has asked a fed­er­al judge to force SIGAR to dis­close the names of every­one else inter­viewed, argu­ing that the pub­lic has a right to know which offi­cials crit­i­cized the war and assert­ed that the gov­ern­ment had mis­led the Amer­i­can peo­ple. The Post also argued the offi­cials were not whistle­blow­ers or infor­mants, because they were not inter­viewed as part of an inves­ti­ga­tion.

A deci­sion by Judge Amy Berman Jack­son of the U.S. Dis­trict Court in Wash­ing­ton has been pend­ing since late Sep­tem­ber.

The Post is pub­lish­ing the doc­u­ments now, instead of wait­ing for a final rul­ing, to inform the pub­lic while the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is nego­ti­at­ing with the Tal­iban and con­sid­er­ing whether to with­draw the 13,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan.

The Post attempt­ed to con­tact for com­ment every­one whom it was able to iden­ti­fy as hav­ing giv­en an inter­view to SIGAR. Their respons­es are com­piled in a sep­a­rate arti­cle.

Sop­ko, the inspec­tor gen­er­al, told The Post that he did not sup­press the blis­ter­ing crit­i­cisms and doubts about the war that offi­cials raised in the Lessons Learned inter­views. He said it took his office three years to release the records because he has a small staff and because oth­er fed­er­al agen­cies had to review the doc­u­ments to pre­vent gov­ern­ment secrets from being dis­closed.

“We didn’t sit on it,” he said. “We’re firm believ­ers in open­ness and trans­paren­cy, but we’ve got to fol­low the law. . . . I think of any inspec­tor gen­er­al, I’ve prob­a­bly been the most forth­com­ing on infor­ma­tion.”

The inter­view records are raw and unedit­ed, and SIGAR’s Lessons Learned staff did not stitch them into a uni­fied nar­ra­tive. But they are packed with tough judg­ments from peo­ple who shaped or car­ried out U.S. pol­i­cy in Afghanistan.

“We don’t invade poor coun­tries to make them rich,” James Dob­bins, a for­mer senior U.S. diplo­mat who served as a spe­cial envoy to Afghanistan under Bush and Oba­ma, told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers. “We don’t invade author­i­tar­i­an coun­tries to make them demo­c­ra­t­ic. We invade vio­lent coun­tries to make them peace­ful and we clear­ly failed in Afghanistan.”

To aug­ment the Lessons Learned inter­views, The Post obtained hun­dreds of pages of pre­vi­ous­ly clas­si­fied mem­os about the Afghan war that were dic­tat­ed by Defense Sec­re­tary Don­ald H. Rums­feld between 2001 and 2006.

Dubbed “snowflakes” by Rums­feld and his staff, the mem­os are brief instruc­tions or com­ments that the Pen­ta­gon boss dic­tat­ed to his under­lings, often sev­er­al times a day.

Rums­feld made a select num­ber of his snowflakes pub­lic in 2011, post­ing them online in con­junc­tion with his mem­oir, “Known and Unknown.” But most of his snowflake col­lec­tion — an esti­mat­ed 59,000 pages — remained secret.

With their forth­right descrip­tions of how the Unit­ed States became stuck in a far­away war, as well as the gov­ern­men­t’s deter­mi­na­tion to con­ceal them from the pub­lic, the Lessons Learned inter­views broad­ly resem­ble the Pen­ta­gon Papers, the Defense Depart­men­t’s top-secret his­to­ry of the Viet­nam War.

When they were leaked in 1971, the Pen­ta­gon Papers caused a sen­sa­tion by reveal­ing the gov­ern­ment had long mis­led the pub­lic about how the Unit­ed States came to be embroiled in Viet­nam.

Bound into 47 vol­umes, the 7,000-page study was based entire­ly on inter­nal gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments — diplo­mat­ic cables, deci­sion-mak­ing mem­os, intel­li­gence reports. To pre­serve secre­cy, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert McNa­ma­ra issued an order pro­hibit­ing the authors from inter­view­ing any­one.

SIGAR’s Lessons Learned project faced no such restric­tions. Staffers car­ried out the inter­views between 2014 and 2018, most­ly with offi­cials who served dur­ing the Bush and Oba­ma years.

About 30 of the inter­view records are tran­scribed, word-for-word accounts. The rest are typed sum­maries of con­ver­sa­tions: pages of notes and quotes from peo­ple with dif­fer­ent van­tage points in the con­flict, from provin­cial out­posts to the high­est cir­cles of pow­er.

Some of the inter­views are inex­plic­a­bly short. The inter­view record with John Allen, the Marine gen­er­al who com­mand­ed U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013, con­sists of five para­graphs.

In con­trast, records of inter­views with oth­er influ­en­tial fig­ures are much more exten­sive. For­mer U.S. ambas­sador Ryan Crock­er sat for two inter­views that yield­ed 95 tran­scribed pages.

Unlike the Pen­ta­gon Papers, none of the Lessons Learned doc­u­ments were orig­i­nal­ly clas­si­fied as a gov­ern­ment secret. Once The Post pushed to make them pub­lic, how­ev­er, oth­er fed­er­al agen­cies inter­vened and clas­si­fied some mate­r­i­al after the fact.

The State Depart­ment, for instance, assert­ed that releas­ing por­tions of cer­tain inter­views could jeop­ar­dize nego­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban to end the war. The Defense Depart­ment and Drug Enforce­ment Admin­is­tra­tion also clas­si­fied some inter­view excerpts.

The Lessons Learned inter­views con­tain few rev­e­la­tions about mil­i­tary oper­a­tions. But run­ning through­out are tor­rents of crit­i­cism that refute the offi­cial nar­ra­tive of the war, from its ear­li­est days through the start of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion.

At the out­set, for instance, the U.S. inva­sion of Afghanistan had a clear, stat­ed objec­tive — to retal­i­ate against al-Qae­da and pre­vent a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Yet the inter­views show that as the war dragged on, the goals and mis­sion kept chang­ing and a lack of faith in the U.S. strat­e­gy took root inside the Pen­ta­gon, the White House and the State Depart­ment.

Fun­da­men­tal dis­agree­ments went unre­solved. Some U.S. offi­cials want­ed to use the war to turn Afghanistan into a democ­ra­cy. Oth­ers want­ed to trans­form Afghan cul­ture and ele­vate women’s rights. Still oth­ers want­ed to reshape the region­al bal­ance of pow­er among Pak­istan, India, Iran and Rus­sia.

“With the AfPak strat­e­gy there was a present under the Christ­mas tree for every­one,” an uniden­ti­fied U.S. offi­cial told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers in 2015. “By the time you were fin­ished you had so many pri­or­i­ties and aspi­ra­tions it was like no strat­e­gy at all.”

The Lessons Learned inter­views also reveal how U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders strug­gled to artic­u­late who they were fight­ing, let alone why.

Was al-Qae­da the ene­my, or the Tal­iban? Was Pak­istan a friend or an adver­sary? What about the Islam­ic State and the bewil­der­ing array of for­eign jihadists, let alone the war­lords on the CIA’s pay­roll? Accord­ing to the doc­u­ments, the U.S. gov­ern­ment nev­er set­tled on an answer.

As a result, in the field, U.S. troops often couldn’t tell friend from foe.

“They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live,” an unnamed for­mer advis­er to an Army Spe­cial Forces team told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers in 2017. “It took sev­er­al con­ver­sa­tions for them to under­stand that I did not have that infor­ma­tion in my hands. At first, they just kept ask­ing: ‘But who are the bad guys, where are they?’ ”

The view wasn’t any clear­er from the Pen­ta­gon.

“I have no vis­i­bil­i­ty into who the bad guys are,” Rums­feld com­plained in a Sept. 8, 2003, snowflake. “We are woe­ful­ly defi­cient in human intel­li­gence.”

As com­man­ders in chief, Bush, Oba­ma and Trump all promised the pub­lic the same thing. They would avoid falling into the trap of “nation-build­ing” in Afghanistan.

On that score, the pres­i­dents failed mis­er­ably. The Unit­ed States has allo­cat­ed more than $133 bil­lion to build up Afghanistan — more than it spent, adjust­ed for infla­tion, to revive the whole of West­ern Europe with the Mar­shall Plan after World War II.

The Lessons Learned inter­views show the grandiose nation-build­ing project was marred from the start.

U.S. offi­cials tried to cre­ate — from scratch — a demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment in Kab­ul mod­eled after their own in Wash­ing­ton. It was a for­eign con­cept to the Afghans, who were accus­tomed to trib­al­ism, monar­chism, com­mu­nism and Islam­ic law.

“Our pol­i­cy was to cre­ate a strong cen­tral gov­ern­ment which was idi­ot­ic because Afghanistan does not have a his­to­ry of a strong cen­tral gov­ern­ment,” an uniden­ti­fied for­mer State Depart­ment offi­cial told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers in 2015. “The time­frame for cre­at­ing a strong cen­tral gov­ern­ment is 100 years, which we didn’t have.”

Mean­while, the Unit­ed States flood­ed the frag­ile coun­try with far more aid than it could pos­si­bly absorb.

Dur­ing the peak of the fight­ing, from 2009 to 2012, U.S. law­mak­ers and mil­i­tary com­man­ders believed the more they spent on schools, bridges, canals and oth­er civ­il-works projects, the faster secu­ri­ty would improve. Aid work­ers told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers it was a colos­sal mis­judg­ment, akin to pump­ing kerosene on a dying camp­fire just to keep the flame alive.

One unnamed exec­u­tive with the U.S. Agency for Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment (USAID) guessed that 90 per­cent of what they spent was overkill: “We lost objec­tiv­i­ty. We were giv­en mon­ey, told to spend it and we did, with­out rea­son.”

Many aid work­ers blamed Con­gress for what they saw as a mind­less rush to spend.

One uniden­ti­fied con­trac­tor told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers he was expect­ed to dole out $3 mil­lion dai­ly for projects in a sin­gle Afghan dis­trict rough­ly the size of a U.S. coun­ty. He once asked a vis­it­ing con­gress­man whether the law­mak­er could respon­si­bly spend that kind of mon­ey back home: “He said hell no. ‘Well, sir, that’s what you just oblig­at­ed us to spend and I’m doing it for com­mu­ni­ties that live in mud huts with no win­dows.’ ”

The gush­er of aid that Wash­ing­ton spent on Afghanistan also gave rise to his­toric lev­els of cor­rup­tion.

In pub­lic, U.S. offi­cials insist­ed they had no tol­er­ance for graft. But in the Lessons Learned inter­views, they admit­ted the U.S. gov­ern­ment looked the oth­er way while Afghan pow­er bro­kers — allies of Wash­ing­ton — plun­dered with impuni­ty.

Christo­pher Kolen­da, an Army colonel who deployed to Afghanistan sev­er­al times and advised three U.S. gen­er­als in charge of the war, said that the Afghan gov­ern­ment led by Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai had “self-orga­nized into a klep­toc­ra­cy” by 2006 — and that U.S. offi­cials failed to rec­og­nize the lethal threat it posed to their strat­e­gy.

“I like to use a can­cer anal­o­gy,” Kolen­da told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers. “Pet­ty cor­rup­tion is like skin can­cer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll prob­a­bly be just fine. Cor­rup­tion with­in the min­istries, high­er lev­el, is like colon can­cer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re prob­a­bly ok. Klep­toc­ra­cy, how­ev­er, is like brain can­cer; it’s fatal.”

By allow­ing cor­rup­tion to fes­ter, U.S. offi­cials told inter­view­ers, they helped destroy the pop­u­lar legit­i­ma­cy of the wob­bly Afghan gov­ern­ment they were fight­ing to prop up. With judges and police chiefs and bureau­crats extort­ing bribes, many Afghans soured on democ­ra­cy and turned to the Tal­iban to enforce order.

“Our biggest sin­gle project, sad­ly and inad­ver­tent­ly, of course, may have been the devel­op­ment of mass cor­rup­tion,” Crock­er, who served as the top U.S. diplo­mat in Kab­ul in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012, told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers. He added, “Once it gets to the lev­el I saw, when I was out there, it’s some­where between unbe­liev­ably hard and out­right impos­si­ble to fix it.”

Year after year, U.S. gen­er­als have said in pub­lic they are mak­ing steady progress on the cen­tral plank of their strat­e­gy: to train a robust Afghan army and nation­al police force that can defend the coun­try with­out for­eign help.

In the Lessons Learned inter­views, how­ev­er, U.S. mil­i­tary train­ers described the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces as incom­pe­tent, unmo­ti­vat­ed and rife with desert­ers. They also accused Afghan com­man­ders of pock­et­ing salaries — paid by U.S. tax­pay­ers — for tens of thou­sands of “ghost sol­diers.”

None expressed con­fi­dence that the Afghan army and police could ever fend off, much less defeat, the Tal­iban on their own. More than 60,000 mem­bers of Afghan secu­ri­ty forces have been killed, a casu­al­ty rate that U.S. com­man­ders have called unsus­tain­able.

One uniden­ti­fied U.S. sol­dier said Spe­cial Forces teams “hat­ed” the Afghan police whom they trained and worked with, call­ing them “awful — the bot­tom of the bar­rel in the coun­try that is already at the bot­tom of the bar­rel.”

A U.S. mil­i­tary offi­cer esti­mat­ed that one-third of police recruits were “drug addicts or Tal­iban.” Yet anoth­er called them “steal­ing fools” who loot­ed so much fuel from U.S. bases that they per­pet­u­al­ly smelled of gaso­line.

“Think­ing we could build the mil­i­tary that fast and that well was insane,” an unnamed senior USAID offi­cial told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers.

Mean­while, as U.S. hopes for the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces failed to mate­ri­al­ize, Afghanistan became the world’s lead­ing source of a grow­ing scourge: opi­um.

The Unit­ed States has spent about $9 bil­lion to fight the prob­lem over the past 18 years, but Afghan farm­ers are cul­ti­vat­ing more opi­um pop­pies than ever. Last year, Afghanistan was respon­si­ble for 82 per­cent of glob­al opi­um pro­duc­tion, accord­ing to the Unit­ed Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

In the Lessons Learned inter­views, for­mer offi­cials said almost every­thing they did to con­strain opi­um farm­ing back­fired.

“We stat­ed that our goal is to estab­lish a ‘flour­ish­ing mar­ket econ­o­my,’ ” said Dou­glas Lute, the White House’s Afghan war czar from 2007 to 2013. “I thought we should have spec­i­fied a flour­ish­ing drug trade — this is the only part of the mar­ket that’s work­ing.”

From the begin­ning, Wash­ing­ton nev­er real­ly fig­ured out how to incor­po­rate a war on drugs into its war against al-Qae­da. By 2006, U.S. offi­cials feared that nar­co-traf­fick­ers had become stronger than the Afghan gov­ern­ment and that mon­ey from the drug trade was pow­er­ing the insur­gency.

No sin­gle agency or coun­try was in charge of the Afghan drug strat­e­gy for the entire­ty of the war, so the State Depart­ment, the DEA, the U.S. mil­i­tary, NATO allies and the Afghan gov­ern­ment butted heads con­stant­ly.

“It was a dog’s break­fast with no chance of work­ing,” an unnamed for­mer senior British offi­cial told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers.

The agen­cies and allies made things worse by embrac­ing a dys­func­tion­al mud­dle of pro­grams, accord­ing to the inter­views.

At first, Afghan pop­py farm­ers were paid by the British to destroy their crops — which only encour­aged them to grow more the next sea­son. Lat­er, the U.S. gov­ern­ment erad­i­cat­ed pop­py fields with­out com­pen­sa­tion — which only infu­ri­at­ed farm­ers and encour­aged them to side with the Tal­iban.

“It was sad to see so many peo­ple behave so stu­pid­ly,” one U.S. offi­cial told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers.

The specter of Viet­nam has hov­ered over Afghanistan from the start.

On Oct. 11, 2001, a few days after the Unit­ed States start­ed bomb­ing the Tal­iban, a reporter asked Bush: “Can you avoid being drawn into a Viet­nam-like quag­mire in Afghanistan?”

“We learned some very impor­tant lessons in Viet­nam,” Bush replied con­fi­dent­ly. “Peo­ple often ask me, ‘How long will this last?’ This par­tic­u­lar bat­tle­front will last as long as it takes to bring al-Qae­da to jus­tice. It may hap­pen tomor­row, it may hap­pen a month from now, it may take a year or two. But we will pre­vail.”

In those ear­ly days, oth­er U.S. lead­ers mocked the notion that the night­mare of Viet­nam might repeat itself in Afghanistan.

“All togeth­er now — quag­mire!” Rums­feld joked at a news con­fer­ence on Nov. 27, 2001.

But through­out the Afghan war, doc­u­ments show that U.S. mil­i­tary offi­cials have resort­ed to an old tac­tic from Viet­nam — manip­u­lat­ing pub­lic opin­ion.

In news con­fer­ences and oth­er pub­lic appear­ances, those in charge of the war have fol­lowed the same talk­ing points for 18 years. No mat­ter how the war is going — and espe­cial­ly when it is going bad­ly — they empha­size how they are mak­ing progress.

For exam­ple, some snowflakes that Rums­feld released with his mem­oir show he had received a string of unusu­al­ly dire warn­ings from the war zone in 2006.

After return­ing from a fact-find­ing mis­sion to Afghanistan, Bar­ry McCaf­frey, a retired Army gen­er­al, report­ed the Tal­iban had made an impres­sive come­back and pre­dict­ed that “we will encounter some very unpleas­ant sur­pris­es in the com­ing 24 months.”

“The Afghan nation­al lead­er­ship are col­lec­tive­ly ter­ri­fied that we will tip-toe out of Afghanistan in the com­ing few years — leav­ing NATO hold­ing the bag — and the whole thing will col­lapse again into may­hem,” McCaf­frey wrote in June 2006.

Two months lat­er, Marin Strmec­ki, a civil­ian advis­er to Rums­feld, gave the Pen­ta­gon chief a clas­si­fied, 40-page report loaded with more bad news. It said “enor­mous pop­u­lar dis­con­tent is build­ing” against the Afghan gov­ern­ment because of its cor­rup­tion and incom­pe­tence. It also said that the Tal­iban was grow­ing stronger, thanks to sup­port from Pak­istan, a U.S. ally.

Yet with Rumsfeld’s per­son­al bless­ing, the Pen­ta­gon buried the bleak warn­ings and told the pub­lic a very dif­fer­ent sto­ry.

In Octo­ber 2006, Rumsfeld’s speech­writ­ers deliv­ered a paper titled “Afghanistan: Five Years Lat­er.” Brim­ming with opti­mism, it high­light­ed more than 50 promis­ing facts and fig­ures, from the num­ber of Afghan women trained in “improved poul­try man­age­ment” (more than 19,000) to the “aver­age speed on most roads” (up 300 per­cent).

“Five years on, there is a mul­ti­tude of good news,” it read. “While it has become fash­ion­able in some cir­cles to call Afghanistan a for­got­ten war, or to say the Unit­ed States has lost its focus, the facts belie the myths.”

Rums­feld thought it was bril­liant.

“This paper,” he wrote in a memo, “is an excel­lent piece. How do we use it? Should it be an arti­cle? An Op-ed piece? A hand­out? A press brief­ing? All of the above? I think it ought to get it to a lot of peo­ple.”

His staffers made sure it did. They cir­cu­lat­ed a ver­sion to reporters and post­ed it on Pen­ta­gon web­sites.

Since then, U.S. gen­er­als have almost always preached that the war is pro­gress­ing well, no mat­ter the real­i­ty on the bat­tle­field.

“We’re mak­ing some steady progress,” Maj. Gen. Jef­frey Schloess­er, com­man­der of the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion, told reporters in Sep­tem­ber 2008, even as he and oth­er U.S. com­man­ders in Kab­ul were urgent­ly request­ing rein­force­ments to cope with a ris­ing tide of Tal­iban fight­ers.

Two years lat­er, as the casu­al­ty rate among U.S. and NATO troops climbed to anoth­er high, Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez held a news con­fer­ence in Kab­ul.

“First, we are steadi­ly mak­ing delib­er­ate progress,” he said.

In March 2011, dur­ing con­gres­sion­al hear­ings, skep­ti­cal law­mak­ers pelt­ed Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the com­man­der of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, with doubts that the U.S. strat­e­gy was work­ing.

“The past eight months have seen impor­tant but hard-fought progress,” Petraeus respond­ed.

One year lat­er, dur­ing a vis­it to Afghanistan, Defense Sec­re­tary Leon Panet­ta stuck to the same script — even though he had just per­son­al­ly dodged a sui­cide attack.

“The cam­paign, as I’ve point­ed out before, I think has made sig­nif­i­cant progress,” Panet­ta told reporters.

In July 2016, after a surge in Tal­iban attacks on major cities, Army Gen. John W. Nichol­son Jr., the com­man­der of U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the time, repeat­ed the refrain.

“We are see­ing some progress,” he told reporters.

Dur­ing Viet­nam, U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders relied on dubi­ous mea­sure­ments to per­suade Amer­i­cans that they were win­ning.

Most noto­ri­ous­ly, the Pen­ta­gon high­light­ed “body counts,” or the num­ber of ene­my fight­ers killed, and inflat­ed the fig­ures as a mea­sure­ment of suc­cess.

In Afghanistan, with occa­sion­al excep­tions, the U.S. mil­i­tary has gen­er­al­ly avoid­ed pub­li­ciz­ing body counts. But the Lessons Learned inter­views con­tain numer­ous admis­sions that the gov­ern­ment rou­tine­ly tout­ed sta­tis­tics that offi­cials knew were dis­tort­ed, spu­ri­ous or down­right false.

A per­son iden­ti­fied only as a senior Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil offi­cial said there was con­stant pres­sure from the Oba­ma White House and Pen­ta­gon to pro­duce fig­ures to show the troop surge of 2009 to 2011 was work­ing, despite hard evi­dence to the con­trary.

“It was impos­si­ble to cre­ate good met­rics. We tried using troop num­bers trained, vio­lence lev­els, con­trol of ter­ri­to­ry and none of it paint­ed an accu­rate pic­ture,” the senior NSC offi­cial told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers in 2016. “The met­rics were always manip­u­lat­ed for the dura­tion of the war.”

Even when casu­al­ty counts and oth­er fig­ures looked bad, the senior NSC offi­cial said, the White House and Pen­ta­gon would spin them to the point of absur­di­ty. Sui­cide bomb­ings in Kab­ul were por­trayed as a sign of the Taliban’s des­per­a­tion, that the insur­gents were too weak to engage in direct com­bat. Mean­while, a rise in U.S. troop deaths was cit­ed as proof that Amer­i­can forces were tak­ing the fight to the ene­my.

“It was their expla­na­tions,” the senior NSC offi­cial said. “For exam­ple, attacks are get­ting worse? ‘That’s because there are more tar­gets for them to fire at, so more attacks are a false indi­ca­tor of insta­bil­i­ty.’ Then, three months lat­er, attacks are still get­ting worse? ‘It’s because the Tal­iban are get­ting des­per­ate, so it’s actu­al­ly an indi­ca­tor that we’re win­ning.’ ”

“And this went on and on for two rea­sons,” the senior NSC offi­cial said, “to make every­one involved look good, and to make it look like the troops and resources were hav­ing the kind of effect where remov­ing them would cause the coun­try to dete­ri­o­rate.”

In oth­er field reports sent up the chain of com­mand, mil­i­tary offi­cers and diplo­mats took the same line. Regard­less of con­di­tions on the ground, they claimed they were mak­ing progress.

“From the ambas­sadors down to the low lev­el, [they all say] we are doing a great job,” Michael Fly­nn, a retired three-star Army gen­er­al, told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers in 2015. “Real­ly? So if we are doing such a great job, why does it feel like we are los­ing?”

Upon arrival in Afghanistan, U.S. Army brigade and bat­tal­ion com­man­ders were giv­en the same basic mis­sion: to pro­tect the pop­u­la­tion and defeat the ene­my, accord­ing to Fly­nn, who served mul­ti­ple tours in Afghanistan as an intel­li­gence offi­cer.

“So they all went in for what­ev­er their rota­tion was, nine months or six months, and were giv­en that mis­sion, accept­ed that mis­sion and exe­cut­ed that mis­sion,” said Fly­nn, who lat­er briefly served as Trump’s nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­er, lost his job in a scan­dal and was con­vict­ed of lying to the FBI. “Then they all said, when they left, they accom­plished that mis­sion. Every sin­gle com­man­der. Not one com­man­der is going to leave Afghanistan . . . and say, ‘You know what, we didn’t accom­plish our mis­sion.’ ”

He added: “So the next guy that shows up finds it [their area] screwed up . . . and then they come back and go, ‘Man this is real­ly bad.’ ”

Bob Crow­ley, the retired Army colonel who served as a coun­terin­sur­gency advis­er in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014, told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers that “truth was rarely wel­come” at mil­i­tary head­quar­ters in Kab­ul.

“Bad news was often sti­fled,” he said. “There was more free­dom to share bad news if it was small — we’re run­ning over kids with our MRAPs [armored vehi­cles] — because those things could be changed with pol­i­cy direc­tives. But when we tried to air larg­er strate­gic con­cerns about the will­ing­ness, capac­i­ty or cor­rup­tion of the Afghan gov­ern­ment, it was clear it wasn’t wel­come.”

John Garo­fano, a Naval War Col­lege strate­gist who advised Marines in Hel­mand province in 2011, said mil­i­tary offi­cials in the field devot­ed an inor­di­nate amount of resources to churn­ing out col­or-cod­ed charts that her­ald­ed pos­i­tive results.

“They had a real­ly expen­sive machine that would print the real­ly large pieces of paper like in a print shop,” he told gov­ern­ment inter­view­ers. “There would be a caveat that these are not actu­al­ly sci­en­tif­ic fig­ures, or this is not a sci­en­tif­ic process behind this.”

But Garo­fano said nobody dared to ques­tion whether the charts and num­bers were cred­i­ble or mean­ing­ful.

“There was not a will­ing­ness to answer ques­tions such as, what is the mean­ing of this num­ber of schools that you have built? How has that pro­gressed you towards your goal?” he said. “How do you show this as evi­dence of suc­cess and not just evi­dence of effort or evi­dence of just doing a good thing?”

Oth­er senior offi­cials said they placed great impor­tance on one sta­tis­tic in par­tic­u­lar, albeit one the U.S. gov­ern­ment rarely likes to dis­cuss in pub­lic.

“I do think the key bench­mark is the one I’ve sug­gest­ed, which is how many Afghans are get­ting killed,” James Dob­bins, the for­mer U.S. diplo­mat, told a Sen­ate pan­el in 2009. “If the number’s going up, you’re los­ing. If the number’s going down, you’re win­ning. It’s as sim­ple as that.”

Last year, 3,804 Afghan civil­ians were killed in the war, accord­ing to the Unit­ed Nations.

That is the most in one year since the Unit­ed Nations began track­ing casu­al­ties a decade ago.

Discussion

One comment for “Failure in Afghanistan”

  1. Col­in Pow­ell recent­ly weighed in on the ‘Tal­iban boun­ty’ sto­ry, call­ing the medi­a’s cov­er­age of the sto­ry “almost hys­ter­i­cal” and lament­ing how it “got kind of out of con­trol” in the ini­tial days of cov­er­age. But there was anoth­er gen­er­al who just gave his own views on the top­ic and it’s a gen­er­al who real­ly should be in a posi­tion to put this sto­ry to rest: Gen. Ken­neth McKen­zie, the com­man­der of U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand and the top US gen­er­al in the Mid­dle East, just told jour­nal­ists that he was aware of the intel­li­gence sug­gest­ing there was a boun­ty pro­gram and found it “wor­ri­some” but that he did­n’t believe it was tied to any actu­al US mil­i­tary deaths on the bat­tle­field:

    ABC News

    Top gen­er­al has doubts Russ­ian boun­ty pro­gram killed US troops in Afghanistan
    The top U.S. gen­er­al in the Mid­dle East said more infor­ma­tion was need­ed.

    By Luis Mar­tinez
    July 7, 2020, 4:01 PM

    The top U.S. gen­er­al in the Mid­dle East said Tues­day he was aware of the intel­li­gence of a Russ­ian boun­ty pro­gram tar­get­ing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but while he said he found it “wor­ri­some,” he said he did not believe it was tied to actu­al U.S. mil­i­tary deaths on the bat­tle­field.

    “I found it very wor­ri­some, I just did­n’t find that there was a causative link there,” Gen. Ken­neth McKen­zie, the com­man­der of U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, said in an inter­view with a small num­ber of reporters.

    ‘The intel (intel­li­gence) case was­n’t proved to me — it was­n’t proved enough that I’d take it to a court of law — and you know that’s often true in bat­tle­field intel­li­gence,” said McKen­zie.

    “You see a lot of indi­ca­tors, many of them are trou­bling many of them you act on. But, but in this case there just there was­n’t enough there I sent the intel­li­gence guys back to con­tin­ue to dig on it, and I believe they’re con­tin­u­ing to dig right now, but I just did­n’t see enough there to tell me that the cir­cuit was closed in that regard.”

    He added that force pro­tec­tion lev­els in Afghanistan are always high “whether the Rus­sians are pay­ing the Tal­iban or not.” McKen­zie said the insur­gent group has always focused its attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, though that has ceased under the cur­rent U.S. peace agree­ment with the Tal­iban.

    “Over the past sev­er­al years, the Tal­iban have done their lev­el best to car­ry out oper­a­tions against us, so noth­ing is prac­ti­cal­ly changed on the ground in terms of force pro­tec­tion, because we have a very high force pro­tec­tion stan­dard now, and that force pro­tec­tion stan­dard­’s going to con­tin­ue into the future,” said McKen­zie.

    The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has found itself under fire fol­low­ing the recent dis­clo­sure by U.S. offi­cials that U.S. intel­li­gence had found evi­dence of a Russ­ian intel­li­gence pro­gram that paid Tal­iban fight­ers to tar­get Amer­i­can forces in Afghanistan has been con­tro­ver­sial. A mil­i­tary offi­cial told ABC News that infor­ma­tion about the pro­gram was informed by a raid on a Tal­iban loca­tion in Jan­u­ary found a large amount of Amer­i­can cash.

    Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and oth­er admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials have said he was not per­son­al­ly, ver­bal­ly briefed on the intel­li­gence because the U.S. intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty had not ful­ly “ver­i­fied” the infor­ma­tion. The Asso­ci­at­ed Press and the New York Times have have that the infor­ma­tion was includ­ed in the writ­ten ver­sion of the Pres­i­den­t’s Dai­ly Intel­li­gence Brief in late Feb­ru­ary.

    Demo­c­ra­t­ic mem­bers of Con­gress have coun­tered that he should have been briefed regard­less of whether the intel­li­gence was ful­ly ana­lyzed giv­en that it involved the safe­ty of Amer­i­can troops.

    McKen­zie indi­cat­ed that “reports of this nature have been out there for a while, but it was very very low lev­els of authen­tic­i­ty about them. And so you just con­tin­ue to plow through them and sort of as you go for­ward.”

    ...

    ————-

    “Top gen­er­al has doubts Russ­ian boun­ty pro­gram killed US troops in Afghanistan” by Luis Mar­tinez; ABC News; 07/07/2020

    “You see a lot of indi­ca­tors, many of them are trou­bling many of them you act on. But, but in this case there just there was­n’t enough there I sent the intel­li­gence guys back to con­tin­ue to dig on it, and I believe they’re con­tin­u­ing to dig right now, but I just did­n’t see enough there to tell me that the cir­cuit was closed in that regard.”

    The intel­li­gence was weak enough that Gen­er­al McKen­zie sent it back for fur­ther analy­sis. That appears to be the gen­er­al con­sen­sus we’re hear­ing from with­in the mil­i­tary regard­ing the qual­i­ty of the ‘Tal­iban boun­ty’ intel­li­gence: they weren’t con­fi­dent enough in it to act on it.

    It’s the kind of con­sen­sus that rais­es the dis­turb­ing ques­tion of whether or not this sto­ry is going to end up effec­tive­ly help­ing Pres­i­dent Trump polit­i­cal­ly. After all, if there’s one thing that could real­ly help Trump win reelec­tion fol­low­ing the entire #Rus­si­a­Gate expe­ri­ence it would be for there to be a big new Russ­ian-relat­ed charge that ends up fiz­zling by Novem­ber. It’s a time­ly reminder that the ele­ments of the nation­al secu­ri­ty state intent on hyp­ing any Rus­sia-relat­ed sto­ry they come across rep­re­sents a real polit­i­cal dan­ger for the Democ­rats in 2020 and just might end up being the best polit­i­cal asset Trump has in this elec­tion. A big Trump/Russia sto­ry that blows up is like polit­i­cal mana for Trump and there’s no rea­son to assume this ‘Tal­iban boun­ty’ sto­ry is going to be the last ques­tion­able #TrumpRus­sia sto­ry we see before the Novem­ber elec­tion.

    So with all that in mind, it’s worth tak­ing a clos­er look at that long Con­sor­tium News piece by Scott Rit­ter exam­in­ing how the ‘Tal­iban boun­ty’ unfold­ed. Because as Rit­ter describes, the ‘Tal­iban boun­ty’ sto­ry is just the lat­est instance of the kind of extreme anti-Rus­sia bias that has per­me­at­ed US intel­li­gence agen­cies since 2015 fol­low­ing the out­break of the con­flict in Ukraine and Rus­si­a’s direct mil­i­tary involve­ment in Syr­ia. There is sim­ply a per­va­sive cog­ni­tive bias in the qual­i­ty of US intel­li­gence regard­ing any­thing involv­ing Rus­sia. And while that cog­ni­tive bias in the nation­al secu­ri­ty state is obvi­ous­ly prob­lem­at­ic from a mil­i­tary pol­i­cy and diplo­ma­cy stand­point, it’s also the kind of bias that now threat­ens to bleed into the polit­i­cal realm as #TrumpRus­sia sto­ries with shaky foun­da­tions are just wide­ly assumed to be true ...until they fall apart to Trump’s ben­e­fit. So while there was nev­er a short­age of rea­sons for the Democ­rats to be wary of over-hyped claims regard­ing Rus­sia, there’s a big new rea­son as the elec­tion gets clos­er: not get­ting suck­ered into every ran­dom bogus #TrumpRus­sia sto­ry that comes along because that’s only going to help Trump:

    Con­sor­tium News

    BOUNTYGATE: Scape­goat­ing Sys­temic Mil­i­tary Fail­ure in Afghanistan
    The sto­ry of the alleged “boun­ty scheme” grew up in the con­text of top U.S. brass blam­ing Rus­sia for America’s defeat in Afghanistan, says Scott Rit­ter.

    By Scott Rit­ter
    Spe­cial to Con­sor­tium News

    July 5, 2020

    On the morn­ing of Feb. 27, Beth San­ner, the deputy direc­tor of nation­al intel­li­gence for mis­sion inte­gra­tion, arrived at the White House car­ry­ing a copy of the Pres­i­den­tial Dai­ly Brief (PDB), a doc­u­ment which, in one form or anoth­er, has been made avail­able to every pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States since Har­ry Tru­man first received what was then known as the “Dai­ly Sum­ma­ry” in Feb­ru­ary 1946.

    The sen­si­tiv­i­ty of the PDB is with­out dis­pute; for­mer White House Press Sec­re­tary Ari Fleis­ch­er once called the PBD “the most high­ly sen­si­tized clas­si­fied doc­u­ment in the government,”while for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney referred to it as “the fam­i­ly jew­els.”

    ...

    Sanner’s job was the same for those who had car­ried out this task under pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents: find a way to engage a politi­cian whose nat­ur­al instincts might not incline toward the tedious, and often con­tra­dic­to­ry details con­tained in many intel­li­gence prod­ucts. This was espe­cial­ly true for Don­ald J. Trump, who report­ed­ly dis­dains detailed writ­ten reports, pre­fer­ring instead oral brief­in­gs backed up by graph­ics.

    The end result was a two-phased brief­ing process, where San­ner would seek to dis­till crit­i­cal mate­r­i­al to the pres­i­dent oral­ly, leav­ing the task of pick­ing through the details spelled out in the writ­ten prod­uct to his senior advi­sors. This approach was approved before­hand by the direc­tor of nation­al intel­li­gence, the direc­tor of the CIA and the president’s nation­al secu­ri­ty advi­sor.

    San­ner, a vet­er­an CIA ana­lyst who pre­vi­ous­ly head­ed up the office respon­si­ble for prepar­ing the PDB, served as the DNI’s prin­ci­pal advi­sor “on all aspects of intel­li­gence,” respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing “a con­sis­tent and holis­tic view of intel­li­gence from col­lec­tion to analy­sis” and ensures “the deliv­ery of time­ly, objec­tive, accu­rate, and rel­e­vant intel­li­gence.”

    If there was any­one in the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty capa­ble of sort­ing out the wheat from the chaff when it came to what infor­ma­tion was suit­ed for ver­bal pre­sen­ta­tion to the pres­i­dent, it was San­ner.

    No copy of the PDB for Feb. 27 has been made avail­able to the pub­lic to scru­ti­nize, nor will one like­ly ever be.

    How­ev­er, based upon infor­ma­tion gleaned from media report­ing derived from anony­mous leaks, a pic­ture emerges of at least one of the items con­tained in the brief­ing doc­u­ment, the prover­bial “ground zero” for the cur­rent cri­sis sur­round­ing alle­ga­tions that Rus­sia has paid cash boun­ties to per­sons affil­i­at­ed with the Tal­iban for the pur­pose of killing Amer­i­can and coali­tion mil­i­tary per­son­nel in Afghanistan.

    Links Between Accounts

    Some­time in ear­ly Jan­u­ary 2020 a com­bined force of U.S. spe­cial oper­a­tors and Afghan Nation­al Intel­li­gence Ser­vice (NDS) com­man­dos raid­ed the offices of sev­er­al busi­ness­men in the north­ern Afghan city of Kon­duz and the cap­i­tal city of Kab­ul, accord­ing to a report in The New York Times. The busi­ness­men were involved in the ancient prac­tice of “Hawala.” It is a tra­di­tion­al sys­tem for trans­fer­ring mon­ey in Islam­ic cul­tures, involv­ing mon­ey paid to an agent who then instructs a remote asso­ciate to pay the final recip­i­ent.

    Afghan secu­ri­ty offi­cials claim that the raid had noth­ing to do with “Rus­sians smug­gling mon­ey,” but rather was a response to pres­sure from the Finan­cial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter­na­tion­al body estab­lished in 1989 whose mis­sion is, among oth­er things, to set stan­dards and pro­mote effec­tive imple­men­ta­tion of legal, reg­u­la­to­ry and oper­a­tional mea­sures for com­bat­ing mon­ey laun­der­ing and ter­ror­ist financ­ing.

    This expla­na­tion, how­ev­er, seems more of a cov­er sto­ry than fact, if for no oth­er rea­son than that the FATF, in June 2017, for­mal­ly rec­og­nized that Afghanistan had estab­lished “the legal and reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work to meet its com­mit­ments in its action plan,” not­ing that Afghanistan was “there­fore no longer sub­ject to the FATF’s mon­i­tor­ing process.”

    The joint U.S.-Afghan raid, accord­ing to the Times, was not a take­down of the Halawa sys­tem in Afghanistan—a vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble task—but rather a par­tic­u­lar Halawa net­work run by Rah­mat­ul­lah Azizi, a one-time low-lev­el Afghan drug smug­gler-turned-high pro­file busi­ness­man, along with a col­league named Habib Mura­di.

    Azizi’s port­fo­lio is alleged by the Times, quot­ing a “friend,” to include serv­ing as a con­trac­tor for U.S. recon­struc­tion pro­grams, man­ag­ing unde­fined busi­ness deal­ings in Rus­sia, which sup­pos­ed­ly, accord­ing to unnamed U.S. intel­li­gence sources quot­ed by the Times, includ­ed face-to-face meet­ings with offi­cers from Russ­ian Mil­i­tary Intel­li­gence (GRU), and serv­ing as a bag­man for a covert mon­ey laun­der­ing scheme between the Tal­iban and Rus­sia.

    Some thir­teen per­sons, includ­ing mem­bers of Azizi’s extend­ed fam­i­ly and close asso­ciates, were round­ed up in the raids. Both Azizi and Mura­di, how­ev­er, elud­ed cap­ture, believed by Afghan secu­ri­ty offi­cials to have fled to Rus­sia.

    Based in large part on infor­ma­tion derived from the inter­ro­ga­tion of the detainees that fol­lowed, U.S. intel­li­gence ana­lysts pieced togeth­er a pic­ture of Azizi’s Halawa enter­prise—described as “lay­ered and com­plex”, with mon­ey trans­fers “often sliced into small­er amounts that rout­ed through sev­er­al region­al coun­tries before arriv­ing in Afghanistan.”

    What made these trans­ac­tions even more inter­est­ing from an intel­li­gence per­spec­tive, were the links made by U.S. ana­lysts between Azizi’s Halawa sys­tem, an elec­tron­ic wire trans­fer, a Tal­iban-linked account, and a Russ­ian account that some believed was tied to Unit 29155 (a covert GRU activ­i­ty believed to be involved with, among oth­er activ­i­ties, assas­si­na­tions). The trans­ac­tions had been picked up by the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency (NSA), the U.S. intel­li­gence agency respon­si­ble for mon­i­tor­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions and elec­tron­ic data world­wide.

    The dis­cov­ery of some $500,000 in cash by U.S. spe­cial oper­a­tors at Azizi’s lux­u­ry vil­la in Kab­ul was the icing on the cake—the final “dot” in a com­plex and con­vo­lut­ed game of “con­nect the dots” that com­prised the U.S. intel­li­gence community’s assess­ment of the alleged Russ­ian (GRU)-Taliban-Azizi con­nec­tion.

    The next task for U.S. intel­li­gence ana­lysts was to see where the Russ­ian (GRU)-Taliban-Azizi con­nec­tion took them. Using infor­ma­tion gath­ered through detainee debrief­in­gs, the ana­lysts broke down mon­ey Azizi received through his Halawa pipeline into “pack­ets,” some com­pris­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars, which were doled out to enti­ties affil­i­at­ed with, or sym­pa­thet­ic to, the Tal­iban.

    Accord­ing to Afghan secu­ri­ty offi­cials quot­ed by the Times, at least some of these pay­ments were specif­i­cal­ly for the pur­pose of killing Amer­i­can troops, amount­ing to a price tag of around $100,000 per dead Amer­i­can.

    The game of “con­nect the dots” con­tin­ued as the U.S. intel­li­gence ana­lysts linked this “boun­ty” mon­ey to crim­i­nal net­works in Par­wan Province, where Bagram Air Base—the largest U.S. mil­i­tary instal­la­tion in Afghanistan—is locat­ed. Accord­ing to Afghan secu­ri­ty offi­cials, local crim­i­nal net­works had car­ried out attacks on behalf of the Tal­iban in the past in exchange for mon­ey. This link­age prompt­ed U.S. intel­li­gence ana­lysts to take a new look at an April 9, 2019 car bomb attack out­side of Bagram Air Base which killed three U.S. Marines.

    This infor­ma­tion was con­tained in the PDB that was giv­en to Trump on Feb. 27. Accord­ing to stan­dard pro­ce­dure, it would have been vet­ted by at least three intel­li­gence agencies—the CIA, the Nation­al Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Cen­ter (NCC), and the NSA. Both the CIA and NCC had assessed the find­ing that the GRU had offered boun­ties to the Tal­iban with “mod­er­ate con­fi­dence,” which in the lex­i­con used by the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty means that the infor­ma­tion is inter­pret­ed in var­i­ous ways, that there are alter­na­tive views, or that the infor­ma­tion is cred­i­ble and plau­si­ble but not cor­rob­o­rat­ed suf­fi­cient­ly to war­rant a high­er lev­el of con­fi­dence.

    The NSA, how­ev­er, assessed the infor­ma­tion with “low con­fi­dence,” mean­ing that they viewed the infor­ma­tion as scant, ques­tion­able, or very frag­ment­ed, that it was dif­fi­cult to make sol­id ana­lyt­ic infer­ences, and that there were sig­nif­i­cant con­cerns or prob­lems with the sources of infor­ma­tion used.

    Float­ing in the Bowl

    All of this infor­ma­tion was con­tained in the PDB car­ried into the White House by San­ner. The prob­lem for San­ner was the con­text and rel­e­vance of the infor­ma­tion she car­ried. Just five days pri­or, on Feb. 22, the U.S. and the Tal­iban had agreed to a sev­en-day par­tial cease­fire as pre­lude to the con­clu­sion of a peace agree­ment sched­uled to be signed in two days’ time, on Feb. 29.

    The U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Afghanistan Zal­may Khalilzad, was in Doha, Qatar, where he was ham­mer­ing out the final touch­es to the agree­ment with his Tal­iban coun­ter­parts. Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo was prepar­ing to depart the U.S. for Doha, where he would wit­ness the sign­ing cer­e­mo­ny. The infor­ma­tion San­ner car­ried in the PDB was the prover­bial turd in the punch­bowl.

    The prob­lem was that the intel­li­gence assess­ment on alleged Russ­ian GRU “boun­ties” con­tained zero cor­rob­o­rat­ed infor­ma­tion. It was all raw intel­li­gence (char­ac­ter­ized by one informed offi­cial as an “intel­li­gence col­lec­tion report”), and there were seri­ous dis­agree­ments among the dif­fer­ing ana­lyt­i­cal communities—in par­tic­u­lar the NSA—which took umbrage over what it deemed a mis­read­ing of its inter­cepts and an over reliance on uncor­rob­o­rat­ed infor­ma­tion derived from detainee debriefs.

    More­over, none of the intel­li­gence link­ing the GRU to the Tal­iban pro­vid­ed any indi­ca­tion of how far up the Russ­ian chain of com­mand knowl­edge of the “boun­ties” went, and whether or not any­one at the Kremlin—let alone Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin—were aware of it.

    None of the infor­ma­tion con­tained in the PDB was “action­able.” The pres­i­dent couldn’t very well pick up the phone to com­plain to Putin based on a case drawn sole­ly from unver­i­fied, and in some cas­es unver­i­fi­able, infor­ma­tion.

    To brief the pres­i­dent about an assess­ment which, if tak­en at face val­ue, could unrav­el a peace agree­ment that rep­re­sent­ed a core com­mit­ment of the pres­i­dent to his domes­tic polit­i­cal base—to bring U.S. troops home from end­less over­seas wars—was the epit­o­me of the politi­ciza­tion of intel­li­gence, espe­cial­ly when there was no con­sen­sus among the U.S. intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty that the assess­ment was even cor­rect to begin with.

    This was a mat­ter which could, and would, be han­dled by the president’s nation­al secu­ri­ty advi­sors. San­ner would not be brief­ing the pres­i­dent in per­son on this report, a deci­sion that Trump Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advis­er Robert O’Brien agreed with.

    Blam­ing Rus­sia

    End­ing America’s near­ly 19-year mis­ad­ven­ture in Afghanistan had always been an objec­tive of Pres­i­dent Trump. Like both pres­i­dents before him whose tenure wit­nessed the deaths of Amer­i­can ser­vice mem­bers in that hard, dis­tant and inhos­pitable land, Trump found him­self con­fronting a mil­i­tary and nation­al secu­ri­ty estab­lish­ment con­vinced that “vic­to­ry” could be achieved, if only suf­fi­cient resources, backed by deci­sive lead­er­ship, were thrown at the prob­lem.

    His choice for sec­re­tary of defense, James “Mad Dog” Mat­tis, a retired Marine gen­er­al who com­mand­ed Cen­tral Com­mand (the geo­graph­i­cal com­bat­ant com­mand respon­si­ble for, among oth­er regions, Afghanistan) pushed Trump for more troops, more equip­ment, and a freer hand in tak­ing on the ene­my.

    By the Fall of 2017, Trump even­tu­al­ly agreed to the dis­patch of some 3,000 addi­tion­al troops to Afghanistan, along with new rules of engage­ment, which would allow greater flex­i­bil­i­ty and quick­er response times for the employ­ment of U.S. air strikes against hos­tile forces in Afghanistan.

    It took lit­tle more than a year for the pres­i­dent to come to grips with a real­i­ty that would be reflect­ed in the find­ings of Spe­cial Inspec­tor Gen­er­al for Afghanistan Recon­struc­tion John Sop­ko, that there had been “explic­it and sus­tained efforts by the U.S. gov­ern­ment to delib­er­ate­ly mis­lead the public…to dis­tort sta­tis­tics to make it appear the Unit­ed States was win­ning the war when that was not the case.”

    In Novem­ber 2018, Trump turned on “Mad Dog”, telling the for­mer Marine Gen­er­al “I gave you what you asked for. Unlim­it­ed author­i­ty, no holds barred. You’re los­ing. You’re get­ting your ass kicked. You failed.”

    It was prob­a­bly the most hon­est assess­ment of the War in Afghanistan any Amer­i­can pres­i­dent deliv­ered to his serv­ing sec­re­tary of defense. By Decem­ber 2018 Mat­tis was out, hav­ing resigned in the face of Trump’s deci­sion to cut Amer­i­can loss­es not only in Afghanistan, but also Syr­ia and Iraq.

    That same month, U.S. diplo­mat Khalilizad began the process of direct peace talks with the Tal­iban that led to the Feb. 29 peace agree­ment. It was a dis­pute over Afghan peace talks that led to the fir­ing of Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advi­sor John Bolton. In Sep­tem­ber 2019—Trump want­ed to invite the Tal­iban lead­er­ship to Camp David for a sign­ing cer­e­mo­ny, some­thing Bolton helped quash. Trump can­celled the “sum­mit”, cit­ing a Tal­iban attack that took the life of an Amer­i­can ser­vice mem­ber, but Bolton was gone.

    Tak­ing on Fail­ure

    One doesn’t take on two decades of sys­temic invest­ment in mil­i­tary fail­ure that had become ingrained in both the psy­che and struc­ture of the U.S. mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment, fire a pop­u­lar sec­re­tary of defense, and then fol­low that act up with the dis­missal of one of the most vin­dic­tive bureau­crat­ic infight­ers in the busi­ness with­out accu­mu­lat­ing ene­mies.

    Wash­ing­ton DC has always been a polit­i­cal Pey­ton Place where no deed goes unpun­ished. All president’s are con­front­ed by this real­i­ty, but Trump’s was a far dif­fer­ent case—at no time in America’s his­to­ry had such a divi­sive fig­ure won the White House. Trump’s anti-estab­lish­ment agen­da alien­at­ed peo­ple across all polit­i­cal spec­trums, often for cause. But he also came into office bear­ing a Scar­let Let­ter which none of his pre­de­ces­sors had to confront—the stig­ma of a “stolen elec­tion” won only through the help of Russ­ian intel­li­gence.

    The “Russ­ian inter­fer­ence” mantra was all-per­va­sive, cit­ed by legions of anti-Trumpers sud­den­ly imbued with a Cold War-era appre­ci­a­tion of glob­al geopol­i­tics, see­ing the Russ­ian Bear behind every road­block encoun­tered, nev­er once paus­ing to con­sid­er that the prob­lem might actu­al­ly reside clos­er to home, in the very mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment Trump sought to chal­lenge.

    Afghanistan was no dif­fer­ent. Pri­or to step­ping down as the com­man­der of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in Sep­tem­ber 2018, Army Gen­er­al John Nichol­son sought to deflect respon­si­bil­i­ty for the real­i­ty that, despite receiv­ing the rein­force­ments and free­dom of action request­ed, his forces were los­ing the fight for Afghanistan.

    Unable or unwill­ing to shoul­der respon­si­bil­i­ty, Nichol­son instead took the safe way out—he blamed Rus­sia.

    Scape­goat­ing

    “We know that Rus­sia is attempt­ing to under­cut our mil­i­tary gains and years of mil­i­tary progress in Afghanistan, and make part­ners ques­tion Afghanistan’s sta­bil­i­ty,” Nichol­son wrote in an email to reporters, seem­ing­ly obliv­i­ous to the his­to­ry of fail­ure and lies being doc­u­ment­ed at that moment by Sop­ko.

    In March 2018 Nichol­son had accused the Rus­sians of “act­ing to under­mine” U.S. inter­ests in Afghanistan, accus­ing the Rus­sians of arm­ing the Tal­iban. But the most telling exam­ple of Russ­ian-bait­ing on the part of the gen­er­al occurred in Feb­ru­ary 2017, short­ly after Pres­i­dent Trump was inau­gu­rat­ed. In an appear­ance before the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, Nichol­son was con­front­ed by Sen. Bill Nel­son, a Flori­da Demo­c­rat and ardent sup­port­er of the U.S. inter­ven­tion in Afghanistan.

    “If Rus­sia is cozy­ing up to the Taliban—and that’s a kind word—if they are giv­ing equip­ment that we have some evi­dence that the Tal­iban is getting…and oth­er things that we can’t men­tion in this unclas­si­fied set­ting? And the Tal­iban is also asso­ci­at­ed with al-Qai­da? There­fore Rus­sia is indi­rect­ly help­ing al-Qae­da in Afghanistan?” Nel­son asked.

    “Your log­ic is absolute­ly sound, sir,” was Nicholson’s response.

    Except it wasn’t.

    Rus­sia has a long and com­pli­cat­ed his­to­ry with Afghanistan. The Sovi­et Union invad­ed Afghanistan in 1979, and over the course of the next decade fought a long and cost­ly war with Afghan tribes, backed by Amer­i­can mon­ey and arms and a legion of Arab jihadis who would lat­er morph into the very al-Qae­da Sen. Nel­son allud­ed to in his ques­tion to Gen­er­al Nichol­son.

    By 1989 the Sovi­et Empire was wind­ing down, and with it its dis­as­trous Afghan War. In the decade that fol­lowed, Rus­sia was at odds with the Tal­iban gov­ern­ment that arose from the ash­es of the Afghan civ­il war that fol­lowed in the wake of the with­draw­al of Sovi­et forces.

    Moscow threw its sup­port behind the more mod­er­ate forces of the so-called North­ern Alliance and, after the al-Qae­da ter­ror attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, was sup­port­ive of the U.S.-led inter­ven­tion to defeat the Tal­iban and bring sta­bil­i­ty to a nation that bor­dered the Cen­tral Asian Republics of the for­mer Sovi­et Union, which Rus­sia viewed as espe­cial­ly sen­si­tive to its own nation­al secu­ri­ty.

    Real­ized US Was Los­ing the War

    Four­teen years lat­er, in Sep­tem­ber 2015, Rus­sia was con­front­ed by the real­i­ty that the U.S. had no strat­e­gy for vic­to­ry in Afghanistan and, left to its own devices, Afghanistan was doomed to col­lapse into an ungovern­able morass of trib­al, eth­nic and reli­gious inter­ests that would spawn extrem­ism capa­ble of migrat­ing over the bor­der, into the for­mer Sovi­et Cen­tral Asian Republics, and into Rus­sia itself.

    ...

    The cap­ture of the north­ern Afghan city of Kon­duz, fol­lowed by the rise of an even more mil­i­tant Islamist group in Afghanistan known as the Islam­ic State-Kho­ras­san (IS‑K), both of which occurred in Sep­tem­ber 2015, led the Rus­sians to con­clude that the U.S. was los­ing its war in Afghanistan, and Russia’s best hope was to work with the pre­vail­ing side—the Taliban—in order to defeat the threat from IS‑K, and cre­ate the con­di­tions for a nego­ti­at­ed peace set­tle­ment in Afghanistan.

    None of this his­to­ry was men­tioned by either Gen. Nichol­son or Sen. Nel­son. Instead, Nichol­son sought to cast Russia’s involve­ment in Afghanistan as “malign”, declar­ing in a Dec. 16, 2016 brief­ing that:

    “Rus­sia has overt­ly lent legit­i­ma­cy to the Tal­iban. And their nar­ra­tive goes some­thing like this: that the Tal­iban are the ones fight­ing Islam­ic State, not the Afghan gov­ern­ment. And of course … the Afghan gov­ern­ment and the U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism effort are the ones achiev­ing the great­est effect against Islam­ic State. So, this pub­lic legit­i­ma­cy that Rus­sia lends to the Tal­iban is not based on fact, but it is used as a way to essen­tial­ly under­mine the Afghan gov­ern­ment and the NATO effort and bol­ster the bel­liger­ents.”

    Absent from Nicholson’s com­ments is any appre­ci­a­tion sur­round­ing the cre­ation of IS‑K, and the impact it had on the Tal­iban as a whole.

    The for­ma­tion of IS‑K can be causal­ly linked to the dis­ar­ray that occurred with­in the inter­nal ranks of the Tal­iban in the after­math of the death of Mul­lah Omar, the founder and moral inspi­ra­tion of the orga­ni­za­tion. The strug­gle to pick a suc­ces­sor to Omar exposed a Tal­iban frac­tured into three fac­tions.

    One, rep­re­sent­ing the main­stream fac­tion of the Tal­iban most close­ly linked to Mul­lah Omar, want­ed to con­tin­ue and expand upon the exist­ing strug­gle against the Gov­ern­ment of Afghanistan and the U.S.-led coali­tion, which sup­port­ed and sus­tained it in an effort to re-estab­lish the Emi­rate that ruled pri­or to being evict­ed from pow­er in the months after the ter­ror attacks of 9/11.

    Anoth­er, ground­ed in the ranks of Pak­istani Tal­iban, want­ed a more rad­i­cal approach which sought a region­al Emi­rate beyond the bor­ders of Afghanistan.

    A third fac­tion had grown tired of years of fight­ing and viewed the pass­ing of Mul­lah Omar as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for a nego­ti­at­ed peace set­tle­ment with the Afghan gov­ern­ment. IS‑K emerged from the ranks of the sec­ond group, and posed a real threat to the via­bil­i­ty of the Tal­iban if it could moti­vate large num­bers of the Taliban’s most fanat­ic fight­ers to defect from the ranks of the main­stream Tal­iban.

    For the Rus­sians, who wit­nessed the grow­ing poten­cy of the Tal­iban as man­i­fest­ed in its short-lived cap­ture of Kon­duz, the biggest dan­ger it faced wasn’t a Tal­iban vic­to­ry over the U.S.-dominated Afghan gov­ern­ment, but rather the emer­gence of a region­al­ly-mind­ed Islamist extrem­ist move­ment that could serve as a mod­el and inspi­ra­tion for Mus­lim men of com­bat age to ral­ly around, allow­ing the vio­lent insta­bil­i­ty to fes­ter local­ly and spread region­al­ly for decades to come. The main­stream Tal­iban were no longer viewed as a force to be con­front­ed, but rather con­tained through co-option.

    In a state­ment before U.S. troops in Decem­ber 2016, then-Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma open­ly admit­ted that “the U.S. can­not elim­i­nate the Tal­iban or end vio­lence in that coun­try [Afghanistan].” Rus­sia had reached that con­clu­sion more than a year pri­or, fol­low­ing the Tal­iban cap­ture of Kon­duz.

    A year before Oba­ma made this announce­ment, Zamir Kab­ulov, Russia’s spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive to Afghanistan, not­ed that “Tal­iban inter­ests objec­tive­ly coin­cide with ours” when it came to lim­it­ing the spread of the Islam­ic State in Afghanistan, and he acknowl­edged that Rus­sia had “opened com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels with the Tal­iban to exchange infor­ma­tion.”

    ...

    Many of the Tal­iban lead­er­ship had a his­to­ry of fight­ing against the Sovi­ets in the 1980s and were loath to be seen as work­ing with their old ene­mies. The rise of IS‑K in Afghanistan, how­ev­er, cre­at­ed a com­mon threat that helped salve old wounds, and while the Tal­iban balked at any overt rela­tion­ship, the Rus­sians began a backchan­nel process of dis­creet diplo­mat­ic engage­ment. (Kab­ulov had a his­to­ry of nego­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban dat­ing back to the mid-1990’s).

    By Novem­ber 2018 this effort had matured into what was called the “Moscow For­mat”, a process of diplo­mat­ic engage­ment between Rus­sia and Afghanistan’s neigh­bors which result­ed in the first-ever dis­patch of a Tal­iban del­e­ga­tion to Moscow for the pur­pose of dis­cussing the con­di­tions nec­es­sary for peace talks to be held about end­ing the con­flict in Afghanistan.

    When Pres­i­dent Trump ter­mi­nat­ed the U.S.-Taliban peace nego­ti­a­tions in Sep­tem­ber 2019, it was the “Moscow For­mat” that kept the peace process alive, with Rus­sia host­ing a del­e­ga­tion from the Tal­iban to dis­cuss the future of the peace process.

    The Russ­ian involve­ment helped keep the win­dow of nego­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban open, help­ing to facil­i­tate the even­tu­al return of the U.S. to the nego­ti­at­ing table this Feb­ru­ary, and played no small part in the even­tu­al suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion of the Feb. 27, 2020 peace agreement—a fact which no one in the U.S. was will­ing to pub­licly acknowl­edge.

    Bad Intel­li­gence

    The Intel­li­gence Col­lec­tion Report that found its way into the Feb. 27 PDB did not appear in a vac­u­um. The sin­gling out of the Hawala net­work oper­at­ed by Rah­mat­ul­lah Azizi was the man­i­fes­ta­tion of a larg­er anti-Russ­ian ani­mus that had exist­ed in the intel­li­gence col­lec­tion pri­or­i­ties of the U.S. mil­i­tary, the CIA and the Afghan NDS since 2015.

    This ani­mus can be traced to inter­nal bias that exist­ed in both U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand and the CIA against any­thing Russ­ian, and the impact this bias had on the intel­li­gence cycle as it applied to Afghanistan.

    The exis­tence of this kind of bias is the death knell of any pro­fes­sion­al intel­li­gence effort, as it destroys the objec­tiv­i­ty need­ed to pro­duce effec­tive analy­sis.

    Sher­man Kent, the dean of U.S. intel­li­gence analy­sis (the CIA’s Cen­ter for Intel­li­gence Analy­sis is named after him), warned of this dan­ger, not­ing that while there was no excuse for pol­i­cy or polit­i­cal bias, the exis­tence of ana­lyt­ic or cog­ni­tive bias was ingrained in human con­di­tion, requir­ing a con­tin­u­ous effort by those respon­si­ble for over­see­ing ana­lyt­i­cal tasks to min­i­mize.

    Kent urged ana­lysts “to resist the ten­den­cy to see what they expect to see in the infor­ma­tion,” and “urged spe­cial cau­tion when a whole team of ana­lysts imme­di­ate­ly agrees on an inter­pre­ta­tion of yesterday’s devel­op­ment or a pre­dic­tion about tomorrow’s.”

    Part of a Litany of Intel Fail­ures

    The nexus of the­o­ry and real­i­ty was rarely, if ever, achieved with­in the U.S. intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty. From exag­ger­at­ed Cold War esti­mates of Sovi­et mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ty (the “bomber” and “mis­sile” gaps), the under­es­ti­ma­tion of Viet Cong and North Viet­namese mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ty, a fail­ure to accu­rate­ly pre­dict the need for, and impact of, Gorbachev’s poli­cies of reform in the Sovi­et Union, the deba­cle that was Iraqi WMD, a sim­i­lar mis­read­ing of Iran’s nuclear capa­bil­i­ty and intent, and the two decade fail­ure that was (and is) the Afghanistan expe­ri­ence, the U.S. intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty has a track record of imbu­ing its analy­sis with both polit­i­cal and cog­ni­tive bias—and get­ting it very, very wrong about so many things.

    The Russ­ian boun­ty sto­ry is no excep­tion. It rep­re­sents the nexus of two sep­a­rate ana­lyt­i­cal streams, both of which were amply imbued with pol­i­cy bias; one, rep­re­sent­ing America’s anger at not being able to con­trol the fate of Rus­sia in the after­math of the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union, and the sec­ond, America’s total mis­read of the real­i­ty of Afghanistan (and the Tal­iban) as it relat­ed to the Glob­al War on Ter­ror (GWOT).

    For the first decade or so, these streams lived sep­a­rate but equal lives, pop­u­lat­ed by ana­lyt­i­cal teams whose work rarely inter­sect­ed (indeed, if truth be told, the Russian/Eurasian “house” was fre­quent­ly robbed of its best tal­ent to feed the insa­tiable appetite for more and bet­ter “analy­sis” dri­ven by the GWOT enter­prise.)

    The elec­tion of Barack Oba­ma, how­ev­er, changed the intel­li­gence land­scape and, in doing so, ini­ti­at­ed process­es which allow these two hereto­fore dis­parate intel­li­gence streams to drift togeth­er.

    Under Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, the U.S. “surged” some 17,000 addi­tion­al com­bat troops into Afghanistan in an effort to turn the tide of bat­tle. By Sep­tem­ber 2012, these troops had been with­drawn; the “surge” was over, with lit­tle to show for it besides an addi­tion­al 1,300 U.S. troops killed and tens of thou­sands more wound­ed. The “surge” had failed, but like any fail­ure root­ed in Pres­i­den­tial pol­i­cy, it was instead sold as a suc­cess.

    That same year the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion suf­fered anoth­er pol­i­cy fail­ure of sim­i­lar mag­ni­tude. In 2008, Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin swapped places with Prime Min­is­ter Dmitri Medvedev, and when Oba­ma took office, his team of Russ­ian experts, led by a Stan­ford pro­fes­sor named Michael McFaul, sold him on the con­cept of a “reset” of U.S.-Russian rela­tions, which had soured under eight years of the Bush Pres­i­den­cy.

    But the “reset” was decid­ed­ly one-sided—it placed all of the blame for the bad blood between the two nations on Putin, and none on two suc­ces­sive eight-year pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tions, led by Bill Clin­ton and George W. Bush, which saw the U.S. expand the NATO alliance up to Russia’s bor­ders, aban­don foun­da­tion­al arms con­trol agree­ments, and basi­cal­ly behave like Rus­sia was a defeat­ed foe whose only accept­able pos­ture was one of acqui­es­cence and sub­servience.

    This was a game Russia’s first Pres­i­dent, Boris Yeltsin, only seemed too hap­py to play. His hand-picked suc­ces­sor, Vladimir Putin, how­ev­er, would not.

    With Medvedev installed as pres­i­dent, McFaul sought to empow­er Medvedev politically—in effect, to give him the “Yeltsin” treatment—in hopes that an empow­ered Medvedev might be able to mus­cle Putin out of the pic­ture.

    For any num­ber of rea­sons (per­haps most impor­tant being Putin had no inten­tion of allow­ing him­self to be so squeezed, and Medvedev was nev­er inclined to do any squeez­ing), the Russ­ian “reset” failed. Putin was reelect­ed as pres­i­dent in March 2012. McFaul’s gam­bit had failed, and from that moment for­ward, U.S.-Russian rela­tions became a “zero sum game” for the U.S.—any Russ­ian suc­cess was seen as a U.S. fail­ure, and vice ver­sa.

    In 2014, after watch­ing a duly elect­ed, pro-Russ­ian Ukrain­ian pres­i­dent, Vik­tor Yanukovych, removed from office by a pop­u­lar upris­ing which, if not U.S. spon­sored, was U.S. sup­port­ed, Putin respond­ed by annex­ing the Russ­ian-major­i­ty Crimean penin­su­la and sup­port­ing pro-Russ­ian seces­sion­ists in the break­away Don­bas region of Ukraine.

    This action cre­at­ed a schism between Rus­sia and the U.S. and Europe, result­ing in the imple­men­ta­tion of eco­nom­ic sanc­tions against Rus­sia by both enti­ties, and the emer­gence of a new Cold War-like rela­tion­ship between Rus­sia and NATO.

    In 2015 Rus­sia fol­lowed up its Ukraine action by dis­patch­ing its mil­i­tary into Syr­ia where, at the invi­ta­tion of the Syr­ia gov­ern­ment, it helped turn the tide on the bat­tle­field in favor of Syria’s embat­tled pres­i­dent, Bashar al-Assad, against an assort­ment of jihadist groups.

    Overnight, the intel­li­gence back­wa­ter that had been Russian/European affairs was sud­den­ly thrust front and cen­ter on the world stage and, with it, into the heart of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. The McFaul school of Putin-pho­bia sud­den­ly became dog­ma, and any aca­d­e­m­ic who had pub­lished a book or arti­cle crit­i­cal of the Russ­ian pres­i­dent was ele­vat­ed in sta­tus and stature, up to and includ­ing a seat at the table in the senior-most deci­sion-mak­ing cir­cles of the U.S. intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty.

    The Rus­sians were sud­den­ly imbued with near super-human capa­bil­i­ty, up to and includ­ing the abil­i­ty to steal an Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

    After the fail­ure of the Oba­ma surge in Afghanistan, and the with­draw­al from Iraq at the end of 2011 of all U.S. com­bat troops, the mind­set through­out the Cen­tral Com­mand area of oper­a­tions was “sta­bil­i­ty.” This was the com­mand guid­ance and pity the intel­li­gence ana­lyst who tried to raise a red flag or inject a mod­icum of real­i­ty into the intel­li­gence enter­prise whose mis­sion it was to sus­tain this sense of sta­bil­i­ty.

    Indeed, when the Islam­ic State roared out of the west­ern deserts of Iraq to estab­lish itself in east­ern Syr­ia, dozens of CENTCOM intel­li­gence ana­lysts offi­cial­ly com­plained that their senior man­age­ment was pur­pose­ful­ly manip­u­lat­ing the ana­lyt­i­cal prod­uct pro­duced by CENTCOM to paint a delib­er­ate­ly mis­lead­ing “rosy” pic­ture of truth on the ground out of fear of anger­ing the Com­mand­ing Gen­er­al and his senior staff.

    For any­one who has spent any time in the mil­i­tary, the impor­tance of com­mand guid­ance, whether writ­ten or ver­bal, when it comes to estab­lish­ing both pri­or­i­ties and approach, can­not be over­stat­ed. In short, what the gen­er­al wants, the gen­er­al gets; woe be the junior offi­cer or ana­lyst who didn’t get the memo.

    By 2016, the com­man­der of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Nichol­son, want­ed to see Rus­sians under­min­ing U.S. pol­i­cy objec­tives in Afghanistan. The poi­so­nous cul­ture that exist­ed inside CENTCOM’s intel­li­gence enter­prise was only too hap­py to com­ply.

    The cor­rup­tion of intel­li­gence at “ground zero” end­ed up cor­rupt­ing the entire U.S. intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty, espe­cial­ly when there was a sys­temic desire to trans­fer blame for the fail­ure of U.S. pol­i­cy in Afghanistan any­where oth­er than where it belonged—squarely on the shoul­ders of U.S. pol­i­cy mak­ers and the mil­i­tary that did their bid­ding.

    And there was a beefed-up Russia/Eurasia intel­li­gence appa­ra­tus look­ing for oppor­tu­ni­ties to foist blame on Rus­sia. Blam­ing Rus­sia for U.S. pol­i­cy fail­ure in Afghanistan became the law of the land.

    The con­se­quences of this polit­i­cal and cog­ni­tive bias is sub­tle, but appar­ent to those who know what to look for, and are will­ing to take the time to look.

    Fol­low­ing the leak to The New York Times about the Russ­ian “boun­ty” intel­li­gence, mem­bers of Con­gress demand­ed answers about the White House’s claim that the infor­ma­tion pub­lished by the Times (and mim­ic­ked by oth­er main­stream media out­lets) was “unver­i­fied.”

    Rep. Jim Banks, who sits on the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee as one of eight Repub­li­can law­mak­ers briefed by the White House on the sub­stance of the intel­li­gence regard­ing the alleged Russ­ian “boun­ties”, tweet­ed short­ly after the meet­ing end­ed that, “Hav­ing served in Afghanistan dur­ing the time the alleged boun­ties were placed, no one is angri­er about this than me.”

    Bank’s biog­ra­phy notes that, “In 2014 and 2015, he took a leave of absence from the Indi­ana State Sen­ate to deploy to Afghanistan dur­ing Oper­a­tions Endur­ing Free­dom and Freedom’s Sen­tinel.”

    Banks’ time­line mir­rors that offered by a for­mer senior Tal­iban leader, Mul­lah Man­an Niazi, who told U.S. reporters who inter­viewed him after the Russ­ian “boun­ty” sto­ry broke that “the Tal­iban have been paid by Russ­ian intel­li­gence for attacks on U.S. forces—and on ISIS forces—in Afghanistan from 2014 up to the present.”

    Niazi has emerged a key fig­ure behind the craft­ing of the “boun­ty” nar­ra­tive, and yet his voice is absent from The New York Times report­ing, for good reason—Niazi is a shady char­ac­ter whose acknowl­edged ties to both the Afghan Intel­li­gence Ser­vice (NDS) and the CIA under­mine his cred­i­bil­i­ty as a viable source of infor­ma­tion.

    Offi­cials, speak­ing anony­mous­ly to the media, have stat­ed that “the boun­ty hunt­ing sto­ry was ‘well-known’ among the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty in Afghanistan, includ­ing the CIA’s chief of sta­tion and oth­er top offi­cials there, like the mil­i­tary com­man­dos hunt­ing the Tal­iban. The infor­ma­tion was dis­trib­uted in intel­li­gence reports and high­light­ed in some of them.”

    If this is true, and some of this infor­ma­tion found its way into the intel­li­gence report referred to by Rep. Banks, then the U.S. intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty has been sell­ing the notion of a Russ­ian boun­ty on U.S. troops since at least 2015—coincidentally, the same time Rus­sia start­ed sid­ing with the Tal­iban against IS‑K.

    Seen in this light, claims that Bolton briefed Pres­i­dent Trump on the “boun­ty” sto­ry in March of 2019—nearly a full year before the PDB on it was deliv­ered to the White House—don’t seem too far-fetched, except for one small detail: what was the basis of Bolton’s brief­ing? What intel­li­gence prod­uct had been gen­er­at­ed at that time which rose to a lev­el suf­fi­cient enough to war­rant being briefed to the pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States by his nation­al secu­ri­ty advi­sor?

    The answer is, of course—none. There was noth­ing; if there was, we would be read­ing about it with enough cor­rob­o­ra­tion to war­rant a White House denial. All we have is a sto­ry, a rumor, spec­u­la­tion, a “leg­end” pro­mot­ed by CIA-fund­ed Tal­iban turn­coats that had seeped itself into the folk­lore of Afghanistan enough to be assim­i­lat­ed by oth­er Afghans who, once detained and inter­ro­gat­ed by the NDS and CIA, repeat­ed the “leg­end” with suf­fi­cient ardor to be includ­ed, with­out ques­tion, in the intel­li­gence col­lec­tion report that actu­al­ly did make into a PDB—on Feb. 27, 2020.

    There is anoth­er aspect of this nar­ra­tive that fails com­plete­ly, name­ly the basic com­pre­hen­sion of what exact­ly con­sti­tutes a “boun­ty.”

    “Afghan offi­cials said prizes of as much as $100,000 per killed sol­dier were offered for Amer­i­can and coali­tion tar­gets,” the Times report­ed. And yet, when Ruk­mi­ni Cal­li­machi, a mem­ber of the report­ing team break­ing the sto­ry, appeared on MSNBC to elab­o­rate fur­ther, she not­ed that “the funds were being sent from Rus­sia regard­less of whether the Tal­iban fol­lowed through with killing sol­diers or not. There was no report back to the GRU about casu­al­ties. The mon­ey con­tin­ued to flow.”

    There is just one problem—that’s not how boun­ties work. Boun­ties are the quin­tes­sen­tial quid pro quo arrangement—a reward for a ser­vice ten­dered. Do the job, col­lect the reward. Fail to deliver—there is no reward. The idea that the Russ­ian GRU set up a cash pipeline to the Tal­iban that was not, in fact, con­tin­gent on the killing of U.S. and coali­tion troops, is the antithe­sis of a boun­ty sys­tem. It sounds more like finan­cial aid, which it was—and is. Any assess­ment that lacked this obser­va­tion is sim­ply a prod­uct of bad intel­li­gence.

    The Tim­ing

    Who­ev­er leaked the Russ­ian “boun­ty” sto­ry to The New York Times knew that, over time, the basics of the sto­ry would not be able to stand up under close scrutiny—there were sim­ply too many holes in the under­ly­ing log­ic, and once the total­i­ty of the intel­li­gence leaked out (which, by Fri­day seemed to be the case), the White House would take con­trol of the nar­ra­tive.

    The tim­ing of the leak hints at its true objec­tive. The main thrust of the sto­ry was that the pres­i­dent had been briefed on a threat to U.S. forces in the form of a Russ­ian “boun­ty,” payable to the Tal­iban, and yet opt­ed to do noth­ing. On its own, this sto­ry would even­tu­al­ly die out of its own voli­tion.

    On June 18, the U.S. ful­filled its oblig­a­tion under the peace agree­ment to reduce the num­ber of troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 by July 2020. By June 26, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion was close to final­iz­ing a deci­sion to with­draw more than 4,000 troops from Afghanistan by the fall, a move which would reduce the num­ber of troops from 8,600 to 4,500 and thus pave the way for the com­plete with­draw­al from U.S. forces from Afghanistan by mid-2021.

    Both of these mea­sures were unpop­u­lar with a mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment that had been delud­ing itself for two decades that it could pre­vail in the Afghan con­flict. More­over, once the troop lev­el had drop to 4,500, there was no turn­ing back—the total with­draw­al of all forces was inevitable, because at that lev­el the U.S. would be unable to defend itself, let alone con­duct any sort of mean­ing­ful com­bat oper­a­tions in sup­port of the Afghan gov­ern­ment.

    It was at this time that the leak­er chose to release his or her infor­ma­tion to The New York Times, per­fect­ly timed to cre­ate a polit­i­cal furor intend­ed not only to embar­rass the pres­i­dent, but more crit­i­cal­ly, to mobi­lize Con­gres­sion­al push­back against the Afghan with­draw­al.

    On Thurs­day, the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee vot­ed on an amend­ment to the Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act which required the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to issue sev­er­al cer­ti­fi­ca­tions before U.S. forces could be fur­ther reduced in Afghanistan, includ­ing an assess­ment of whether any “state actors have pro­vid­ed any incen­tives to the Tal­iban, their affil­i­ates, or oth­er for­eign ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions for attacks against Unit­ed States, coali­tion, or Afghan secu­ri­ty forces or civil­ians in Afghanistan in the last two years, includ­ing the details of any attacks believed to have been con­nect­ed with such incentives”—a direct ref­er­ence to the Russ­ian “boun­ty” leak.

    The amend­ment passed 45–11.

    This, more than any­thing else, seems to have been the objec­tive of the leak. The irony of Con­gress pass­ing leg­is­la­tion designed to pro­long the Amer­i­can war in Afghanistan in the name of pro­tect­ing Amer­i­can troops deployed to Afghanistan should be appar­ent to all.

    The fact that it is not speaks vol­umes to just how far down the road of polit­i­cal insan­i­ty this coun­try has trav­elled. On a week­end where Amer­i­ca is col­lec­tive­ly cel­e­brat­ing the birth of the nation, that cel­e­bra­tion will be marred by the knowl­edge that elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives vot­ed to sus­tain a war every­one knows has already been lost. That they did so on the backs of bad intel­li­gence leaked for the pur­pose of trig­ger­ing such a vote only makes mat­ters worse.

    ———-

    “BOUNTYGATE: Scape­goat­ing Sys­temic Mil­i­tary Fail­ure in Afghanistan” by Scott Rit­ter; Con­sor­tium News; 07/05/2020

    “The Intel­li­gence Col­lec­tion Report that found its way into the Feb. 27 PDB did not appear in a vac­u­um. The sin­gling out of the Hawala net­work oper­at­ed by Rah­mat­ul­lah Azizi was the man­i­fes­ta­tion of a larg­er anti-Russ­ian ani­mus that had exist­ed in the intel­li­gence col­lec­tion pri­or­i­ties of the U.S. mil­i­tary, the CIA and the Afghan NDS since 2015.

    That’s the key point to keep in mind as this ‘Tal­iban boun­ty’ sto­ry fiz­zles: this did­n’t hap­pen in vac­u­um. We’ve been see­ing garbage Rus­sia-relat­ed analy­sis since the US and Rus­sia end­ed up on oppo­site sides of the Ukrain­ian and Syr­i­an con­flicts. That’s the con­text of this ‘Tal­iban boun­ty’ sto­ry: it was a sto­ry that fit a nar­ra­tive that the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty knew was desired which rep­re­sents the kind of cog­ni­tive bias that destroys pro­fes­sion­al intel­li­gence:

    ...
    This ani­mus can be traced to inter­nal bias that exist­ed in both U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand and the CIA against any­thing Russ­ian, and the impact this bias had on the intel­li­gence cycle as it applied to Afghanistan.

    The exis­tence of this kind of bias is the death knell of any pro­fes­sion­al intel­li­gence effort, as it destroys the objec­tiv­i­ty need­ed to pro­duce effec­tive analy­sis.

    Sher­man Kent, the dean of U.S. intel­li­gence analy­sis (the CIA’s Cen­ter for Intel­li­gence Analy­sis is named after him), warned of this dan­ger, not­ing that while there was no excuse for pol­i­cy or polit­i­cal bias, the exis­tence of ana­lyt­ic or cog­ni­tive bias was ingrained in human con­di­tion, requir­ing a con­tin­u­ous effort by those respon­si­ble for over­see­ing ana­lyt­i­cal tasks to min­i­mize.

    Kent urged ana­lysts “to resist the ten­den­cy to see what they expect to see in the infor­ma­tion,” and “urged spe­cial cau­tion when a whole team of ana­lysts imme­di­ate­ly agrees on an inter­pre­ta­tion of yesterday’s devel­op­ment or a pre­dic­tion about tomorrow’s.”

    ...

    In 2015 Rus­sia fol­lowed up its Ukraine action by dis­patch­ing its mil­i­tary into Syr­ia where, at the invi­ta­tion of the Syr­ia gov­ern­ment, it helped turn the tide on the bat­tle­field in favor of Syria’s embat­tled pres­i­dent, Bashar al-Assad, against an assort­ment of jihadist groups.

    Overnight, the intel­li­gence back­wa­ter that had been Russian/European affairs was sud­den­ly thrust front and cen­ter on the world stage and, with it, into the heart of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. The McFaul school of Putin-pho­bia sud­den­ly became dog­ma, and any aca­d­e­m­ic who had pub­lished a book or arti­cle crit­i­cal of the Russ­ian pres­i­dent was ele­vat­ed in sta­tus and stature, up to and includ­ing a seat at the table in the senior-most deci­sion-mak­ing cir­cles of the U.S. intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty.

    The Rus­sians were sud­den­ly imbued with near super-human capa­bil­i­ty, up to and includ­ing the abil­i­ty to steal an Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

    ...

    By 2016, the com­man­der of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Nichol­son, want­ed to see Rus­sians under­min­ing U.S. pol­i­cy objec­tives in Afghanistan. The poi­so­nous cul­ture that exist­ed inside CENTCOM’s intel­li­gence enter­prise was only too hap­py to com­ply.

    The cor­rup­tion of intel­li­gence at “ground zero” end­ed up cor­rupt­ing the entire U.S. intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty, espe­cial­ly when there was a sys­temic desire to trans­fer blame for the fail­ure of U.S. pol­i­cy in Afghanistan any­where oth­er than where it belonged—squarely on the shoul­ders of U.S. pol­i­cy mak­ers and the mil­i­tary that did their bid­ding.
    ...

    And yet, despite that cog­ni­tive bias that has been strong­ly pre­dis­pos­ing the US nation­al secu­ri­ty state to hype any Rus­sia-relat­ed charge, there still was­n’t uni­form back­ing of the ‘Tal­iban boun­ty’ report with the NSA giv­ing it a “low con­fi­dence” assess­ment. But this ques­tion­able intel­li­gence made it into the PDB on Feb 27 nonethe­less. Right when intel­li­gence of this nature could derail the peace plan with the Tal­iban. That’s also part of the con­text of this ‘Tal­iban boun­ty’ sto­ry: It was float­ed just at the right time to dis­rupt the US with­draw­al from Afghanistan:

    ...
    All of this infor­ma­tion was con­tained in the PDB car­ried into the White House by San­ner. The prob­lem for San­ner was the con­text and rel­e­vance of the infor­ma­tion she car­ried. Just five days pri­or, on Feb. 22, the U.S. and the Tal­iban had agreed to a sev­en-day par­tial cease­fire as pre­lude to the con­clu­sion of a peace agree­ment sched­uled to be signed in two days’ time, on Feb. 29.

    The U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Afghanistan Zal­may Khalilzad, was in Doha, Qatar, where he was ham­mer­ing out the final touch­es to the agree­ment with his Tal­iban coun­ter­parts. Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo was prepar­ing to depart the U.S. for Doha, where he would wit­ness the sign­ing cer­e­mo­ny. The infor­ma­tion San­ner car­ried in the PDB was the prover­bial turd in the punch­bowl.

    The prob­lem was that the intel­li­gence assess­ment on alleged Russ­ian GRU “boun­ties” con­tained zero cor­rob­o­rat­ed infor­ma­tion. It was all raw intel­li­gence (char­ac­ter­ized by one informed offi­cial as an “intel­li­gence col­lec­tion report”), and there were seri­ous dis­agree­ments among the dif­fer­ing ana­lyt­i­cal communities—in par­tic­u­lar the NSA—which took umbrage over what it deemed a mis­read­ing of its inter­cepts and an over reliance on uncor­rob­o­rat­ed infor­ma­tion derived from detainee debriefs.

    More­over, none of the intel­li­gence link­ing the GRU to the Tal­iban pro­vid­ed any indi­ca­tion of how far up the Russ­ian chain of com­mand knowl­edge of the “boun­ties” went, and whether or not any­one at the Kremlin—let alone Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin—were aware of it.

    None of the infor­ma­tion con­tained in the PDB was “action­able.” The pres­i­dent couldn’t very well pick up the phone to com­plain to Putin based on a case drawn sole­ly from unver­i­fied, and in some cas­es unver­i­fi­able, infor­ma­tion.

    To brief the pres­i­dent about an assess­ment which, if tak­en at face val­ue, could unrav­el a peace agree­ment that rep­re­sent­ed a core com­mit­ment of the pres­i­dent to his domes­tic polit­i­cal base—to bring U.S. troops home from end­less over­seas wars—was the epit­o­me of the politi­ciza­tion of intel­li­gence, espe­cial­ly when there was no con­sen­sus among the U.S. intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty that the assess­ment was even cor­rect to begin with.
    ...

    Final­ly, note the wild suc­cess of this ‘Tal­iban boun­ty’ leak: Con­gress added an amend­ment to the Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act that lim­its a fur­ther reduc­tion in US troop lev­els in Afghanistan until the Trump admin­is­tra­tion issues an assess­ment on these boun­ty claims. The US draw down in Afghanistan is now on hold, which was like­ly the point of the leak in the first place:

    ...
    The tim­ing of the leak hints at its true objec­tive. The main thrust of the sto­ry was that the pres­i­dent had been briefed on a threat to U.S. forces in the form of a Russ­ian “boun­ty,” payable to the Tal­iban, and yet opt­ed to do noth­ing. On its own, this sto­ry would even­tu­al­ly die out of its own voli­tion.

    On June 18, the U.S. ful­filled its oblig­a­tion under the peace agree­ment to reduce the num­ber of troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 by July 2020. By June 26, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion was close to final­iz­ing a deci­sion to with­draw more than 4,000 troops from Afghanistan by the fall, a move which would reduce the num­ber of troops from 8,600 to 4,500 and thus pave the way for the com­plete with­draw­al from U.S. forces from Afghanistan by mid-2021.

    Both of these mea­sures were unpop­u­lar with a mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment that had been delud­ing itself for two decades that it could pre­vail in the Afghan con­flict. More­over, once the troop lev­el had drop to 4,500, there was no turn­ing back—the total with­draw­al of all forces was inevitable, because at that lev­el the U.S. would be unable to defend itself, let alone con­duct any sort of mean­ing­ful com­bat oper­a­tions in sup­port of the Afghan gov­ern­ment.

    It was at this time that the leak­er chose to release his or her infor­ma­tion to The New York Times, per­fect­ly timed to cre­ate a polit­i­cal furor intend­ed not only to embar­rass the pres­i­dent, but more crit­i­cal­ly, to mobi­lize Con­gres­sion­al push­back against the Afghan with­draw­al.
    On Thurs­day, the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee vot­ed on an amend­ment to the Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act which required the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to issue sev­er­al cer­ti­fi­ca­tions before U.S. forces could be fur­ther reduced in Afghanistan, includ­ing an assess­ment of whether any “state actors have pro­vid­ed any incen­tives to the Tal­iban, their affil­i­ates, or oth­er for­eign ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions for attacks against Unit­ed States, coali­tion, or Afghan secu­ri­ty forces or civil­ians in Afghanistan in the last two years, includ­ing the details of any attacks believed to have been con­nect­ed with such incentives”—a direct ref­er­ence to the Russ­ian “boun­ty” leak.

    The amend­ment passed 45–11.

    This, more than any­thing else, seems to have been the objec­tive of the leak. The irony of Con­gress pass­ing leg­is­la­tion designed to pro­long the Amer­i­can war in Afghanistan in the name of pro­tect­ing Amer­i­can troops deployed to Afghanistan should be appar­ent to all.
    ...

    And it’s that suc­cess at freez­ing the US draw down in Afghanistan via the leak of this sto­ry that makes this some­thing we should prob­a­bly expect again soon­er rather than lat­er. Because why not? It worked. The sto­ry was leaked, there were days of fran­tic report­ing that large­ly just accept­ed that the intel­li­gence report was true, and Con­gress act­ed and imposed a freeze on the draw down. Mis­sion accom­plished. Those who want­ed to see that troop draw down frozen won. But so has Pres­i­dent Trump arguably won in the end, albeit belat­ed­ly. Because this sto­ry that was being used as a polit­i­cal cud­gel against him sim­ply does­n’t hold water and as it con­tin­ues to fall apart he’s going to have oppor­tu­ni­ties to keep point­ing that out. Are we going to see the same forces in the nation­al secu­ri­ty state that suc­cess­ful­ly pushed this ‘Tal­iban boun­ty’ sto­ry push­ing it again lat­er this year clos­er to the elec­tion? Or maybe some new hyped sto­ry based on garbage intel­li­gence and bias­es? We’ll see, but as this crum­bling ‘Tal­iban boun­ty’ sto­ry makes clear, one of the biggest polit­i­cal allies Trump has right now head­ing into an elec­tion he real­ly should lose are the forces push­ing flawed #TrumpRus­sia sto­ries that don’t hold up but the media can’t resist.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | July 10, 2020, 2:46 pm

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