January 10, 2010

Cordesman on Flynn

I think Tony Cordesman, a seasoned int veteran, has written the definitive take on the Flynn report, "Fixing Intel." I agree with every word. My favourite quote:

"As a final comment, Fixing Intel repeatedly focuses on the need for internal transparency and to fight the tendency towards overclassification and compartmentation. This reflects a valid concern, and a tacit recognition of the fact that one never knows whether one is better off shooting the enemy, or ones own public affairs and security officers. All three actions generally have the same positive effect."

It's not all that wry, of course. His comments on the failure of accurate assessments of host nation forces being a major cause of defeat in Vietnam resonate strongly with me. Also what he has to say on intelligence-sharing with Pakistan.

It always baffled me that any product about the enemy in Afghanistan, from route names to assessments, to UAV feeds, was classified, and therefore unshareable with any of our Afghan friends. But that same information in many cases could be shared with the Pakistani ISI, because they were an ally, even if we may have doubted they were monolithically opposed to the Afghan Taliban. Afghanistan technically was not an ally, so we couldn't tell them anything we knew.

On the other hand, any assessments of Afghan force capability were by definition unclassified. I'm not complaining, it's the main reason I have been able to be so frank here and elsewhere about what I did, but... the lack of a classified alternative meant that any such assessments risked becoming sugar-coated almost beyond recognition, for fear that, you know, someone somewhere might read them -- since anyone can read the unclassified stuff -- and see them as disparaging to Afghans. And since the tendency for something to be read (or at least, the fear that it might be) rises in parallel to the rank level of its author, the sugar coat would grow thicker with each level in the chain of command. That would have been fine, just good PR really, if there'd been a classified equivalent where higher-ups could say what they really thought. But there wasn't.

So you had this bizarre situation where junior officers could offer their candid assessments, in effect confident that they likely would be filtered out of higher aggregated information, because it was unclassified. Decision makers only saw the sugar, and the only really accurate assessments of what the Afghans were capable of that anyone in the leadership outside of the combat zone would see were those of leakers and independent journalists, who were often criticized for their pains as defeatists.

Posted by BruceR at 03:43 PM