Afghan war campaign gets mixed reviews

WASHINGTON (AP) — An Afghanistan intelligence analysis concludes that U.S. special operations raids and special operations-led outreach to Afghan villages are producing tangible results, but that larger counterinsurgency projects — like the billions of dollars spent to install a credible Afghan government — are lagging, The Associated Press has learned.

The Afghan National Intelligence Estimate produced early this year gives low marks to some of the set pieces of Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency campaign. The general was to appear Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee for a confirmation hearing on his nomination as the next CIA director.

While the intelligence report notes the success of the special operations programs and finds conventional troops able to hold the territory they’ve taken, three U.S. officials who have read it say it notes far less progress on developing Afghan security forces able to hold their own or on installing an Afghan government able to serve its people. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.

The report, which covers the final quarter of 2010, says the special operations night raids, combined with village-by-village security operations, have shown more lasting progress in degrading the Taliban and its influence than attempts by conventional military forces to drive out militants, the officials say.

While the document does not favor one strategy over another, the data gives ammunition to those who support Vice President Joe Biden’s special operations-centered counterterrorism strategy over Petraeus’ backing of traditional counterinsurgency. Petraeus’ approach requires a larger footprint of conventional troops and appears to be on the way out, with President Barack Obama confirming the July drawdown of surge troops.

Other U.S. officials argue that the success of special operations troops would not have been possible without the logistical support conventional forces provided in territory the U.S. clawed back from insurgents in large-scale operations. And the NIE says progress has been made in special operations-led counterinsurgency projects, not just raids, the officials said.

Petraeus, together with his predecessor, now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, championed the surge in special operations forces to roughly 10,000 — including about 4,000 elite “direct action” forces who hunt militants and 6,000 others, such as Green Berets and Marine special operators, who train local village security forces.

Petraeus has taken issue with previous reports, which are largely taken from CIA analysis, arguing that they draw on snapshots of information that no longer reflect current realities on the ground, according to a U.S. official involved in some of the discussions of previous NIEs. The report described to the AP was issued in February, meaning it was derived from data from December, the official pointed out, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe high-level discussions.

But it shows the rough waters Petraeus could be headed for as the 20th director of the CIA, following the popular Leon Panetta. He’ll be running an agency charged in part with finding the holes in the war strategy he helped build and champion.

Petraeus is one of the most decorated generals of his time, having run two of America’s toughest and longest-running wars and racking up more front pages and headlines to help foster support for those campaigns. He now has been nominated to run what’s known as “the silent service.” As director, Petraeus will have to win over a secretive agency that is suspicious of outsiders, by nature and training.

Former CIA counsel John Rizzo lived through 10 CIA director transitions in his 34 years at the agency. Rizzo, now senior counsel at the law firm Steptoe & Johnson, ticked off the three qualities he said were needed to succeed as director: a close relationship with the president, a good working relationship with Congress and acceptance by the agency workforce. He said that only Panetta had all three — starting out with the first two in hand and then working hard to reach out to the community. Panetta won over would-be detractors by championing CIA causes on Capitol Hill, such as arguing against the prosecution of CIA interrogators for carrying out harsh techniques such as waterboarding.

Where Panetta faced an agency that initially saw him as an unknown quantity, fearing he did not know enough about the field to direct its staff and operations, CIA staff worry about Petraeus because they know him as a general who did not always agree with them, say current and former intelligence officials.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, intelligence reports done by the agency frequently have been at odds with the picture of progress the general portrayed to the public, two former officials say.

Then again, it’s rare that the picture presented to the public by a general running a war matches the private advice and criticism given to him by the intelligence services, tasked with tracking down what’s not working and pointing it out.

“When you are the four-star general running the war, you are the biggest customer for CIA,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. Now, he’ll be providing that intelligence to those in the field.

Chambliss predicted Petraeus would make the transition easily. The senator said Petraeus already had started working on CIA budget issues, including how to cut costs despite some large looming investments in satellite and other technical systems.

The general already has made two other signals that have soothed the senators’ and the agency’s fears about having a military man in charge, Chambliss said. Petraeus agreed to retire from the Army and has told lawmakers he’ll bring no staff with him.

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