The Intelligence Gathering Conundrum

“Snowden and Manning fucked us. Who would want to work with us?” asked one former CIA officer.  Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, he told The Politic, not only leaked a record number of classified intelligence documents, but damaged America’s credibility on the world stage.  And with revelation after sullying revelation of each American snooping scandal, the world grows increasingly weary of U.S. involvement in the global arena.

Intelligence gathering from local sources is often the only feasible way of managing the diverse threats the U.S. faces.  But as distrust of the United States abounds, reliable intelligence is more difficult to procure — even as it becomes more essential in places like Afghanistan.

According to Michael Rubin (YC ’94 GRD ’99), a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, “Intelligence is crucial to any strategy in Afghanistan.  Sometimes, the guy selling cigarettes outside a mosque for weeks on end can be as valuable an intelligence asset as a multibillion [dollar] satellite.”

The number of Afghan sources willing to cooperate with the U.S. is rapidly dwindling, especially in recent months.  The root of this problem is the growing perception that the U.S. cannot protect its secrets.  As Rubin explained, “What we have is a perfect storm regarding distrust, not only from Snowden but also from Julian Assange and WikiLeaks before him.  Many want the United States to succeed, but not if doing so exposes their own families to retribution.”

Weak protection of source confidentiality compounds systemic challenges for the U.S. in Afghanistan. As Afghans increasingly perceive a decline in American regional influence, they become less willing to supply hard intelligence.  Rubin and the former CIA officer, who spoke with The Politic on the condition of anonymity, agreed that this phenomenon arises from a combination of pragmatism and Afghan culture.  Because most Afghans think the U.S. will lose the war, their strategic interests are refocusing on their neighbors in the region.  One-time alliances with U.S. officers — which were politically advantageous when the U.S. was a stronger player in Afghanistan — are now shifting to Pakistani, Taliban, or Iranian officials.

“Afghans put survival of the family above commitment to any regime or ideology,” Rubin explained. “Already, we see Afghan patriarchs who send one son to join Afghan National Security Forces, and the other to join a Taliban group, just so the family can have leverage in both camps.”

Afghan proclivity to defect to the winning side means that any apparent decline in U.S. power leads to a decrease in available human sources, many of whose loyalties are available “for rent — not purchase — to the highest bidder,” said the former CIA officer.  The tendency of Afghans to align with the victorious side, coupled with the reality of fading American interest in the region, drives Afghans away from the U.S. cause just when their loyalty is most crucial.

Troop withdrawal, experts argue, has been the nail in the coffin for an American sphere of influence. “The United States lost the war the second President Obama announced a timeline to withdraw,” Rubin said.  Afghan citizens, soldiers, and government officials interpreted withdrawal as the clearest possible signal that America is no longer the dominant external force in Afghanistan.

“[Afghan President Hamid] Karzai has been purging his inner circle of those who are more pro-American and replacing them with those more sympathetic to Pakistan,” Rubin continued. “Karzai sees his survival linked more to his eastern neighbor at present.” By announcing a date for its departure, the United States accelerated the multitude of forces working against its intelligence gathering efforts. Now that Afghanistan knows for certain that formal U.S. presence will cease in 2014, its own realignment with Pakistan and other regional powers becomes equally certain.


Is there any hope for the U.S. in its final months in Afghanistan, and in future intelligence gathering?  The U.S. now exists in Afghanistan at the intersection of a dwindling pool of sources, a lack of civilian trust, an Afghan governmental policy inclining towards Pakistan, and a necessary reliance on local intelligence to maintain its presence in the region. These factors have driven the U.S. to rely more heavily on its liaison partners — intelligence agencies from allied countries — to compensate for other losses in intelligence.

Still, U.S. agencies have effective methods of collecting essential intelligence on the front lines. According to the former CIA officer, “The talking point that terrorists don’t attend diplomatic cocktail parties is bullshit. You can get sources the way you always did.  You find the people who hate your enemy and you motivate and control them with stuff they want.”  Although many Afghans are now more eager to ally themselves with Pakistan, Rubin and the former CIA agent agree that at the very least the U.S. gathers enough intelligence to be successful in achieving its missions until it fully withdraws its troops from Afghanistan in 2014.

Nonetheless, as the CIA officer concluded, “Keeping our shit secret and off the front pages would be handy.”

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