David Petraeus and the Afghanistan Report Card

David Petraeus and the Afghanistan Report Card

Accusations about politicized intelligence and manipulated analyses fly as Petraeus settles in at the Agency.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author.  They do not necessarily represent the views of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense.

In March, Gen. David Petraeus was optimistic that his strategy in Afghanistan was getting results. Progress was fragile and reversible, he admitted, but it was progress nonetheless. He also expressed frustration with the CIA, whose reports were less hopeful.

In April, Gen. Petraeus was nominated to take over as CIA director. Some critics worried about the militarization of intelligence, with an increasing number of military officers taking over civilian jobs. Others doubted that he could remain objective, given his enormous personal and professional stake in the outcome of the war. After all, Petraeus was the public champion of the counterinsurgency doctrine that he claimed was necessary to defeat the Taliban and deliver stability to Afghanistan. How could he protect the objectivity of CIA analyses when he had such an obvious conflict of interest? Would he faithfully transmit analysts’ conclusions to policy makers, even if they implicitly criticized his approach to the war?

Petraeus addressed these concerns during his Senate confirmation hearings in June. “My goal has always been to ‘speak truth to power,’” he said, “and I will strive to do that as director of the CIA.” Petraeus also claimed that military and civilian intelligence reports differed because the CIA stopped incorporating new information six-eight weeks before it delivered its assessments. Stopping the clock two months early meant that the agency potentially overlooked important new information that might cause it to reconsider its conclusions. Senators did not press the issue.

Last Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Petraeus had implemented changes designed to incorporate more ground-level military reports into intelligence on Afghanistan. To bring estimates up to date, he “ordered his intelligence analysts to give greater weight to the opinions of troops in the fight.” Apparently some in the agency worried that this was part of an effort to stifle pessimistic views. At least one intelligence official warned that Petraeus had a habit of “challenging unflattering conclusions.”

The next day, CIA officials denounced the report, saying that that acting CIA director Michael Morrell agreed to the request from current commander Gen. John Allen at some point over the summer. (Although Petraeus’s confirmation hearing was in June, he was not sworn in until September.) They also downplayed the changes as procedural modifications to the semi-annual Afghanistan assessment. In the past, intelligence officers would brief senior military officials in Kabul, who would subsequently ask for opinions among their subordinates. Now they will begin by briefing battlefield commanders, who will have the opportunity to make suggestions before the assessment is complete. Analysts can make changes in response or stand firm and simply note the commander’s disagreement. CIA officials believe this is necessary to make sure that assessments benefit from the most current and comprehensive information available.

Petraeus also issued a remarkable memo to the agency workforce, which was posted on the CIA’s public website over the weekend. The memo bluntly declared that the original AP report was “flat wrong” and assured analysts that changes to the assessment procedure were not designed to produce more optimistic conclusions. In an extraordinary public guarantee against politicization, Petraeus promised that “analysis is wholly owned by our analysts. It’s yours. And when I head downtown to the White House to present the CIA’s findings, I take great pride in faithfully presenting your work to the President and to other leaders of our government.”

Despite these promises, there are still reasons to be skeptical about the background of the story and the purpose of the change in the assessment process. It might be technically true that acting director Morrell authorized the change at the request of Gen. Allen, but this overlooks the obvious influence of Petraeus, who instituted a similar military-assessment procedure while in command and requested that the CIA do the same. Moreover, it was clear from the start that no one in the Senate would seriously contest his appointment, meaning that Petraeus’s wishes had to be taken into consideration during the months before he officially took over at the CIA. (He was confirmed by the Senate 94-0.) Pinning the decision on Morrell is misleading and disingenuous.

But set aside the issue of politicization. Take Petraeus at his word, accept his promises that he will not let vested interests affect his management decisions, and assume that the shift in the assessment process is not an attempt to manipulate intelligence. Is it still a good idea?

There is obvious value in incorporating military views into intelligence products. Field commanders can offer uniquely detailed views on the nature of the conflict. Continued fighting allows them to monitor enemy tactics as well as changes in the enemy’s level of effort. Their interaction with civilians also allows them to gauge public sentiment, at least at the local level. Done well, military assessments can paint a vivid portrait of the overall course of the war.

But assessments are not always done well. One reason is that they are inherently narrow. This is not to criticize: troops operating in a small area inevitably see the war through a soda straw. Nonetheless, they might conclude that trends in their own area are representative of larger trends throughout the country. Avoiding this problem requires methodical efforts to aggregate micro-level military perspectives into macro-level analyses while remaining cognizant of the serious analytical dangers involved.

While such efforts are always difficult, the assessment process in Afghanistan during Petraeus’s command came under especially withering criticism. The military assessment process, according to Stephen Downes-Martin, was “riddled with highly visible flaws.” Measures of progress were chosen haphazardly, and commanders made sweeping conclusions simply by calculating the average of these so-called metrics. Apparently they gave little consideration to the fact that some metrics were more important than others. Perhaps most distressingly, Downes-Martin found that metrics were chosen without explaining why certain kinds of progress were logically needed to achieve certain strategic results. His review concluded that “military assessments, and by association the military commanders, are rightfully distrusted by higher civilian authority and by other organizations in the theater.”

Other Afghanistan specialists have made similar complaints. A decade after the fighting began, writes Joshua Foust, “we still lack the means to tell whether the war is being won or not.” Part of the reason is that the United States is fighting for negative objectives—preventing the Taliban from returning to power and denying al-Qaeda its old safe haven—and there will never be a satisfying way to prove the negative. The problem in Afghanistan has been compounded by military reports that focus on the results of coalition military operations and downplay the underlying political and social effects of Taliban attacks. This track record is reason to doubt that integrating military reports into intelligence analyses will lead to a more accurate assessment of the war, especially because ISAF has a history of exaggerating progress.

Accurate and timely intelligence will be critical as the Obama administration reconsiders what kinds of political outcomes are possible with a stripped-down force in Afghanistan. Integrating military views might lead to more comprehensive CIA assessments, but it also might lead to more confusion if bad metrics are included for the sake of keeping estimates current. Hopefully the dustup over the AP report will remind CIA officials to remain on guard against politicization, and to make sure that the changes in the assessment process do not lead to false optimism.