“Not an Impossible Task: The Intelligence Community and Post-Withdrawal Afghanistan”

LTG (ret) Bob Ashley

How will the U.S. keep situational awareness about Afghanistan after U.S. troops leave?  Is it even possible?  Today’s guest essayist has exactly the right background to help us understand the challenges the intelligence community (IC) will face.  He’s retired Lieutenant General  Robert (Bob) Ashley, Jr., the former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and a career intelligence officer who served six combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

LTG Ashley gives us a quick overview of the IC’s risk assessment process, and candidly shares his insights as to some of the difficulties ahead as American troops prepare to meet the September 11th withdrawal deadline.

Here’s LTG Ashley’s perspective:

Not an Impossible Task:
The Intelligence Community and Post-Withdrawal Afgahnistan

LTG (Ret) Bob Ashley
Former Director, Defense Intelligence Agency

During testimony this week the CENTCOM Commander was asked about the impact of a key Presidential policy decision, the decision to go to zero troops in Afghanistan.  When asked if he had a chance to advise the president, Gen McKenzie said, “Sir, I can tell you that I had multiple opportunities to have a detailed conversation with the president and give my advice. He heard my advice. I’m not going to be able to share it with you here this morning.” 

As with any commander, General McKenzie executed his duty of providing his best military advice to our civilian leadership.  This is also the process executed by the intelligence community (IC).

The IC is not in the business of making policy decisions, we inform policy and senior leaders.  Our role is to be agnostic to the decision and provide our best analytic assessment of the situation – present and future. 

The IC’s agnostic assessment is characterized by our confidence levels (low, medium or high) and our ability to explain the sources and methods of the intelligence that unpins our position -what we call analytic tradecraft. 

Commanders leverage IC analysis along with their own experience, judgement, and understanding of the situation. The IC plays an integral role helping commander’s understand enemy courses of action which enables the commander to determine risk to the mission and risk to the force, and ultimately, in this case, if there is an existential risk to the U.S. 

During testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the CIA Director characterized the risk of a resurgence terrorist threat emerging from Afghanistan as “significant.”

Assessing risk is not a static but a continuous process.  So, now that the decision is made, the IC’s task continues unchanged, it is to determine how to best posture collection assets to support the commander and our national leaders with the best intelligence possible and to provide warning to support decision advantage across myriad of complexities in the region and within Afghanistan. 

How the IC does this is by organizing around a framework of Intelligence warning problems.  Warning problems such as a North Korean invasion of South Korea or a Russian invasion of the Baltics.  The warning problems are normally “owned” by Combatant Commanders as they track a series of indicators along a scale of watch conditions or WATCHCONs ranging from “present” to “imminent.” 

To perform intelligence warning you need to be able to sense the environment. Depending on the type of information you need – proximity to the target matters. 

Our ability to sense the environment in Afghanistan will prove much more problematic with the reduction of U.S. forces and the reduction of the multitude of intelligence assets and Allies that have physically operated within the border of Afghanistan.

During SASC testimony this week General McKenzie described that challenge as “difficult but not impossible.”

The intent of warning is to give the commander and policy maker decision space and options. The earlier the warning, the more options are available across the national instruments of power, such as diplomatic or economic before policy makers are faced with only a military option.

In the case of Afghanistan, the IC warning problem will be looking for Taliban compliance to the yet to be agreed upon peace agreement, Taliban collusion with Al-Qaeda, the existential threat of a resurgent Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and signs of instability in the Afghan government.  Equally important will be how other regional state and non-state actors maneuver in the void left by deployed U.S. and NATO forces.   

If zero means zero U.S. troops, and that is what General McKenzie said during SASC testimony this week, the risk to the U.S., other Allied Nations, and the Afghan people will increase given the existing challenges surround the current negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

An enhanced Defense Department presence, under the U.S. Embassy charter, with traditional security cooperation train and assist missions, as well as some form of intelligence support, will be critical as part of a forcing function strategy for Taliban compliance, monitoring terrorist activity, and Afghan stability. 

CIA Director Burns indicated the CIA would “retain a suite of capabilities” and went on to acknowledge the need to enhance the agency’s presence in the region. 

As of today, we have the decision to withdraw U.S. troops, but what is not yet understood is how the regional strategy will evolve to mitigate the risk for our redeployment of forces.  So ongoing planning remains to be done in the days and weeks ahead. 

It has always been clear that the solution to the Afghan war would be a political settlement.  The military forces can buy the diplomats time and space…but any agreement to stop the fighting will be political. 

What remains to be understood is what will be the forcing functions, or leverage points, in that strategy to keep the Taliban accountable to any agreement they may sign in the future.  

Moreover, how will great powers and the regional nations work together to help the Afghan’s move forward with some expectation of stability without losing hard fought ground that brought rights and hope to its citizens?

When Saigon fell a couple years after U.S. forces left Vietnam, is it reported that Henry Kissinger described it as a “decent internal.”  He purportedly met with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai asking then to influence Hanoi to delay an invasion of South Vietnam. 

Afghanistan’s future is not predetermined that the Taliban will return to power after a “decent interval,” but the risk is ever present and significant.  We will do well to study Afghan history to capture the lessons-learned by so many nations that have ventured into the Hindu Kush over the centuries. 

While the solution must be Afghan, there is no question stability in Afghanistan will require the international community to remain engaged.

Still, remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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