The excerpts that had dribbled out earlier made clear that there was no formal intelligence input into the disorderly process last fall that got the Obama administration neck-deep in the Big Muddy — to borrow from Pete Seeger’s song from the Vietnam era.

I was left wondering how the Obama White House could have been host to such an amateurish decision-process-without-real-process. I had seen a lot of White House fecklessness in my 30 years in intelligence analysis, but it was, frankly, hard to believe that it could be so bad this time.

Could it be true that – after going from knee-deep to waist-deep in the Big Muddy by his early 2009 decision to insert 21,000 additional troops – the President would plunge neck-deep without a comprehensive intelligence review on the earlier reinforcement and a formal estimate on the likely impact of further escalation?

I can no longer avoid concluding that a presidential mix of innocence abroad and raw politics at home slid Barack Obama into a decision that will cost thousands of more lives and, in the end, risk being his political undoing. Add to the mix a heaping tablespoon of, let’s say it, cowardice — and stir.

Last fall’s procedure (or lack thereof) virtually ensured that President Obama would be forced, against what were clearly his better instincts, to be diddled by the four-stars into a double-time March of Folly deeper and deeper into the strategic swamp of Afghanistan.

His intelligence and security advisers, themselves naïve and inexperienced, failed the President miserably.

Those familiar with late-20th Century decision-making in the White House know that rarely was a key foreign policy decision made without formal input from the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

My own experience in providing intelligence support to administrations from John Kennedy to George H. W. Bush was that the protocol for addressing key foreign policy decisions almost always included a request for intelligence support in the form of a National Intelligence Estimate.

Whether the President chose to heed the insights provided by an NIE or not, it was de rigueur to commission an NIE in advance of important decisions.

Even during the rush to war with Iraq, Democrats in Congress demanded an NIE in fall 2002 before voting to authorize President George W. Bush’s invasion. That NIE process was thoroughly corrupted, but at least it allowed for some honest elements of the intelligence community, such as the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, to weigh in with doubts about Iraq’s alleged WMD.

Intelligence? Who Needs it?

This time, as President Obama made the fateful decision to lurch deeper into the Afghan morass, the intelligence community was kept largely on the sidelines, while CIA Director Leon Panetta made political judgments, not analytical ones.

At his confirmation hearings in 2009, Panetta, who served 16 years in the House of Representatives, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he “would always be a creature of Congress.” He apparently thought that was a good thing.

However, for an intelligence agency whose analysts must have the courage to deliver often unpopular truths to the President and other political leaders, the accommodating and compromising mindset of Congress should be the last thing to seek in a CIA director.

Woodward writes that Panetta never volunteered his opinion to the President and that Obama never asked for it. Remarkable. Neither did Congress.

Not that Panetta lacked an opinion, although it was not an intelligence assessment expressed by his CIA analysts about the challenges facing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. It was a political opinion. Woodward writes that Panetta’s opinion pertained to the fact that “Obama was facing a huge political reality.”

From the point of view of an intelligence professional – retired with no stars – I found what Panetta told other senior advisers the most damning part of Woodward’s book. Panetta is quoted as saying:

“No Democratic president can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it. … So just do it. Do what they say.”

(Harry Truman, who created the CIA not to conduct assassinations or fire missiles from drones but rather to give the president unadulterated intelligence on developments abroad, must be rolling over in his grave.}

Small wonder that retired four-star Admiral Dennis Blair, as Director of National Intelligence and nominally Panetta’s boss, called the Afghanistan review process “the goddamndest thing I’ve ever seen.”

According to Woodward, Blair complained that Obama’s national security adviser, former Marine four-star James Jones, had no control of the process. Rather, Jones was happy to share his responsibilities with younger, more activist National Security Council officials — like his deputy Tom Donilon, counterterrorism chief John Brennan, and, at times, even White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

Yet, Jones must have been aware of the longstanding tradition of seeking an NIE before any important foreign policy decision is reached. A truthful NIE, reflecting the collective judgment of mostly civilian intelligence agencies, also can provide a counterweight to the sometimes self-interested judgment of the military brass.

Signaling for an NIE

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, a former three-star general, was a leading opponent of a military escalation and was begging for an independent intelligence assessment.

The ambassador had more ground-truth knowledge of Afghanistan than all the other President’s men, and women, put together. Before retiring from the Army, Lt. Gen. Eikenberry had done two tours in the thick of things there.

During 2002-2003 he had the unenviable task of trying to rebuild the Afghan National Army and police forces. He then served 18 months (2005-2007) as commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In 2009, he was looking for allies to head off the Pentagon-supported “surge.”

In a cable from Kabul on Nov. 9, 2009, Eikenberry took strong issue with “a proposed counterinsurgency strategy that relies on a large, all-or-nothing increase in U.S. troops.” 

He noted that there were “unaddressed variables” in the Pentagon plan for further escalation, like “Pakistan sanctuaries and weak Afghan leadership,” that could “block us from achieving our strategic goals, regardless of the number of additional troops we may send.”

Eikenberry specifically warned that there could be “no way to extricate ourselves.”

He insisted on the need to bring “all the real-world variables to bear in testing the proposed counterinsurgency plan.” Confident that an honest intelligence estimate would issue similar cautions, he pleaded for a “comprehensive, interdisciplinary analysis of all our strategic options.”

Eikenberry could hardly have been blunter in warning against a premature decision for a troop increase, arguing, “there is no option but to widen the scope of our analysis and to consider alternatives beyond a strictly military counterinsurgency effort within Afghanistan.”

Petraeus: We’ve Got It Covered

According to Woodward, Gen. David Petraeus, then head of Central Command, dismissed Eikenberry’s proposal as “laughably late in the game.” Though the ambassador had “reasonable concerns,” Petraeus felt Eikenberry’s questions had all been asked and answered.

Eikenberry had already incurred the wrath of Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen over a cable on Nov. 6, in which Eikenberry wrote, “I cannot support [the Defense Department’s] recommendation for an immediate Presidential decision to deploy another 40,000 here.” 

Eikenberry went on to adduce six game-changing facts. Taking into account any one of them, much less all combined, showed such escalation to be a fool’s errand.

Mullen reportedly reacted very strongly, saying, “This is a betrayal of our system.”  In Mullen’s world, if you dare cross what the top brass has already decided, you are a betrayer!

No comment could point up better the pitfalls of ceding determining roles in strategic decision-making to four-star officers with died-in-the-wool notions of the requirements of military discipline — even in what should have been free brainstorming of possible alternative courses.

National security adviser Jones bears primary responsibility for letting Mullen, Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of forces in Afghanistan, marginalize Eikenberry and other senior officials who held similar concerns. 

No matter how many stars you wear, or have worn, generals/admirals almost always defer to active-duty four-stars in charge of the battlefield.

I believe it may have been more a matter of Jones’s instinct than conscious decision.  Woodward has this to say about Jones:

“Jones was sure that the best answers, if there were any, would come from a review that adhered to the formal NSC [National Security Council] system. Procedure and protocol mattered to the retired Marine general.”

And yet instead of following the traditional protocol and seeking an NIE, retired Marine Gen. Jones deferred to active-duty four-stars Mullen, Petraeus and McChrystal. This time, it was felt there was no need for those civilian intelligence analysts to generate an NIE, thank you very much.

Similarly, after Obama acquiesced to giving the brass almost everything they wanted – approving 30,000 additional troops – Ambassador Eikenberry folded his tent and silently slunk away.

It may not have even occurred to him that he might have had the strength of his convictions and loudly resign so that the rest of us would have insight into the dubious policy decision that would throw still more soldiers and Marines into the Big Muddy.

History will not look favorably on the naïve, lawyerly tone and substance of “President Obama’s Final Orders for Afghanistan Pakistan Strategy, or Terms Sheet.”  (See page 385-390 of Woodward’s book.) 

In an op-ed in Thursday’s Washington Post, Eliot Cohen noted, correctly, that Obama’s six-page ‘Terms Sheet” reads more like “a prenuptial agreement written by a pessimistic lawyer than a strategic document."

‘So Basically, We’re Screwed’

In May, Vice President Joe Biden invited Ambassador Eikenberry to his office, and asked him “Where do we stand?” Eikenberry was typically candid, emphasizing first what an unreliable partner Karzai was. Woodward provides this account of what the ambassador told the Vice President:

“He’s on his meds, he’s off his meds,” Eikenberry said, trying to account once again for Karzai’s erratic behavior. “They’re not producing governance in Marja.  And we haven’t tackled the hard problem, Kandahar.

“And now we’re saying, essentially, that Karzai’s going to produce a political solution for Kandahar. That’s completely irresponsible to suggest that … so basically, we’re screwed.”

But the first-person plural doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter. The “we” doesn’t really mean the generals and the politicians. It’s the young soldiers who are sent to war from inner cities and small towns who are really “screwed.”

The “professional army” is comprised largely of those caught up in an unjust and uncaring “poverty draft.”

The bodies of a tragic number come back in what the Army calls “transfer cases,” rather than the old-fashioned word, “coffins.” Thousands more return maimed for life. Few come back whole. 

Just this past week at Fort Hood, Texas, four decorated veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took their own lives, adding to the 14 other suicides this year at Fort Hood alone.

I was singularly unimpressed by the comment of base commander Maj. Gen. William Grimsley on the tragedy: “It’s personally and professionally frustrating as a leader.”

Generals and admirals, it’s not about you. It’s about those you send into needless war. And it’s about the people in the countries who are brutalized by soldiers who become brutalized themselves.

For instance, if you want to know what Gen. Petraeus’s much-touted “surge” in Iraq was like, you should watch that U.S. Army gun-barrel video of the brutal killing of about a dozen civilians in Baghdad on July 12, 2007. The slayings were all judged to be in accord with the “rules of engagement.”

The brass also might consider getting out in the field where the real fighting takes place and where their hearts can be touched by direct experience that might open their highly disciplined minds to alternatives.

Personal involvement with innocent suffering is about the only way at this point to inject some balance into a decision-making process tilted heavily toward careerist four-stars.

The brass at the Pentagon and the politicos at the White House must finally realize that Afghanistan is not a war game, nor a pawn; it’s a country with real people.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served as an Army infantry/intelligence officer in the early Sixties and for the next 27 years as an analyst at CIA, where he chaired NIEs and prepared and briefed the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

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