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Short-Counting the Taliban

By Gareth Porter
February 15, 2011

Editor’s Note: Intelligence estimates on enemy strength have long been a delicate issue for powerful military commanders who want to present their war strategies as succeeding, not faltering, a problem that arose in Vietnam in the 1960s and is emerging in Afghanistan now.

Like Gen. William Westmoreland before him, Gen. David Petraeus appears to have won out in an internal struggle over measuring the size of enemy forces, as Gareth Porter reports in this article which was first published by Inter Press Services:

Despite evidence that the Taliban insurgency had grown significantly in 2010, the U.S. intelligence
community failed to revise its estimate for Taliban forces as part of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Afghanistan in December.

That unusual decision was in deference to Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan, who did not want any official estimate of the insurgency's strength that would contradict his claims of success by Special Operations Forces in reducing the capabilities of the Taliban in 2010.

In late 2009, the intelligence community adopted an estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 full-time insurgents, as reported by McClatchy newspapers in November and confirmed in a press briefing by Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), on Dec. 3, 2009.

But in 2010, the Taliban and their allies increased the total number of attacks to 34,000, compared with 22,000 in 2009, according to official ISAF data – a whopping 54 percent rise.

That major step-up in operations suggested that the Taliban had grown substantially between 2009 and 2010. Yet no revised intelligence estimate of Taliban strength appeared in late 2010, even though the National Intelligence Council produced a National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan in December.

Such an NIE would normally be expected to include an updated estimate of insurgent strength.

Last month, officials of NATO and Petraeus's command suggested that the number of insurgents had not grown in 2010 and then dismissed the very idea of an intelligence estimate of the size of the forces fighting against ISAF.

On Jan 3, an unnamed NATO official in Brussels said there were "up to 25,000" Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, according to a Jan. 6 story by Associated Press reporter Slobodan Lekic. The same 25,000 figure - the mid-point in the 2009 estimate - had been provided earlier by "several military officers and diplomats", according to the Lekic story.

That figure would imply that the number of full-time Taliban had not grown since 2009, and might even have shrunk - thus supporting Petraeus's claims of success.

But in a Jan. 9 response to a query from Associated Press, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu clearly disparaged the idea that there could be an official estimate of the Taliban strength.

"There has never been a single reliable source for the size of the insurgency," said Lungescu, adding that all estimates of the insurgents are "highly unreliable."

Lungescu sought to divert attention away from a focus on the numerical strength of the Taliban, suggesting that it "misrepresents gains made by alliance forces in the past year." But it is logically impossible for a numerical estimate of insurgent strength to "misrepresent" the results of military operations.

Lungescu was implying that an estimate of Taliban numerical strength would interfere with ISAF's claims of having weakened the Taliban.

In an obvious effort to suggest that the insurgency had been reduced in size, Lungescu said,"[T]housands of insurgent leaders have been killed or captured and several thousand fighters have been taken off the battlefield."

In response to an IPS query to ISAF about the estimated strength of the Afghan armed insurgency, an ISAF spokesman, U.S. Navy Lt. Fernando Rivero, did not respond except to refer to the Jan. 9 statement by Lungescu.

An Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman said Feb. 9 that the ministry estimates the number of Taliban insurgents at between 25,000 and 35,000, although he said it was "just a guess".

The failure of the intelligence community to adopt a revised estimate in the NIE last year was shaped by a highly politicized relationship between the intelligence community and the most powerful field commander in modern U.S. warfare.

The NIE reflected an agreement on what one intelligence source called a "division of labor" between the NIE and the military under which the NIE would not deal with issues bearing on the success of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. Intelligence officials understood that such issues were "outside our lane," the source said.

An estimate of Taliban strength in the NIE would have obvious bearing on the success of U.S. military operations, since it would show whether the Taliban had been able to continue to grow despite losses inflicted by Special Operations Forces raids.

The decision to forego a formal estimate of insurgent forces may have been authorized by the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who has oversight of any national intelligence product, and adjudicates any major differences of view that can't be negotiated.

Clapper, who took over as DNI last August, has a reputation for sacrificing truth to support existing war policies. He is best known for having claimed in October 2003, when he was director of the Defense Department's National Imagery and Mapping Agency, that the missing WMD in Iraq "unquestionably" had been transferred to Syria and other countries before the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Dr. Antonio Giustozzi of the London School of Economics, a widely-published specialist on the conflict in Afghanistan, told IPS the Afghan National Army had provided him with an estimate in April 2010 of 36,000 full-time insurgents – roughly a 50 percent increase over the 2009 estimate.

Giustozzi provided IPS with his detailed estimate of insurgent forces as of January 2011. The estimate includes 36,000 full-time fighters and nearly 50,000 part-time local fighters. The Taliban only mobilize that much larger local pool of manpower occasionally, according to Giustozzi.

That a revised estimate of the insurgency's strength is missing from the latest NIE recalls the political struggle between the CIA and the U.S. military command over the estimate of Vietnamese Communist-led military forces.

In late 1966, a CIA analyst, Sam Adams, found that the military's estimate of less than 300,000 Communist-led forces in Vietnam did not reflect the evidence of continued growth in those forces – and particularly of "irregular" local paramilitary forces.

The CIA came up with a new estimate of Communist-led forces to 431,000 to 491,000, which was presented in a draft national intelligence estimate in spring 1967. But the military command continued to stonewall, flatly refusing to accept any increase in the overall Viet Cong "order of battle" above 300,000.

Gen. Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote to Gen. William Westmoreland, the top U.S. commander in Vietnam, on March 9, 1967, "If these figures should reach the public domain they would literally blow the lid off Washington."

Wheeler urged Westmoreland to "do whatever is necessary to insure [sic] that these figures are not repeat not released to news media or otherwise exposed to the public."

Westmoreland agreed. According to his intelligence chief, Gen. Joseph A. McChristian, Westmoreland said such an estimate would be a "political bombshell" if it got out to the public.

CIA Director Richard Helms finally caved in to military pressure in September 1967 and ordered the CIA to agree to an estimate of exactly 299,000.

Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern told IPS he recalls Sam Adams quoting in a conversation with him the explanation Helms had given to Adams: "My job is to protect the Agency, and there is no way I can do that if I get into a pissing match with the Army when it's at war."

Like Westmoreland, Petraeus appears to have invoked the privilege of the military commander to avert the potential "political bombshell" of an estimate that would almost certainly have shown a large increase in the number of armed insurgents in Afghanistan.

Gareth Porter is an investigative journalist and historian and the author of Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam. He has written regularly for Inter Press Service on U.S. national security policy since 2005.

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