Steve Coll on Afghanistan: ‘Let us hear from the spies’


Steve Coll at the New Yorker wants America to dive into the nitty gritty in 2012. As the war in Afghanistan enters its second decade and Barack Obama’s spot in the White House is contested, Coll is asking for the facts.

The facts, in this case, come in the form of a National Intelligence Estimate on the war in Afghanistan that should be published soon, according to Coll. The Estimate, compiled by analysts in all 16 American intelligence agencies, is — to use a military term — a ‘no-bullshit assessment’ of the current situation in Afghanistan.

Typically, Coll says, these estimates are classified Secret or Top Secret, as they are compiled using a range of data, some of which is presumably classified. These Estimates, however, are compiled with a distinct lack of something else: political influence. Coll explains:

After the debacle of misreported intelligence during the infamous 2002 N.I.E. on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the intelligence community made changes to try to ensure a drafting process of high integrity. Thomas Fingar, who oversaw some of the reforms, described the process in a 2008 speech. The protection of dissent was certainly one of the goals of the post-Iraq reforms. But they were not intended to create yet more ways for four-star generals to be weigh in on finished intelligence. The idea was to protect civil servants from a politicized process—to defend the proverbial analyst-dweeb (i.e., Chloe O’Brian on “24”) who might be poorly socialized but who happened to see what her slick bosses had overlooked.

In today’s Washington, ‘no-bullshit’ is a phrase than can often only be used literally. With partisan mud-slinging from both sides of the aisle and gridlock on some very basic issues, a government assessment free of partisan influence is probably about as common in Washington as an actual pile of bull feces, so the upcoming N.I.E. is a golden opportunity.

Not only does this Estimate give us the first comprehensive view of a war fought with the increased troop presence provided by Obama starting in 2009, but it will answer better than anything else the question: What has Barack Obama’s administration done in Afghanistan?

After the 2009 troop surge became one of the first major issues to divide the democratic government during the Obama administration, the importance of that question cannot be understated.

But the answer provided by the upcoming N.I.E. is one the public may not see. Since the Estimates seem to be classified by default, someone in Obama’s government would have to opt to go public with the information, either by way of WikiLeaks or the like, or officially, as Coll suggests:

Let us have the facts, as the intelligence community describes them. Obama should publish unclassified versions of the key judgments in the latest N.I.E. once it is complete. The Bush Administration did this twice at the height of public controversy over the Iraq war.

Based on the hints Coll was able to get about the latest Estimate, they don’t pain a pretty picture.

These days, an Estimate usually contains “Key Judgments” backed by analysis near the front of the document. There are six such judgments in the Afghanistan draft, I was told. I wasn’t able to learn what all of them were; according to the accounts I heard, however, the draft on the whole is gloomier than the typical public statements made by U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.

A grim official analysis of his efforts in Afghanistan could seriously hurt president Obama’s reelection campaign, and that is motivation enough for his administration to keep it under raps. If they truly have America’s best interests in mind, and truly believe they’re doing the best that could be done for the country, then let’s hope an official (and not-too-severely-redacted) version of the assessment is released to the public before Americans head to the polls next year.

Photo: Then-Senator Barack Obama with then-General David Patreus in July 2008. The pair have climbed the ranks in Washington: Petraeus is now head of the CIA and Obama was elected President in 2008. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lorie Jewell.

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