CNN reports that a senior US military intelligence officer, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, condemns as incompetent the American intelligence-gathering effort in Afghanistan.
Washington (CNN) — U.S. spies “can do little but shrug” when commanders ask for the information they need to fight the Taliban insurgency, the top U.S. military intelligence officer in Afghanistan said in a blistering report.
U.S. military intelligence officers in Afghanistan spend too much time focusing on enemy groups and tactics and not enough on trying to understand Afghanistan’s culture, people and networks, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn wrote in a report published Monday.
American military intelligence gathering is “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and levels of cooperation among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers,” Flynn wrote.
The double-agent suicide bombing last week in Afghanistan last recalls the 1993 “Blackhawk Down” catastrophe in Mogadishu, when American Rangers walked into a trap set by a local warlord through supposed informants. The Abu Ghraib catastrophe in Iraq, in which the US military used intimidation en masse of Iraqi suspects in lieu of targeted intelligence work, was a sad gauge of American incompetence.
Intelligence work of the required kind is simply alien to the American character. The British ran the Raj in India with barely 5,000 regular officers, but many of them had earned a First in Oriental languages at Oxford or Cambridge; they spoke the local languages, wore native dress, and played the ethnic loyalties of local troops like a pipe-organ.
I wrote about the problem in Asia Times in November 2003:
It is already clear that America is losing the intelligence war in Iraq, for the same reasons it lost in Somalia. The rocket attack on the al-Rashid hotel while Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was present, the downing of a Chinook helicopter with 16 deaths, and related incidents suggest that the Iraqi resistance has infiltrated the American command. That should be no surprise, given that the occupiers depend on local sources for information, and have little capacity to distinguish a repentant Ba’athist from a saboteur.
The trouble stems from a deep American aversion to foreign languages.
In the intelligence war, Islamists have a distinct advantage. Among the ranks of Islamist radicals are thousands who have studied in the United States, speak serviceable English, and can move with ease in American society. How many field agents of American intelligence can move at ease in the Islamist milieu? German and British universities once produced spies who could speak half a dozen Arab dialects and recite the Koran from memory. Today’s only superpower cannot recruit enough Arabic translators to handle routine intercepts.
Precisely why the US cannot find Arabic translators (let alone Arabic-speaking field agents) deserves a moment’s attention. Conservative critics of the American intelligence establishment, such as Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute, ridicule the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) lack of language ability, and blame the previous (Democratic) administration for failing to spend enough money on the requisite skills.
All that is somewhat unfair. During the 1990s, the CIA under Admiral James Woolsey and then under George Tenet cast its net wide for speakers of foreign languages, particularly Middle Eastern and South Asian dialects, with disappointing results. The pool of qualified applicants was too small, and within this pool, too few applicants met the agency’s security standards. Particularly in the case of Arabic and Persian, too many of the candidates were first and second generation immigrants who failed the screening criteria, that is, they were deemed too likely to sympathize with their subjects. The Guantanamo allegations suggest that the CIA’s security concerns were not ill placed.
By contrast, Israeli intelligence can draw on a pool of first and second generation immigrants who speak foreign languages (among which Arabic is most common) as natives, but feel no loyalty whatever, but rather hostility, to their native culture. During the Cold War, European intelligence services could find native speakers of all varieties - German-speaking Bohemians from the Austrian Empire, Polish-speaking Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Poles, Italian-speaking Austrians - who despised the cultures in which they were educated and were happy to subvert them. The average Hungarian headwaiter had a greater command of languages than today’s doctoral students in comparative literature at American universities.
This, I argued, stems from the fact that Americans left the Old World precisely in order to get away from their own cultures:
In terms of linguistic and cultural capacity, the US today commands what may be the lowest-quality clandestine service of any great power in history. Why don’t more Americans learn foreign languages? Turn the question around: why do they forget the languages they already know? The children of immigrants almost invariably lose the native language of their ancestors. One finds German festivals in Wisconsin with lederhosen-wearing brass bands, Weissbier and bratwurst, but no one who can form a single German sentence. Italian-Americans march through the streets in what they imagine to be native costume to honor the birthday of Columbus, without knowing more than a few obscenities in a southern dialect.
Folk came to America precisely in order to shed their culture. More precisely, they fled the tragic destiny of their cultures. Immigrants to America were the poor or the rebels. Not the Milanese but the Calabrians, not the Berliners but the Bavarians, not the assimilated Jews of Germany but the persecuted Jews of Russia made their way westward. These had little stake in their own cultures and no connection to the high culture of the countries they abandoned. There are a few exceptions, eg, the German political exiles of 1848, but these are few. What did the Irish immigrants care for Shakespeare, or Russian-Jewish immigrants for Leo Tolstoy? They shed their old culture almost as fast as their traveling-clothes.
Sadly, Afghanistan is the sort of war that America is ill-equipped to fight, even if it were the right war, and even if we had a clear idea of what our objectives are — which we do not.
The solution? Get someone else to do the dirty work who understands how to fight tribal war. In my year-end “Spengler” column at Asia Times I recommended inviting the Indians in. That is more complicated than it sounds, but nonetheless possible.
Of course, if I had been running the CIA rather than the fixed income research department at Bank of America, things would have been different.