Secrecy and Strategy in Afghanistan

Wikileaks Julian Assange

I don’t condone leaking secrets. But nor do I condone a policy that can only work in secret.

Yes, there are some narrow tactical initiatives that make sense as covert action. But, even then, secrecy is a wasting asset, and any strategy that requires secrecy in the long-term is likely doomed to failure.

Our strategy in Afghanistan is posited on our ability to defeat the insurgency by building up Afghan institutional capable of providing security and good governance.  In order to do so, we must work with Afghans all across the country on a myriad initiates and activities.  We have to build infrastructure.  We have to train security forces.  We have to work with local political leaders to ensure projects and activities are responsive to local needs and concerns. We need to gather information on insurgent activities.

Much of what the Wikileaks documents reveal is precisely that, the thousands of meetings, connections, and initiatives that form the basis of a population-centric counter-insurgency campaign.

But, according to some concerned observers making these sorts of banal contacts public threatens the Afghan participants. Joshua Foust describes the concern:

This is a much more serious issue than most people realize. Abaceen Nasimi, an Afghan who’s traveling around the country and tweeting about it, worries this morning, “The Wiki leaks is going to get lots of people into the hit list of Taleban, even if the names are not real.”

“What a mess,” he adds.

Adam Serwer, a staff writer for the American Prospect, tweeted this morning, “Former Military Intelligence Officer sez of wikileaks, ‘Its an AQ/Taliban execution team’s treasure trove.’”

We have, in short, a strategy that requires deep, constant, and br0ad-based cooperation between Americans and Afghans, but that also — if all the people worked up about Wikileaks are to be believed — one that requires somehow keeping all of these thousands upon thousands of contacts secret for a period of several years at least.

As a practical matter, I think the concerns for the lives of Afghan partners is probably largely accurate.  They are at greater risk due to the the leaks.  But similarly, I think it was always unrealistic to assume such secrecy count be maintained.  Two follow-on points:

(1) The scale of the leak is massive, and certainly this gives the insurgency an ability to make make effective intelligence assessment of our intentions.  The size of the leak and the ability to search and cross-reference incidence and contacts gives the insurgents a dramatically enhanced ability to connect the dots.  This is a bad.  That said, many of the individual data points — whether they are infrastructure projects, civilian casualties incidents, or even contacts between individual Afghans and coalition forces — were probably already known to elements of the insurgency.  Why?  Because the sheer scope of the interactions is so large that the insurgents would have to be wholly inept to not notice it. And they are not inept.

(2) To the extent that we are promising protection to people who work with us, we’re writing a check we can’t cash.  Possibly the United States has the capacity to ultimately suppress insurgent activity so that it is no longer a threat to political stability. But it is impossible to prevent reprisals against individuals.  In short, if we can’t keep it secret, we can’t protect them.

Because we can’t provide individualized security, we have to keep individual contacts with American force secret, but we can’t keep them secret because the sheer scale of interactions is so large that even in the absence of a data dump, local intelligence and rumors will give them away.  We’re not the only ones with informants. But if we can’t keep it secret and as a consequence can’t keep “collaborators” safe, then either Afghans will shy away from working with us, or will play a double-game and hedge their bets with the insurgents.  Indeed, I am slightly less alarmed about the human consequences than some because I suspect the latter is already taking place.  Many of the Afghans who are being “outed” in these reports, likely had already “outed” themselves by going to the insurgents and sharing information with them as a hedge… which is part of the reason why our COIN campaign is not working as well as some had hoped.  Lots of hedging and playing both sides going on.

In short, we have a strategy of deep engagement that requires keeping this engagement secret in order to avoid the murder of those who are genuinely cooperating with us and in order to avoid people playing both sides.

From the specific to the general: Secrecy is always a wasting asset.  In warfare deception and operational security is an important element of operational planning, but it only needs to be temporary, until the blow is struck.  You need to keep the date and location of D-Day secret, but only until D-Day.  But what we require in Afghanistan is not just a temporary secrecy in order to launch a military attack, what we require is a wholesale cover-up of banal and mundane contacts for a period of multiple years.

Our need for secrecy in Afghanistan is a direct consequence of a poorly conceived approach to counter-insurgency that wholly fails to address the challenges of being a third party, external actor in the conflict.  The United States is a major source of illegitimacy in Afghan.  The reality is this causes problems even when contact is relatively limited — we cause problems for the Saudi and Egyptian regimes, for instance, even though we don’t meddle in their domestic politics at all.

The problem is that we have a fundamental failure of strategy in Afghanistan related to the dynamics of third party interventions in civil conflicts, but instead of addressing that directly, we’re trying to disguise it by hiding the level of contact with individual Afghans.  Secrecy in this case is an effort to rescue our Afghan policy from the strategic incoherence imposed by trying to apply a flawed and limited doctrine to the case.

So, it isn’t that the informants shouldn’t be kept secret, it is that the strategy of having Afghans provide intelligence (and cooperate) directly with a foreign occupying power is fundamentally flawed.  We shouldn’t put them in that position.  And when the edifice comes crumbling down — as it inevitably would, either piecemeal of altogether due to a catastrophic leak — it is simply a mistake to blame the consequences on Wikileaks.  We doused the house in gasoline, and it seems to me peculiar to insist that blame for the conflagration ought to only be assigned to the person who happens to strike the match.

There is another element of the secrecy problem, and that is the reality that public support for the war in the United States requires keeping the American public in the dark about key facts — including the role of Pakistan, the corruption and ineffectiveness of our allies, the likelihood that in the end reconciliation will allow “terrorists” to join the Afghan government, the large number of Afghan civilians killed, etc.  This is another place where strategy and secrecy come in conflict, but I think this point is sufficiently self-explanatory that I see no reason to expand on it.

Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project.  Photo credit: Reuters.

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