In a recent report, Major General Michael T. Flynn, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence in Afghanistan levels a damning indictment against the U.S. conduct of the war in Afghanistan.

  He argues,

Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy. Having focused the overwhelming majority of its collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade.

The report, published by the Center for a New American Security, has generated much coverage and debate focused on the fact that the report’s main author is a serving general officer. While some have questioned the propriety of this sort of public statement as well as Flynn’s choice of publication venue, the report raises a more profound issue for advocates of an expansion of the war in Afghanistan.cnas

According to Flynn, we do not understand the nature of the Afghan economy, have little grasp of the key powerbrokers, lack detailed knowledge of how local leaders interact with key development initiatives, and worse, we do not even really know who to ask to get this information.  It is a brutal assessment of our intelligence in Afghanistan. It also mirrors the concerns of many skeptics of the escalation who argued that we understood neither our adversaries nor our friends well enough in Afghanistan to justify a deeper involvement.

The justification for increasing the American troop presence in Afghanistan was to allow us to wage a coherent counter-insurgency campaign.  Such a campaign requires deep local knowledge.  It requires an understanding of the motivations of both our enemies and our potential allies.  It requires building functioning governmental institutions, which itself requires a context-rich assessment of existing power relationships.  It requires the creation of a sustainable economy, which requires a nuanced grasp of local economic conditions.  One of our senior military leaders now tells us, we had – and have – none of these.

Of course, we may be able to acquire such intelligence.  But deciding to escalate first and understand the situation second is the reverse of how we should use force.  It reflects an unthinking assumption that military force can solve all problems, and that it is more important to build military capacity than develop a workable strategy.  We’ll soon have 100,000 men in Afghanistan, and no idea whether the operational concept they are pursuing is even appropriate to local conditions.  Our fear of “failing” overwhelmed our desire to understand the nature of the conflict we were engaged in.  Like a gambling junkie pumping quarters into a slot machine, we were so afraid to walk away that we never bothered to figure out the rules of the game.

At the very best, Flynn’s argument demonstrates that advocacy for an Afghan surge was premature and unsupported by a detailed assessment of conditions on the ground.  At worst, those who promoted the   escalation are guilty of some sort of professional misconduct to the extent that those of us who seek to influence policy ought only to do so with some solid empirical foundation for our arguments.

One prominent advocate of the surge justified expanding our presence in Afghanistan using a peculiar version of the Hypocratic oath, urging us to “do no harm” by failing to achieve victory in the country.  Well, perhaps a more appropriate notion of “doing no harm” is not pursuing a course of action that will cost billions of dollars and potentially thousands of American lives on the basis on incomplete information.

What is surprising about this development is that it comes on the heels of a series of misunderstandings and decisions made on incomplete information with regard to Afghanistan.

Back in March 2009, President Obama’s initial review of Afghan policy — which coincided with an initial increase of some 21,000 troops — was based on misconceptions about what a counter-insurgency strategy would entail.  A story about the process noted:

“It was easy to say, ‘Hey, I support COIN,’ because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes,” said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency.

Then when General Stanley McChrystal’s strategic assessment leaked in September, it apparently surprise some administration officials, though it should not have given the requirements for counter-insurgency operations laid out in FM 3-24.  This surprise led to a renewed policy review, which culminated in Obama ordering another  30,000 troops to Afghanistan.  But this process was also flawed, given what Flynn’s report tells us.

Then amazingly, we get a story in the NYT that reports,

Senior White House advisers are frustrated by what they say is the Pentagon’s slow pace in deploying 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and its inability to live up to an initial promise to have all of the forces in the country by next summer, senior administration officials said Friday.

But they must have known this.  Anyone following the issue knew that there would be tremendous challenges in building up Afghanistan troops levels faster than we draw down in Iraq.  How can the White House be surprised?

This seemingly endless series of misunderstandings are beginning to look more and more like a pattern rather than just miscommunication.  While it is possible that Obama’s national security is simply unskilled in eliciting precise responses from the military, the fact that Obama has been maneuvered into a series of decisions reliant on incomplete information suggests some manipulation at work.

Would Obama have approved the March white paper had he known he was signing onto a commitment of 100,000 troops?  Would he have increased forces in December had he known that we didn’t have good knowledge of the situation on the ground?  He explicitly approved the 30,000 troop increment if it could be deployed early, would he still have done so had he known that the new deployments would take a year to implement?  There is good reason to doubt that absent all of these “miscommunications” we would have the Afghanistan policy we have today.

At some level, it looks like the information provided to the president and his staff has been systematically massaged to make escalation look like a prudent course, deliberately hiding the long-term implications and the significant gaps in knowledge about the conflict.

So, the question remains:  Who is actually running Afghanistan policy today?  Is the uniformed military?  Is it DoD civilians?  Is it some of Obama’s own White House advisors?  There is something rotten in the way at each step of the process we get decisions made on the basis of what is later demonstrated to be either incomplete, inaccurate, or misunderstood information. 

Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project.  This article was previously published at ASP’s Flash Point blog.