The Shadow War
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
It was a Christmas and New Year's from hell for American intelligence, that $75 billion labyrinth of at least sixtten major agencies and a handful of minor ones. As the old year was preparing to be rung out, so were our intelligence agencies, which managed not to connect every obvious clue to a (literally) seat-of-the-pants Al Qaeda operation. It hardly mattered that the underwear bomber's case--except for the placement of the bomb material--almost exactly, even outrageously, replicated the infamous, and equally inept, "shoe bomber" plot of eight years ago.
That would have been bad enough, but the New Year brought worse. Army Major General Michael Flynn, United States and NATO forces deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, released a report in which he labeled military intelligence in the war zone--but by implication US intelligence operatives generally--"clueless." They were, he wrote, "ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced...and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers.... Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy."
As if to prove the general's point, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor with a penchant for writing inspirational essays on jihadi websites and an "unproven asset" for the CIA, somehow entered a key agency forward operating base in Afghanistan unsearched, supposedly with information on Al Qaeda's leadership so crucial that a high-level CIA team was assembled to hear it and Washington was alerted. He proved to be either a double or a triple agent and killed seven CIA operatives, one of whom was the base chief, by detonating a suicide vest bomb, while wounding yet more, including the agency's number-two operative in the country. The first suicide bomber to penetrate a US base in Afghanistan, he blew a hole in the CIA's relatively small cadre of agents knowledgeable on Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
It was an intelligence disaster splayed all over the headlines: "Taliban bomber wrecks CIA's shadowy war," "Killings Rock Afghan Strategy," "Suicide bomber who attacked CIA post was trusted informant from Jordan." It seemed to sum up the hapless nature of America's intelligence operations, as the CIA, with all the latest technology and every imaginable resource on hand, including the latest in Hellfire missile-armed drone aircraft, was out-thought and out-maneuvered by low-tech enemies.
No one could say that the deaths and the blow to the American war effort weren't well covered. There were major TV reports night after night and scores of news stories, many given front-page treatment. And yet lurking behind those deaths and the man who caused them lay a bigger American war story that went largely untold. It was a tale of a new-style battlefield that the American public knows remarkably little about, and that bears little relationship to the Afghan War as we imagine it or as our leaders generally discuss it.
We don't even have a language to describe it accurately. Think of it as a battlefield filled with muscled-up, militarized intelligence operatives, hired-gun contractors doing military duty and privatized "native" guard forces. Add in robot assassins in the air 24/7 and kick-down-the-door-style night-time "intelligence" raids, "surges" you didn't know were happening, strings of military bases you had no idea were out there and secretive international collaborations you were unaware the United States was involved in. In Afghanistan, the American military is only part of the story. There's also a polyglot "army" representing the United States that wears no uniforms and fights shape-shifting enemies to the death in a murderous war of multiple assassinations and civilian slaughter, all enveloped in a blanket of secrecy.