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Flawed Methodology

CIA operations on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border suffered a significant setback last week when seven Agency officers were killed and another six badly injured in a suicide bombing apparently perpetrated by one of the Agency’s local informants. (Hot Air has a good summary here.)

The attack at Chapman Base means both more and less than it seems to. This is unquestionably an important operational setback, but it’s also in the nature of campaigns against insurgencies to produce incidents like this one. Relying on informants who may turn out to be duplicitous is often dictated by circumstance, something we learned quite thoroughly in Vietnam; and Central Asia has been notorious for such local informants throughout the history of the West’s interactions there.

Still, the features of this attack should give us pause. It was timed to take place when the CIA’s base commander would be present: according to a Taliban chief, the bombing was meant as retaliation for U.S. drone strikes on Taliban leaders. This development is emblematic of the position in which U.S. forces will increasingly find themselves wherever our antiterrorism posture shifts to greater reliance on standoff strikes. The position is ultimately untenable: in order to acquire the necessary targeting intelligence we must have operatives on the ground using local contacts, and therefore be perpetually vulnerable to attacks like the one at Chapman Base. But with each drone strike, the likelihood of retaliatory attempts on our intelligence assets increases.

A key lesson from both Vietnam and Iraq, articulated by General McChrystal in his August 2009 recommendation, is that populations are not won over until they have a trustworthy civil infrastructure in which they feel safe. In its absence, we have no prospect of being able to fully trust local informants in the AfPak border region. Even the most reliable informant may submit to extortion if his family is threatened. The results are likely to include misleading intelligence as well as physical threats to our operatives. The CIA can take precautions, of course, meeting its informants off-base and avoiding large gatherings like the one last week. But that will merely make the insurgents work a little harder to bring off assassinations.

We can only speculate as to why this attack wasn’t mounted until December 2009. Given Obama’s accelerated dependence on drone attacks and his general security posture, an obvious possibility is that Taliban leaders calculate now, as they did not before, that this is the most efficient means of targeting both our strategy and our will. The insistence of the Obama administration on the notion that its goal in Afghanistan is not to win the populace over according to the counterinsurgency model favored by McChrystal, means the situation for our forces in remote areas will not improve. Nor do we have any intention of improving it. Keep that in mind as 2010 unfolds. More such attempts by the Taliban are likely, but that will not mean we have encountered an insoluble problem. It will merely mean we have chosen the wrong method.