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Flying Blind in Iraq and Afghanistan

Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy makes an important point about Iraq in Foreign Policy: amid a worsening political and security situation, the U.S. has little awareness of what is actually going on. He points out:

At the height of the “surge,” the United States collected fine-grain data from the 166,000 U.S. troops and 700 CIA personnel in Iraq, as well as a network of 31 Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Now, U.S. embassy staff enjoy very limited freedom of movement — hemmed in by a suspicious government in Baghdad and a still-dangerous security situation. According to the Journal, the CIA station in Iraq may be reduced to 40 percent of its peak levels because the Iraqi government is extremely sensitive about its intelligence work with the Iraqi security forces.

This makes it hard for U.S. officials to even generate authoritative estimates of the numbers killed in terrorist attacks–much less to figure out what to do about this violence.

This is all the more reason why the U.S. should not repeat this mistake in Afghanistan. If we pull out completely or almost completely after 2014, it will be impossible to keep mounting effective Special Operations raids on terrorist targets because we will lose the “situational awareness” to figure out which targets to hit and where and when. We will lose, too, the kind of political intelligence we need to try to steer Afghanistan’s turbulent politics in the right direction. That kind of knowledge can only come from a substantial on-the-ground footprint of intelligence collectors, who must in turn be embedded in a substantial security and logistics infrastructure. Pull out too many troops and the remainder will be flying blind–as we are now doing in Iraq.



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