ANALYSIS:Intelligence File Afghanistan’s Spy Surge
A new war effort will stress the intelligence community.
The U.S. military's successful troop surge in Iraq in 2007 benefited greatly from a parallel intelligence surge that remained largely unheralded at the time. According to former intelligence and military officials, a wealth of precise information on the movements of insurgents and foreign fighters came in from a variety of secret operations. Chief among them was a cyberattack by the National Security Agency on the phones and computers that roadside bombers used to coordinate their strikes on U.S. forces. Intelligence also came pouring in from unmanned drones capable of loitering for hours over their targets and from sophisticated electronic eavesdropping equipment deployed in the war zone. Coupled with tips from Iraqis who agreed to help the Americans-often in exchange for money-these intelligence sources allowed U.S. forces to locate, track and kill their adversaries more precisely. This intelligence surge helped turn the tide of the war, former officials say, more than an increase in the number of troops.
One of the beneficiaries of this rich harvest was Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who ran the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq. JSOC scored some of the most important kills of the war. Working off prized "actionable" intelligence from Washington, as well as assets on the battlefield, McChrystal could marry boots on the ground with electronic data and produce dramatic results.
But this strategy is unlikely to work in Afghanistan, where McChrystal now leads all U.S. forces. It is a country without a digital infrastructure to tap into, and one where enemy forces are more likely to communicate by word-of-mouth than by text messaging and e-mailing. President Obama has ordered a troop surge to Afghanistan, but this intelligence surge is going to look much different.
For starters, it will rely largely on human beings-tips, leads and allegiances won from locals on the ground, whose willingness to cooperate depends on whether the Americans can keep them from being killed if they do so. Those social networks have arguably been neglected during the past seven years, when the intel community's focus shifted to the war in Iraq.
The other distinct characteristic of the Afghan surge is a renewed emphasis on finding and killing Osama bin Laden. Recently, McChrystal told Congress that to finally defeat al Qaeda, the United States had to kill or capture the terrorist icon. But, McChrystal cautioned, doing this with his troops and forces in Afghanistan "is outside my mandate." That's because bin Laden is presumed to be holed up in neighboring Pakistan, where the military is not operating-at least not officially.
This puts the task of eliminating bin Laden on the shoulders of the intelligence community. To help do that, the Obama administration has deployed the CIA's aerial drones in record numbers. During his first year in office, Obama has ordered more strikes than his predecessor. The drones search for al Qaeda leaders, as well as key figures in the Pakistani Taliban and other militants. But so far, they haven't found the top target. If only bin Laden started using a cell phone or Gmail.
The Afghan intelligence surge could fundamentally turn the tables on U.S. spies. For a generation, their technological edge has been their great strength. In Iraq, a mostly flat, interconnected and increasingly wired country, those tools accrued great benefits. But Afghanistan, with its mountainous, tribal terrain and practically medieval infrastructure, will frustrate that 21st century spy craft. To win, the intelligence community will have to play a more old-fashioned game-on the ground, in the dirt and hand to hand.
Shane Harris is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, and a correspondent for National Journal.