I’ve been recommending 88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary by Robert L. Grenier to many of my colleagues recently, and also re-reading it in a different light based on recent Taliban behavior during the Afghan peace negotiations in Doha. This book is an excellent choice for new and seasoned national security and foreign policy members, or those trying to join those ranks.
Six Intel Lessons
I gained many lessons from Grenier’s diary and my own experiences with many of the same organizations and bureaucratic scenarios. I commend Grenier on how he handles sensitive information throughout the book and also on how he treats the many characters of the book with fairness. I got to know a few of these people over the years and feel his assessments of them are accurate and handled in a professional way.
Lesson 1. The Intel Community is part of the policy making team: Never Avoid it
One of the most archaic ideas in the intelligence community is the worn refrain that they must avoid making policy recommendations and stick to providing information to policy deciders. What Grenier’s role in the lead-up to the removal of the Taliban regime, before and after September 11th shows, is that just like the Defense and State Department personnel around the globe—every U.S. government employee has a role to play in determining the best possible U.S. policy to tackle our foreign policy problems.
In many cases, in our small outposts around the globe, and in neighboring embassy missions, there are only a handful of people that understand the issues facing America. The cables to DC from the various government agencies are seldom put together into a complete puzzle in DC because of stove-piping of reports. State desks overseeing Afghanistan in 2000 were not talking to DC desks at DOD, CIA, DIA, NSA, and USAID as they are today. To be honest, today those DC-based overseers are still not collaborating well. At the embassy and consulates in our furthest outposts, the collaboration is better. And in those instances, like Robert Grenier’s where he had the best information and understanding of the real policy options, he gave his recommendation when asked. It was right then; it is right now. It shouldn’t matter if the only U.S. person we have in a nation is a peace corps volunteer, we must use the smartest person regardless of rank or organization to help guide us in our development of wise policy. The best leaders I worked for always asked the smartest person to help plan solutions—because starting with the most senior or the “correct” person is seldom the wise move. This does not harm the IC, it strengthens it.
Lesson 2. How to Fight the War in Afghanistan
That idea leads to my next big lesson—he was right on the policy and strategy. Grenier made two statements that caught my eye in light of the 20 years of discussions I have witnessed since our forces entered in Afghanistan. First, in his view, the “American war against the Taliban…would have to be an Afghan war.” Here he was, and is, correct and although many overlooked this elegant idea over the years, it came true. The U.S. and coalition forces were never the main effort in the war. They were simply a supporting force designed to give the Afghans time to form their own security forces, government, and civil society. Once the Afghans built those three elements, it was always up to the Afghan people to defeat the ideas and forces of the Taliban. America never pledged to fight the Taliban to the last man, and I am glad that the U.S. gave the Afghans enough time and support to create an imperfect yet capable nation to combat the Taliban with.
Grenier’s second statement that rings true was that in the early days after September 11th as America looked for allies to root-out the Taliban regime and hunt Al Qaeda, “there were few good options.” I often hear Afghans complain that the U.S. helped to lift-up too many warlords that had earlier fought over power in Afghanistan between the Soviet and the Taliban regime eras. Yes, America lifted up some bad characters along with the good-ish. But Grenier again is exactly right. Although the U.S. military would love to partner with academics, artists, diplomats, and bureaucrats to enact regime changes—they are not the people that can pull it off, and they don’t often volunteer to do so. When you have few good choices, but need to remove a barbaric regime like the Taliban and hunt down psychopaths like Bin Laden, you will work with what you have. I have shared meals, traveled, and spent days at hotels and guest houses with most of the Afghan militia commanders that helped us overthrow the Taliban regime. They were all imperfect, some were twisted, others were surprisingly moderate, but all were Afghan patriots of the moment that were brave enough to strike down the Talban, often at great cost in lives and treasure. You work with what you have.
Lesson 3. Abandonment leaves scar tissue
In both his interactions with Afghans and Pakistanis, there are numerous occurrences when Grenier felt the full weight of the resentment those two nations had for the U.S. After the Soviet withdrawal and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. lost interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Additionally, the U.S. levied punishments on Pakistan over long-running nuclear concerns. This abandonment issue was overlooked early in the U.S. efforts to build close relationships with Afghans and Pakistanis. It should not be lost on anyone trying to build a relationship today. That U.S. action hurt them both deeply, and it will take generations to mend that fence. That fact should also provide some guidance to the U.S. -led NATO and Coalition team that is slowly pulling its military forces from Afghanistan. If this is done unwisely, you cannot fathom all the problems you will create.
Lesson 4. Networks matter: Sustain them
There is a moment in the book that highlights something I believe strongly in—if you work on foreign policy and national security, your network of colleagues can never be too big. Grenier describes in a quick two pages why this lesson matters. There is a moment after the U.S. engages in combat in Afghanistan when an old U.S. ally from the counter-Soviet days decides to leave his Pakistan safe-haven to rally Afghans to fight the Taliban. The adventure was poorly coordinated and likely based more on hope than accurate information. On October 23rd, Abdul Haq entered Afghanistan to raise a militia in Logar province. With little success in raising a team, he ended up hunted down by the Taliban in Nangahar province by October 25th. Here is where networking matters, but it doesn’t always get you what you want.
Abdul Haq reached out to his nephew over sat-phone. His nephew then relayed his situation to James Ritchie in Pakistan. He was from a Chicago-based and long-time Afghan-focused family. James called his brother Joseph in the United States. Joseph then called former Reagan-era National security advisor Robert McFarlane. McFarlane then called the CIA CTC team. The CTC then dispatched an armed drone in time to engage in the battle. Although the one shot from the drone didn’t turn the tide of the ambush (Haq was captured and hung up for display by the Taliban on the 26th), it is absolutely stunning to see a telephone relay through various civilians rapidly send drone air support for an embattled militia leader. Think about how fast a network can bring aid today with our advances in handheld mobile devices since 2001.
Lesson 5. The Taliban are Stubborn and Pakistan’s Pyromania will Burn them Down
The recent talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban it has made it abundantly clear that the Taliban leaders are still promoted for their stubbornness and lack of self-preservation. There is a period of months in Grenier’s diary that highlight how many times he and others tried to warn the Taliban that their refusal to give up Bin Laden was going to cost them everything. Grenier was more patient than most (luckily) in trying to get the Taliban to hand over Bin Laden and his close associates. He carefully explained how the Taliban could turn their difficult situation around. Again and again, the Taliban senior leadership refused to comprehend the situation they faced. Even when they did finally recognize the limited options they had, they chose to let themselves be killed and to risk the deaths of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians to protect Bin Laden. This behavior echoes in the culture of the current Taliban leaders and their peace negotiation delegation.
Like the Taliban, Pakistan then and now, suffers from the inability to see the long-term outcomes of their poor decisions. The Pakistani need to incite radicalization of young men towards violence and terrorism seems to know no bounds. Even after all of the deaths to Afghans and Pakistanis over the last 40 years they use the same blame-deflecting talking points with U.S. and Afghan officials that they used in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I don’t know how much of this is leftover scar tissue from their treatment by the U.S. after 1989, or if this is just stubborn pride on the part of the government and military to stand behind their old Taliban partners. One thing is for sure, the fire that Pakistan has lit in so many young men’s souls will continue to burn Pakistan down, locale by locale.
Lesson 6. Intelligence Community weaknesses are partly by design
One of the recurring themes in the book is Grenier’s frustrations while dealing with other parts of his own agency. The CIA like many intelligence agencies is poorly designed as an organizational structure. This leads to more competition than collaboration in too many cases. In this case it was during a war with thousands of lives at stake. One big struggle the intel community faces in correcting their very outdated model of organization is the resistance to change that every organization holds. I saw first hand attempts by well-meaning leaders to adjust the organizational structure of intel organizations. They ended badly because of the stubborn resistance of long-term/tenured employees that thought they knew better. In some cases, the changes were made, and they improved the organization’s effectiveness; but many flaws remain.
I watched the Army go through various organizational changes from 1991-2015. There was always some resistance by its members to stick with the old way of organizing themselves. But in the end, the soldiers just followed orders and made the changes. The frustration was high when they were later ordered to change back to an old design. But the smartest military units decided that their culture would be one of accepting change and using that moment to really improve their capability and be more precise in their lethality. One military unit even changed its motto to reflect that willingness to learn and change. They changed a generations-old motto to “Whatever our nation needs us to be.” I would urge the Intel Community to adopt that motto internally. Change doesn’t mean your old way was wrong; it might mean it is just outdated and ineffective for the current era.
88 Days to Kandahar: and Impactful read for the IC
The book impacted me. It will make you rethink some ideas you have about Afghanistan and Pakistan. It should also help you to determine if a life in the Intel Community is a good fit for you. Finally, it should make senior leaders in the IC rethink how their organizations conduct business and what direction they are headed as a team.