CIA officials have revealed the identity of Hammam Khalil Abu Mallal al-Balawi, who blew himself up last week at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost province. A Jordanian doctor/al-Qaeda supporter, al-Balawi was arrested a year ago and turned into a double agent by Jordan’s General Intelligence Department.
Senior Jordan official Al Shareef Ali bin Zeid then personally delivered al-Balawi to the CIA in Afghanistan, where he provided accurate intelligence on al-Qaeda to gain trust before striking (he hadn’t been searched when he attacked.) A first cousin of Jordan’s King Abdullah II bin al-Hussein, Ali bin Zeid was killed in the blast.
As intricate as the attack itself is, larger issues at work demand attention.
The CIA revealed its assailant and exposed weaknesses in the process. The Wall Street Journal quotes a former senior US intelligence officer as saying, “It looks like an al Qaeda double agent. It's very sophisticated for a terrorist group that's supposedly on the run."
Fundamental errors appear to have been committed. First, US military and intelligence officials define whether a militant is “running” by whether or not they’re physically running, either on land or from country to country. But it’s a terrorist’s job to run, a guerrilla’s job to run. If they aren’t running they’re stupid, so claiming they run is more of a compliment. They don’t get upset, offended, or embarrassed like America.
And as the anonymous US official unintentionally points out, al-Qaeda is "on the run" because it’s moving to Yemen, Somalia, etc. That’s not running, it's luring.
Another former senior intelligence official claims al Qaeda pursued double agents in the CIA prior to 9/11, but "efforts appeared to trail off" after America invaded Afghanistan and dislodged the Taliban from power. "When you're on the run, you don't have time to sit back and run a double agent,” the official said.
But the Taliban wasn't running either, so much as waiting. al-Qaeda and the TTP, who outfitted the bomber, is no different.
“Double agent operations are really complex,” a third official told the New York Times. “The fact that they can pull this off shows that they are not really on the run. They have the ability to kick back and think about these things.”
Yet Chalking up double-crossing and false retreat to the natural chaos of war - to risk and chance - would compound one error with another. CIA officials simply might not know the enemy as well as they should, certainly not the Afghan people or the Muslim world. Major General Michael Flynn, deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan for the U.S. military and its NATO allies, just blindsided Obama with his assessment on the war.
U.S. intelligence officials are described as, "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."
It’s also plausible, considering the report's overall negativity, that the CIA missed some signs before al-Balawi detonated himself. The assumption that al-Qaeda is running isn’t accurate - what else doesn’t the CIA know? America notoriously lacks language and cultural understanding of the Muslim world, from regional dynamics of power like clans and tribes to verbal and nonverbal social indicators.
If al-Balawi can fool Jordan, an Arab country, the CIA will inevitably run into problems when screening Muslim double agents. But as one breakdown led to an catastrophe on FOB Chapman, a total breakdown in US intelligence could detonate President Obama's surge in Afghanistan if not rectified immediately.
Flynn’s report finds that, “because the United States has focused the overwhelming majority of collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, the intelligence apparatus still finds itself unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate in and the people they are trying to protect and persuade.”
One US official rebutted, “You can't be successful at counterinsurgency without a profound understanding of the enemy,” proving just how ignorant Washington still appears about counterinsurgency. The CIA is fantastic at certain jobs, but is working the wrong jobs for the task at hand.
Without the people you have nothing, nor does America seem to have a profound understanding of the enemy anyway. Who are we fighting - the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or the TTP? And why don't we understand the local people have a better chance at eliminating them than we do? Flynn's assessment wouldn't exist in its present form if Obama knew what he was doing. US intelligence should’ve reorganized when he assumed office, certainly by the time of General McChrystal’s review in August.
“I don't want to say we're clueless, but we are,” said another officer, at least one of which is Bruce Reidel. “We're no more than fingernail deep in our understanding of the environment.”
Flynn admits the intelligence community has "fallen into the trap" of waging an "anti-insurgency campaign" aimed at capturing or killing mid-to-high level militants, rather than understanding the populace as in true counterinsurgency. Intelligence efforts have been focused on searching for insurgent activity and IED's, "often ignoring crucial information from knowledgeable Afghans, local council meetings, radio broadcasts and similar sources."
"This vast and under-appreciated body of information, almost all of which is unclassified, admittedly offers few clues about where to find insurgents, but provides information of even greater strategic importance: a map for leveraging popular support and marginalizing the insurgency itself," he and his coauthors conclude.
Flynn subsequently ordered an overhaul to the intelligence system in Afghanistan, but his assessment applies to FOB Chapman, Afghan policy as a whole, and the global "War on Terror." The last few weeks brought airport and CIA security lapses, extreme security measures, moral outrage, released prisoners, disappearing explosives, faulty counter-narcotics and intelligence operations, all wrapped in a preoccupation with military force.
The system's overloaded - breakdown was inevitable. Picking put the pieces and reorganizing them correctly is vital to American foreign policy.