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Why American intelligence failed in Afghanistan and elsewhere

Crowds flood the tarmac at Kabul airport
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What appears to have been a catastrophic intelligence failure in Afghanistan is a sobering reminder that American diplomatic presence in challenging places isn’t working well enough. Our diplomatic and intelligence teams appear to have misunderstood the ephemeral nature of the Ghani government and the speed of which the Taliban could take over.

How did a 4,000-strong embassy misjudge something as fundamental as the stability of the host government? The likely reason is that U.S. embassies and consulates in challenging locations today function as gated communities, sealed off by an overbearing security apparatus that prevents them from doing diplomacy or intelligence effectively.

Few other countries are as restrictive with their diplomats.

Our risk-averse positioning makes it possible and even probable that our people are out of touch with the country in which they are working. My critique is not directed at the impressive and committed people who serve in our foreign and intelligence services; rather, the failure is a function of the rules and structures that prevent our diplomats from doing diplomacy and our spies from spying.

I served with the United Nations in Pakistan for most of the last decade — much of my time was spent near Pakistan’s volatile border with Afghanistan. I did the sort of stuff that our diplomats used to do in these contexts: visiting partners, checking project sites, mentoring government officials, and cajoling local politicians. I would not have been able to do my job if I was confined to a secured residential compound the way that our diplomats mostly are. 

Doing good diplomacy, collecting intelligence, and exerting influence is not possible if your teams are cut off from the outside world.

Our consulate in Peshawar, once hectic and busy in the days in which we armed radical insurgents to fight the soviets in Afghanistan, is now a dreary outstation surrounded by blast-walls. We still maintain a modicum of diplomats and spies there, but they have little reference with the internecine politics of the northwest frontier. Security rules mean they scarcely leave the fortified compound. Some of these rules are imposed by Pakistan, but most are by our own government. Not able to meet people outside, diplomats try to lure thirsty Pashtuns into the compound with offers of bourbon and beer at the famed consulate bar named after Charlie Wilson (the bacchanal Texan credited with arming the Mujahideen). Charlie would be disappointed to visit his eponymous bar today, mostly empty since few Peshawarites want to deal with the ignobility of being interrogated by the Pakistani intelligence checkpoints encircling the dusty compound.

The isolation of our diplomats is further exacerbated by the practice of rotating diplomats out of stations before they can gain any understanding of the context. Many are in the country for less than a year, a period far too short to develop good relationships or even a decent understanding of the situation. Since most diplomats are freshly arrived, they are vulnerable to manipulation by various mercurial local ‘experts’ and gatekeepers who make a profession of brokering information and access.

As one of the few Americans working in the real world outside the consulate, I was regularly asked to brief U.S. Government counterparts in Islamabad on what was going on ‘out there.’ The allure of first-hand information meant that these meetings were often so oversubscribed that it was difficult to get a seat in one of the embassy’s large meeting halls. There are thousands of Americans working at our embassy in Islamabad, but many with whom I met confessed to little contact with the world outside the compound. Discouraged from venturing outside the compound, many throw themselves into other vital national priorities, such as organizing a cat society, hosting themed dinners, and perfecting their tennis backhand.

If we are to avoid future Kabulesque failures, we need to free our otherwise capable foreign service officers to do their jobs. This means accepting that people serving abroad will face a reasonable amount of risk — and giving them impetus to do their work out in the real world where it matters.

American taxpayers should demand that the Biden administration make American embassies great again, by abolishing the security apparatus that prevents diplomats from being diplomats and spies from spying.

Skye Christensen is a governance expert with 15 years experience in international development. Over the last eight years, he worked as the United Nations chief technical advisor in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He led a team of 250 professionals implementing reforms and stabilization efforts, working closely with the national and regional governments in Pakistan on transitional security and governance arrangements, financing, and socio-economic development planning. He previously worked for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, UN Women, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with experience across 20+ countries. Follow him on Twitter @SkyeChr

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan collapse Afghanistan withdrawal American diplomats American intelligence Diplomacy gated communities intelligence failure Isolation Pakistan Taliban

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