Category Archives: foreign policy

Panetta promotes precision

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One of the few things I have agreed with Dick Cheney about is the wisdom of using a scalpel rather than a truncheon:

The stepped-up drone strikes, Panetta’s opposition to the release of information about CIA interrogation practices, and his resistance to greater oversight of the agency by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have prompted criticism that he is a thrall of the agency’s old guard. In the meantime, the strikes have begun to draw greater scrutiny, with watchdog groups demanding to know more about how they are carried out and the legal reasoning behind the killings.

In an interview Wednesday at CIA headquarters, Panetta refused to directly address the matter of Predator strikes, in keeping with the agency’s long-standing practice of shielding its actions in Pakistan from public view. But he said that U.S. counterterrorism policies in the country are legal and highly effective, and that he is acutely aware of the gravity of some of the decisions thrust upon him.

Panetta may resemble the Company’s old guard, but it’s hard to argue that the organization isn’t stronger under his leadership.  Were I to have one wish, it would be that the tension between the DCI and the DNI come to a head and be resolved once and for all.

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Terror plot a “cascade of failures”

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A New York Times editorial today reviews what happened in the terror incident two weeks ago on Northwest Airlines Flight 253:

The report implicitly acknowledges all of this, saying that the system failed “to identify, correlate, and fuse into a coherent story all of the discrete pieces of intelligence held by the U.S. government” about both the Al Qaeda group and Mr. Abdulmutallab. It also makes clear that this was not a single failure by one agency but was a cascade of failures across agencies and departments and the bureaucracies that are supposed to coordinate them.

It says that once the government learned of a possible plot in Yemen, the intelligence community failed to devote more analytic resources, and it failed to put one agency or official in charge. John Brennan, the senior official responsible for figuring out what went wrong, said on Thursday that only after the failed plot did the intelligence community recognize that the group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, actually posed a direct threat to the United States. [emphasis added]

This is a fairly straightforward explanation of the problem.  The problem is not individual, but rather systemic.  There are never enough analytic resources to adequately process the overwhelming volume of data collected by the IC, but that is not the primary problem.  The overarching challenge to the IC is that authority, budget, and power are spread across its agencies with no clear leadership or accountability.  Every 8-year-old kid knows what happens when one kid is in charge of building the treehouse and another kid has all the lumber and nails.  If there is to be reform–and it has yet to happen in the past eight years–consolidating budget and accountability is the most powerful lever.

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Best sentence on intel in 8 years

Perspicacity points to Doyle McManus:

“By shining light on organizational dysfunction that’s hard to dramatize, the attempted bombing has highlighted a problem that desperately needs to be solved.”


5 reasons the “Taliban holiday” meme is false

This is a bit beyond the bailiwick of this blog, but a particular point of the Af-Pak strategy needs to be addressed, and I do address strategy:

The general agreement among Afghans is that Barack Obama’s highly anticipated speech had his trademark message of hope. But unfortunately this message of hope was directed at the Taliban and not the people of Afghanistan. In the words of a friend and fellow Afghan, Obama basically told the Taliban to go home and rest for 18 months and then return to a no-man’s land up for grabs.

Some variation of this has been printed in just about every news article and opposition piece since that speech.  It’s rubbish.  Here’s why:

  1. Whether there is an announced timetable or not, the Taliban are going to, you know, sort of notice when the US troops leave.  It doesn’t matter when that is unless one subscribes to war without end, for which the American people have neither patience nor resources.
  2. A strategy without benchmarks and timelines is not a strategy.  Full stop.  Donald Rumsfeld got a lot of heat when he suggested metrics for the war in Iraq, but I think he was getting closer than anyone (including Obama) has in defining success.  Without these, the US will not know when or if it has won.
  3. Speaking of war without end, the enemy in this war has neither the will nor the ability to surrender, which is usually how inter-nation wars end.  Not the will because they view this as a holy cause to be rewarded in the afterlife, and not the ability because there is no one who speaks for or controls the whole.  A lack of formal organization limits actions born of coherence.
  4. To the argument that the Taliban will take an 18 month vacation, I feel it more than obvious to point out that they aren’t taking that vacation in St. Croix.  Whether they fight or not, they’re going to be in Afghanistan or Pakistan.  A force of over 100,000 troops with a timeline and benchmarks is going to be hard at work.  As Ronald Reagan noted in another conflict, they can run but they cannot hide.
  5. Undefined wars are demoralizing to the troops and the public. If you like winning, say when and how you’re going to win.  Then do it.  The real dithering is to under-fund, under-resource, and under-specify the war.  After eight years of vague and irresponsible attention to Af-Pak, it’s time to win and go home.

The “Taliban on vacation” trope is pure political posturing, not the sort of cohesive support 100,000 people in harm’s way deserve.

White House risks classic mistakes in AfPak KPIs

This is worrisome:

The White House has assembled a list of about 50 measurements to gauge progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan as it tries to calm rising public and congressional anxiety about its war strategy.

Administration officials are conducting what one called a “test run” of the metrics, comparing current numbers in a range of categories — including newly trained Afghan army recruits, Pakistani counterinsurgency missions and on-time delivery of promised U.S. resources — with baselines set earlier in the year. The results will be used to fine-tune the list before it is presented to Congress by Sept. 24.

Why worrisome?  Here are five reasons this move is cause for alarm:

  1. 50 measurements.  It’s far too many, at least for the executive and public level.  The number should be closer to 6-10 if the goal is to show the big picture and enable insightful questions about interconnected metrics.  If the White House is beginning with 50 in order to whittle down to the ones that matter, that could be useful, but that approach would lead one to believe it is…
  2. Measuring what it can measure rather than what matters.  It’s really very simple–when we measure what’s available, we back into strategy rather than leading with it and defining metrics that reflect the strategy.  The metrics are generally very easy to define (though not necessarily to report) when the strategy is clear.  When it isn’t, the activity risks becoming an…
  3. Steering the ship by its wake.  Comparing 50 metrics to a baseline set “earlier in the year” will at best give some sense of what has happened over the last several months without necessarily explaining why it happened or what will happen next.  One reason for this dilemma is that the process is…
  4. Taking a long time.  I suspect two dynamics are at play:  one is probably a push for perfection rather than rough and dirty KPIs (something understandable in a political environment) and a tendency among data owners to select and massage data to present their performance in the best possible light.  These suck the relevance out of the data, and both are exacerbated by a tendency to spend too much time…
  5. Defining metrics out of meaning.  What I mean by this is expanding and contracting definitions of terms such as “newly”, “trained”, “Afghan”, “army”, “recruits”, etc. in ways that allow for wiggle in what gets reported.  When project managers tasked with reporting project data ask, “what do you mean by ‘project’?”, it’s time to return to first principles.

There are other causes for concern, but these are the ones I suspect are most predictive of where the metrics might fall short as well as providing a roadmap for avoiding that.

There is a bright spot in the article:

Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, “personally gets a daily update — daily, mind you,” on supplies shipped to Pakistan, the U.S. defense official said. “That should give you some sense of how riveted we are on this.”

I have high regard for Petraeus based on what I read and on what people who have worked with him have said about his intellect and acumen.  If there is a leader who can get this right, he can.

Scorecards represent a highly political process, usually far more so than we acknowledge in our work and in the literature.  I don’t mean “political” only in the public meaning of the term–I mean it in the sense of power and positioning that occurs in organizations every day.  A scorecard is a tangible artifact of a complex and interconnected set of organizational dynamics that usually exist beneath the surface.  One of our natural tendencies is to keep those dynamics beneath the surface.  Doing so serves a purpose for individuals and groups that is often at odds with the purposes of the whole.

War moves faster than this.  One doesn’t have to be a general to recognize that information–better, faster, more relevant–is strategically valuable and paramount to success.  It’s not clear to me from the above that anyone knows yet what success looks like.

We can do better.

Blackwater assisted in assassination program

It appears Blackwater offers a more extensive suite of services than once thought:

The fact that the C.I.A. used an outside company for the program was a major reason that Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A.’s director, became alarmed and called an emergency meeting in June to tell Congress that the agency had withheld details of the program for seven years, the officials said.

It is unclear whether the C.I.A. had planned to use the contractors to actually capture or kill Qaeda operatives, or just to help with training and surveillance in the program. American spy agencies have in recent years outsourced some highly controversial work, including the interrogation of prisoners. But government officials said that bringing outsiders into a program with lethal authority raised deep concerns about accountability in covert operations.

The article notes that there were no formal contracts in place for the work.  At first blush, this implies a host of governance issues in the contracting relationship.  That’s a serious breach.

By the way, the article gets its dig in at PowerPoint:

“It’s wrong to think this counterterrorism program was confined to briefing slides or doodles on a cafeteria napkin,” the official said. “It went well beyond that.”

Could the program have been misinterpreted from the slides?  Wouldn’t want to jump to conclusions…  not before all the evidence is in.

Danger Room: Cargo operations key to war in Afghanistan

Photo:  Danger Room

Danger Room features an on-the-ground look at one of the foundations of the AfPak war–cargo operations:

The mobility guys pretty have at least eight different jobs. They’ve got a FedEx-like operation that moves cargo from point A to point B, by a certain guaranteed date. There’s the wartime equivalent of an airline reservations office, delivering gear and passengers when they can – usually within 72 hours. (An “itinerary” is developed for, say, 200 Army troops from Fort Benning to Talil; passengers are booked in a system most similar to budget airlines like Ryanair or Southwest and no, you don’t get to pick your seat.) They run an executive charter service, transporting generals and other “distinguished visitors,” or “DVs.” They evacuate injured troops. They manage a fleet of contracted airhaulers, spending up to $6 million a day on outsized or inconvenient loads, often carried by massive Russian cargo jets. And they drop giant crates of gear out of the sky, to stock isolated bases.

That last task has grown exponentially, with the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Lousy roads and unforgiving landscapes make traditional convoys and cargo runs difficult, at best. Since 2005, there’s been an 800% increase in air drops – from two to three per week to seven to eight per day. In July, they had 1,700 air drops over Afghanistan. That’s the most since the start of the Afghan conflict, in 2001.

That doesn’t sound terribly sexy, but it’s a convincing argument for the continuing dominance of logistics as a strategic factor in warfare.  One wonders what practices have filtered into private industry, and vice versa.