In an earlier blog post I spoke of the dangers of allowing intelligence analysis to be driven by politics (Not Very Intelligent – July 22). Now the US assessments on its campaign against the Islamic State (IS) may have been subject to the same scourge.
In a front-page piece in the New York Times (see it here), it is reported that the Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating allegations that military officials have skewed intel assessments about its success against IS and provided a much rosier picture. According to one source, conclusions drawn by intelligence analysts were reworked to reflect a more positive view on US damage to the group.
Now the interference in the intelligence process is nothing new. And rather than rail against the practice it may be more insightful to examine why it happens.
The “war on terror” is almost 15 years old. A great deal of blood and treasure has been spent to scale back groups and attacks. And there have been unquestionable successes over this time: the Iraqi Sahwa (awakening) movement in the late 2000s, the marginalistion (perhaps) of Al Qaeda core and the death of Osama bin Laden are probably the three most salient ones. But there have also been a large number of setbacks: the continuing threat from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the rise of Boko Haram, and the phoenix-like birth and spread of IS from its appearance out of the old Al Qaeda in Iraq to its franchises in Libya, Egypt and maybe even Afghanistan.
A war needs good news and progress. We have to be seen as “winning” to ensure public support and hence official sanction. The perception of stagnation or backsliding could lead to a loss of both. This is probably in part what led to the US decision to quit Vietnam in the 1970s. And it is likely driving the cooking of the books on IS as well, if the allegations are true.
But success is hard to come by. This “war”is not easily waged, at least not merely in military terms. All the experts I have read unanimously agree that air strikes alone will not defeat IS. And yet the US, undoubtedly the most important player in this campaign, is reluctant to commit ground troops. As a result, the end is not in sight.
We are thus faced with a conundrum. We know that we will not win this war militarily, at least not using the tactics we are now. And still we cannot do nothing. The status quo – both from a counter-terrorist strategy perspective as well as an IS strength one – is untenable. Following it commits us to years – if not decades – of stalemate. And the public needs good news stories.
Being flippant and dismissive about the struggle against terrorism is not helpful. This is a hard problem that no one – to my knowledge – has an answer to. Any lasting solution will involve a number of approaches, hard and soft, and will take time. Promises of eradicating terror now (which have been made in the wake of the recent Nigerian election with respect to Boko Haram) are not credible. Understandable perhaps in light of wanting to seem effective, but not credible.
In the end, we have to get a lot more intelligent on this front.