WASHINGTON – David Petraeus, the former general who led the Afghanistan war and now heads the CIA, has ordered his intelligence analysts to give greater weight to the opinions of troops in the fight, U.S. officials said.
CIA analysts now will consult with battlefield commanders earlier in the process as they help create elements of a National Intelligence Estimate on the course of the war, to more fully include the military's take on the conflict, U.S. officials say.
Their input could improve the upcoming report card for the war.
The most recent U.S. intelligence assessment offered a dim view of progress in Afghanistan despite the counterinsurgency campaign Petraeus oversaw there and painted a stark contrast to the generally upbeat predictions of progress from Petraeus and other military leaders. Petraeus has made no secret of his frustration with recent negative assessments coming primarily from the CIA, and said during his confirmation hearing that he planned to change the way the civilian analysts grade wars.
The CIA's analysis makes up the bulk of national intelligence estimates, which help guide the White House and Congress in drafting future policy.
The CIA says Petraeus' tweaks to the agency's part of the assessment will add to its accuracy, not tilt the results, and that military commanders' views were always part of the equation.
"Analytic debate and discussion haven't been chilled; they've been promoted," CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood said.
The change has been backed by National Intelligence Director James Clapper, another senior U.S. official said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the intelligence assessment is classified.
Petraeus took over as head of the CIA last month. He was directly in charge of the war in Afghanistan for more than a year -- his last job in uniform -- and oversaw the war as the head of Central Command before that. Like Iraq, Afghanistan has become a proving ground for the theories of counterinsurgency Petraeus is credited with making central to current U.S. military doctrine.
The previous U.S. intelligence assessment on Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier this year contradicted then-war-commander Petraeus' assessment. Where he saw "fragile but reversible progress," the analysts from across the intelligence community largely reported stalemate in several parts of the country. The disagreements were highlighted in the CIA's district by district assessments in which progress was graded geographically, with intelligence analysts seeing far less progress in key districts than did military commanders on the ground.
They emphasized a spate of assassinations by the Taliban and poor performance by the Afghan government in their report, two U.S. officials say.
Analysts also were negative about the performance of the Afghanistan security forces, whereas military commanders saw some units performing competently.
After taking the top spy job, Petraeus dispatched a top CIA official to the Afghan war zone to interview both sides to try to reconcile their differing opinions. Petraeus together with his staff concluded that those lower-level commanders on the battlefield needed to have input into the CIA process, two U.S. officials said.
In the previous process of assessing Afghan districts -- which becomes a key building block of national intelligence estimates -- analysts only sent their work to the top military commander, toward the end of the process. Now they'll share their conclusions with lower-level officers earlier to give them the opportunity to assess the intelligence analysts' conclusions and offer dissenting opinions, two officials said.
That process of including the field commanders first was actually started by then-Gen. Petraeus, who asked that his regional commanders review the draft CIA assessments before he did, one senior official said. Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan now, has now made the same request, the official said.
Critics of the change say allowing the military more pushback will have a chilling effect on the analysts' ability to give the war a failing grade, a senior intelligence official said.
One intelligence official expressed concern that this would institutionalize the former general's habit when in Afghanistan of challenging the CIA's unflattering conclusions, the official said.
Senior U.S. officials insist the military will not be able to change the CIA's analysis but only add comments if they dissent from it. How those comments will be reflected has not yet been determined.
Petraeus insisted at his confirmation hearing in June that he could "grade my own work." But he vowed then to change the way the CIA grades wars, saying the analysts relied on battlefield data that was often six weeks to eight weeks old. He called that a snapshot that was outdated by the time it reached decision-makers.
Petraeus earlier told senators he'd disagreed with four such national intelligence estimates on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ---- two because he thought they were too pessimistic, and two he thought were too optimistic.
Tweaking the way data is collected and analyzed is not new for Petraeus, said one U.S. military official who worked as a troubleshooter for the general in Afghanistan.
Petraeus had been equally demanding of commanders in the field, asking them to constantly grade their district's progress, and had been working to revamp the reporting process there as well, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the military intelligence collection process.
Petraeus would ask field commanders to assess everything from how secure the area was to whether the Afghan government was providing people adequate services, but his troubleshooting team had found there was no uniform scale within the military to compare progress district by district. The troubleshooters concluded that commanders making the calls were often less than well-versed in judging non-military measures of progress such as the integrity of local government, so the assessment was often based on the commander's personal opinions.
That was something Petraeus was working to fix when he left, the official said.
The February Afghan intelligence assessment found that special operations night raids, combined with village-by-village security operations, had shown more lasting progress in undermining the Taliban and their influence than attempts by conventional military forces to drive out militants, according to three U.S. officials who have read the analysis and described it to The Associated Press.
Petraeus oversaw both the conventional and special operations military campaigns, but his ideas about how to outsmart insurgent militias are more closely associated with the conventional military.
The report did not favor one strategy over another. But the information gave ammunition to those who supported Vice President Joe Biden's special operations-centered counterterrorism strategy over Petraeus' backing of traditional counterinsurgency. It was seen as proof for some that the additional conventional forces Petraeus championed made little impact on the overall campaign and a slam against parts of the strategy designed by its architect just as he seeks to lead the intelligence service.
President Barack Obama's announcement of a drawdown of 33,000 troops is being seen as another departure from Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy.
Petraeus would only say it was a more "aggressive ... timeline" than he'd recommended, which meant greater risk that U.S. forces might not succeed.
In at least one instance, the analysts' conclusions in that last intelligence assessment tracked with Petraeus' recommendation of keeping larger numbers of troops on the ground for a longer time period.
The intelligence analysts pointed to intercepted communications and broadcasts among Taliban commanders who were heartened by Obama's drawdown timetable and were able to reverse their decline of last spring in recruiting new fighters, two U.S. officials said.