Washington – Military intelligence officers were scrambling a year ago to collect and analyze the social, economic and tribal ins and outs of each valley and hamlet in Afghanistan.
This information wasn't the kind of secret or covert material many military intelligence specialists were used to. But it was seen as crucial to helping commanders tell the good guys from the bad, learn what Afghans really needed from their government and undermine the Taliban-led insurgency by winning hearts and minds.
Since last fall, top intelligence leaders in Afghanistan have shifted their energies back to targeting the enemy the more traditional way, by mapping their networks, and analyzing the behavior of what made the Taliban tick. It's not that they stopped collecting the other information, but the focus shifted to helping commanders on the ground learn what they needed to know to help them kill the enemy directly -- and drive that enemy to the negotiating table.
President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday that the United States will start bringing home U.S. troops next month is part of a gradual scaling back of American operations and ambitions in Afghanistan. That change is expected to drive a continued emphasis on raids, and less on governance, making tracking Afghan culture and bolstering the government less important, three current officials in Afghanistan said.
The White House has been frustrated by Afghanistan's corruption and President Hamid Karzai government's inability to provide competent officials to serve far-flung provinces. That has helped shrink U.S. goals, and the new bottom line is a government strong enough to prevent terrorists' safe havens from returning.
Targeting insurgent leaders and their support networks is seen as an important part of the U.S. exit strategy. The thinking is that Taliban leaders will be more ready for a deal if they feel threatened personally.
The U.S. has confirmed preliminary outreach to the Taliban, but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week that fruitful talks are probably a long way off.
Ironically, the change in Washington policy comes just as the top official in charge of military intelligence in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Steve Fogarty, shifted his focus back to how the U.S. gathers that social, economic and tribal data, and how to make sure the troops are getting access to it to help both understand local communities and foster local governance. He may now face a closing window of opportunity to beef up those programs, as his programs face the looming drawdown of manpower and resources ordered by an administration fed up with the war's $10 billion-a-month price tag.
The White House's decision to start bringing home troops, and start curtailing some of the larger nation-building projects follows a secret U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan issued in February. That report said raids against the enemy and small-scale special-operations-led stability operations were showing progress, but projects meant to bolster Afghan governance were not yet taking hold, according to the officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.