One evening last week, I went to Politics and Prose to hear Robert Grenier talk about his new book “88 Days to Kandahar”. Grenier has an impressive background. He was with the CIA for almost 30 years. At the time of 9/11, he was the CIA Station Chief in Islamabad (Pakistan – the CIA had no one in Afghanistan). During the time the war in Iraq, he was with the CIA at Langley, and was the CIA coordinator for the war. Following that task, he was in charge of all of the CIA counter terrorism programs.
Following the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he describes a CIA where it was clear that Osama bin Laden was headquartered in Afghanistan, and the administration was determined to get him, but where nothing else was clear. Grenier was somewhat surprised to get a call from George Tenet, CIA director, asking him “What should we do? I have to report at a meeting tomorrow. What should I say?” This surprised Grenier for a couple of reasons. First, because there was a hierarchy in the agency, and it was very abnormal for the director to personally call a station chief. Second, because while it was the job of the station chief to pull together intelligence information, it was the job of CIA headquarters to decide what to do with that intelligence, not the station chief.
Afghanistan with a governmental mess – the Taliban controlled part of the country, warlords controlled others. Who would the United States support? The Taliban would not be a dependable ally, although they were certainly not friends of bin Laden. That left the warlords, and the CIA went asked a number of them if they would work with us in return for certain forms of support from us. Of the large number of warlords contacted, apparently only two felt safe to agree, and they became the core of our program to stabilize the country, which led (for better or worse) to the election of President Karzai.
OK, I am sure that the details of all of this would be interesting, but I must admit to being a bit lost here. Bin Laden and the rest of his Al Qaeda crew had left their headquarters in Tora Bora before the United States had a chance to trap them, and moved into Pakistan. So, why did we care so much about Afghanistan? Even today, how much of our national interest is at stake. The Taliban has shown renewed strength, the Harzai government lasted was totally corrupt, and the new president has yet to show what really he can do with this divided country where warlords still hold a lot of power. President Obama is determined to have our last military troops out of the country – Grenier believes this is a mistake, and that without our support, chaos will rule. He supports keeping American troops at some level in Afghanistan for a lengthy period of time. Again, I was lost. Why does he suggest this? What is our long term goal?
The CIA made a lot of mistakes in this fight, and Grenier is the first to admit this. He has a lot of criticism of CIA headquarters decision making, but then said that this is not unusual for someone in the field (and that when he was at headquarters, he was equally critical of field decisions). In response to a question from the audience – “with all of the CIA’s mistakes, why should we have any confidence in their decision making, and do we need a CIA”. His answer was interesting – of course we need intelligence capacity, and of course CIA actions have often by not only flawed, but harmful, but he loves the CIA he says, not for what it is, but for what it could, or should, be.