A 35-Year CIA Vet Reviews 88 Days to Kandahar

on December 21 | in Bureaucracy, CIA

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Robert Grenier wrote 88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary detailing his experiences in the critical days of CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks. Ironically, one might consider this the culmination of an Afghan trilogy, beginning with George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman in the Great Game, followed by George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War about CIA’s efforts to support the mujahidin struggle against the Soviet invaders. In each case, the stories start with the prospect of victory but end with disaster just around the horizon.

Grenier was the former Chief of Station (COS) in Islamabad, Pakistan during those 88 days and later became Director of CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC). Anyone who has met Bob (as I have on several occasions) comes away with the distinct impression he doesn’t quite fit the mold of the hard-charging clandestine service officer; his demeanor is much more analytical, introspective, candid, and self-critical. On those few occasions when the writing seems less than humble, I suspect that was the result of prodding by his editor.

As COS Islamabad, Grenier wrote articulate, well-thought-out cables that eventually became the initial strategy for pursuing the conflict; namely, to encourage the Afghanistan’s tribes in the southern part of the country to rebel against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Grenier had a unique vantage point operating from Islamabad because of his many contacts within the Pakistani government, especially Pakistani intelligence, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The book’s title is somewhat misleading. First, only 297 of the book’s 420 pages occur before the fall of Kandahar. The remaining 100 plus pages cover the first days after the fighting winds down and efforts are made to create a successful Afghan government. Grenier received a promotion to honcho CTC to work on Iraqi issues until he was forced out for a variety of reasons in 2005.

Second, this is not the book to read as a military account because the author was absent from the battlefield and has only second-hand knowledge from his subordinates on the ground. Furthermore, most of his attention was paid to wooing the southern Pashtun tribes; he says little about the Northern Alliance on the other front that the Defense Department was working with closely.

The sad fact is that what occupied Grenier’s attention as much as al-Qaida and the Taliban as enemies were bureaucratic struggles. These months of crisis were fraught with two battles, according to Grenier, one between headquarters and the field, and the other between CTC and the area divisions. Add to that major issues with a Pentagon run by a tempestuous Donald Rumsfeld and his minions, and you have a mess.

That bureaucratic knife fights exist is hardly news to national security professionals, but it is unfortunate to see them during a time of war. Those working in the field (including at the State Department) often have a sense its headquarters has no clue what is “ground truth.” On the other hand, HQ grumbles the field has gone native or suffers from “clientitis.”

CIA’s internal culture exacerbated some of these issues. For example, the clandestine service is organized both functionally (such as CTC), and by geographic areas of the world. These parts compete for resources and personnel, vie to be in the driver’s seat on counterterrorism policy, and at times are not-at-all collegial. The recurring question for me while reading is, “Where is George?” DCI George Tenet didn’t seem particularly helpful in suppressing this competition — and Tenet’s successor Porter Goss fared no better.

Grenier delves into quite considerable operational detail on these conflicts, and in doing so airs a lot of dirty laundry. I was surprised the book cleared the Agency’s publication review process with such rich detail so soon after these events, especially when much of the Agency’s role in the Soviet-Afghan conflict in the early 1980s remains under tight wraps.

Along these lines, Grenier strived to craft his material to be understandable for all readers, but it seemed to me this book was written more for insiders to the national security policy or intelligence process. His details are of much greater interest to the professionals and may confuse more casual readers. There are references to many policy groups and documents where the significance may not be well understood.

The author himself seems partially afflicted with clientitis when he discusses Pakistan and the ISI. When tensions mount between India and Pakistan after a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, he takes the Pakistani view that India was indeed being provocative. Further, he repeatedly blames Indian behavior in Kashmir and adopts the Pakistani viewpoint that the Indians need to do something to tamp down the situation. Also, he seems to place more trust in the ISI’s helpfulness than many would believe. Yet he understands Islamabad and the ISI have parochial interests in Afghanistan and favor some groups at odds with U.S. interests.

Grenier steps outside his book’s topic when the narrative turns to Iraq. He admits America’s Iraq policy was a disaster, and that the campaign against Baghdad was a distraction from U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, he believed that regime change was necessary — even though there were no weapons of mass destruction. As he notes:

“My disillusion was all the greater in that I genuinely believed in the mission to topple Saddam. It never matters where he had chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons on the shelf…What mattered was that his regime had the documented capacity to build them, thoroughly catalogued by UN sanctions and surely would do so again in future once the UN sanction regime was ended.” (pp. 366-367)

On this point I must vehemently disagree, for two reasons.

  1. The US record on interventions usually end up as debacles, e.g., Vietnam, Philippines, Cuba, Iran before the shah, Afghanistan against the Soviets. Policymakers haven’t done particularly well anticipating unintended consequences even when doing so for Iraq was an easy call. So why would intervention this time be any different?
  1. I agree Saddam was a despot, but we can’t depose every tyrant in the world, especially when there is scant chance it will end well. In fact, America has been able to get along well with many tyrants. After all, we didn’t mind when Saddam was fighting the Iranians even though he was using chemical weapons.

Using Grenier’s logic of removing threats, why aren’t we invading Iran and North Korea, much less Russia? Personally, I find the threats posed by North Korea and Russia much more worrisome.

In the last few chapters, Grenier provides an interesting perspective on the kerfuffle about “enhanced interrogation” of detainees. He believed it helped foil some terrorist plots; others take the opposing view. However, this is a pointless argument because there is no way that we could run a counterfactual history to determine whether we would have foiled attacks without the techniques.

What is clear that after 9/11, policymakers and intelligence officials were panicked that terrorists would acquire a nuclear weapon and detonate it in an American city — and would do anything to prevent it. Of course, this is not the first time the U.S. has taken actions that we later regret, e.g., the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.

That said, opinions can change rapidly about the propriety of enhanced interrogation. As I put together this review following ISIS’ gruesome attacks in Paris, I feel somewhat less charitable and would relish a return of Madame de la Guillotine.

Where CIA’s leadership failed was in recognizing the program was a ticking time bomb that sooner or later would revealed publicly. Moreover, there didn’t seem to be appropriate mitigation strategy for when the inevitable happened. The only surprise was that it took that long to leak.

As suspicions about the program’s existence were growing, many spoke to me within the Agency about their moral qualms. These individuals generally fell into two groups: many younger new hires with their first post graduate jobs, and older people—both Jew and Gentile–for whom the Holocaust was a formative event.

At the time I was teaching a class entitled The Ethics of Intelligence to new analysts. The students’ comments worried me that the leadership had their collective heads in the sand on this issue. Then-CIA Director Porter Goss’s ill-conceived press interviews did more damage than help.

Approaching the end of my career anyhow, I decided to let CIA’s senior leadership know what was happening with many of the new hires. CIA’s Executive Director at the time, Dusty Foggo, encouraged people to email any of their concerns to him. So I availed myself of this channel — only to never receive an acknowledgement. Instead, a short time later it came out Foggo himself was ethically impaired; he was subsequently indicted on several criminal charges and sent to prison.

The other misconception was the apparent belief by senior leadership that when the stories of enhanced interrogation became widely known, policymakers, Members of Congress, and attorney generals would willingly step up and take the hear from the Agency. It turns out they chose not to.

Grenier realized this was happening and fell afoul of his seniors because he wanted clearer protections for his people. The leadership forgot the adage so common at Langley: there are only intelligence failures—never policy failures. How many times does that have to happen before the lesson is truly learned?

Despite my concerns, if you want a no-holds barred insider account of life inside CIA stripped of Hollywood glamour at a time of a national crisis, Bob Grenier’s 88 Days to Kandahar will be an excellent addition to your bookshelf.

Ray Converse analyzed European and Soviet affairs during his 35 year career at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) where he served as an analyst, manager, and faculty member of the Sherman Kent School of Intelligence Analysis.  Since then he has worked with Pherson Associates primarily teaching analytic techniques.

photo: CIA Museum (CIA).

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