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NightWatch 20100725

NightWatch

For the Night of 25 July 2010

The Korea Confrontation

South Korea-US: The United States and South Korea began military exercises off the Korean coast on 25 July, The Associated Press reported. The "Invincible Spirit" exercises are scheduled to continue through 28 July. As reported previously, they will include 8,000 US and South Korean troops, 20 ships and submarines, 200 aircraft including the F-22 stealth fighter jet, and the NIMITZ-class aircraft carrier, USS George Washington. No unusual military activity in North Korea has been observed, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.

North Korea: In response to the Allied exercises, North Korea's National Defense Commission issued a statement on 24 July that threatened a "powerful nuclear deterrence" and said North Korea is prepared for a "retaliatory sacred war." The statement said the army and the people of North Korea will "legitimately counter" the naval exercises with their powerful nuclear deterrence.

Comment: No body is going to war, but the North appears intent on raising the ante in that its language of retaliation continues to suggest it will do something, including conduct another nuclear or nuclear-related test. The words conveying responses are not modified by adjectives, participles or conditional clauses, unlike the words of war, such as being "prepared for a retaliatory sacred war."

The term "legitimately counter" also can include missile testing - the North's nuclear weapons delivery system of choice.

The North has built a new, second missile launch site at Tongchang-ri in northwestern North Korea that has never been tested. The range is oriented south over international waters towards the Philippines. A missile test from that launch complex would and should be a headline grabber. The North's east coast site is Taepodong which is inadequate for testing intercontinental range ballistic missiles without flying over Japan, unlike the west coast site.

China: A Chinese military analyst on Sunday described the Allied exercises as having a "negative impact" on northeast Asian security. This language is a bland, pro forma comment. The Chinese are not escalating the propaganda exchanges. This is an appropriate response because the Allies have accommodated Chinese interests.

Afghanistan: Taliban militants said on 25 July they had killed one of two US military personnel captured on the 24th in Logar Province, south of Kabul, and that they are holding the other hostage, Reuters reported, citing an interview with a Taliban spokesman. The spokesman said the group has taken the living captive and the dead one's body to a "safe place" and that the group's leadership would decide the fate of the captive later.

Comment: US authorities announced that two US Navy personnel have been missing since Friday. Taliban state they ambushed the two, killing one. The memory of Vietnam's handling of American prisoners of war is still fresh enough to revive horrible memories, but the Pashtun Taliban are more brutal and less organized than the Vietnamese and lack a French colonial-built prison system for hiding POWs. The leadership safe havens in Pakistan do not include access to provincial prisons or kidnappings would be much more frequent.

The lack of centralized guidance and processing and the absence of reports of an organized kidnapping campaign are important indicators that this activity is local. A local cell leader wants a ransom.

During the Soviet occupation, Hekmatyar was the only mujahedin leader whose fighters regularly kidnapped Soviet soldiers whom they usually tortured and sometimes ransomed. The Pashtuns have not approached taking POWs as a business or political influence venture, as did the Vietnamese. That is the good news for Allied soldiers.

Iran-Afghanistan: The head of the Law Enforcement Force Command in Ardabil Province cited UN figures to prove that drug smuggling from Afghanistan into Iran has fallen by 50% in the past year.

It is likely to continue to fall because any Afghans captured in eastern Iran are being summarily executed by Iranian authorities. This has strained Afghan relations. Afghanistan has sent several delegations to Iran in the past few months to try to stop the executions or to arrange extraditions, to no avail.

Swift justice seems to deter drug smugglers. The Iranians do not seem to mind when non-drug smugglers are executed by mistake.

Mauritania-France: The French-backed Mauritanian military operations against al Qaeda fighters in the Sahara desert wound up 24 July after four days of hunting Islamists inside Mali, Reuters reported. Mauritanian forces killed six fighters from al Qaeda's North Africa wing in an attack on a base in Mali on 22 July. Operations continued after the 22nd pre-dawn attack on a group of Islamists who are believed to be holding a 78-year-old French hostage in the desert Sahel region.

On the 24th, al Jazirah reported that al Qaida in North Africa said it had executed the French captive.

Venezuela: President Chavez canceled a scheduled trip to Cuba because he feared a Colombian attack. He threatened to stop oil shipments to the US in the event Colombia attacks Venezuela.

WikiLeaks, The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel on Afghanistan: Special comment.

What has been published thus far is underwhelming. The items published to date contain many factual details, but little-to-no analysis that would change views about Afghanistan. The analysis by the New York Times and the Guardian analysts is unimpressive. A competent intelligence analyst could do much more with the information than these people have done, which is good news.

The news outlets have had the 92,201 reports for over a month, but The Guardian's people have managed to plot on a map and post 300. Experienced Defense Department analysts of Afghanistan regularly would read and analyze more than 2,000 such reports in every 12 hour shift and would plot the salient events on a map, connect the dots and make some inferences about the status of the insurgency by province or district … and do that every shift.

The sum of the parts is less than the whole. The number of leaked reports looks large to those not familiar with the enormity of the information flow. 92, 201 reports represent a tiny fraction of daily reporting between 2004 and 2009 and only at one classification level. There are more classification levels and the 92, 201 reports, as summarized, apparently do not include the most useful, fortunately.

A glimpse into the intelligence analysis challenge. The information leaked thus far is valuable for people who do not work in intelligence because it gives them an insight into the challenge of coping with this huge flow of information. The task is to evaluate it in order to provide actionable intelligence to policy makers or combat forces about the status of the fighting in Afghanistan.

It is an enormous information problem for which intelligence analysts have few useful tools or automated assists, despite 30 years of Intelligence Community investment in automated and computerized analytical support systems. The New York Times published one of the reports, as an exemplar. It describes one meeting of one group of Taliban at which retired Pakistan intelligence chief, Lieutenant Hamid Gul, was reported as present.

The Times did a great service in providing the reading public an example of what a low level human-source field intelligence information report might actually look like. For an Afghan desk officer it would be one of maybe 3,000 he needed to read that day.

The reports do not speak for themselves and cannot be taken at face value because honest people lie and dishonest people tell the truth.

Hamid Gul became an outspoken supporter of the Taliban and an enemy of the US after he retired. On active duty at Pakistani intelligence he enjoyed the access and preferential treatment CIA and other agencies gave his predecessors and successors.

His conversion in retirement to fundamentalism had more to do with internal Pakistan Army politics than Afghanistan or fervent devotion to Islam, many would argue.

He might well have attended the reported meeting, but the reported facts about other delegations are clearly exaggerated and not credible. Old hands will recognize the fraud in an instant.

NightWatch is gratified. The one service for which NightWatch thanks The Times is the confirmation that the Taliban are using heat-seeking man-portable anti-aircraft missiles (manpads) against US aircraft. In the 1980s, the Afghan mujahedin were proficient in using these systems against the Soviets, owing to excellent CIA training and the provision of front-line STINGER missiles. It has been inconceivable that no US and NATO aircraft losses to manpads have been confirmed in open sources since 2001.

At last this issue has been clarified. The Taliban are following the path of the US-backed mujahedin, and that should surprise no one. Honest admission of this fact would have sharpened independent assessments of the air campaign and its risks.

The US introduced manpads into the Pashtun warrior culture during the Soviet occupation. These are the systems that led to the defeat of the Soviet forces by neutralizing air superiority. Millions are available for purchase internationally, but US spokespersons have never admitted that the Taliban might actually have been clever enough to buy some, along with IED supplies, perhaps.

In today's reports the new outlets did not reach the obvious conclusion that the increased use of manpads against US helicopters might have contributed to McChrystal's decision to limit tactical air support because aircraft losses were mounting, mimicking the Soviet experience. In other words, the deaths of innocent Afghan civilians might have been less significant than the rising losses of US airframes. That possibility needs follow-up research.

92,201 reports are not the same as 92,201 facts. In the NightWatch/KGS materials on Intelligence as Evidence the central theme is that every field report must be subjected to six foundation tests and two argument tests, after a filtering process that identifies it as having potential value. None of the news outlets did any of that difficult, tedious work.

Thus, it is only partially accurate to assert the reports provide new insights into how "grim" the war is. Some provide local insights that need to be matched to other reports. Some are fabrications. Many are time sensitive, with no enduring value except as time capsules.

Still others are local views of important but limited value. For example, The Guardian has posted an interactive map of 300 reports. It has taken the first analytical step, at least, in locating field data geographically. However, it has not collated the reports by time, actor, nature of action, outcome, Allied response or matched any of this to some meaningful geographic framework, such as the 400 districts in Afghanistan.

The real harm. Separated from source information, all of the information published today could have been released into the public domain as unclassified, but for the huge expense involved in the review process for such a large number of reports. Today's "sensational" revelations contained no themes or strategic insights that have not been reported in past NightWatch special editions on Afghanistan, which are based exclusively on open source materials and more than 30 years of study of Afghanistan.

Experienced hands know that 92,200 documents represent a rather small data dump. Moreover, whoever kept this so-called log had no apparent logic or sophisticated knowledge of Afghanistan in including data. It is a data dump similar to the Washington Post report on US intelligence and contractors. It is data without analysis, similar to other intelligence data repositories.

The mantra of experienced analysts is that more is not better. Better is better.

The serious problem implied in the leak is the extent of demoralization it might manifest. If serious people are so disheartened by the Afghanistan war that they would risk clearances, reputation and criminal prosecution to engage in what they think is a large volume leak as an act of opposition, then the leaks will get worse as the war drags on inconclusively.

Almost all of what was published today is already in the public domain, but the next set of leaks might do real damage to national security. The real story is about what is prompting this hemorrhage of leaks.

End of NightWatch for 25 July.

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