US sacrifices truth for war on Taliban
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Despite evidence that the Taliban insurgency had grown
significantly in 2010, the United States intelligence community failed to
revise its estimate for Taliban forces as part of a National Intelligence
Estimate (NIE) on Afghanistan in December.
That unusual decision was in deference to General David Petraeus, commander of
US-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan, who did not
want any official
estimate of the insurgency's strength that would contradict his claims of
success by special operations forces in reducing the capabilities of the
Taliban in 2010.
In late 2009, the intelligence community adopted an estimate of 20,000 to
30,000 full-time insurgents, as reported by McClatchy newspapers in November
and confirmed in a press briefing by Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, a
spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), on December
But in 2010, the Taliban and their allies increased the total number of attacks
to 34,000, compared with 22,000 in 2009, according to official ISAF data - a
whopping 54% rise.
That major step-up in operations suggested that the Taliban had grown
substantially between 2009 and 2010. Yet no revised intelligence estimate of
Taliban strength appeared in late 2010, even though the National Intelligence
Council produced a National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan in December.
Such an NIE would normally be expected to include an updated estimate of
Last month, officials of NATO and Petraeus' command managed to suggest that the
number of insurgents had not grown in 2010 and then dismissed the very idea of
an intelligence estimate of the size of the forces fighting against ISAF.
On January 3, 2011, an unnamed NATO official in Brussels said there were "up to
25,000" Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, according to a January 6 story by
Associated Press reporter Slobodan Lekic. The same 25,000 figure - the
mid-point in the 2009 estimate - had been provided earlier by "several military
officers and diplomats", according to the Lekic story.
That figure would imply that the number of full-time Taliban had not grown
since 2009, and might even have shrunk - thus supporting Petraeus' claims of
But in a January 9 response to a query from the Associated Press, NATO
spokeswoman Oana Lungescu clearly disparaged the idea that there could be an
official estimate of the Taliban strength. "There has never been a single
reliable source for the size of the insurgency," said Lungescu, adding that all
estimates of the insurgents are "highly unreliable".
Lungescu sought to divert attention away from a focus on the numerical strength
of the Taliban, suggesting that it "misrepresents gains made by alliance forces
in the past year". But it is logically impossible for a numerical estimate of
insurgent strength to "misrepresent" the results of military operations.
Lungescu was implying that an estimate of Taliban numerical strength would
interfere with ISAF's claims of having weakened the Taliban.
In an obvious effort to suggest that the insurgency had been reduced in size,
Lungescu said, "[T]housands of insurgent leaders have been killed or captured
and several thousand fighters have been taken off the battlefield."
In response to an Inter Press Service (IPS) query to ISAF about the estimated
strength of the Afghan armed insurgency, an ISAF spokesman, US Navy Lieutenant
Fernando Rivero, did not respond except to refer to the January 9 statement by
An Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman said on February 9 that the ministry
estimates the number of Taliban insurgents at between 25,000 and 35,000,
although he said it was "just a guess".
The failure of the intelligence community to adopt a revised estimate in the
NIE last year was shaped by a highly politicized relationship between the
intelligence community and the most powerful field commander in modern US
The NIE reflected an agreement on what one intelligence source called a
"division of labor" between the NIE and the military under which the NIE would
not deal with issues bearing on the success of the US military effort in
Afghanistan. Intelligence officials understood that such issues were "outside
our lane", the source said.
An estimate of Taliban strength in the NIE would have obvious bearing on the
success of US military operations, since it would show whether the Taliban had
been able to continue to grow despite losses inflicted by special operations
The decision to forego a formal estimate of insurgent forces may have been
authorized by the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who has
oversight of any national intelligence product, and adjudicates any major
differences of view that can't be negotiated. Clapper, who took over as DNI
last August, has a reputation for sacrificing truth to support existing war
He is best known for having claimed in October 2003, when he was director of
the Defense Department's National Imagery and Mapping Agency, that the missing
weapons of mass destruction in Iraq "unquestionably" had been transferred to
Syria and other countries before the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
Dr Antonio Giustozzi of the London School of Economics, a widely-published
specialist on the conflict in Afghanistan, told IPS the Afghan National Army
had provided him with an estimate in April 2010 of 36,000 full-time insurgents
- roughly a 50% increase over the 2009 estimate.
Giustozzi provided IPS with his detailed estimate of insurgent forces as of
January 2011. The estimate includes 36,000 full-time fighters and nearly 50,000
part-time local fighters. The Taliban only mobilize that much larger local pool
of manpower occasionally, according to Giustozzi.
That a revised estimate of the insurgency's strength is missing from the latest
NIE recalls the political struggle between the Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA) and the US military command over the estimate of Vietnamese Communist-led
In late 1966, a CIA analyst, Sam Adams, found that the military's estimate of
less than 300,000 Communist-led forces in Vietnam did not reflect the evidence
of continued growth in those forces - and particularly of "irregular" local
The CIA came up with a new estimate of Communist-led forces to 431,000 to
491,000, which was presented in a draft national intelligence estimate in
spring 1967. But the military command continued to stonewall, flatly refusing
to accept any increase in the overall Vietcong "order of battle" above 300,000.
General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote to General
William Westmoreland, the top US commander in Vietnam, on March 9, 1967, "If
these figures should reach the public domain they would literally blow the lid
Wheeler urged Westmoreland to "do whatever is necessary to insure [sic] that
these figures are not repeat not released to news media or otherwise exposed to
Westmoreland agreed. According to his intelligence chief, General Joseph A
McChristian, Westmoreland said such an estimate would be a "political
bombshell" if it got out to the public.
CIA director Richard Helms finally caved in to military pressure in September
1967 and ordered the CIA to agree to an estimate of exactly 299,000.
Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern told IPS he recalls Sam Adams quoting in a
conversation with him the explanation Helms had given to Adams: "My job is to
protect the Agency and there is no way I can do that if I get into a pissing
match with the Army when it's at war."
Like Westmoreland, Petraeus appears to have invoked the privilege of the
military commander to avert the potential "political bombshell" of an estimate
that would almost certainly have shown a large increase in the number of armed
insurgents in Afghanistan.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.