Is the CIA Still an Intelligence Agency?


Early September 2011, a former intelligence official commented to the Washington Post that, “The CIA has become one hell of a killing machine”. He then attempted to retract, but his words were on record. But is that really what it should be: a hell of a killing machine?

When it took birth in 1947, under the National Security Act, it was restricted to espionage and was specifically told that it had, “no police or law enforcement functions at home or abroad”. Reportedly, a year later, its mandate was extended to include, “sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures…subversion [and] assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation movements, and support of indigenous anti-communist elements in threatened countries of the free world”. But its primary function was that of an intelligence agency.

How successfully has the CIA, in recent times, been performing its primary function? Judging by the litany of complaints from ISAF Staff Officers; the CIA has not been very successful. “We are acting blind”; “I wish our intelligence was accurate at least one occasion out of ten”; “How can we possibly perform blinded” are frequent accusations by ISAF/NATO staff.

As a student of the “Higher Direction of War” at the National Defense University, where I taught for three years, while continuing to remain a student of the subject, the first thing that we realized was the necessity of a lucidly stated ‘political aim for the war’. Let us assume here that the political aim for the US/NATO invasion of Afghanistan was not motivated by the tempting resources of Central Asia and were, as stated, “the destruction, dismantling, and disabling of the organization called Al-Quaeda and the despotic Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which has provided sanctuary and support to Al-Quaida”.

Assuming that to be the political aim, the next requirement; before translating the political aim into a tangible ‘Military Aim’; for which, the planning process can only start with a realistic assessment of the “Prevailing Environment”. The prevailing environment is all-pervasive; it includes the domestic environment, the environment of the enemy country(s), neighboring countries, the international community; in short, every conceivable aspect. This is where intelligence input begins to become invaluable for the military planners.

So, let’s just go back in time and try to list the intelligence input that could have been provided to the US military for a realistic assessment of the prevalent environment:

  • Within the US there is support for this war.
  • The UN has sanctioned the invasion.
  • Despite some reservations, NATO has agreed to invoke Article 5 declaring the 9/11 attacks “an act of war by a foreign state against a NATO member state”. NATO allies will contribute forces for this operation and, while the bulk of invading troops will be American, they will be operating under the NATO umbrella.
  • Among neighboring countries: China will remain a ‘silent observer’; India will support the war effort; Iran opposes the invasion by US but is so strongly opposed to Taliban that it will accept it, what is more, it is in no position to pose any problems to us. Neighboring Central Asian countries are of no significance and, will probably agree to base US troops on their soil.
  • Pakistan: this country is of critical importance for the successful conduct of war in Afghanistan. Not only does it provide the shortest logistic route for provisions to be transported to Afghanistan, it was the one neighbor that has very close ties with Taliban. The Pakistan government has agreed to provide us all possible assistance; however, since this decision has, in all likelihood been made under duress, it must be viewed cautiously. Consequently, it is more than likely that there will be elements in the Pakistan military and the ISI who are opposed to this decision and might covertly suborn the government’s overt support for our operations. However, the Pakistani Pashtun tribes bordering Afghanistan are strongly opposed to the Taliban and, if contacted, could be of invaluable assistance.
  • Afghanistan: Afghans, across the ethnic divide, including and especially the Afghan Pashtun are fed up with the despotic Taliban and they await American invading forces with hope and expectations of a better future. While we have allied ourselves with the Northern Alliance, it would be worth bearing in mind that this alliance consists predominantly of Afghans who are ethnically Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen. On the other hand, the Afghan population is predominantly Pashtun. Since there has been no census in Afghanistan for decades past, we have no figures to quote, however, estimates of the Afghan Pashtun population range from 48per cent   to 60 per cent  ; while the combined population of Tajik/Uzbek/ Turkmen is estimated in the range of 25 per cent  . Undisputedly, Taliban are exclusively Pashtun; however, they constitute a very small portion of the Afghan Pashtun population, while the majority of the Pashtun is also alienated with the Taliban. Afghans, across the ethnic divide are proud of their origins and, even after the breakup of the erstwhile USSR, there has been no movement among the Tajik/Uzbek/Turkmen population to rejoin the newly created independent countries of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, or Turkmenistan, despite Soviet encouragement. However, internecine ethnic rivalry and enmity frequently asserts itself. It would be advisable, therefore, to employ the Northern Alliance with caution and keep them on a tight leash so as not to alienate the majority Pashtun population of Afghanistan. Finally, the end-game product should seek to establish an Afghan regime which is pro-US but is acceptable to the Afghan population. Any effort to emplace a “puppet” regime is likely to backfire against the fierce independent spirit of the Afghan.

Now put yourself in the place of the military commander planning the operation for invasion of Afghanistan with this wealth of information available to him. I have not referred to other intelligence information deliberately, like terrain, composition and capabilities of the Taliban, since most of these would be available to him as a matter of course.

But imagine how differently the military operation could have been planned, if this input was available. Had I been in command, my next step would have been to identify what is called in military parlance, the “Center of Gravity” of the enemy; and almost immediately, I would have identified this as the leadership—of both: Al-Quaida and Taliban.

Immediately I would have sought information of the entire Al-Quaida and Taliban hierarchy and their locations. I would also have tasked my military intelligence, MI, operatives to help identify Afghan Pashtun who could be allied with, including disillusioned Taliban (in all likelihood, the erstwhile “exclusive” CIA asset, Jalaluddin Haqqani would have been named as a possibility).

I would have further tasked US MI operatives to initiate contacts with these people with the help of Pakistani intelligence, and contacted Pakistan’s ruler and military chief for assisting my MI personnel, through Pakistan’s MI, not the ISI, which was more likely to still have pro-Taliban leanings.

I would have spoken with my Commander in Chief, C-in-C, President George W. Bush, requesting a brief delay in launching the operation so as to have all this information available so that the invasion commences with surgical strikes to eliminate the enemy’s Center of Gravity!

Not only would the war have been over almost before it began, there would have been no needless slaughter of Pashtuns by the Northern Alliance that began the alienation of Afghans. Instead of the mistrust of all Afghan Pashtun; with the help of Pashtun “assets” acquired before launching the operation, I would have known whom to trust!

Imagine the difference between what could have been and what is!

Even Aryn Baker, writing for The Times in ‘The unwinnable war’ notes that. The resulting lawlessness has Afghans across a broad spectrum of society waxing nostalgic for the era when a single Talib in the town square would dispense justice with a quote from the Koran and a flick of his lash. “Even as a liberal, I can say that the Taliban time was better,” says Gholam Sadiq Niazi, a Soviet-trained technocrat in Afghanistan’s oil-and-gas industry. “It doesn’t matter if I have to go to mosque five times a day or grow a beard, as long as we have rule of law.” Niazi is no radical. He speaks from a comfortable, middle-class apartment in central Kabul. Financially, he says, he is better off now than in 2001, but what’s the point, he asks, if someone could murder him tomorrow for his property and get out of jail with a bribe or political connections? The sister of an 11-year-old rape victim whose politically connected attacker was never prosecuted once shouted at me with rage and frustration, “If the Taliban were still here, that rapist would have already been executed by now.”

And she is married to an Afghan American who returned home in hope but they have decided to leave, in despair. She adds, “We don’t want the foreigners to leave,” says women’s-rights activist Shoukria Haider. “We know they are the only thing standing between us and a return to civil war. But the longer [they] stay, the more violence we see, so we are caught. We want the violence to end too.”

And these are middle class citizens of Kabul; a city that was, at the best of times a little European island, in the real Afghanistan!

Just imagine that! Instead of the mutual hate that exists today: Americans hating and despising the Pashtun Afghan and they reciprocating with greater intensity; there would have been peace and the American forces would have been considered as respected allies and guests. Instead of which, in 2002, there began, what should more accurately have been referred to as another “Afghan Resistance Movement”, which it was against the Soviet invasion.

But that term was unacceptable to American forces of invasion, which referred to it as a “resurgence of Al-Quaida and Taliban”. It is ironic that those Afghan, including Pashtun, who hated the Taliban, should, with the passage of time, accept that title with pride; merely because the hate for Americans became so strong that, symbolically, Taliban are again viewed as the Muslim David(s) who challenged the might of the US Goliath!

While the US military grossly erred to create the current quagmire where it has landed itself in a no-win situation, should it be held solely responsible? Needless to say, if the Prevalent Environment had not been made available to him, the military commander should have insisted that it should be, but it should also have been a matter of routine for any worthwhile “Intelligence” Agency!

I am in no position to say what the US military commander would have done if he had this information available to him; I can only say with certainty that I would have refused to even plan, let alone launch, such a massive invasion, without this input. Military logic dictates that the US military could (and should) have planned it differently, but who can say? Perhaps he would have succumbed to “political compulsions” of his C-in-C to go in and be seen to be teaching everybody the lesson that, “You don’t mess with the US”. Perhaps the US military is too arrogant to plan operations that avoid loss of life of non-Americans? Who can say?

But even a novice would conclude, as do I, in the capacity of a consumer of intelligence, that the CIA failed to do its job as an intelligence agency. It might be “one hell of a killing machine” but it isn’t much of an intelligence agency!

One other factor needs to be vectored in; with the passage of time, CIA began outsourcing its operations by hiring private intelligence organizations like Xe (Blackwater) to do their dirty work. This was basically to retain “deniability” for the responsibility of operatives not on the CIA’s payroll. According to the American constitution, all CIA operations have to be sanctioned by the President and the CIA is answerable to Congressional/Senate Committees on intelligence.


Personally, I am convinced that, for some time past, the CIA has been the only real “rogue” intelligence agency in the world and does pretty much as it pleases, perhaps I am in error. However, outsourcing assignments to keep ex intelligence operatives well employed has the additional advantage of being able to deny responsibility when faced with awkward questions.

In concluding this analysis, it needs also to be borne in mind that US operations involving, what is now referred to as, “Fourth Generation Warfare”, or 4GW, has been in countries other than its own. To kill indiscriminately, therefore, is a natural and easy way out. We have seen this being demonstrated in each instance; from Vietnam to Iraq/Afghanistan; even though it might be self-defeating. In the case of the CIA, I see it as a natural outcome of the genetic error in their creation, which I referred to earlier.

Indeed, it is “one hell of a killing machine”, but the CIA has a lot to answer for its failure to deliver on, what should have remained its primary role: intelligence!

SHAUKAT QADIR is a retired brigadier and a former president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute. He can be reached at shaukatq@gmail.com

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