Foreign Policy Blogs

GailForce: Miscellaneous Thoughts: Iraq, Intelligence Analysis, National Security Policy


“An old rule that I’ve used with my intelligence officers over the years, whether in the military, or now, in the State Department, goes like this: Tell me what you know. Tell me what you don’t know. And then, based on what you really know and what you really don’t know, tell me what you think is most likely to happen.” — Colin L. Powell

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” — Winston Churchill

I’ve been off the blogosphere for the last few weeks, primarily because my condo complex is undergoing a massive renovation and it’s hard to think when people are jack hammering outside your door. But it’s the weekend, so the workers are not present, and the Iraq crisis has gotten my juices flowing.  I intend to cover two topics in this blog: my thoughts on the president’s recent foreign policy statements and on a couple of points I think Shane Harris (no relation) got wrong in an article he wrote for Foreign Policy, “Jihadist Gains in Iraq Blindside American Spies.”

First, the Foreign Policy article. I’m a big fan of Harris’ writing and thought overall it was an informative, well-written piece. I have a problem with just one paragraph:

“The intelligence agencies’ inability to predict the latest crisis in Iraq is likely to fuel critics of the Obama administration’s management of other global crises, including in Syria and Ukraine. In the case of Russia’s seizure of Crimea, in which U.S. spies were also caught by surprise, sophisticated electronic eavesdropping systems run by the National Security Agency were of little use because Russian forces limited their time on telephones and adopted the techniques of jihadists, sending couriers back and forth between their units.”

Intelligence analysts write a large number of reports, similar to the stories seen in the mainstream media on a daily basis.  The majority of these reports are classified, so the media would not have access to that information.  Therefore, you cannot possibly know for sure what they have or have not been saying in those reports.

As for the “sources” reporters are so found of quoting, due to the shear volume of reports produced, I doubt that they have gone through all available reports either. Whenever I had to brief “higher ups” on hot topics, I always had to include background information on the subject at hand to bring them up to speed. Those individuals usually have a huge number of issues on their plate at any one time. I never ran into a senior decision maker who had the time to comb through the huge amount of reports made available daily by the intelligence community. They rely on their intelligence staff to keep track of the information and notify them of the critical information as needed. Additionally, on major staffs you get an opportunity several times a week during staff meetings to update them on what you think the important issues are and what may come and bite them at some point.

There is no doubt in my mind that intelligence analysts tasked with keeping track of events in Iraq were on the case.  Whether they predicted the speed of the recent advances made by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), I can’t say, but I suspect some did. The intelligence community is not a monolith, and it is very common for different analysts to come to different conclusions on world events. I loved the insight into intelligence analysis provided by the movie Zero Dark Thirty.  The amount of time it took the analyst who figured out where Bin Laden was to convince the higher ups was a good example of the challenges intelligence analysts face on a daily basis, especially when one comes to a conclusion that is counter to currently held views.

Since 9/11, the intelligence community has tried to declassify a lot of their efforts. If you know where to look, there are a number of unclassified sources available, including the agency websites, that give you some insight into intelligence community thinking on various issues. In February of this year, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lieutenant General Michael Flynn presented Congress with his annual assessment. He began by reminding Congress of the role of DIA:

“DIA’s mission is to prevent strategic surprise, deliver a decision advantage, and to deploy globally to meet any challenge. Our goal is to help the Nation understand the threats it faces, enable decisions and actions – from the President of the United States to a private on the ground – and help our country prepare for the threats we will face in the future. With our focus on foundational intelligence and focused intelligence collection and analysis that supports war‐fighters as well as policy makers, webring a unique perspective to the Intelligence Community (IC).”

Here’s what the unclassified version of DIA’s assessment said about Iraq:

“Iraq: Since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have struggled to secure all of Iraq, maintaining security primarily in Shia majority areas. Tensions between Sunnis and Shia, and Arabs and Kurds, have persisted due to the government’s unwillingness to share power and the spill‐over effects from the crisis in Syria. Violence levels are rising and likely will continue in 2014 as long as the Shia‐dominated government avoids political accommodation and the conflict in Syria continues.

“Iraqi Shia militant groups have largely refrained from attacks on U.S. interests and so far have initiated only limited operations against Sunni targets, despite rising AQI violence against Iraqi Shia and increasing demands for Shia militias to protect their communities.”

The media reports I’ve seen gives the impression U.S. decision makers are surprised by how poorly the ISF has performed so far. The DIA assessment stated:

“ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) have been unable to stem rising violence in part because they lack mature intelligence, logistics, and other capabilities, and still require substantial assistance to integrate newly‐acquired equipment.  ISF have demonstrated the ability to put forces on the street, conduct static security of high‐profile sites and events, and to operate checkpoints. However, these abilities have not enabled them to suppress AQI or other internal threats. ISF are increasingly challenged in Sunni majority and ethnically mixed areas of Iraq, especially Anbar and Ninewa Provinces. Iraqi military and police forces lack cohesion, are undermanned, and are poorly trained, equipped, and supplied. This leaves them vulnerable to terrorist attack, infiltration, and corruption.

“The ISF is inadequately prepared to defend against external threats by land, air, or sea. Iraq’s ground forces have limited ability to conduct and sustain conventional military operations against a peer, and Iraq has few forces and capabilities to defend its airspace or coastal waters.” 

On to the second thing I’d like to write about. Like many who write and speak on national security topics, in the days since President Obama’s foreign policy speech at West Point last month, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about his defense strategy. Overall, I thought it was a good talk; he made many valid point, but I came away uninspired, concerned and troubled.  The current crisis in Iraq and the simmering crises with Russia (Ukraine) and China (cyber attacks, territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas) have only increased my concerns over the effectiveness of some elements of his defense strategy.

I can narrow down my concerns to two areas: understanding the many nuances involved in the role of the military in foreign affairs and his proposed $5 Billion Counter Terrorism strategy.

Role of the Military

During his talk, the president stated:

“The question we face …is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe… But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution…Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans.”

In all of my time on active duty and the years since writing and speaking on security issues, I have never run into any military person who felt the military was the solution for every problem. I’m a Gulf War veteran but came into the service as the Vietnam War was winding down. Like many of my generation, my views can be best be summarized by what many have called the Powell Doctrine. As summarized in an article by PBS:

“After the end of Persian Gulf War in 1991, Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined his vision for efficient and decisive military action… military action should be used only as a last resort and only if there is a clear risk to national security by the intended target; the force, when used, should be overwhelming and disproportionate to the force used by the enemy; there must be strong support for the campaign by the general public; and there must be a clear exit strategy from the conflict in which the military is engaged.”

Listening to the president’s remarks at West Point and statements made so far on the Iraq crisis, I don’t get the sense that when he’s in a crisis and/or war he’s in it to win it. When he decided he was going to put more troops into Afghanistan at the same time he also announced we would be out by 2014, I felt he was sending conflicting messages and that would allow Taliban military planners to think all they had to do was wait us out. There’s a popular saying around the world that the U.S. doesn’t lose wars — they lose interest.

When speaking to the press Friday about the crisis in Iraq, he said he would not put troops on the ground. He’s the Commander-in-Chief and can do what he wants, but why telegraph our intentions to the “enemy”? Its things like this that as has been widely reported have allies’ questioning our resolve. I don’t doubt his toughness. The Obama administration has racked up numerous successes in the national security arena, but as one of my bosses taught me, perception is reality.

It’s also worth nothing as I write this blog, an aircraft carrier and amphibious ship USS Mesa Verde are being positioned to support whatever decision the president makes on U.S. involvement.  There have also been reports we’re prepared to “talk” to Iran, who has reportedly been supporting Iraq in this crisis. USS Mesa Verde can carry up to 800 Marines, but the role they would play is unclear at this time. It’s very common to bring in Marines to assist in protection of the U.S. Embassy and to evacuate American citizens when a nation is undergoing some crisis that could endanger U.S. lives.  That usually involves putting troops on the ground.

The point of tough talk is not just to make headlines but to let others know without a doubt there will be consequences to their actions, making the best option to negotiate with us. Reagan was a master at that. You have to take the hope away from people you are at war or in conflict with in order to get them to the negotiating table. I again refer to Colin Powell who stated:

“When force is used deftly—in smooth coordination with diplomatic and economic policy—bullets may never have to fly.”

He hasn’t been helped by Congress. In April of this year, the defense department  released a report of what will happen to the 2015 military budget if Congress fails to deal with sequestration. Highlights from the report are:

“…sequester level budgets would result in continued force-level cuts across the military services. The Army would be reduced to 420,000 active duty soldiers, along with 315,000 in the National Guard and 185,000 in the Army Reserve. The Marine Corps would drop to 175,000 active duty personnel. The Air Force would have to eliminate its entire fleet of KC-10 tankers and shrink its inventory of unmanned aerial vehicles. The Navy would be forced to mothball six destroyers and retire an aircraft carrier and its associated air wing, reducing the carrier fleet to 10….Modernization also would be significantly slowed….Defense Department would invest about $66 billion less in procurement and research funding compared with levels planned in the fiscal 2015 budget.”

The report notes that sequester-level budgets would worsen pre-existing readiness shortfalls across the force and would delay needed training to prepare the joint force for full-spectrum operations.

Overall, the report says, sequester-level cuts would result in a military that is too small to fully meet the requirements of its strategy, thereby significantly increasing national security risks both in the short- and long-term.

“As Secretary Hagel has said, under sequester-level budgets, we would be gambling that our military will not be required to respond to multiple major contingencies at the same time…”

Think I’ll end here. Running longer than I intended, so I will use my thoughts on the terrorism for my next blog.  As always, my views are my own.



Gail Harris

Gail Harris’ 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. A Senior Fellow for The Truman National Security Project, her memoir, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press is available on