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A Few Thoughts on the National Intelligence Estimate

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by Mike Harbert
For the last couple of weeks, since portions of the most recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) were leaked to the New York Times and Washington Post, politicians and talking heads in the media have been finding ways to use the information to further bolster their positions.


Then, last week, in an attempt to clear the air and counter political attacks against the administration’s position on the war in Iraq, President Bush released three pages of declassified information from the NIE identified as “Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate, Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the Untied States” dated April 2006”.
So now that politicians on both sides of the aisle are clamoring to get press coverage of what they think the NIE means for the War on Terror and U.S. foreign policy, it would be wise for the rest of us to take a step back take a fresh look at what the NIE says and also at what it is (and isn’t).
For a complete copy of the declassified NIE, click here.
First and foremost, the National Intelligence Estimate is exactly that. It is an ESTIMATE of the situation in the War on Terror. It is not a listing of facts that can be proven or confirmed in a controlled environment. It is a collection of conclusions drawn from inductive and deductive reasoning and analysis, and could be wrong. It’s a “best guess” given analysis of intelligence gathered from all over the world. A more appropriate term may be “informed opinion.” It could be right or wrong in varying degrees.
It was the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that stated the position that Iraq had an active and prolific Weapons of Mass Destruction program. That is something that is either lost or ignored by the political spin machines that claim this NIE as proof of what is wrong about our involvement in Iraq.
Consider a couple of key points that are receiving media coverage.
“… the global jihadist movement – which includes al-Qa’ida, affiliated and independent terrorist groups, and emerging networks and cells – is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts.”
This isn’t really anything new to those who watch what is going on in the Global War on Terror. Al-Qa’ida has had unprecedented success in attacking the West and United States interests. They have waged a successful 13 year campaign, virtually unopposed until after 9/11. Their fight against the US has been a David and Goliath story (pardon the irony), and has been effectively exploited in their global information and propaganda war. Worldwide, everyone loves to see an underdog pull out a victory in sports, and in parts of the world where the Muslim community already feels oppressed or excluded by the West, al-Qa’ida’s successful 9/11 strikes against the US were the World Cup and the Super Bowl all rolled into one event.
The last point in the excerpt above, that these jihadist groups are “adapting to counterterrorism efforts” is not an earth-shattering revelation, but it could do to be remembered. We are engaged in a conflict with an intelligent and perceptive foe. They recognize our strengths and will do everything they can to avoid them. They also learn from their mistakes and their successes and continue to improvise and adapt their tactics; they are in it to win, afterall.

We assess that the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse.

That they are decentralized and diffuse is recognition of our dominance of the technology spectrum. They are painfully aware that our satellites, Predators, and Global Hawks could be orbiting unseen anywhere and able to strike without warning. So of course they are going to be dispersed and operate in a decentralized manner.
It is the other point in the excerpt above that may be the most disturbing, that they lack a coherent global strategy – this might be better stated as “we don’t recognize a coherent global strategy.” It is foolish to base decisions on the assumption that they don’t have a coherent global strategy simply because we aren’t aware of one.

We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere.”

“The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.

These two statements were among the most quoted excerpts from the “leaked” NIE in late September… that the war in Iraq is making more terrorists and has become a “cause celebre” for jihadists. Well, war has a way of shaping new leaders, on both sides. An equally valid and corresponding statement would be that the war in Iraq is shaping future leaders of the US and British military. Likewise, coalition successes in Iraq would inspire more citizens to support the continued war on terror elsewhere. We really didn’t need a story leaked to the New York Times or a declassified government report to tell us that.
That the war in Iraq is “breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement” is more an indication of the jihadist’s ability to win the propaganda and public relations war. If it weren’t this, then it would be a perceived lack of US involvement in the Muslim world; not supporting the Palestinians, ignoring the plight of Muslim poor elsewhere in the world, or supporting the Saudi regime. The jihadist communications network goes well beyond the mainstream media and jihadist websites; it is firmly entrenched in a network of mosques and Muslim schools throughout the poorest regions of the world.
While the “cause celebre” statement was used extensively in the newspapers and Sunday morning talk shows, the second half of that statement was ignored, and it is of equal importance to determining our future foreign policy. It says that if the jihadists are perceived to have failed in Iraq, they will be able to recruit fewer fighters to carry on the jihad. But what would be considered failure for the jihadists in Iraq?
For the jihadists, success in Iraq is easier to figure out. It is simply to survive. Hezbollah was considered victorious in their recent conflict with the Israelis. It is not because they destroyed Israel, nor is it because they inflicted heavy Israeli casualties, nor did they achieve their goals of getting people released from Israeli prisons. They were considered successful because there were enough of them left standing after the battle that they could stand in front of the TV cameras and shake their fists. They were not destroyed and therefore were victorious in the eyes of many Muslims.
The same can be said for the jihadists in Iraq. If the US troops leave, either through a politically motivated withdrawal or in ten years, and the jihadists are still blowing up IEDs and kidnapping coalition supporters and sympathizers, they will be declared victorious and will be able to recruit new forces for the jihad from across the Muslim world. What is failure for them? Anything short of that. They are fighting an unconditional war without a timeline, so any conclusion based on certain conditions made by both sides is irrelevant to them, and would just be a pause in hostilities that would allow them to re-arm and recruit more fighters for the jihad.
While there is plenty more to cover in NIE excerpts, I just want to address one more point.

Countering the spread of the jihadist movement will require coordinated multilateral efforts that go well beyond operations to capture or kill terrorist leaders.


This is perhaps the most important and perceptive statement in the parts of the NIE that were either released or leaked. Our opponents are fighting a full time, fully committed war. Unfortunately, only a fraction of the American government and American society are fighting this as a full time war. To many, it is an inconvenience, or a shame, or a political “cause celebre”, or an afterthought that doesn’t interfere with the next episode of Dancing with the Stars of the debate on global warming. Right or wrong, we are engaged in a war with jihadists in Iraq, and failure there would be disastrous. If we are serious about winning this war, then we need to bring the full might of American society, government, and industry into the fight. That, is the inconvenient truth.

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