Rejecting Knowledge

by Joshua Foust on 3/16/2011 · 2 comments

Anna Mulrine files an excellent analysis of the Petraeus hearings yesterday:

Gen. David Petraeus travels to Capitol Hill this week, eager to convince an increasingly skeptical American public that the Afghanistan war is worth the effort – and that it is going well, too…

Yet [Petraeus’] view stands in contrast to the assessment that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, provided in their Senate testimony last week. Burgess, for his part, noted that while the Taliban is under more pressure than ever before, the insurgent group is resilient and tenacious, and that its influence remains pervasive throughout much of the country.

Read the whole thing in full, including the contrast between the intelligence officials in charge of understanding the data the military sends back stateside for analysis and what the military actually says about its own efforts. It’s interesting to see a growing skepticism of the war, from both parties in Congress and the intelligence community, even as the military seems to double-down on its insistence on success.

What’s worrying about this split is that it’s not just a civilian-military thing—this is not the CIA and DOD coming to different conclusions. Clapper is the DNI, which means he has access to all the intelligence coming out of the warzone (including the military’s) and plays a coordinating role in formulating national intelligence analysis. Similarly, Burgess runs the military’s primary intelligence organization, and is much more tightly focused on using the data the military produces in his analysis. Seeing both officials clash strongly with Petraeus’ testimony should give us a great deal of pause.

Unfortunately, this is also not a new development. While the trend started under General McChrystal, the Petraeus ISAF’s own assessments have come to be dominated more and more by an explicit rejection of knowledge. Probably the best example of this is the Fred-Kim Kagan nexus, which remains firmly latched to Petraeus’ wing despite an abysmal record of consistent policy failure in Afghanistan. In their “Defining Success” report, which did not, in fact, define success, they described the intelligence community, very plainly, as “alarmist.” Their report was devoid of footnotes save links to their own publications, and it was blindly dismissive of civilian analyses of violence patterns despite providing no alternatives.

These are the people who are inside Petraeus’ inner circle, rejecting the intelligence community, rejecting data, and rejecting analysis. This sort of blithe disregard for evidence, for data to support conclusions, sometimes manifests in minor ways (like General Petraeus claiming 700 Taliban militants have been reintegrated when last month his spokesman said several hundred more had done so), and sometimes it can result in stupefying assertions, like saying there is no insurgency in the North of the country.

For almost eight months now, General Petraeus has been openly telling reporters he will report only good news about the war in Afghanistan. That’s fine as far as it goes. But what I will never understand is, why do we, the public, then give his testimony about the war so much credence? General Petraeus and his yes-men have a consistent record of rejecting reality when discussing the war publicly. Why bother to even ask their opinion of the war, if that’s the case?


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 2 comments }

CE March 16, 2011 at 1:58 pm

…Petraeus ISAF’s own assessments have come to be dominated more and more by an explicit rejection of knowledge. Probably the best example of this is the Fred-Kim Kagan nexus, which remains firmly latched to Petraeus’ wing despite an abysmal record of consistent policy failure in Afghanistan. In their “Defining Success” report, which did not, in fact, define success, they described the intelligence community, very plainly, as “alarmist.”

Sheesh; you know you’re in trouble when the epistemic community tasked with finding a military and/or diplomatic solution to the Af-Pak entanglement devolves into nothing more than a Y-P-Y* circle-jerk.

*Yale-Princeton-Yale

M Shannon March 16, 2011 at 8:20 pm

We have now got to the point of needing the parse every sentence uttered by the theatre commander to determine what he could possibly mean. I’m surprised only two thirds of Americans think the war is futile.

The reason for the disconnect between the intel guys and Petraeus is obvious. It’s his “surge”. If it wasn’t working who’s to blame?

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