In the late eighties I would occasionally wander down the end of the hall to the afternoon intelligence briefings. They were different to the ones we attended in the morning. The generals attended the early sessions and we briefed them on the issues they wanted to hear. (And it did not hurt for young “thrusters” to be seen by the senior wallahs either!!).
The later sessions were given over to the analysts who would brief emerging stories, and especially the issues they thought would become critical in weeks and months to come. In these there was more peer review, intellectual rigour, and passion. Ironically you could get away with some fat or even error in a clipped two minute message to the red tabs in the front row in a morning session. But you could never do that in front of your peers who would catch you out in a heartbeat.I remember fondly a single analyst who tried to get our attention on Afghanistan. She covered this as well as other areas then remote to Australian interests. With gusto, towering masses of facts, magazines loaded with 35mm slides (remember those?) but above all with maps and charts of the ground. She would try and tell us that the Russian mess was a sign of things to come. A prophetess no less but we were all comfortably sanguine about that part of the world and the fact that the Bear had its foot firmly caught in a bloody trap was of no concern to any of us really. After all, we were all a bit twitchy about the Bear having one of its paws in our own neighbourhood – Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam.I think she went on to something benign and tedious like ASEAN military economics but wherever she is now I hope she is getting some “I told you so” satisfaction, grim though that might be.I wonder if she is paying attention to the emerging thinking about Afghanistan – it partly mirrors her thinking in that briefing hothouse. But it was and remains controversial – engaging all the various interest groups, tribes and factions rather than making mistakes repeated by the Russians – somehow reducing a complex mess into a them and us, enemies and friendlies, allies or foe. Claiming that you are agin us if you are not for us (a logic that invites fights in the primary school playground let alone on the world stage) got the colonial powers entrapped, smacked up the Russians of course, and is potentially a tar pit for the US and its allies simply because taking that stance makes you an aggressor. If not the aggressor. The thinking, in a dense but informative article is well captured in a Foreign Affairs article by Barnett R. Rubin and Ahmed Rashid. I wonder if this thinking is percolating around DC. I bet my colleague from the afternoon briefings is hoping it is.In the meantime I love seeing the press of our troops doing what they can in Afghanistan. Proud even! That our soldiers would be patrolling some of the toughest regions in that country would have rapidly fogged up any of our crystal balls in the analyst back rooms twenty years ago. To predict that would have been as radical and career stifling as forecasting the collapse of the Soviet Union. In any event Tiananmen Square happened on our watch shortly there-after and Afghanistan sank into an abyss, not something it is likely to do any time soon. He says, looking into a dusted off crystal ball.