When news about the assassination of Afghan Brigadier General, Abdul Raziq Achakzai, arrived in my news feed, my first thought, unsurprisingly, was “There will be some interesting geographic implications as an outcome of this.” Raziq was a prominent strongman in southern Afghanistan and Kandahar Province. I remember well his rise in reputation during my work in Afghanistan.
In New York Times’ article covering the assassination one paragraph, in particular, stood out: “The United States military now stands to lose a diverse network of informants capable of monitoring threats and infiltrations from the Taliban and other groups, an American military official said. General Raziq acted as a central point of contact who helped the West contend with a region awash in different ethnic and family factions. If a capable successor does not emerge, the official said, the Americans may have to deal with exponentially more power brokers in the south.”
My second thought, “If anyone actually ever conducts cultural geographic analysis and then allows others to see it,” was followed by unpleasant memories. I recalled an assassination of another Afghan (Lieutenant) General and policeman, Daud Daud, on May 28, 2011, and my work in the aftermath of his death on geographic analysis of northern Afghanistan’s future.
When the news about Daud’s assassination arrived I immediately tried to reach a friend, a U.S. Army Colonel, who only a couple of weeks earlier informed me about his work with Daud. He was ISAF’s liaison attached to Daud and his team.
In our exchange the Colonel told me that he enjoyed his role. He traveled continuously with Daud and was rather familiar with his work and scope of operations. The two were always together. Upon hearing the news about the assassination I feared that the Colonel, too, was killed in the attack on Daud. Then I heard back from the Colonel. For an unexplained reason, on that fateful day the General told to the Colonel not to travel with him and allocated the Colonel’s seat on the aircraft to someone else. This was highly unusual decision, because the two were inseparable, but ultimately it was the reason the Colonel remained unhurt.
After learning that he was well, I began work on a report about long term geographic implications of Daud’s death in terms of stability and security in the North. Northern Afghanistan would usually receive less coverage than southern and eastern areas of the country. It is, however a difficult, ethnically complex, and very important region [For more see my Afghanistan’s Watersheds and Their Relevance to Instability in the North.].
The Colonel provided exceptionally important input and confirmed that my analysis was sound and correct. He was the only American servicemen in a good position to evaluate Daud, his work, and from that perspective to articulate possible challenges for operations in the North.
Aware that time was of essence, as a subject matter expert on geographic analysis I prepared within 24 hours an unclassified report revolving around primary information. It would, I hoped, reach the desk of the Commander of International Security Assistance Force (COMISAF) prior to the next morning’s brief. Coalition members had access to COMISAF brief, not just Americans, which is why I did not include any classified information in this document. For the type of report I prepared classified information was unnecessary anyway; its inclusion would serve as a negative departure from important concepts, ideas, and evaluations I presented in the document.
What happened next was exactly what I hoped to avoid. Zealous to make a name for himself, or more probably to avoid responsibility for Zok’s potential analytical failure, the Team Leader and an intelligence analyst at one of the U.S. Intelligence Agencies, decided to add his input (despite knowing close to nothing about the region and topics discussed in the document). He pasted one (1!) reference from another report based on secondary and tertiary data, which effectively transformed my report into one of the highest classified papers in Afghanistan. With one stroke of pen even our closest allies became barred from reading my unclassified analysis. The Team Leader, however, enjoyed a short-lived glory of producing heavily classified research and analysis after “padding” the document.
The practice of unnecessary over-classification of documents in order to make one seemingly more analytical, thorough, professional (or choose any other fancy epithet here you want), is extremely counterproductive. It closes many doors to analysis, thoroughness, and professionalism. Over-classification is frequently done to prevent exposure of personal intellectual weakness, to make one appear more prominent in the intelligence milieu, and for a plethora of other reasons that involve very little benefits for the mission. Exclusivity through over-classification is also a good way to bury a paper into archives and severely limit potential readership, while at the same time claiming another line to one’s resume in the “working on and publishing exclusive classified material” section.
This story is just one example of such behavior I observed along the way. If the tradition of over-classification has continued to this day, and it most likely has, right now someone in some office in Afghanistan is having the type of experience I described in this article. The only difference is in the names of assassinated Afghan Generals and Afghanistan’s regions impacted with their deaths.