Petraeus called them his “directed telescopes” and urged them to focus on the challenge of tackling corruption and building an effective government in Afghanistan, a task they addressed with gusto.
“Petraeus relied on the Kagans for a fresh set of eyes . . . because he didn’t have the same nuanced understanding of Afghanistan that he had of Iraq,” a former aide to Petraeus said.
When the Kagans told Petraeus they had planned a vacation in August, he urged them to go ahead. But, Kim Kagan said, “he demanded that we return.”
Higher security clearance
When they returned in September 2010, the Kagans’ writ no longer resembled the traditional think-tank visit or an assessment mission intended to inform an incoming commander.
They were given desks in the office of the Strategic Initiatives Group, the commander’s in-house think tank, which typically is staffed with military officers and civilian government employees. The general’s staff helped upgrade their security clearances from “Secret” to “Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information,” the highest-level of U.S. government classification.
The new clearances allowed the Kagans to visit “the pit,” the high-security lower level of the Combined Joint Intelligence Operations Center on the headquarters. There, they could read transcripts of Taliban phone and radio conversations monitored by the National Security Agency.
“They’d spend hours in there,” said one former senior civilian official at the headquarters. “They talked about how much they loved reading intel.”
Their immersion occurred at an opportune time. Petraeus was fond of speaking about the importance of using troops to protect Afghan communities from insurgents, but he recognized that summer that the Obama White House wanted to narrow the scope of the war. As a consequence, the general decided to emphasize attacking insurgent strongholds — and so did the Kagans.
They focused on the Haqqani network, which U.S. officials believe is supported by Pakistan’s intelligence service. Haqqani fighters have conducted numerous high-profile attacks against U.S. and Afghan targets in Kabul and other major cities.
The Kagans believed U.S. commanders needed to shift their focus from protecting key towns and cities to striking Haqqani encampments and smuggling routes, according to several current and former military and civilian officials familiar the issue.
In the late summer of 2010, they shared their views with field officers during a trip to the east. “They implied to brigade commanders that Petraeus would prefer them to devote their resources to killing Haqqanis,” said Doug Ollivant, a former senior adviser to the two-star general in charge of eastern Afghanistan.