Intelligence panel's top Democrat: Afghanistan shows 'limits of state-building'

Rep. Adam Schiff on Tuesday sized up US operations in that country, as well as the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Libya.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, speaks at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters on Feb. 2, 2016, in Washington, DC.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, on Tuesday sized up the challenges in the fight against terrorism abroad and against homegrown radicalism.

As the United States has tried to turn more responsibilities over to the Afghan government, “the situation in Afghanistan has sadly deteriorated,” said the California congressman at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters. “It shows the real limits of state-building and institution-building,” he said. “It is almost impossible to be militarily successful if that requires you to build institutions that might take a generation to do.”

President Obama announced late last year that the US will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through 2016 and 5,500 in 2017 in a train-and-assist role. “Drawing down troops further to what the president hoped is looking increasingly unlikely,” said Representative Schiff, who is among the most thoroughly briefed congressional officials.

In the battle against the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS) in Iraq, Schiff noted that its “space in Iraq has diminished by 40 percent,” but “there is still a long road ahead,” he added. Falling oil prices pose a major problem for the country: “As long as oil prices continue to fall, Iraq is on very shaky ground.”

Schiff warned that the US should not wait for a new unity government to be formed in Libya before taking action against IS fighters there. Last month, Libya's parliament rejected a United Nations-sponsored unity government – the latest setback in months of efforts aimed at bridging a political divide that has undermined the fight against Islamic militants.

“If we are not careful and we not proactive, you could see an Islamic state in Libya,” Schiff said.

“We need to continue to maximize efforts to form that unified [government], but I don’t think we can afford at this time to put off actions that might interrupt ISIS’s operational capabilities [and] take out some of its leadership,” he said. He described the fight over the government as “prolonged.”

Schiff praised efforts by the Obama administration to improve cooperation between federal and local officials in dealing with domestic radicalism that has been inspired by IS. But he also identified weaknesses.

“The area where we have really fallen down is in the area of countering the [IS] message, for two reasons,” Schiff said. First, he said, the US government is not the right messenger to talk about Islam. And the government is “not really good at social media,” he added.

A solution, he said, is to do a better job at enabling more credible messengers to talk about what Islam is and isn’t.

Schiff also disputed the results of a new study that plays down warnings from FBI Director James Comey and other intelligence officials about the magnitude of the danger caused by terrorists’ use of encrypted communications – the so-called going-dark phenomenon.

The study – by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, first described by The New York Times – asserted that “ ‘going dark’ does not aptly describe the long-term landscape for government surveillance.” It notes that a variety of items with connections to the Internet – including cars, toasters, televisions, and wearable items like watches – give intelligence agencies new ways to track suspects.

The California Democrat said he took issue with the report’s central conclusion, but he agreed that technology has opened up new avenues for data collection by the intelligence community. Still, he said, the fact that some Internet-connected TVs accept verbal commands “is not a substitute for being able to decrypt communications between terrorists using a platform they know is secure.”

“If I am planning an attack in Paris or in Brussels ... I’m probably not going to be talking to my TV,” he quipped.

Material from the Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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