WikiLeaks Story Exposes Bad Intel From the Field and on Bin Laden

07/28/2010 05:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Washington, D.C. -- As the Pentagon attempts to manage the damage from a massive leak of raw intelligence from the battlefields of Afghanistan, it is time for senior Obama administration officials to examine the quality of information streaming into remote U.S. bases there. In one far-fetched story, a source in Afghanistan talks about a Taliban plot to use a "golden Koran" as a remote-controlled bomb to kill senior officials.

In another Wiki tall tale from August of 2006, Osama bin Laden is said to have met personally with the one-eyed Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, in Pakistan to organize suicide attacks in Afghanistan.

Some of these stories sound strangely familiar to the ones I've heard while covering the war over the last nine years, particularly at the Battle of Tora Bora in 2001 near Jalalabad when bin Laden gave the U.S. military the slip. Recall that at that battle, al Qaeda had paid off some of the same Afghans sources we were paying and working with.

I still get late-night text messages from Afghans I met years ago offering me inside information about plots and the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Some of them have the "Sheikh" galloping through the snow drifts in the north. Others have him disguised in a full-length blue burqa dress on a camel and traveling from oasis to oasis in the south.

Indeed, if there is any takeaway from the WikiLeaks embarrassment, it is that we need more boots and gumshoes on the ground and fewer blue suits on computers in air-conditioned offices.

Stateside, the Pentagon is still trying to fit square pegs into round roles; to apply conventional intelligence to an asymmetrical battlefield. Let's take some of the money we spend on the 265,000 private "Top Secret" experts -- most of them here in Washington, D.C. -- and use it to help out soldiers in the field win more hearts and minds.

For, in the end, it is not likely to be "American intelligence" that gets bin Laden and brings America's longest war -- the one in South Asia -- to a successful conclusion.

While traveling in Afghanistan and Pakistan to research parts of my book on the ongoing battle of ideas in the Islamic world, I discovered that most folks in South Asia wonder why America's intelligence is so atrocious. Indeed, they ask: "Why in the world is Osama bin Laden still running around the mountains of Pakistan?"

Many are convinced -- oddly enough -- that America wants to use the pretext of the ongoing "hunt for bin Laden" as an excuse to permanently occupy the region.

But America's best and brightest warriors, many of whom I've observed in Afghanistan, understand the real conundrum they face.

They are all too aware that killing is easy but that finding the enemy is near impossible. They also know that improving their own understanding of the Pashtun traditions, "Pakhtunwali," helps them turn otherwise unapproachable and suspicious Afghans into good friends.

I watched U.S. soldiers, sailors, and airmen pass solid and reliable intelligence back and forth to Afghan elders over sweets and cups of tea. In some cases, American largess helped pave the way with promises of new roads to carry the sick and new mothers to clinics.

To his credit, President Obama is trying to pick up where his predecessor bought into "bad intelligence," particularly in Iraq which had nothing at all to do with the threat posed by al Qaeda. Ostensibly, the Commander-in-Chief wants to clean out the rat's nest in South Asia and get on with the larger effort to pacify other parts of a troubled Islamic realm.

To that end, he has just appointed one of America's most astute practitioners of counterinsurgency to head his Afghan efforts.

General David Petraeus knows one thing by now: If you simply pay for what you get in South Asia, locals will tell you what you want to hear -- and keep you coming back for more into perpetuity.

It won't be an easy or conventional mission to accomplish, but when Afghans and Pakistanis start to receive both development assistance and better protection, they will begin to provide our soldiers with more solid intelligence on a person to person basis.

That may be the only hope of ever capturing the "Sheikh" and extracting ourselves from the wilds of South Asia.